Mars One plan to colonise red planet unrealistic, says leading supporter

The budget and timeline for plans by a
Dutch organisation to colonise Mars are
highly unrealistic, one of the project’s most
eminent supporters has suggested.
Gerard ’t Hooft, a Dutch Nobel laureate and
ambassador for Mars One, said he did not
believe the mission could take off by 2024
as planned.
“It will take quite a bit longer and be quite
a bit more expensive. When they first
asked me to be involved I told them ‘you
have to put a zero after everything’,” he
said, implying that a launch date 100 years
from now with a budget of tens of billions
of dollars would be an achievable goal.
But, ’t Hooft added, “People don’t want
something 100 years from now.”
Last week the organisation announced its
shortlist of 100 applicants, including five
British hopefuls, to be the first members of
a permanent human colony on the red
planet.
According to the Mars One’s official
timeline , a stationary lander and satellite
will be sent to Mars in 2018, followed by a
rover in 2020 and cargo missions starting
in 2022. Humans would start arriving in
2025, and crews of four would be sent
every two years to add to the settlement.
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Mars One mission: a one-way trip to the
red planet in 2024
Bas Lansdorp, the founder of Mars One,
remains upbeat about the prospects of the
mission, which he is hoping to fund by
selling rights to film it for a reality
television series to be made by Endemol,
the Dutch producer of Big Brother. “Don’t
forget that when Kennedy announced the
Moon mission he had less time,” Lansdorp,
who has a background in mechanical
engineering, told the Guardian.
Scientists, though, have remained doubtful
that the mission will get beyond the
hypothetical stage, citing its lack of
funding and the lack of a spacecraft or
habitat suitable for supporting life on a
long-term mission.
A recent analysis by a team at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
(MIT) identified crucial flaws with Mars
One’s published plans and predicted that
even if the astronauts got to the surface
unscathed, the first person would suffocate
within 68 days because of a lack of
equipment to balance oxygen levels
effectively.
T’Hooft, of Utrecht University, said he was
concerned by the findings. “I understand
the scepticism very well. People from
outside will say ‘wait a minute, you have to
be careful with what you’re doing and
what you’re claiming’. Maybe there’s a
need to reassess,” he said.
He added that the “proper thing” would be
for Mars One to publish its own analysis to
demonstrate that their own more
favourable projections about life on the
Red Planet were sound.
Despite being sceptical about the details,
t’Hooft said he still supported the project’s
overall goals. “Let them be optimistic and
see how far they get,” he said.
Sydney Do, a graduate student at MIT and
part of a team who tested the feasibility of
the proposals, said they quickly realised
that many of the technologies that were
integral to the plan were not available or
even under development. “There’s no
deep-space habitat in development, there’s
no lander in development,” he said.
The calculations highlight the complexity
of simply trying to balance the gas levels
inside the inflatable capsule in which the
astronauts would reside. The amount of
CO2 exhaled by the astronauts is not
enough to keep the plants alive and if you
manage to pump in enough CO2 from the
outside, the amount of O2 produced by the
crops is too great, creating a fire risk.
The first astronaut would suffocate within
68 days, in the absence of a new machine
capable of selectively pumping oxygen out
of an environment, the MIT study suggests.
The assessment also estimated that an area
of about 200 square metres would be
needed to grow food to support four
people, compared with the 50 square
metres that Mars One estimates would be
needed to feed 12 astronauts.
Do said that Mars One representatives had
treated the findings with a “mix of
defensiveness and condescension”. “They
haven’t provided any concrete dispute
with the findings,” he said. “They’re not
being as transparent as they should be,
especially when human life is at risk
here.”
Lansdorp said the MIT analysis had
included “preposterous decisions” on the
design of the simulation, which had led to
incorrect conclusions. He said these would
be challenged by a new assessment by
Paragon Space Corporation, commissioned
by Mars One. “They’ve been wrapping up
their own study, which will be out in early
March. They called the MIT analysis ‘very
naive’,” he said.
There was potential for delays to the
timeline, said Lansdorp, but added that he
believed a 2024 launch was achievable in
theory. “When we had to put back the
launch date from 2023 to 2024, my co-
founder said ‘great, our first delay. We’re
starting to look like a real space mission’.”