Mars One: Target without a mission

marsonelogoVia Slashdot, a very long (for the Internet) article on Mars One, the Dutch-based marketing campaign that says its going to send people to Mars starting in 2025.

It’s one thing to get 200,000 people to apply for a one-way trip to a dead planet, but quite another to actually come up with a full mission plan of how exactly you get people to the surface of Mars and have them live the rest of their lives there.

The details of Mars One’s mission remain vague. [Norbert] Kraft [Mars One’s Chief Medical Officer] tells me that any technical questions have to be directed to Arno Wielders [Mars One CEO], who rebuffs requests for an interview, replying through the press office that he is too busy. Instead, I am directed to the website. On a page titled “The Technology,” it states very optimistically: “No new technology developments are required to establish a human settlement on Mars. Mars One has visited major aerospace companies around the world to discuss the requirements, budget, and timelines with their engineers and business developers. The current mission plan was composed on the basis of feedback received in these meetings.”

Pretty much every proposal I find on the FAQ, from the landing unit to the living unit to the astronauts’ suits, is currently theoretical. Which is somewhat putting the cart before the horse, only the cart is a pencil drawing of a toy wheelbarrow. Here’s what it says, for instance, about how they will actually get people there: “Mars One anticipates using SpaceX Falcon Heavy, an upgraded version of the Falcon 9, which is in use by SpaceX currently. The Falcon Heavy is slated to undergo test flights in 2014, granting ample time for fine-tuning prior to the Mars One missions.”

This summer, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket prototype broke apart over Texas after “an anomaly forced the destruction on the craft.” A month later NASA lost a Russian-built rocket on launch bound for resupply of the International Space Station, its fireball in the night sky over Wallops Flight Facility visible for miles around. Two weeks ago, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceshipTwo exploded during a test flight over the Mojave, killing one pilot and injuring another. It’s a fraught moment even for private space missions far less theoretical than Mars One.

Quite. Even missions to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) or even to the edge of space are fraught with high risk, but they are nothing compared to going to Mars.

There have been 43 unmanned missions to Mars so far. Twenty one have failed.

And here’s the kicker medical problem

The longest any person has spent in space was the 14 months cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov lived on the now-decommissioned Mir Space Station; another cosmonaut,Valentin Lebedev, spent 211 days in orbit in 1982, during which the elevated radiation levels resulted in his losing his eyesight to cataracts. The flight to Mars is projected to take between seven and nine months.

So we’d have blind or nearly blind people on the surface of Mars? Terrific. Do we send guide dogs?

And there’s so much to look forward to.

Sleep patterns are badly disturbed by space travel, and more than half of astronauts on long-haul missions take sedatives to help them sleep. Fatigue and lethargy result in impaired cognitive functions and an increase in critical errors, which is why astronauts only have 6.5 “fit” work hours per day.

A lack of energy can be exacerbated by the limited diet astronauts must subsist on. Once their initial supplies ran out, Mars colonists would eat only food they could grow themselves, a plant-based diet, augmented by legumes and maybe insects.

I don’t know about you, but if I were to expect to be eating like that for the rest of my life, perhaps I should be eating like that now, just to see if I can stomach it or even survive on it?

Depression, anxiety, listlessness, hallucinations, and chronic stress have all been reported in live missions and training simulations. As have communication breakdowns and conflict among crews and between mission command.

And these breakdowns have been between military personnel who know they will be returning to Earth to face authority. What of the one-way Mars colonists? How long before they work out that there is no-one to stop one person killing all of the others? Or a multiple murder-suicide?

A well-known effect on astronauts out on long missions is the dip at the halfway point, when the excitement has worn off and the return home seems unbearably distant. There is no way to know how a human mind will encounter passing the threshold of no return, when the Earth recedes from sight, and the pitch black enormity of deep space and the impossibility of ever turning back sinks in.

I suspect that the excitement will abate by Day 3, after the transfer orbit burn. Watching the Earth move away perceptably day-by-day and communications with Earth get delayed more and more by the distance and the immutable speed of light will have a big effect on the crew.

Advice to Mars One: pack a lot of tranquilizers and anti-psychotic medications. This is going to be a long trip.

Eventually the four Mars One colonists will arrive on an inhospitable alien world, with only themselves for company for two years, until another flight with four colonists is hoped to arrive if they, too, survive the perilous trip through the vacuum of space. They will never speak to anyone but one another in real time ever again; the delay in relaying communications between Mars and Earth is 20 minutes, minimum.

But that assumes we can get them to the surface alive.

Apart from the ability to launch them to LEO safely, and then send them on a Hohmann transfer orbit safely (a task that the author of “The Martian” got spectacularly wrong – more on that in a later post), there is the key unanswered question of how to get human beings, not robots, to the surface of Mars without killing them.

The article glosses over that part, but in the scheme of things, getting humans from Mars Orbit to the surface is about the hardest engineering task ever considered.

Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut who went to LEO says this (and this blog completely agrees with him):

“Going to Mars is hard,” Hadfield adds.As John Young, one of the most accomplished astronauts in history, said, ‘Mars is a lot further away than almost everybody thinks. Both physically and in time.’”

Astronaut Chris Hadfield (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

Hadfield says that Mars One fails at even the most basic starting point of any manned space mission: If there are no specifications for the craft that will carry the crew, if you don’t know the very dimensions of the capsule they will be traveling in, you can’t begin to select the people who will be living and working inside of it.

“I really counsel every single one of the people who is interested in Mars One, whenever they ask me about it, to start asking the hard questions now. I want to see the technical specifications of the vehicle that is orbiting Earth. I want to know: How does a space suit on Mars work? Show me how it is pressurized, and how it is cooled. What’s the glove design? None of that stuff can be bought off the rack. It does not exist. You can’t just go to SpaceMart and buy those things.”

But that is exactly what Mars One is claiming to be able to do. All of its requirements for travel and living on Mars, it claims, are already here – whatever others like MIT and NASA or astronauts like Hadfield may say.

Hadfield continues:

“Thirteen years ago we started living on the space station, so when we left Earth, we basically started colonizing space as a planet. And then the next steps out were the moon, asteroids, and then eventually Mars. We absolutely need to do it on the moon for a few generations, learn how to do all of those things — how do you completely recycle your water? How do you completely recycle your oxygen system? How do you protect yourselves from radiation? How do you not go crazy? How do you set up the politics of the place and the command structure, so that when we get it wrong we won’t all die? How do we figure all that out?

I think a permanent moon base would definitely be do-able as a multi-national partnership. The moon is no more than 2.6 seconds in light travel time away from the Earth, and takes no more than 3-4 days to reach, and has the advantage of lower gravity and doesn’t have the disadvantage of a thin atmosphere.

The moon has also barely been surveyed for minerals, meteor impacts and ancient vulcanism. It has caves and lava tubes to explore as well.

The longest single excursion to the moon’s surface was 7 hours and 37 minutes by Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt in Apollo 17 back in 1972. And they were on the Moon’s surface for just over 3 (Earth) days. Just imagine what a few weeks or months would do to the study of lunar geology, as well as understanding how to put an extraterrestrial base together and keeping humans alive and functioning for months at a time?

Since a long-term Mars base would be underground (because of the radiation), why not learn about how to do that on the Moon? You’d need a lot of power (a nuclear reactor would do) and a lot of robotic digging equipment.

Here’s an idea: try sending a nuclear-powered submarine to the moon. That would be almost exactly what you’d need to do if you want people to live there long-term, or on Mars.

But Mars One is little more than an aspiration and a website. Read the whole article. It’s not got the money and even if it had the money, it has no clue how to send people into low earth orbit, let alone any further.

…that from everything I can find, Mars One doesn’t appear to be in any way qualified to carry off the biggest, most complex, most audacious, and most dangerous exploration mission in all of human history. That they don’t have the money to do it. That 200,000 people didn’t actually apply. That, with all the good faith one can muster, I wouldn’t classify it exactly as a scam—but that it seems to be, at best, an amazingly hubristic fantasy: an absolute faith in the free market, in technology, in the media, in money, to be able to somehow, magically, do what thousands of highly qualified people in government agencies have so far not yet been able to do over decades of diligently trying, making slow headway through individually hard-won breakthroughs, working in relative anonymity pursuing their life’s work.

That’s what I call hard science fiction.

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