“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” -Antoine de Saint Exupéry
It’s the end of the week here, so it’s time for another Ask Ethan column! Today’s question comes from longtime reader and fan Jeremy F., who wants to know about the feasibility of the planned Mars One mission. In particular,
I hope 4 people don’t just fly to their death, that would be terrible for my chances of getting to Alpha Centauri or Vega before I die.
No kidding. Let’s go back to the beginning and tell you just what Mars One is all about.
The dream, of course, is to build a human colony on Mars. It’s been over 40 years since humans walked on the Moon, and we were able to do that in an era where the most technologically powerful computer on Earth was less than 10% as powerful as an iPhone. This has long been a dream of manned spaceflight advocates everywhere, and as my favorite Mars advocate has been stating for decades,
“We are much closer today to being able to send humans to Mars than we were to being able to send men to the moon in 1961, and we were there eight years later. Given the will, we could have humans on Mars within a decade.”
And I firmly believe that this is true. But we don’t have the will, and more importantly, neither does Mars One.
Think about the things that need to happen to have a human colony achieve some measure of success on Mars. All-inclusive, we need:
- A way to successfully launch heavy payloads from Earth to Mars,
- Enough shielding to prevent catastrophic disease from the cosmic-and-solar radiation that our magnetic field and atmosphere normally shield us from on Earth during the long journey to Mars,
- A way to navigate through the Martian atmosphere down to the surface without either burning up or moving too fast by time you reach it,
- A successful gentle landing for any sensitive (i.e., human-containing) payloads,
- An enclosed, habitable environment that is sufficiently isolated from the lethal Martian outsides, and
- Enough resources to self-sustain (or continuously resupply) the living creatures who’ve gone.
Studies done through NASA have continuously come back — since the 1990s at least, and possibly even earlier — showing that this could be done with existing technology. All it would require is an investment of approximately $50 billion over a 10 year timescale.
The launch part is easy enough. The greatest limitation to launching a spacecraft to Mars is the launch window, which means there’s about a two month window every 780 days where we should be launching our missions. Because of the relative orbits of Earth-and-Mars, if you want to both minimize the amount of fuel needed to reach Mars and also the amount of time spent in transit to Mars — getting the journey down to around 8½ months — you need to launch just prior to Earth passing Mars in its orbit, which is where the 780 day period comes from.
Launches — particularly of heavy payloads — are expensive and not without risk, but that technology already exists, and has a decent enough success rate that, based on Mars One’s current plans, I think is likely to succeed. In fact of the 51 total missions ever sent to Mars, only nine have failed on launch, and only three of those failures have come in the past 20 years.
If you were an astronaut chosen for the Mars One mission, especially given the fact that the first unmanned launch is currently planned for 2018 and the first manned mission isn’t slated for another three launch cycles, you’d have every reason to believe that your spacecraft would successfully launch with very good odds of success.
And honestly, the second part of the journey — the 8½ month journey to the red planet — should be pretty straightforward, too.
We’ve already had humans survive in outer space for very long periods of time, for consecutive stretches considerably longer than 8½ months aboard Mir and with non-consecutive stretches aboard the International Space Station. So long as the same precautions — a basic level of shielding in the hull — were taken aboard the Mars One manned transit capsule (or whatever they wind up calling it), there should be no problems.
Yes, there’s always the risks that in-flight resources will be poorly managed, that technically problems will occur, and that someone on the crew will go crazy; they’re planning on financing this on a reality-TV-show model, after all. But realistically, it’s certainly not a stretch to think that they can make it all the way to Mars without a problem.
Unfortunately, that’s where my optimism for the mission ends.
These are the landing sites of all the previous successful landers and rovers on Mars. All of them. There are eight, including Mars 3, which failed 15 seconds after landing, and Mars Phoenix, which surprisingly failed spontaneously after 5 months. Even including these as “successes,” that’s fewer than half of the attempts to land on Mars.
Landing on Mars is tremendously difficult for a number of reasons, some of which are:
- Mars has a terribly thin atmosphere, less than 1% of what we have on Earth. Using the atmospheric drag to slow down requires huge parachutes for this reason.
- Even though the atmosphere is very thin, the Martian winds blow very quickly and unpredictably, so that there’s pretty much an inherent uncertainty in where you’re going to land by about 20 kilometers.
- For example, the Phoenix mission had its parachute deploy 7 seconds later than expected, and it landed about 28 kilometers off course due to that. It was projected to land in an ellipse maybe 100 km across on the longest axis, and it landed right at the edge of that projection.
- And you can’t control it remotely, either; there’s about a 14-to-20 minute round-trip light travel time to Mars in the windows where the landings would occur, so there needs to be either an automated landing system, or someone on board needs to be an expert pilot capable of landing the spacecraft.
It’s worth stating that the technology capable of landing a spacecraft carrying the weight of multiple humans on Mars has not yet been developed.
To land the Curiosity rover on Mars — an inanimate object about half the size of a Smart Car — an entirely new landing technology needed to be developed, and was tested for the very first time on the mission itself. That it was a success was fantastic, but that alone cost over a billion dollars to develop, and that was for a rover that weighed about 900 pounds, landing in the most precise ellipse ever: 20 km by 7 km. (Dark ellipse, below.)
The methods used for the other rovers — which was to drop them in giant airbags that would bounce — wouldn’t have worked for something this massive, much less for a capsule with a bunch of sensitive meatbags inside.
What Mars One is counting on is that they can safely land a heavier payload than ever before, that they can do it more precisely than ever before (as in, within just a few hundred meters of previous successful landings), and they can do it for only 12% of the projected costs, with a total estimated budget of just $6 billion instead of the $50 billion price tag to do it right.
It’s an ambitious plan, but looking at it through my eyes, I see it as an opportunity to to be the first humans to be launched to Mars, to travel around 100 million kilometers to journey to the red planet, to descend through the Martian atmosphere, and to die, in short order, on the desert-like surface. And I don’t see very much opportunity for it turning out any better than that.
I just don’t think hoodwinking and exploiting a bunch of naive explorers, killing them horrifically in short order because you sold them a false promise of what they could’ve achieved, is the way to do it. There’s a right way to get to Mars — by investing the time and resources to do it rigorously and to the best of our ability — and then there’s the Mars One way: make it into a spectacle. Sometimes you flip a coin and it lands on its side, I get it; I just wouldn’t bet on those odds. As far as I’m concerned, Jeremy (and everyone else), yes, the Mars One crew is doomed from the get-go, and most likely, a lot more quickly than anyone involved with the organization is willing to admit.
Have a question or suggestion for what you’d like to see? Ask away! And if you’ve been missing out on all the great content on the new Starts With A Bang at Medium, there’s never been a better time to catch up!