Why I think Mars One is a really stupid notion

I posted last week about the silliness of trying to colonise Mars on a one-way basis, unless you’re sending Justin Bieber.

Sure, most colonists here on Earth made the trip one-way. But Earth’s way more hospitable. Even Roanoke. You can breathe the air, for a start.

Artists' impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain.
Artists’ impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain. Eventually, Orion may be part of the system that takes us to Mars – and brings us back.

Mars – that’s another planet. It has red skies and blue sunsets, temperatures that make Antarctica look summery, and surface air pressure about 0.6% that of Earth, though that’s academic because it’s mostly carbon dioxide anyway. Mars also has no magnetic field, which means the surface is irradiated from space. Then there’s the dirt, which the Phoenix lander found was saturated with naturally-formed perchlorates. Know what perchlorate is? Rocket fuel. It’s nasty stuff, it’s toxic, and the chances of keeping the habitat clear of it after a few EVA’s seems low.

The biggest problem is that nobody’s been there yet. There’s bound to be a curve ball we don’t know about. It’ll be discovered the hard way.

That was the Apollo experience forty years ago. It turned out lunar dust is abrasive and insidious. As early as Apollo 12, astronauts found dust in the seals when they re-donned their suits for a second EVA – moon-walker Pete Conrad reported that ‘there’s no doubt in my mind that with a couple more EVA’s something could have ground to a halt’. All the later Apollo astronauts hit it; leak rates soared in the suits as dust worked its way into the sealing rings.

I think it’s safe to say something of equal practical difficulty will be discovered about Mars, one way or another. Not good if you’ve just arrived – permanently. Besides, what happens if someone gets needs a hospital now? Or is injured? Well, that’s a no-brainer. You can imagine the colony consisting of a cluster of grounded Dragons with a row of graves next to it.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB 'wet lab' configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.
Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB ‘wet lab’ configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Mars One plan to send more missions every two years, each with four colonists to join the happy bunch. If they’re alive. My money says they won’t be. This is Scott of the Antarctic territory – high-tech for the day (Scott even had motorised tractors) but still gimcrack.

The main reason we’ve not gone there yet, despite space agencies making serious plans since the 1960s, is cost. Manned interplanetary fly-bys were (just) within reach of the hardware built for the Moon landings – and until the Apollo Applications Programme was slashed to just Skylab, NASA was looking at a manned Venus flyby for 1973-74, using Apollo hardware.

Composite panorama of Mars. Not going to be seen by the 2018 expedition, as they'll fly past the night side. NASA, public domain.
Composite panorama of Mars. NASA, public domain.

Unfortunately, stopping at the destination, landing on it, and all the rest was another matter. It was easy to accelerate an Apollo CSM and habitat module into a free-return Venus or Mars trajectory; no further fuel was needed, it’d whip past the target at interplanetary velocities, and the CM could aerobrake to a safe landing on Earth. But stopping at the destination, landing and then returning home? In rocketry – whether chemical or nuclear-thermal (NERVA), the two technologies available until recently, mass-ratios are critical.

Mass ratio is the difference in mass between an empty and fuelled rocket at all times, and fuel takes fuel to accelerate it. It’s a calculation of sharply diminishing returns, and the upshot for NASA and other Mars mission planners in the twentieth century was that a practical manned landing mission was going to (a) require a colossal amount of fuel, and (b) would still transit by low-energy Hohmann orbit requiring a 256 day flight each way, meaning more life support, which meant more fuel (see what I mean?).

Some plans looked to refuel the system from Martian resources, but that had challenges of its own. Either way, the biggest challenge in all Mars mission schemes was the first step, lifting the Mars ship off Earth into a parking orbit. No single rocket could do that in one go, meaning multiple launches and assembly in orbit, raising cost and complexity still further. With figures in tens and hundreds of billions of dollars being bandied about, and no real public enthusiasm for space after Apollo, it’s small wonder governments were daunted.

ROMBUS in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away ready for landing. Public domain, NASA.
Conceptual art of Philip Bono’s colossal ROMBUS booster in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away ready for landing. Public domain, NASA.

My take – which is far from original to me – is don’t try going to Mars now. Focus on building a space-to-space propulsion system that offers better impulse than chemical or nuclear-thermal motors. Do that and the 256-day trans-Mars cruise – which is what drives the scale and risk of the mission, including problems with radiation doses in deep space – goes away. One promising option is the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMIR), a high-powered ion drive that might do the trick if it works as envisaged. Another is the FDR (Fusion Driven Rocket). Current projections suggest Earth-Mars transit times as low as 30 days.

Of course, if your drive won’t light when you need it to slow down, you’re on a one-way trip out of the solar system. But hey…

Maybe we should send Justin Bieber on that first VASIMIR mission, just in case…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


7 thoughts on “Why I think Mars One is a really stupid notion

  1. So if there are four people in each mission, how do you determine the skills mix each crew should have? Especially the first crew? What happens when any one of the crew dies or is rendered useless through injury, temporarily or otherwise? The skills mix is absolutely critical, and a total house of cards.

    Regretfully, I have to agree that Mars One isn’t a really sound idea.

    But I might go anyway. Just for the trip.

    1. I agree – that’s a major issue. And it also makes me wonder. They’re picking candidates from public volunteers, which means they’ll be only marginally trained by ‘pioneer astronaut’ standards. I am still convinced that a lot of the success of Apollo came about because Armstrong, Aldrin and the rest of them were not just professional test pilots – they were also engineer-scientists who were hands-on involved in the development of the systems, by intention. NASA wanted their input. (I believe Aldrin has a PhD in orbital rendezvous techniques and personally helped solve the technical problems associated with orbital rendezvous, for instance). It all paid off – not just in better spacecraft, but also in the results. I mean, if Armstrong hadn’t been such a top-notch pilot, they’d have crashed into that boulder field. Now imagine a civilian with a few years’ training… yah…Damn.

      I’d go too – but I like my creature comforts and also want to come home, so I may be waiting a while for the tech to catch up… 🙂

      1. Yeah, admittedly, I like my comforts. And I don’t much see the point in pioneering when there’s a pretty fair chance of not being able to live long enough to report what’s going on, which is kind of the purpose of scientific endeavor.

        Truth is there are interesting developments, like VASIMIR and some others, that might make this discussion irrelevant. I certainly hope so! I doubt I’ll ever make it to Mars, but a man can dream.

  2. Well, perhaps we shouldn’t “go” to Mars, “today.” I think we should put a maximum effort out to get there, “now.” That means developing the technologies – with quadruple redundancy – techniques and procedures as quickly as we can. The hundreds of billions spent to fund such a project would be pocket change compared to the trillions spent fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan fro little gain. The technologies and industries developed to support colonizing Mars would be far more useful to us than yet another ingenious way to kill each other.

    We should be trying to get to Mars as though the survival of our entire species depends on it…because it very well might. The dangers waiting in space make nuclear weapons look like pop-guns. It’s going to take a long time to develop everything we need to survive on Mars because it really is hostile to human life. So that means we need to get started now. Waiting until an “extinction event-sized” meteor is approaching Earth is way too late to start thinking about living somewhere else. I think a great first step is a moon colony. A lot of lessons could be learned there, and help isn’t quite so far away.

    Perhaps we shouldn’t put people on Mars this year (robots should make these first steps), but we should be making plans to make that move, today.

    1. I agree. The hard part will be re-kindling the widespread popular enthusiasm that buoyed Apollo in the 1960s. Cynically, I suspect that projects such as Mars One, which I think is bound to end badly, will serve only to damage the popular perception of space flight as cool, or something humanity should do. We don’t really have the tech to go to Mars properly yet. As you say, the onus is on to get it.

      1. Well, it isn’t really going to do any harm. It’s going to fall apart of its own natural accord, without ever getting close to launch, and maybe five years from now someone will ask, “hey, whatever happened to that Mars suicide squad thing?”

        1. True! I believe they are going to set up a test habitat in Arizona or similar. And that might be as far as it gets. Though along the way we may get treated to entertaining arguments between the denizens over who does the dishes.

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