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.

Send an all-woman crew to Mars…its cheaper

This article from Slate on the discovery (whisper it) that women generally have a lower weight and a lower metabolic rate than most men, therefore the first manned mission to Mars should be predominantly or all female because it would be cheaper to launch women and keep them fed on Mars.

Last year I [author Kate Greene] took part in a NASA-funded research project called HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation). It required that I and five other crewmembers live as astronauts on the surface of Mars. We didn’t leave Earth, obviously, but for four months we were cooped up in a geodesic dome on the side of the very red, very rocky, very Mars-like Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. Our food, water, power, and communications were limited, and we were only allowed to exit the habitat if we wore mock spacesuits. So many Martian hassles, so little glory.

Author Kate Greene during a mock Mars mission.

Author Kate Greene during a mock Mars mission.

Courtesy of Sian Proctor

This was the first HI-SEAS mission—a third starts this month—and it was designed mainly to study the types of food Mars explorers might eat. I was the crew writer, blogging for Discover and the Economist, and since I had the scientific background and interest, I conducted a sleep study, too.

I collected and managed the crew’s sleep data over the course of the experiment. One device we used to track sleep was the sensor armband from BodyMedia, which also provides estimates of daily and weekly caloric expenditure. While I didn’t know which data belonged to which subject due to anonymity requirements, I could see each subject’s sex. Over time I noticed a trend.

Week in and week out, the three female crew members expended less than half the calories of the three male crew members. Less than half! We were all exercising roughly the same amount—at least 45 minutes a day for five consecutive days a week—but our metabolic furnaces were calibrated in radically different ways.

During one week, the most metabolically active male burned an average of 3,450 calories per day, while the least metabolically active female expended 1,475 calories per day. It was rare for a woman on crew to burn 2,000 calories in a day and common for male crew members to exceed 3,000.

We were only allowed to exit the habitat if we wore mock spacesuits. So many Martian hassles, so little glory.

The data certainly fit with my other observations. At mealtime, the women took smaller portions than the men, who often went back for seconds. One crew member complained how hard it was to maintain his weight, despite all the calories he was taking in.

The calorie requirements of an astronaut matter significantly when planning a mission. The more food a person needs to maintain her weight on a long space journey, the more food should launch with her. The more food launched, the heavier the payload. The heavier the payload, the more fuel required to blast it into orbit and beyond. The more fuel required, the heavier the rocket becomes, which it in turn requires more fuel to launch.

Wait, according to feminist theory, the physiological differences between the sexes are socially conditioned. That’s why men have much greater upper body strength.

But I digress…

The cost of a Mars mission has gone down since 1989, apparently

According to Robert Zubrin, aerospace engineer, author, and president of the Mars Society, a round-trip mission to Mars could cost as little as $30 billion. While this is a low-ball estimate that ignores many of the details, it suggests that a manned Mars mission might not cost $450 billion, an amount proposed by NASA in 1989 that many believe is close to the upper limit for such a mission. Many of today’s estimates tend to be around $100 billion.

Its not just that I’m a pragmatist (or pessimist) but you’ll never, ever get the US Government to spend as low as $30 billion anywhere. Just look at the budget for the War on Terror or the War on Drugs.

Which gets me back to my previous comment, that if mankind really, seriously want to go to Mars, then more than one country needs to be involved.

Harry Jones, of NASA Ames Research Center, says that he too noticed the average female and male calorie requirement differed significantly and published on the topic in the early 2000s. “For a Mars mission, life support will be a major cost,” he says. “It is expected that oxygen and water can be recycled, but not food. Reducing the crew’s calorie requirement would cut cost.”

But is it a significant cost relative to the cost of lifting everything else?

Besides which

As reasonable as an all-female Mars mission is from an economic perspective, some might find the idea offensive. After all, it’d be an expedition that fails to represent half the world’s population; an all-female Mars crew would strike many as exceptionally biased.

Then again, space-mission design has always been biased in one way or another. Exploration in general is nothing if not political, dictated by the people with the money and power to choose the face of the expedition. Right now, it’s unlikely that those with the power to do so would agree to fund a crew of small female astronauts even to save money.

Again I think its more likely that the crew will probably be 2 male and 2 female, or 3 male and 3 female.

If it ever happens at all.

MIT – Mars One is not feasible with current technologies


This popped into my mailbox via Slashdot from The Examiner:

The Mars One project created a great deal of fanfare when it was first announced in 2012. The project, based in Holland, aspires to build a colony on Mars with the first uncrewed flight taking place in 2018 and the first colonists setting forth around 2024. The idea is that the colonists would go to Mars to stay, slowly building up the colony in four-person increments every 26-month launch window. However, Space Policy Online on Tuesday reported that an independent study conducted by MIT has poured cold water on the Mars colony idea.

The MIT team consisting of engineering students had to make a number of assumptions based on public sources since the Mars One concept lacks a great many technical details. The study made the bottom line conclusion that the Mars One project is overly optimistic at best and unworkable at worst. The concept is “unsustainable” given the current state of technology and the aggressive schedule that the Mars One project has presented.

Yes, and that’s only the good news. The project is extremely expensive and uses technologies that don’t exist yet, putting the whole idea solidly in the realms of hard science fiction.

The actual report (link here) makes clear how far Mars One is from reality:

Our assessment revealed a number of insights into architecture decisions for establishing a colony on the Martian surface. If crops are used as the sole food source, they will produce unsafe oxygen levels in the habitat. Furthermore, the ISRU [in-situ resource utilisation] system mass estimate is 8% of the mass of the resources it would produce over a two year period. That being said, the ISRU technology required to produce nitrogen, oxygen, and water on the surface of Mars is at a relatively low Technology Readiness Level (TRL), so such findings are preliminary at best.

Translation: the technology needed to keep people alive on Mars for extended periods starting in 10 years’ time hasn’t even demonstrated here on Earth.

A spare parts analysis revealed that spare parts quickly come to dominate resupply mass as the settlement grows: after 130 months on the Martian surface, spare parts compose 62% of the mass brought from Earth to the Martian surface. The space logistics analysis revealed that, for the best scenario considered, establishing the  first crew for a Mars settlement will require approximately 15 Falcon Heavy launchers and require $4.5 billion in funding, and these numbers will grow with additional crews.

Translation: This will be at least very expensive, far beyond the costs of any television reality series or any Hollywood franchise ever envisioned.


Our integrated Mars settlement simulation revealed a number of significant insights into architecture decisions for establishing a Martian colony. First, our habitation simulations revealed that crop growth, iflarge enough to provide 100% of the settlement’s food, will produce unsafe oxygen levels in the habitat. As a result, some form of oxygen removal system is required – a technology that has not yet been developed for spaceflight.

The technology needed to do this one critical function does not exist as of today

Second, the ISRU system sizing module generated a system mass estimate that was approximately 8% of the mass of the resources it would produce over a two year period, even with a generous margin on the ISRU system mass estimate. That being said, the ISRU technology required to produce nitrogen, oxygen, and water on the surface of Mars is at a relatively low TRL, so such findings are preliminary at best. A spare parts analysis revealed that the mass of spare parts to support the ISRU and ECLS systems increases significantly as the settlement grows – after 130 months on the Martian surface, spare parts compose 62% of the mass transported to the Martian surface.

The logistics of keeping the Mars colony from collapsing for lack of spares will be a massive drain and require constant re-supply from Earth.

Finally, the space logistics analysis revealed that for the most optimist scenario considered, establishing the first crew of a Mars settlement will require approximately 15 Falcon Heavy launches costing $4.5billion, and these values will grow with additional crews. It is important to note that these numbers are derived considering only the ECLS and ISRU systems with spare parts. Future work will have to integrate other analyses, such as communications and power systems, to capture a more realistic estimate of mission cost.

It will be extremely expensive, so much so that even a first world economy like the United States would balk at the cost.

My suggestions for getting to Mars

Rather than this be seen solely as a blog of space negativity, I would like to suggest how Mars could be conquered.

It is clear from the outset that getting humans to Mars, landing them safely (something not mentioned in the above report but a very hard problem that hasn’t been answered yet) and keeping them alive on Mars is a problem which demands political and economic will from the United States, Russia and China, together with India and France to produce an international consortium to solve the technological issues of the human exploration of Mars.

And they should set a hard target of getting to Mars in 20 years, not 10.

I believe that the technological problems of Mars exploration by humans can be solved with human ingenuity, but it will require economic and political will by countries who are currently at war (Russia in the Ukraine, the United States in Syria/Iraq) and on opposing sides.

I also believe that it would be far less expensive and get better technological result to explore Mars by robot, using such technologies as dirigibles and ground penetrating radar as well as solar and especially nuclear technologies for power.

But Mars One isn’t going anywhere. It really is hard science fiction.

Reference: AN INDEPENDENT ASSESSMENT OF THE TECHNICAL FEASIBILITY OF THE MARS ONE MISSION PLAN, Sydney Do et al, paper presented to the 65th International Astronautical Congress, Toronto, Canada IAC-14-A5.2.7 Link to paper (PDF)

(Don’t) get your ass to Mars!

This post is the first of many, many posts on the human exploration of Mars.

Why we can’t get there from here

I have great sympathy for the principle of human exploration of Mars and even potential colonization in the future. But frankly the belief that we can transport humans to Mars, have them land safely, conduct experiments and exploration and safely return using current or near future technologies is rooted in a quasi-religious belief system which I call “hard science fiction” and is the meta-theme of this blog.

I’m sorry Buzz…

…really, I’m sorry.

As a taster for the sorts of arguments against Mars exploration involving humans, let me refer you to this article: Could a Manned Mission to Mars Abort?

Now this article isn’t saying that getting to Mars is impossible, but in reality things can go wrong (just ask the crew of Apollo 13) and aborting a mission to Mars is one of the things that needs to be considered.

I love the question posed (by someone called Joan):

Could Mars One turn back en route if they had regrets? Reality would set in seeing [our] beautiful blue planet get smaller while they head towards a dead toxic planet or if radiation/solar winds [were] to wildly [exceed] safe levels.

Now that’s a question that needs to be answered.

Not because crews might have regrets, because that’s what an astronaut training program would be geared to filter out, because the last thing you’d want is a crew member who goes into a psychotic fit en route to Mars and must be (physically and/or chemically) restrained. In a module as small and claustrophobic as a Mars module, that would cause a mission abort all on its own.

But Mars is (as far as we know) dead and is definitely toxic, so this is not a trivial question.

…when we talk about a manned mission to Mars, there are a few different plans out there. The most optimal one for a one-way trip to Mars, for those of you wondering, that minimizes both flight time and the amount of energy needed, involves simply timing your launch right.

Image credit: Winchell Chung of

There’s an approximately two-month-long launch window that occurs every 780 days, where Earth overtakes Mars in its orbit, where the time-of-flight to Mars is only about 243 days: 8½ months. The tough part is, once you’re on your way, you’re moving at incredible speeds, and you’re not carrying a lot of fuel on board to correct your trajectory.

Why not?

Because every extra kilogram of fuel you carry means it’s that much more expensive to launch your rocket, and it also means there’s that much less storage room and capacity to devote to food, water and other supplies. As a consequence, there’s that much less room-for-error. If the infamous Apollo 13 mission hadn’t planned on landing on the Moon, lifting off to reconnect with the command module, and return to Earth, they never would have had enough fuel to make the necessary course corrections to get themselves back home.

That optimal strategy is called the Hohmann Transfer which is the one diagrammed above, and every other option sub-optimal because it would require more fuel and hence more mass would have to be sent up from the Earth’s surface in the first place.

If you’re on your way to Mars, and you all-of-a-sudden decide you have to get back to Earth, using your on-board fuel to change your course and head back home simply wouldn’t be an option: fuel-wise, it’s too expensive. In other words, Joan, to answer one of your questions, if it was radiation that was killing you — something we may have to worry about, as we’ve never had humans spend large amounts of time this far away from Earth’s protective magnetic field — you’re simply going to die.

So, once you’ve broken Earth’s orbit at the beginning of the Hohmann transfer then you’re committed – you won’t have enough fuel to turn around the way they do in the movies.

But if time wasn’t an issue, because you had the food, water and supplies you needed to survive, and you had all the fuel you needed to get yourself to Mars, you’d have a chance to return home. This could be of vital importance for a mission like the one you allude to — Mars One — because the way it’s currently planned, it’s a suicide mission.

And it is – right up front, Mars One is a one-way trip to a dead, toxic planet. Once you’re on that transfer, you’ll never see Earth again.

Unless you’re in just the right orbit where this happens:

So if you were on your way to Mars and wanted to come back, your only realistic option, with the expected amount of fuel you’d outfit your spacecraft with, would be to use the red planet’s gravity to turn yourself around back towards Earth, which would result in a total round-trip time of around 400-to-450 days. Without any interplanetary infrastructure, that’s the best you can hope for.

But all of the above rests upon a key assumption – that there is no infrastructure on Mars.

Why would that be the case?

Mars Direct

In Robert Zubrin’s book “The Case for Mars”, he advocates a mission strategy called “Mars Direct” which envisages a series of missions to colonize, explore and return samples (and humans) from the surface of the planet.

The first mission, which Zubrin dubs “Ares 1”, a robotic mission is sent first which sends a habitation module, a nuclear power plant, a chemical plant and a return vehicle to Mars.

The whole lot lands on Mars (a heroic assumption, given the poor record of Mars landers), where the chemical plant uses water in the soil of Mars which is heated by the nuclear power plant and then cracked into hydrogen and oxygen, which are then used to fuel the return vehicle and the habitation module (the “Hab”).

Then when all is signalled ready by the robotic Ares 1, the human part (“Ares 2”) lifts off, knowing that at the very least, the astronauts can abort either directly as shown above, or to the surface of Mars.

There’s at least one problem with that strategy: we don’t have the technology to land humans safely on Mars

More soon.