Mars One – this seems rather ambitious for the timeframe they are proposing. Do you think they will get there? Is our technology at the state that this is actually possible?
Oh god, where to even start with this one.
Okay, this is dumb for a vast, vast number of reasons, but they won’t necessarily be the ones you think. First, yes, technically the technology exists – or will exist – for the private sector to get payloads to Mars by 2023; the upcoming Falcon heavy lifter from SpaceX is designed to do just that, and there’s even a collaboration with NASA on the drawing board to send it and a modified Dragon capsule to Mars around 2018-ish for unmanned sample return purposes1. We have also carried out a significant quantity of research into isolated living environments and closed-circuit life support systems both on the ground and in orbit, to the point that while we have never sent anyone to live off-world in the long-term we could probably do it if we ever set our minds to it. However, when I use the term “we” here I’m referring to nation states and multi-national spaceflight agencies, not a six person internet startup company in the Netherlands, and this is because just sending an unmanned probe to and operating it on Mars is ludicrously expensive at $2.5 billion dollars for the Mars Science Laboratory mission (you know it as the Curiosity rover). The amount of material required for a permanent inhabited colony would be many, many times that cost, which puts a Mars colony far beyond the ability of private enterprise right now.
That’s the simple “Whuh?” smackdown I’d give to any private company that was planning to send people to Mars, no matter how well-thought out their concept was. Mars One is a special brand of crazy, though. Mars One, in no particular order:
- Wants to have the entire colony built by robots before the astronauts arrive.2
- Wants to power the colony on solar panels instead of using a nuclear reactor.3
- Wants to fund basically the entire thing through selling reality TV rights.
- Wants to make the trip one-way for the astronauts.
These are all really stupid things to be doing, but I want to talk about this last point because it shows a staggering, staggering ignorance of history. The reasoning behind it is this:
However, there are individuals for whom traveling to Mars has been a dream for their entire life. They relish the challenge. Not unlike the ancient Chinese, Micronesians, and untold Africans, the Vikings and famed explorers of Old World Europe who left everything behind to spend the majority of their lives at sea—for people like these, it is about exploring a new world and the opportunity to conduct the most revolutionary research ever conceived, to build a new home for humans on another planet.
Mars One will offer everyone who dreams the way the ancient explorers dreamed the opportunity to apply for a position in a Mars One Mission. Are you one for whom this is a dream?
Right. Right. I wonder if these people are in touch with the real world, like, at all? I don’t know about the Chinese, Micronesians or Africans but the Vikings and the “famed explorers” of Old World Europe didn’t go exploring just for shits and giggles. Like all colonisation efforts the Viking expeditions to Iceland and Greenland were driven through a desire for new farmland and exploitable natural resources. The first expeditions to the New World were driven by a desire to find a new route to the fabulously wealthy Spice Islands in the East Indies. The first colonies in the New World weren’t filled with romantic adventurers, they were populated by those seeking certain opportunities that weren’t available to them in the Old World. 4 People didn’t endure a miserable, months-long sea voyage for the love of the thing, they did it because they thought they could build a better life for themselves that they couldn’t by staying at home – preferably a life that involved making lots of money. The Americas of a few centuries ago were a land of stupefying bounty, but the first colonies either failed or came within inches of extinction via starvation before the natives helpfully delivered food, pointed out which crops were likely to be edible, and – more importantly – introduced the colonists to cash crops like tobacco.
The thing here is that in order to entice people to endure significant hardship in the name of founding a new settlement, that new settlement needs to offer something the old one did not. Often this was because conditions in the old settlement had become so intolerable that packing up and moving across an ocean to an unknown land did suddenly start to seem quite attractive. However, unless you are living in unimaginable poverty in a Third World nation somewhere your life on Earth is infinitely more comfortable than a life in the first Martian colony would be (remember, you can’t even talk to anyone back home in real-time from Mars, since it takes seven minutes for communications signals to travel each way). I mean, on the reduced timescale these jokers are proposing a trip to Mars would likely be a death sentence anyway, but making it one-way means that you’re asking people to give up lives of comfort and plenty on Earth to spend the rest of their years in a miserable and inhospitable limbo. And the only way they’d get years would be if they remembered to pack enough anti-radiation shielding, since Mars has no magnetosphere and the atmosphere won’t stop much solar radiation before it gets down to the surface. The chances of death – especially on this plan – are overwhelmingly likely. Remember that the one-way thing exists to obviate the need for the planners to include a return vehicle in their mission budget, so if something goes wrong the colonists will be well and truly screwed.
I don’t doubt they can find somebody to sign up for this, but whoever they get is unlikely to be the best and the brightest and even then they’ll have plenty of time to get cold feet during the decade of training they’ve mandated. You can’t get people to make a one-way trip to Mars by appealing to the romantic spirit of adventure and you can’t do it by appealing to capitalistic instincts by paying them lots of money. In todays’ world you’d have to do it by appealing to nationalistic ones instead and you’d have to back it up with an actual rational mission plan and a hell of a lot of money, but that’s not an option open to Mars One because they’re private enterprise. And let’s remember, by the way, that the primary purpose of private enterprise is to make money. Not coincidentally I might have written all of these words based on the assumption that Mars One is a real idea that somebody has had, but to me it looks like the umpteenth attempt to part fools from their money via the internet. The only thing that surprises me is that there isn’t a Kickstarter for it.
- Whether this will ever actually happen remains to be seen, but if it gets thrown out it’ll be because of NASA’s parlous financing rather than any technology issues. ↩
- So instead of dinky little rovers they would need the robot equivalent of a JCB, with an AI capable of autonomously carrying out complex construction tasks. Good luck getting that thing to Mars. ↩
- This might not sound that dumb until you consider how many solar panels you’d need to equal the output of even a small nuclear reactor. Also, Mars has dust storms. Also, they want to put the panels on the ground. ↩
- Including the opportunity to not go to prison. ↩