After watching a two hour debate on the feasibility of the Mars One mission last night, I think I finally understand its problem. It’s not that the company is broke. It’s that we don’t yet have the technology to sustain human life on Mars, and Mars One still won’t admit it.
Last night, a public debate at the annual Mars Society Convention pitted Mars One cofounder Bas Lansdorp against MIT PhD candidates and vociferous Mars One critics Sydney Do and Andrew Owens. The topic of the debate was simple: “Is Mars One Feasible?” That is, can we start sending pairs of human colonists on a one-way journey to Mars every 26 months, beginning in the 2020s, and expect them to survive?
Do and Owens say that we can’t, because the technologies needed to support a colony on Mars aren’t yet mature. To make that point, the two presented a condensed version of a detailed feasibility analysis they published last fall. That analysis basically shows that the Mars One mission (as it’s been sold to the public) will fail because the astronauts will starve, their habitats will catch on fire, they will run out of spare parts, or some combination of the above.
Lansdorp disagrees. Throughout the debate, he insisted that all the technology we need to settle Mars “already exists.” But he refused to offer any specifics, instead repeatedly falling back on metaphorical comparisons between his harebrained dream and the Apollo 11 mission.
How can two sides — both very committed to going to Mars, mind you — see this matter so differently? It’s because one side has crunched the numbers, and the other is full of crap, knows it’s full of crap, and is playing off our hopes anyway.
Life Support and Spare Parts
Mars One says its life support technology will be modelled after systems on the ISS. Image via NASA
There are basically two types of technology we need for humans to live on Mars. (Assuming we have the rockets and spacecraft.) First, there’s life support: The stuff inside the Martian habitats that will recycle our air, water and nutrients, ensuring gases like CO2 and oxygen remain in balance. Then there’s what the engineers call in situ resource utilization (ISRU) tech. This is the technology we’ll need to extract resources from Mars. For Mars One to work, we need to extract water from the Martian soil to drink, and nitrogen and oxygen from the air to build an atmosphere. All of this technology, Lansdorp says, already exists.
Does it, though?
If you squint a bit, the answer could be yes. When it comes to life support, Mars One often compares its proposed systems to those aboard the International Space Station. Fair enough. Life support systems on the ISS are already proven to work pretty well in a space environment and under microgravity conditions. So there’s no reason, in theory, that these systems won’t work on Mars.
But as Owens pointed out last night, life support systems on the ISS are repaired and replaced pretty regularly, by taking advantage of the vast horde of spare parts located some 249 miles below the station.
“One of the things we’ve learned from the ISS is that these systems need repair,” Owens said. “The ISS goes about 3 months between resupplies. When something goes wrong, you come home.”
Under the Mars One plan, we’d have a 26 month period between resupply runs, and no return vessels for our colonists should things go south. This means — as the MIT researchers explained in their feasibility analysis and again at the debate last night — that we’ll need to launch a huge number of spare parts along with every crew. According to Do and Owens’ calculations, we’ll need roughly three SpaceX dragon capsules full of spares for every 2 person crew, just to ensure a 50 % chance crew survival.
In fact, spare parts are so essential, that the resupply costs of the mission are going to balloon with each additional two person crew Mars One sends. The first crew must bring enough spare parts for itself. The second crew will have to bring spares for itself and spare spares for the first crew. And so forth.
“The resupply costs of a series of one way trips to Mars grows unsustainably over time,” Owens said. This is true until humans can sustainably harvest all of the resources they need on Mars. As Owens puts it, “If we want to settle sustainably on Mars, we have to develop a manufacturing capability.”
Manufacturing On Mars
The Curiosity Rover is currently doing science on Mars, collecting data that will be vital to assessing the long term settlement prospects. Image via NASA
Which brings us back to the other technology Mars One needs to succeed: in situ resource extraction tech. Here again, Mars One says that no new technology will need to be invented, by which they seem to mean that the basic physical processes needed to extract resources from Mars are already understood.
Sure, but the basic physical processes needed to build a fusion reactor are understood too. Conceptually understanding how to extract water, oxygen and nitrogen from Mars is very different from actually doing it. These technologies are experimental at best, and they have not been tested in space or on Mars.
And the technology needed to manufacture spare parts — which presumably includes a mixture of metals and plastics — doesn’t exist, period. To his credit, Lansdorp did admit as much last night, and it was highlighted as a key area of focus in a recent conceptual design assessment by Paragon.
“What’s very important is that we need to start producing stuff on Mars locally,” Lansdorp said. “I’d like to see proposals for how do you build a habitat with local materials.”
Incidentally, NASA recently announced a 3D printing challenge, soliciting proposals that would do exactly this. In fact, if there was one thing that both sides agreed on last night, it’s that the long-term sustainability of a Martian settlement is totally dependent on whether we can manufacture infrastructure on the Red Planet.
Fine. So why is Mars One even talking about sending humans to Mars, when this critical technology clearly doesn’t exist yet? Because they’re trying to attract investors. Mars One, you see, has no money.
All of Lansdorp’s arguments last night basically came back to money. Once Mars One has billions of dollars at its disposal, the tech will come. But that’s a bit of a catch-22: Why should people invest in your inherently dangerous, tech-driven concept, when you don’t really even have one?
“We don’t disagree that life support is a solvable challenge, but these problems are very complex,” Do said. “It’s a house of cards — if one thing breaks, the whole thing fails. But you can’t assess the feasibility of the program unless you have a concept. If you’re still developing concepts, you don’t really have a plan.”
Figure Out a Plan, Before We Talk Settlers
Artist’s concept of NASA’s Curiosity rover approaching Mars. Image via NASA / JPL-Caltech
Mars One doesn’t have the technology it needs to carry out its mission yet, but it hopes to, once it has funding. That’s fine. Lots of smart people are working on the problem of how to make long term space settlement a reality.
But if the technology isn’t ready, it seems pretty insane to talk about shipping humans off anyway.
Mars One admitted last night that its “crews are going to have to get very innovative” when addressing unforeseen life support challenges on Mars. Of course, we’d really hope that the first cohort of Martian colonists includes some of the cleverest people on Earth. But why not focus on sending unmanned rovers to Mars first, to try to develop the manufacturing and resource extraction tech we need? Why not do everything in our power to ensure that humanity’s first Martian colonists have tools at their disposal to face the biggest survival challenge in human history?
“My position,” Do said, “Is that we should get all the technology developed before we go. The other option is to downscale: Try to go to orbit around Mars and come back. And that’s just one suggestion. To address issues of infeasibility you have to relax the cost, schedule and scope dimensions.”
“These are not impossible [problems] to solve,” Owens said. “They are very big challenges that require a lot of researchers and a lot of time. It is our belief is that if you’re really going to send humans to Mars, you need to go through the technology development and maturation process to enable this.”
The problem with Mars One isn’t that the company is broke, disorganized and kinda sketchy. It’s that Mars One is trying to put the cart before the horse. Technology isn’t something that will come once we get humans to Mars. If we want those humans to survive, we need that technology to be 100 per cent ready — before we send people on a one-way journey.