Mars One’s Red Alert

Mars One hits the spot. There’s nothing quite like a privately funded, fatwa provoking, stupidly ambitious piece of space-conquering.

Mars One is a non-profit organisation that aims to place a permanent human settlement on Mars by 2027. There is no return trip for their astronauts, and so this mission will test the limits of space travel. I love the idea – not for myself of course – but for other brave starbound people. The private sector is taking uncharted first steps, and hopefully the public sector will follow in a sustainable fashion. Mars One’s founder, Bas Lansdorp, has poured most of his savings into the project and thinks it will re-inspire a generation. But what’s his big problem? And what’s my big solution?

The Apollo moon landings were in 1972. It’s time to think big again. Nowadays nothing gets me less excited then a smaller and narrower i-phone. We need to think bigger and broader. Space exploration can be easily dismissed as irrelevant, unnecessary and distracting. Take India’s ISRO Mars mission. Total cost: $72 million. Okay! Yes, India has astronomical poverty statistics – but that’s not the point! The budget for the movie Gravity was $100million and the moviestar Tom Cruise earns $75million a year. This just puts it in perspective (and isn’t really the point either) but even when you place the theoretical benefits of exploration aside the material payoff is still sizeable. Space exploration has resulted in meteorological, robotic and medical advances the like of which we are thankful for every day.

This isn’t Mars One’s big problem. Its big problem, unfortunately, is that it probably won’t work. Firstly, it’s unfeasible. The Mars One website claims that: “no new technology developments are required” for their mission. In the recent debate ‘Is Mars One Feasible’, a group of researchers from MIT took the word ‘feasible’ and effectively rearranged it until it read ‘as-if-eble’. As currently outlined the mission requires an intelligent rover with the power of an autonomous multipurpose system, designed to maintain itself on mars. According to those green beans at MIT,  we cannot even do that on earth, and this is only one of the technological problems to be overcome. Secondly, it’s underfunded. It has a budget of $6 billion. NASA’s estimate of a two-way mission is $100billion. Even my iGSCE maths enables me to deduce that those two figures don’t add up. Thirdly, there’s the main problem. MIT’s report argues that it isn’t sustainable. Without delving too much into an area I don’t understand, the spare parts needed to maintain the system does something unspeakable to the cost. Basically, unless they stumble upon a Martian manufactory plant they’re in for as much trouble as a raccoon tasked with assembling an IKEA kit.

There’s also a chance that it’s a scam. I wasn’t really sure how much to read into this – so I just didn’t. I’m sure there plenty of easier earthbound scam opportunities that don’t draw such worldwide attention. Apparently the interview process is questionable and there are fewer applicants then previously thought. Then there is the faddish possibility of a reality TV show, threatening to attribute some uncouth accent to the project and make Mars One personnel blush like a comet suffering atmospheric entry. I doubt theirs is the perfect crime. I doubt it’s a crime at all, but all these practical and superficial problems add to the list of woes. The concern is that an implosion or, even worse, a fizzling out of Mars One will dampen enthusiasm for NASAs 2016 insight mission and their successor to the Curiosity Rover in 2020. Lansdrop could well be encouraging the next Buzz Aldren – but he could also be encouraging him to take up a human resources position in a paper company.

So what needs to happen to ensure that our Buzz Aldrens don’t become Toby Flendersons? Even with his Dutch frame, Bas Lansdorp has set his sights too high. What Mars One needs is to settle for achievable goals. This doesn’t actually mean ‘settling’ though – they just need to push the boundaries out in a different direction. What they need to do is strike from the agenda ‘human longevity’. Only in the elimination of survival can they find the genesis of their success. The relatively easy bit seems to be the journey to Mars: so let’s make it a suicide mission.

The humanity of such a mission could be debated. Letting them land, plant a couple of flags, walk around for a bit, climb up a dune, send back a few pictures, and then die; well, it could be interpreted as slightly callous. It certainly does’t have the same romantic allure… or does it? People would still sign up for it. If you’re intent on going anyway then why does it matter what atmosphere you do it in? There cannot be a more poetic way to go – watching the sun set on the red plant, with the blue marble fading into the night sky, with a cyanide martini under your visor; content in the knowledge that your mission has been a success, that you’ve written your name in history, and that you’ve lit the fuse for Mars Two, Three, Four…

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