In late December, more than 1,000 people got notice that they were a little closer to a one-way trip to Mars in 2025, as Dutch outfit Mars One made its first round of cuts among the more than 200,000 people who applied to become Red Planet pioneers.
But is it really plausible that men and women could be living on Mars in just over 10 years? It’s one of the longest of long shots, and there’s plenty of engineering hurdles to be surmounted. But there are plenty of true believers – from businessmen to artists to scientists – willing to stake their futures on it.
So A Martian Walks Into A Bar…
“I think the thing that separates me from the other people applying is that I already have a helmet,” New York City resident Lauren Reeves says in her application video. “I wear my helmet everywhere I go and I expect to wear that helmet in space.”
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In case you couldn’t tell, Reeves is a comedian. In her video, she says the first thing she’d do on Mars is find a rover and give it a hug, and that she’d be “so pissed” if she got sucked into a black hole. So Reeves was as surprised as anyone when she got an email saying she’d made the cut as one of the 1,058 candidates advancing to the second round of selections.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” Reeves said in a phone interview. “I just wanted to make something entertaining.”
Despite the jokey video, Reeves says she’s serious about making the trip in 2025. She thinks she'd make a good Martian colonist.
“I’m a natural athlete,” Reeves says. “And I think I have a pretty good personality. I’m someone who you’d want to live with and not want to kill.”
Reeves and the other 1,057 people vying for a one-way ticket to Mars hail from 107 countries. They include NASA engineers, medical students, sculptors and, yes, an entertainer or two.
“Creativity and humor are very important abilities,” Mars One chief medical officer Norbert Kraft, who leads the team that vets the applicants, wrote in an email. “Without them teams will not be able to function well over an extended period of time.”
“Is It A Pyramid Scheme?”
Skepticism has dogged Mars One since its inception. Founder Bas Lansdorp ventured into several question-and-answer sessions about the project on Reddit, which were overrun with users deriding the lack of available technical specifics and accusing the Mars One team of being unprepared or running a scam operation. China’s state-run People’s Daily called Mars One a scam last May after investigating the company’s offices and finding just a few tables in a large open office area.
When David King, a Brooklyn-based sculptor and furniture maker, called his mother to tell her about the program, "the first thing she asked was, ‘Is it a pyramid scheme?’” he says. But he’s convinced the team is sincere.
“It’s easy to be skeptical,” King – another candidate who made the cut to the second round -- says. “There’s still technical challenges, but the first crew is slated to leave in 11 years. That’s awhile to figure out the details.”
Those details are many. The rocket and primary transit vehicle Mars One expects to carry its crew to Mars – SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and a manned variant of the company’s Dragon capsule, respectively -- are still in their testing phases. Initial signs are positive, though. SpaceX’s unmanned Dragon capsule has ferried supplies to the International Space Station, and the company’s Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched a Thai satellite into orbit this week. But even once the main transportation problem is solved, there’s also life-support systems, habitats, rovers, spacesuits, power supplies and thousands of other components to consider.
The Mars One model is entirely different from any kind of space mission that’s come before. The company isn’t building the components itself; virtually everything will be contracted out. The first two big partnerships were announced in early December: Lockheed Martin and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. are working on mission concept studies for a robotic lander (based on NASA’s 2007 Mars Phoenix Lander) to be launched in 2018 and a communications satellite, respectively.
“Like with every space mission, we start with a mission concept study, where the framework for mission is laid out,” Lansdorp said in a phone interview.
Mars One’s claim that we can get to Mars with existing technology might seem like a stretch, but some scientists say that it’s not a total pipe dream.
“I wouldn’t throw my hat into the ring if I didn’t think it was possible,” says another second-rounder, Brent Bos, a research physicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
Bos has the résumé that you might expect of a would-be Martian explorer. He’s worked on the James Webb space telescope and NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, which aims to return a sample from an asteroid to Earth in 2023. In 2001, he spent four weeks up in the Arctic taking part in the Mars Society’s first Mars habitat simulation experiment.
“Definitely there are challenges, but they are engineering ones that can be overcome,” Bos says. “It mainly comes down to the will and the finances.”
George Hatcher is another candidate who seems like an ideal fit. He’s been an aerospace engineer at NASA since 2004, working on the guidance, navigation and flight controls for space shuttle missions. He’s currently in his fourth year of a Ph.D. in planetary science at the University of Central Florida, and still works part-time with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on various projects, including consulting with SpaceX. Even though he knows going to Mars is significantly harder than going to the moon, Hatcher holds out hope that the combination of private industry, current technology and innovations on the near horizon can get us there.
“I've heard stories that Werner von Braun and many engineers at NASA were ready to go to Mars in the '70s with Apollo technology, and I feel pretty certain that they would have solved all the major technological hurdles the same way they did for going to the moon,” Hatcher wrote in an email. “That is, if they had been given the budget to do so.”
Needed: Green To Get To Red Planet
NASA’s budget has taken a nosedive from the highs of shooting for the moon in the 1960s. In 1966, NASA was funded to the tune of almost 4.5 percent of the federal budget and nearly .8 percent of U.S. gross domestic product [PDF]; today the space agency commands just around .5 percent of the federal budget and .1 percent of GDP.
Estimates for a manned Mars mission usually balloon into the hundreds of billions of dollars, sometimes as high as $500 billion. For comparison, NASA’s Curiosity rover came with a price tag of $2.5 billion.
But maybe a leaner organization, free from federal bureaucracy, can do it for less. Mars One thinks that getting its first four colonists to their new home will take about $6 billion, with an additional $4 billion for every subsequent manned mission. The company hopes to fund the mission through a combination of sponsorships, crowdfunding (an IndieGoGo campaign is currently under way, seeking $400,000 to pay for the SSTL and Lockheed Martin mission concept studies), exclusive partnerships and broadcasting rights. Lansdorp has frequently talked of turning the mission – from candidate selection to landing, and beyond – into a reality television show.
“This will be one of the biggest events in human history,” Lansdorp told the New York Times last March. “We are talking about creating a major media spectacle, much bigger than the moon landings or the Olympics, and with huge potential for revenues coming from TV rights and sponsorships.”
Even just $6 billion might be a bit of a tall order for a media event. Lansdorp has pointed to reports from the International Olympic Committee showing that the winter and summer Olympics brought in $3.9 billion in revenue from broadcast rights alone from 2009 to 2012. In 2008, “American Idol,” the most profitable show of the past several years, generated $903 million in advertising revenue for Fox Broadcasting, according to the New York Times. One of the highest-grossing concert series in history, the Rolling Stones’ 2005–2007 “A Bigger Bang” tour, raked in just over $558 million in box office gross. The 2013 Super Bowl raked in around $976 million in advertising revenue.
Can a Mars reality show be bigger than the Super Bowl, the Olympics and “American Idol” combined? In that light, more than a few comedian Marstronaut candidates might come in handy.
Expectations Of Radiation
One of the great dangers of space exploration is radiation emanating from the sun and other sources. Radiation can shred DNA molecules and lead to a variety of diseases, including cancers. Sudden, intense radiation exposure could poison a space traveler.
Last September, NASA Chief Astronaut Robert Behnken told a National Academy of Sciences committee that the problem of potentially lethal levels of space radiation was “the elephant in the room” for any manned Mars mission, according to USA Today.
“We were very surprised to see this was one of the messages of NASA,” Lansdorp says. “Radiation is not one of main issues for human missions to Mars.”
Lansdorp argued as much in an op-ed piece for Space.com last July. A recent analysis of radiation measurements by the Curiosity rover published in the journal Science bolsters Lansdorp’s case: In that paper, researchers estimated that a two-way journey to Mars, coupled with a 500-day stay on the planet, would expose astronauts to just over 1,000 millisieverts of radiation. That’s slightly higher than the current recommended limits, but more manageable, the authors say. And it may be that a certain elevated amount of danger will just have to be expected for a Mars mission.
“Certainly, interplanetary travel is going to knock some years off of the life expectancy of any crew we send there, but there are some countermeasures available,” Bos says.
Astronauts might be able to take supplements to minimize the effects of radiation exposure, and the transit vehicle may be designed to shield the astronauts as best as possible. During solar flares and other cosmic events when the danger for radiation exposure is highest, the crew may retreat to a special inner component of the spacecraft, inside a hollow water tank, designed for maximum protection. And once on Mars, the colonists would be protected partially by the Martian atmosphere but mostly by their habitats, which would be covered by a protective layer of soil.
Hatcher points out that Mars One estimates a 210-day trip to Mars will expose the astronauts to a maximum of about 450 millisieverts of radiation. NASA limits its astronauts to a career radiation exposure associated with a 3 percent increase in the risk for fatal cancer; this can correspond to anything between 1,000 millisieverts for a 25-year-old female to 4,000 millisieverts for a 55-year-old male. [PDF]
“Admittedly, data is lacking on a human taking that kind of dose in that amount of time, so Mars One astronauts will be pioneers in more ways than one,” Hatcher says.
Adjusting To A New Life On Mars
The would-be Mars One colonists think that they’ll be too busy to have time for boredom or cabin fever.
“With the constant repairs, maintenance, exercise, communication, scheduled experiments and window-gazing, I've never met an astronaut who undertook an expedition on the ISS that claimed to have been bored for a single moment,” Hatcher says. “I can imagine a Mars colony would be much the same.”
The list of things that potential colonists would miss is long: friends and family; fresh fruits and vegetables; eating in a restaurant; traveling to new cities and camping in new wildernesses; concerts; and more. Even just the ability to walk outside and breathe deeply without the aid of a life support system.
“As often as we forget it, we already live in paradise,” Hatcher says. “Such a realization could only grow greater with each passing day on Mars. My hope is that appreciation for the rare privilege of a life on Mars would grow to match any remorse for leaving Earth.”