A number of private companies are attempting to build new space vehicles, and George Washington University professor emeritus Joseph Pelton profiled some very promising ones—among them, Virgin Galactic, Orbital Sciences Corporation, and Aerion Corporation—in an article for THE FUTURIST last year . But news media around the world were abuzz earlier this week with what may be the most ambitious new private-sector space venture yet: a plan to set up a permanent human colony on Mars by 2023. Mars One, a Dutch enterprise cofounded by entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp and European Space Agency researcher Arno Wielders, intends to deploy a robotic mission that will land on the planet in 2016 and build a permanent living facility, to be followed by the embarking of a four-person human crew in 2022 to make a one-way voyage over and take up residence in it.
Somewhere on Mars, 10 years from now, if Mars One's plan works out. (credit: www.tech.co)
A selection process for the four-person crew is under way, with more than 30,000 people so far having completed the online application and paid the required application fee. Seven partner firms have committed to building the hardware, while another four corporate sponsors providing additional start-up capital.
At the same time, many observers have serious doubts about the mission. They question the technical feasibility, and they deem the cost estimate of $6 billion to be impossibly overly-optimistic. A few columnists, such as Ian O’Neill of Discovery News, have already predicted that Mars One will “fall by the wayside.”
Time will tell. History teems with unexpected successful ventures that shocked all the critics. Mars One could turn out to be another.
But even if it does flop, the dream of human settlement on Mars will undoubtedly live on, as it already has for more than a century. Either way, it’s safe to say that making it happen will take copious amounts of thinking, risk-assessing, and scenario-planning.
THE FUTURIST got in touch this week with one very high-profile member of the Mars One team: Gerard ‘t Hooft, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at the University of Utrecht, who has stepped on board as one of the company’s “ambassadors.” Rick Docksai, associate editor for THE FUTURIST and World Future Review, conducted the following interview with him on the prospects—and the hazards—of flying humans to Mars.
Gerard 't Hooft (credit: commons.wikimedia.org)
THE FUTURIST: I understand you’ve gotten a huge response already from potential applicants for the mission—at least 10,000 as of April 25. But the first mission is to take only four. So it’s going to be quite a selection process. How will you go about whittling this huge number of responses down to a final four? What unique traits or backgrounds might make an applicant stand out from all the rest?
Gerard ‘t Hooft: This is part of the plan. A group of specialists will make a first selection: the application must be sincere and meet with some minimal requirements. Then there will be media events for the more detailed selection procedure. This could be done in the various countries where the applicants are from. We hope that local media will be interested in setting up some schemes. Making this a big media spectacle is one of the ways Mars One will try to generate an income to provide for the large amounts of cash needed to realize the mission.
The result of that will be four or five teams of four, who will then go into a mutual competition. One of those teams will be selected, again in a public event, to be first in the race to Mars; the others will be backups. If anyone becomes sick or gets second thoughts, he or she and his/her team will be out, and the next in line will go.
The requirements will be everything about determination, skill, sense of responsibility, ability to work in a small group, eagerness to go, and perform well in the extensive training program. We will not demand any official degree or diploma, because these will be difficult to compare.
THE FUTURIST: National space agencies are demonstrating interest in Mars, too, at least as a longer-term goal. The European Space Agency has been assessing the feasibility of a Mars mission in experiments such as Mars500, and Roscosmos chief Anatoly Perminov has gone on record stating the he thinks a human mission to Mars will be possible “some time after 2035." Granted, neither space agency seems to share Mars One’s ambition for a human mission taking place in 2022-2023. Nonetheless, what sorts of support or assistance can Mars One anticipate from these two space agencies or from the space agencies of other countries? What kinds of feedback, if any, have you received so far from colleagues in any of these space agencies?
‘t Hooft: These organizations do not seem to envision one-way tickets but missions with a return to Earth. That alone, makes their plans a lot more difficult, and costly, to realize. Also, the idea to use a nuclear-powered spacecraft so as to shorten the journey to something like one month requires a tremendous amount of research into these novel techniques. Obviously, they will need much more time and cash to realize such missions.
Mars One has a different philosophy: no new technology is envisioned, so such elementary research processes are considered not to be needed. This does mean that the trip will require nine months instead of one, and it will be a one-way ticket. Mars One investigated this much simpler option and found that it may work.
We have no official reaction from NASA or ESA, but private companies, including ones that get many assignments from NASA and/or ESA, all demonstrated enthusiasm for the Mars One project. This is how Mars One works: private companies such as SpaceEx and Paragon are approached for this mission; they will use only technologies they have already used before. That does not mean that we wouldn't be highly interested in more direct feedback from the government agencies.
THE FUTURIST: The cost of the mission is to be $6 billion, as I understand it. That actually sounds like a very modest sum, considering that it’s a human mission to Mars. The International Space Station, after all, cost more than $100 billion to build. To what can we credit the seemingly very low costs of this future Mars mission? What technological advancements in materials, rocket propulsion, etc. might have been contributing factors?
‘t Hooft: None. It's the technological advances that would make the mission so much more expensive. I agree that $ 6 billion is cheap. I also thought at first that they were pulling my leg. But see my previous answer. You could say that we use secondhand quality, our one-way ticket is Economy Class. That's why it is cheap. We were suspecting that this will be the only affordable way to go to Mars for the time being. The super expensive return flights considered by the agencies might never materialize because they are too expensive, and it's taxpayers' money.
THE FUTURIST: In the United States, private-sector development of new spacecraft has been growing over the last decade. NASA has even formed partnerships with some of them, for example, Virgin Galactic, whereby the private companies devise new technical systems that NASA can use. But what about in Europe and Russia—to what extent is private-sector pursuit of space flight, such as Mars One, emerging? Or is Mars One essentially one of the first of its kind?
On that note, what are the prospects for private-sector spacecraft development expanding, especially as the costs of spacecraft development and use continue to fall? And if that expansion continues, then what hope might there be for the rise of a new “citizen space exploration,” as it were—individuals everywhere forming ventures and, like pioneers of centuries ago, setting out for the frontier of their own accord?
‘t Hooft: I apologize, I am a physicist, not an economist. Your answers will be as good as, or better than, mine. I do want to emphasize that, although the Mars One initiative was made in Europe, the organization plans to be entirely international. It picks the best companies it can find in the world to help realize these plans. Whether this will result in the emergence of better quality and cheaper private-sector space activities, only the future can tell.
THE FUTURIST: I’m wondering, as many people are, about the daily challenges of surviving on Mars. Food, water, and air would all be obvious areas of concern. It would seem that water is the most important—with water, you can grow plants, which provides both food and oxygen. We know that Mars has some water frozen beneath its surface, but how sure are we about how much is there? And how sure can we be that the water that is there will be enough for the first humans to survive on? How can they ensure a steady permanent water supply for themselves?
‘t Hooft: Energy, air, water, and food—and a few more: communication for instance—are all equally essential for the survival of the colony, simply because you can't do if any one of these falls short. Therefore, there will be a number of robotic missions preceding the human flights. There are very sound reasons to suspect that, provided the site is chosen at the right latitude, all of these commodities can be harvested on Mars.
Food, for instance, will be grown on Mars, water will be harvested from the soil, and so on. But we will find out. If any of the four cannot be provided in the required safe quantities, then the human mission will not take place, and we'll have to scratch our heads whether we can continue with the project or not. Obviously, safety will be our primary concern.
THE FUTURIST: Mars One’s Web site acknowledges more than once the possibility that the astronauts could lose their lives on this mission. Let’s suppose that the worst-case scenario comes about and all four astronauts die. How severe a blow would this be to Mars One’s aspiration and, ultimately, global interest in landing people on Mars? What would it take for interest among the general public to recover from this?
I’m considering here the history of nuclear energy as a case in point. Nuclear industries in many countries were very hard-hit after the Fukushima incident. Governments don’t want to support it, since their voters are now afraid of it. How worried should we be that a disaster on the first Mars mission might lead to the world community nixing plans for future Mars endeavors?
‘t Hooft: As I stated, safety of the crew is the absolutely primary concern of the organization. Actually, I was surprised that the Fukushima incident did not at all hit the nuclear industry as hard as it could have. And you can't actually compare that incident with a fatal accident in the Mars One mission, just because the casualties will only be people who willingly accepted to take part in the mission, not innocent civilians who were dragged along in the fatal incident, and who had to fear for their lives.
More appropriate is a comparison with fatal accidents in the American and the Russian space program. They caused serious delays and fierce discussions, as is only appropriate. Or compare with mountain climbers who perish in their attempt. That surely discourages others from climbing that same mountain, but eventually, people go there anyway.
If the worst case scenario that you sketched takes place, we will obviously investigate, or allow others to investigate, what went so terribly wrong and why. What will happen next will certainly depend on the findings of such investigations. Perhaps I should also emphasize that this is not a government organization.
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