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Mars One Will Blast Off, But Probably Not Toward Mars

Last week, the 202,586 applicants for the Mars One mission was whittled down to 100 hopefuls who will vie for the four spots on the first manned mission to Mars. It’s a step. A step closer to what? Probably not Mars.

Mars One is a Dutch not-for-profit organization planning to broadcast training, selection, and ultimately flight to and establishment of the first human colony on Mars. It’s a one-way mission, and the whole thing will be broadcast like a reality TV show with ad revenue and TV deals funding the mission.

The plan is to launch the first unmanned mission in 2018. It will be a proof-of-concept mission demonstrating the key technologies future colonists will rely on. In 2020, a rover will land on Mars to seek out the best spot for a settlement, somewhere North enough for the soil to be moist but near enough to the equator for ample sunlight for solar power. Six cargo missions will launch in 2022 and land about 6 miles from the rover’s chosen outpost site. The rover will then use its trailer to move life support units into the right location, deploy the solar panels for power, and inflate habitat units. Once everything’s together, the rover will feed soil into the life support system, which will begin extracting the water and oxygen that will make the habitats habitable. The first crew will leave for Mars in 2024.

The incremental nature of the mission makes sense; send robots to scope out the area and get the vital pieces set up first so the human crew can focus on their main goal of colonizing the red planet. But there are still more than enough reasons to see Mars One as a bit of a fool’s dream.

Let’s start with the proposed price tag. Mars One says it can get the first crew to our planetary neighbor for $6 billion, a cost that includes all the hardware, operational expenditures, and margins. Having done the mission once, the price will drop to $4 billion for every subsequent flight. That is a shoestring budget, especially considering a lot of the technology doesn’t actually exist right now. The mission seems to be relying on technology taking a massive leap forward in the next decade, then being available off the shelf when it’s time to go, keeping the cost down. But that’s banking on a lot of things that are out of the company’s control.

And speaking of money, funding is another issue. There are investors and crowdfunders donating money, but the bulk of the funding is meant to come from advertising and reality TV deals. Not only does this sound unlikely, but it’s a funding model that doesn’t really support the mission timeline all that well.

The Apollo program makes a good benchmark; it’s the only massive scale space program we really have to use as a reference point. The total cost of Apollo was about $20 billion in 1970, which is about $120 billion by today’s standards. Yes, NASA was basically inventing every piece of the Moon landing puzzle as it went along and Mars One has the benefit of 50 years of human history in space, but the technology for what Mars One is planning to do is about as advanced as the lunar module was in the early 1960s. And the bulk of Apollo’s funding came in the mid-1960s; Apollo took up 61 percent, 66 percent, 70 percent, and 64 percent of NASA’s total budget in 1965, 1966, 1967, and 1968 respectively. Those were the years where the bulk of the necessary technologies came to be and were extensively tested. After that, flying the missions was comparatively cheaper. By 1972, the year the last two missions flew, Apollo was taking up just 24 percent of NASA’s total budget.

Mars One’s model of gathering funding during the training and flight phase by broadcasting it on TV means the most money will come in after the big technological development phase. That means that the money to actually develop all the hardware and systems is coming from some mystery source. Even if it is taking advantage of existing technology like rockets and spacecraft, Mars One is quite cagey about what that existing technology is. The website only says it will secure these pieces from experienced suppliers. Who and what that technology is remains unclear.

There’s also the human side to consider. The 100 finalists were selected largely for their personalities and willingness to work with others. They aren’t necessarily scientists because science has never been the focus of Mars One. It’s a mission of colonization, but the crew will still have to maintain and repair their habitats and possibly themselves while learning to live off the Martian land. Not only does this demand a lot of specialized knowledge, it demands an exceptionally even and tolerant personality since the four crew members will spend their lives isolated together.

Mars One’s schedule has already slipped, and there are still a lot of unknowns and a lot of details about the proposed flight that aren’t clear. It’s that because Mars One is a private mission there’s a chance the team is actually doing all kinds of cutting edge work and just keeping it away from the public, but it’s more likely that this mission will join the list of unrealized spaceflight proposals historians will write about a century from now.

Ultimately, the reason to go is also unclear. The money being put into Mars One would be better spent on some robotic exploration mission that would help us understand our Solar System such that when we do have the technology to send humans to distant worlds we know exactly what we’re dealing with and how to do it.

The only positive about Mars One is that it’s getting people talking and thinking about interplanetary flight, but the proposed mission is so far from reality that it’s almost doing a disservice.

(Photo Credit: Mars One/Bryan Versteeg)

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  1. JDM says:

    “The website only says it will secure these pieces from experienced suppliers. Who and what that technology is remains unclear.”….Lockheed-Martin is ONE of their suppliers, it is clearly displayed on their website.

  2. CT says:

    So in the unlikely event that the ‘mission’ were to succeed, wouldn’t the settlers be able to technically lay claim to Mars? Or rather the organization funding the whole thing. 
    Meh, what do I know about politics, or space, or space politics? All I know is that it’d be a miserable way to die if it actually happens. Besides, hasn’t anyone read Terra Formas? Mars is bad news…

  3. Daniel says:

    I get what people are saying, about how this probably won’t work… But all this negativity about the project sounds like propaganda from the establishment to me… I mean, You have to give the Mars One people credit where credit is due. 

    The way I see it, is that Mars One, may never land anyone on mars, but the things we would learn from trying, even just from the 10 years of development and training and the Reality TV show is nothing but win. 

    Even if after 10 years, Mars one admits their original plan is too optimistic and pushes the date back. 

    That has already been stated as possible, it’s not like they are going to slap a Mars or Bust sticker to their untested rockets and just “hope” it all makes it when they aren’t feeling ready…  

    But the REAL point here is that the TECHNOLOGY and DEVELOPMENT is not as expensive as Governments make it seem. 

    I could go into more detail about it, but I couldn’t fit it all here, nor is it my job to do so… but I think anyone who is interested should look into it. 

    This is why so many people believe the REAL future of space exploration is private industry. 

    However, my final assessment of all this is – 

    I firmly believe that we could have a fairly self sufficient moon base LONG before we could do the same on Mars. 

    The Moon has everything we need to create a permanent, and quite self sufficient colony… without the horrendous risks and expenses of going to mars. 

    And the things we would learn from living on the moon would teach us so much more, for so much less. 

    The problem is, the Moon has less to offer someone looking to do it for commercial purposes.  Mars captures far more imaginations than the Moon.  While I think a reality TV show would work for the moon, I think the idea of going to mars excites more people. 

    I for one would volunteer for a similar plan to go to the moon, it would be a lot more likely to succeed and would be close enough that I could hope to return home someday… 

  4. Billy says:

    A majority of Mars One’s claims are dubious at best, but the Glass Half Empty tone of this article is really off-putting. 
    Even if they don’t succeed space exploration has largely stagnated the past 15 years. Rovers and satellites are awesome, but they’re not going to inspire a generation like putting a man on the Moon did — like putting a person on Mars will. 
    If they fail they fail, but let them try without your naysayer attitude. 

    • T says:

      Last 15 years?  Try the last 40 years… since the last lunar mission in 1972 we have only gone as far as 400 miles altitude in low earth orbit.  

      Personally this particular mission is total b.s. for one and only one reason.  Proving grounds and proper testing. 


      Anything we try to do like going to mars and such (not talking about grabbing asteroids or the like) requires us to be 100% sure we can achieve even the same tasks that were done with Apollo.

      That also means we have to do sufficient testing which means unless we go back and forth to the moon and establish the necessary infrastructure like orbital platforms for transorbital travel back and forth between two celestial bodies (in this case the from the earth to the moon and back again, several times) then this is in fact a one way mission.

      In fact… when they were trying to design how to get back and forth from the earth to the moon… this specific scenario “we send the stuff there, then we send the astronauts there, then we figure out how to get them back” was in fact REJECTED by NASA as being a ridiculous plan.

      However, if all these so called “job creators” would invest in space exploration imagine how easily we could develop the hardware, software and processes/procedures required for a Marian mission and terraforming.

      This private enterprise is a fools folly because it is a project created in a vacuum with no integration into the larger mission of space exploration itself.