Amid concerns about the financial and technological feasibility of Mars One’s ambitious plan to send humans on a one-way mission to colonize Mars, the Dutch organization is committed to pressing forward. In a recent press release, Mars One announced it has made another cut from its pool of 660 applicants down to a mere 100 people. The original candidate pool included over 200,000 applicants from around the world. Ultimately, Mars One plans to send 24 of these amateur astronauts on a one-way trip to the Red Planet.
The next step for the “Mars 100” involves rigorous physical and psychological challenges that will help Mars One narrow the group down to the final 24 people that will start leaving for Mars in teams of four by 2024, assuming all goes as planned. However, many challenges remain ahead.
So far, funding has been one of the main barriers to private forays into space exploration. In a short video for Big Think, prominent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson asserts that, historically, private enterprise has never been a pioneer in “large, expensive, dangerous projects with unknown risks” because of the difficulty in attracting venture capital to such projects. While the FAQ on Mars One’s website identifies several different means of funding, the section entitled “What is the Mars One business model?” offers a clue as to how the organization plans to tackle its funding problem:
“When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon, the whole world was watching. In the next decade, about four billion people will have access to video images. Mars One expects that virtually every one of them will watch when the first humans land on Mars.”
In June of last year, Mars One announced that it had entered into an exclusive partnership with Darlow Smithson Productions, a company whose resume includes historical and scientific TV programming, to document and broadcast the selection and training of the amateur astronauts who will quite literally dedicate their lives to science.
The simple genius of the plan is this: rather than ask venture capitalists to invest in a high-risk endeavor that could end in death and billions of dollars in losses, Mars One will finance the bulk of its project by turning the space endeavor into a consumable spectacle. Mars One hopes to involve four billion reality TV-obsessed earthlings, with advertisers paying astronomical sums for access to so many eyes. To further promote and generate interest in the project, the organization has also released a number of slick videos, including this one released on the occasion of the “Mars 100” announcement:
Mars One, we have a problem
Financial problems aside, the mission faces significant technical challenges. The biggest wet blanket on Mars One’s party came last year from a team of graduate students at MIT. The students assessed the technical feasibility of the project and reached some disheartening and even foreboding conclusions. They expressed skepticism that Mars One would be able to achieve its goals “with existing technology,” arguing that current technology would not be sufficient in venting unsafe levels of oxygen released by the plants grown on Mars or for drawing water out of the Martian soil. The finding that should be of the utmost concern to the “Mars 100” is related to the planned Martian habitats. Graduate student Sydney Do estimated that the quantity and variety of crops the Martian colonists would need to survive would produce unsafe levels of oxygen that would need to be balanced by introducing more nitrogen into the habitat. Less nitrogen over time would mean more air leaks, and the resulting drop in atmospheric pressure would cause the first settler to suffocate within 68 days.
Still, the MIT study wasn’t all doom and gloom. The graduate students also said that the settlement-analysis tool they developed could actually be used to benefit the mission planners.
In the least, Mars One continues to captivate our attention, bringing awareness to the importance of and the excitement to be had with space exploration. Let’s just hope they manage to iron out the kinks well before sending any fearless, but doomed, future astronauts to Mars.