A Dutch firm is currently seeking volunteers for a protracted suicide mission to Mars, a one-way trip that will see the first human colony established on the Red Planet. Cynicism aside, the success of the program would be a landmark event in space travel and, arguably, a pivotal moment in the history of humankind.
Mars One, the company behind the ambitious project, has pencilled in a date of 2023 for touchdown on Mars.
Four colonists from a pool of thousands (30,000 as of April 2013, 80,000 in May, and an expected 500,000 by the end of this month) will be sent to the Red Planet. They will be joined by an additional pair of astronauts every two years from 2025 onwards – if the initial party arrives in one piece.
On the surface, the mission seems straightforward – it uses existing technology, including a conventional power source; it has no political bias, having no ties to a government, and there is no need to develop a method to return the colonists to Earth, as they aren’t coming back.
Despite all that, there two elements that could cripple the mission at any stage of its undertaking: money and radiation.
- Grow your Own
I’m going to create something terrible here, more as a thought experiment than a likely scenario. The Mars One project is still embryonic as of July 2013, and we may not have a clear idea of what – if anything – is going to happen until the latter half of the current decade.
However, Mars One will need vast sums of cash for as long as the colonists remain alive. If the current plan to send new volunteers every few years comes to fruition, that time-frame could be 50-100 years at the minimum. If successful, it could be generations.
>>above: the Twin Peaks, located near the Mars Pathfinder landing site, photographed in 1999. Image by NASA.
The lack of a political ally may become Mars One’s undoing; NASA has the vast wealth of the United States to fall back on and, while the Earth is unlikely to abandon the colonists, there nevertheless remains some concern over how Mars One is going to raise the money.
This, for me, is the most worrying aspect of the project. Mars One plans to create a media circus cum reality show in all but name:
“Not unlike the televised events of the Olympic Games, Mars One intends to maintain an on-going, global media event, from astronaut selection to training, from lift-off to landing, to provide primary funding for this next giant leap for mankind.”
Mars One hopes that television companies will part-finance the voyage and subsequent colonisation of Mars. The firm has already approached a British firm – Surrey Satellites – to construct a broadcast system for the mission. As of April, Surrey Satellites had yet to be paid. These are still early days in the mission, however.
- Big Brother
Relying on television companies when human life is at stake is extraordinarily dangerous, given how often firms like Sky make major bodies leap through hoops for continued funding. The TV companies will get bored, as their audiences inevitably switch off; what then for the colonists?
What if Channel 5 offers to fund the mission at the cost of some of the colonists’ freedoms? It’s hard to imagine the network turning down the opportunity to film a handful of volunteers in a claustrophobic environment, turning tricks for a disembodied voice in the sky.
“How much are we willing to make it a ‘Lord of the Flies’-type situation if it all goes terribly wrong?” asked Amy Shira Teitel, a historian from Phoenix, Arizona.
>>above: Martian sunset above Gustev Crater, as photographed by the Spirit rover. Image by NASA.
Mars One claims to have a large safety margin for any financial mishaps, should investors pull out. There’s also some corporate sponsorship in place, albeit from obscure (in the UK) firms and not-for-profit organisations. SpaceX, a competitor of Virgin Galactic, is also involved.
However, it occurs that the two major problems that the project lists on its website – cost-overrun and loss of human life – are related; if the money runs out at any stage of the mission, the colonists will die.
- Grow your Own
The colonists, if and when they arrive, will eventually become moderately self-sustaining, via hydroponics and the wealth of water ice present at the Mars One landing site, but their quality of life is dictated by support from the Earth and the nature of the conditions on Mars.
There is even some debate over whether surviving on Mars is a moot point; the voyage alone could severely harm the astronauts long before they set foot on the Red Planet.
>>above: Curiosity heads for its next mission target, the slopes of Mount Sharp. Image by NASA.
During the six-month trip to Mars, the volunteers will be exposed to up to 330 millisieverts of radiation, a figure that is very close to the lifetime maximum imposed by NASA on its astronauts. If the Sun is experiencing a period of intense activity, that number could be much higher.
According to Nicky Guttridge, writing for Astronomy Now in August, a human on Earth will probably experience 1-2 millisieverts per year.
There are, obviously, a million other variables. Amy Shira Teitel pondered some of them in a conversation with the BBC: “What if one of their supplies ships doesn’t make it and they lose food? What’s going to happen when vital parts don’t make it or survive the trip? Is the crew going to eat each other?”
I’m definitely being alarmist – but it’s clear that Mars One – and the similar project, the Inspiration Mars Foundation, aiming to make a fly-by of the Red Planet in 2018 – have a lot of wrinkles to iron out before their respective launch dates.