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)

Article: The End of the Space Age

Another article from 2011 published by The Economist called “The End of the Space Age” which points out some very sobering truths about the Final Frontier.

It is quite conceivable that 36,000km [the orbits of the geostationary satellites] will prove the limit of human ambition. It is equally conceivable that the fantasy-made-reality of human space flight will return to fantasy. It is likely that the Space Age is over.

Bye-bye, sci-fi

Today’s space cadets will, no doubt, oppose that claim vigorously. They will, in particular, point to the private ventures of people like Elon Musk in America and Sir Richard Branson in Britain, who hope to make human space flight commercially viable. Indeed, the enterprise of such people might do just that. But the market seems small and vulnerable. One part, space tourism, is a luxury service that is, in any case, unlikely to go beyond low-Earth orbit at best (the cost of getting even as far as the moon would reduce the number of potential clients to a handful). The other source of revenue is ferrying astronauts to the benighted International Space Station (ISS), surely the biggest waste of money, at $100 billion and counting, that has ever been built in the name of science.

The reason for that second objective is also the reason for thinking 2011 might, in the history books of the future, be seen as the year when the space cadets’ dream finally died. It marks the end of America’s space-shuttle programme, whose last mission is planned to launch on July 8th (see article, article). The shuttle was supposed to be a reusable truck that would make the business of putting people into orbit quotidian. Instead, it has been nothing but trouble. Twice, it has killed its crew. If it had been seen as the experimental vehicle it actually is, that would not have been a particular cause for concern; test pilots are killed all the time. But the pretence was maintained that the shuttle was a workaday craft. The technical term used by NASA, “Space Transportation System”, says it all.

But the shuttle is now over. The ISS is due to be de-orbited, in the inelegant jargon of the field, in 2020. Once that happens, the game will be up. There is no appetite to return to the moon, let alone push on to Mars, El Dorado of space exploration. The technology could be there, but the passion has gone—at least in the traditional spacefaring powers, America and Russia.

The space cadets’ other hope, China, might pick up the baton. Certainly it claims it wishes, like President John Kennedy 50 years ago, to send people to the surface of the moon and return them safely to Earth. But the date for doing so seems elastic. There is none of Kennedy’s “by the end of the decade” bravura about the announcements from Beijing. Moreover, even if China succeeds in matching America’s distant triumph, it still faces the question, “what next?” The chances are that the Chinese government, like Richard Nixon’s in 1972, will say “job done” and pull the plug on the whole shebang.

Which means that if China, now one of the richest countries on Earth (if measured by balance of trade) won’t bother going to Mars because its too expensive, what are the chances that anyone will?

Because unless there are untold riches on Mars that cannot be got simpler and cheaper here on Earth, then the robotic exploration of the Solar System is where we’ll be in 25 years’ time.

For myself, I applaud the ISS being de-orbited. Will anyone tell me what scientific discoveries were made on the ISS that even remotely justify $100 billion?

The whole thing is one enormous boondoggle. Just imagine what problems here on Earth could have been solved with $100 billion.

Article: Why not space

I thought this article “Why Not Space?” deserved to be noted, because it too elucidates the idea of this blog: that space travel is hard, the economics of space travel are not there, the human body is a fragile thing that will struggle to survive very long without massive engineering support.

Ask a random sampling of people if they think we will have colonized space in 500 years, and I expect it will be a while before you run into someone who says it’s unlikely. Our migration from this planet is a seductive vision of the future that has been given almost tangible reality by our entertainment industry. We are attracted to the narrative that our primitive progenitors crawled out of the ocean, just as we’ll crawl off our home planet (en masse) some day.

I’m not going to claim that this vision is false: how could I know that? But I will point out a few of the unappreciated difficulties with this view. The subtext is that space fantasies can prevent us from tackling mundane problems whose denial could result in a backward slide. When driving, fixing your gaze on the gleaming horizon is likely to result in your crashing into a stopped car ahead of you, so that your car is no longer capable of reaching the promised land ahead. We have to pay attention to the stupid stuff right in front of us, as it might well stand between us and a smart future.


Space is a hostile place for humans. It’s mostly empty, though not lacking in deadly ionizing radiation and cosmic rays. What few resources exist are so mind-blowingly scattered that they would seem to be utterly absent to the casual observer. Some point out that the open ocean is also hostile to human life, and conjure the image of a luxury ocean liner placidly plying the waters, oblivious to the surrounding harshness. If we can picture that, why is it such a stretch to imagine a luxury liner in space? It’s a gripping image, and would seem to counter worries about the cruelty of space. But let’s look at the oh-so-many ways the two situations cannot compare.

If the ship sinks, and you have a life raft, you stand some chance of rescue. The ocean is vast, but it’s a two-dimensional vastness teeming with human activity (compared to any realistic vision of 3-d space inhabitation even within the confines of our solar system). People have survived for months on the open ocean, subsisting on the elements around them. Running out of air is not a problem. Fresh water falls out of the sky as rain. Critters that are attracted to the cover of your life raft provide a source of food. I recommend the book 117 Days Adrift for a gripping account of a British couple who survived such an ordeal. Sometimes edible fish would actually jump into their dinghy. By contrast, a hamburger has never slammed into the side of the space shuttle in orbit, and I very much doubt that chicken nuggets are going to float up seeking the shelter of your space rescue pod!

The rest of the article is a fascinating read from a space scientist, no less.

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What is this blog about?

This blog is about sciences, hard sciences and science fiction.

Western popular culture is saturated with science fiction. Some science fiction is presented as fiction, some as fact, and most of the time somewhere between those two extremes.

Sometimes the science part of science fiction is used to generate a different view on what society could become given different circumstances. So the science given is a literary device used to suspend belief and take the reader or viewer on an imaginary journey.

Sometime science fiction is generated by people we would call scientists, and is used deceitfully to gain honour and prestige within the scientific community and beyond.

Sometimes scientific concepts are abused to the point of nonsense by people claiming some deeper insight into the Universe.

And there are shades, genres and fashions linking all of the above.

Don’t get me wrong about this. Having been born in the middle of the Space Race and seen men walking on the Moon, I’ve seen science fiction become science fact.

Science fiction in popular culture has many forms, such as space opera like Star Trek, Star Wars, Space 1999 and Babylon 5, or supposed harder science fiction such as Armageddon, I Robot or Blade Runner.

But the hard sciences underpinned by the universal language and toolkit of mathematics are not about what is possible. They are about what is not possible.

For example, perpetual motion machines are not possible, but it hasn’t stopped lots of people trying and claiming that this or that conceptual design produces more energy than is input. Sometimes this comes out of genuine misunderstanding about scientific concepts, but more often it is by conscious fraud.

So this blog is about science and what is possible and what is not.

But that doesn’t mean that people, like the Red Queen, cannot believe six impossible things before breakfast.

Because every day, people do precisely that.