2024: the first human crew of four will set out on their 7-month one-way trip to Mars. They will establish a human outpost on this inhospitable planet and be joined by four new people every two years. This is the mission of Mars One. But are we really sure Earth-based technology can keep them alive?
On October 30, 1938 The War of the Worlds radio drama was broadcast from New York City. The majority of the radio play ran as a series of simulated news bulletins. As a result, thousands of people believed they were under genuine attack by Martians and mass panic ensued. As ridiculous as that now sounds, fear of invasion from Mars has long been a feature of human culture.
Now for the first time there’s a real plan to send humans to Mars, and soon. Not only that, but these astronauts will embark on a one-way trip. The intention is to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars. Mars One is the brainchild of engineer and entrepreneur Bars Lansdorp, who argues we already know how to pull this off.
While complex, the Mars One Mission is feasible. The science and technology required to place humans on Mars exists today. Mars One website
Will people cope?
The Russian Mars 500 mission gives us some insights into how people deal with all of the challenges involved. Six volunteers were confined for 520 days in a mock spacecraft designed to simulate a trip to Mars. The simulation provided some useful information, for example, that it was impossible to predict which of the volunteers would suffer insomnia and depression. But everyone agrees it is essentially impossible to know what life would be like on Mars while still on Earth.
If you read the Mars One website, it is tempting to believe this mission is well within our grasp and, from a technical point of view, its success is virtually guaranteed. It also helps that the people involved want to settle on Mars, and understand there will be no possibility of them returning to Earth, regardless of what happens.
But Mars will be a tough place to live. Mars sits between Earth and Jupiter and has a temperature range of –140 to 30 °C. It is essentially a desert, about the size of all of Earth’s land surfaces combined. Of most concern is the fact there’s no free-flowing water and Mars’ atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide. The astronauts won’t be able to leave their habitable settlement without wearing their Mars suits. NASA calls Mars the ultimate lonely planet destination.
Interplanetary Big Brother
How do you fund a mission as expensive as this? Through reality TV of course. The creators of Big Brother are on board to raise the $6 billion in funding required to get this mission off the ground.
The call for applicants went out last year. The criteria: astronauts must be creative, intelligent, physically healthy and psychologically stable. A number of other characteristics were part of the selection process, including a standing height of between 157 and 190 cm. The most important criteria? A ‘grounded, deep sense of purpose’.
It seems plenty of people are willing to abandon Earth in search of a ‘better’ future. 200,000 people applied (watch their application videos here) and the first cut whittled down the hopeful astronauts to 1000. As of May this year, 705 willing Mars settlers remain. Twenty-four people will eventually be chosen, with the selection process to be broadcast internationally.
The lucky final group will become full-time paid members of the astronaut training program, taking part in technical, personal and group training. They will spend several months of each year training in the Arctic Desert. The focus is partly psychological — learning to deal with prolonged periods in a remote location with few companions. But there’s also the technical side — for example, learning to operate and fix machinery, gaining medical and dental knowledge and learning to grow all the food needed for survival.
Not so fast…
But amongst a number of other concerns, last month Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students published a detailed analysis of the Mars One mission and argued that the colonists are doomed to starvation. Specifically, computer simulations of the proposed Mars One crop system showed the growing set-up would produce too much oxygen, and the astronauts would be poisoned within 68 days of arriving on the red planet.
Although Lansdorp claims we have the technology for removing oxygen and scavenging water, the MIT team criticise the assumption that these technologies will actually work on Mars. Of course, they have never been tested anywhere but Earth.
The MIT team argues that another serious problem will be a lack of replacement parts for all the equipment that will be needed to sustain human life on Mars. There won’t be a lot of spare space in any of the vessels headed to Mars.
Lansdorp’s response to the many doubts? That there is still plenty of time to iron out potential problems.
Regardless of whether this extraterrestrial mission has a chance of succeeding, I can’t help but think of what $6 billion could do here on Earth…
Links and stuff
- Bas Lansdorp’s TED talk: Getting humanity to Mars
- New Scientist articles about the Russian Mars 500 mission
- BBC: Five steps to colonising Mars
- NASA’s Mars Exploration website