When the Dutch not-for-profit organisation Mars One announced in 2012 that it intended to send a crew of settlers on a one-way trip to the Red Planet for a reality TV show, it sounded like a hoax. You may remember the Channel 4 show Space Cadets (2005), in which nine contestants were fooled into undergoing fake astronaut training before being placed in a simulator and told they were heading into space. But Mars One, it seems, is legitimate.
The co-founder and CEO of Mars One, Bas Lansdorp, a wind energy entrepreneur, has said that he and his team can send materials and supplies to keep a group of 40 colonists alive until the 2040s. This is subject to funding, with proceeds from the TV show hopefully making up a significant chunk, adding to other investment. The crucial point is that Lansdorp thinks Mars One can do this now, with existing technology.
This makes it sound like colonising Mars is more of a financial than a technological problem. The current budget for the project is $6bn. Here’s what is supposed to happen: an unmanned mission to Mars will be launched in 2020 and a suitable site for the colony will be chosen in preparation for the launch of the first living modules in 2022. By 2025, the first four astronauts – selected from more than 200,000 applicants – will arrive and begin getting the base ready for the next four to touch down in 2027. Another four will arrive two years later, and so on, until there are 40 people living on Mars, extracting water and minerals from the soil and breathing oxygen produced in greenhouses by wheat and vegetable crops.
This all assumes that our current technology is up to the task. A feasibility study of the Mars One plan was presented to the 65th International Astronautical Congress in Toronto at the beginning of October by the MIT scientists Sydney Do, Koki Ho, Samuel Schreiner, Andrew Owens and Olivier de Weck. The team estimated how long it would take for the mission to experience its first fatality. The answer: 68 days. The second group of astronauts would arrive to find the first four Mars pioneers had been dead for more than a year and a half.
There are many reasons to be sceptical of the current plan, the researchers argue. The space allocated for crops isn’t big enough to give each colonist the 3,000 or so calories per day needed to stay alive and healthy on Mars; those plants would produce so much oxygen that it could cause life-support systems (which ensure there is the correct amount of oxygen in the air) to malfunction, leading to a catastrophic drop in cabin pressure; more than twice as many rocket journeys will be needed to keep the base supplied than planned; and, by the tenth year, spare parts will take up almost two-thirds of all cargo on the resupply missions from Planet Earth.
The problems are linked, too. Increasing the size of the base to grow more crops makes the air situation worse, but making it smaller would require more food to be sent from earth, so fewer mechanical spare parts could be transported. It’s not hard to imagine the disaster that awaits Mars One colonists if an air conditioner breaks down months before the part needed to fix it arrives.
The scientists took part in a Q&A session on the Reddit website to discuss their work. They emphasised that they are “big fans” of colonising Mars and don’t mean to debunk the idea completely. Lansdorp has argued that the oxygen problem is not a significant hurdle. Yet the hole in Mars One’s finances may be the greatest factor in deciding which organisation sends the first human beings to Mars. Let’s hope that the first people to die there do so of old age, not radiation sickness, suffocation, starvation or heatstroke.