Why to be Skeptical of Mars One

Dutch company Mars One offers a plan to start colonizing the Red Planet by, ostensibly, 2023 – starting with a “colony” of four and growing the base every year.

Stephen Colbert's take on Mars One

There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical of this plan. Don’t get me wrong: I would love for these guys to succeed, and I think that – with concerted effort – their timeline is achievable. But there are a few technological red flags. Going from what I see as least to most severe:

  1. Mars One gives a rover top billing in their plan, saying that the rover will scout out the best location for the planetary base. The concept of having a robot autonomously assemble a base before humans ever arrive has a great deal of merit; however, a rover is not going to scout out the prime real estate on Mars. I once asked this guy if, since the MSL Curiosity has a much higher power budget than the MER Spirit or Opportunity, it would be able to drive at a higher speed and really cover Martian distance, to get to different science targets. It turns out that, even with more power at its disposal, there are thermal constraints on how fast motors can drive the rover’s wheels. If Mars One sends a rover, it’s not going to be scouting colony locations. It will be going to the colony’s location.
  2. Mars One wants to use the SpaceX Dragon capsule as a Mars lander. I’m a big fan of SpaceX, and I’m sure that they are thrilled that somebody is looking at Dragons as a Mars vehicle. However, one of the things I learned during my time at NASA is that the MSL is about at the upper size limit for things we can land on Mars using current techniques (aerobraking, parachutes, airbags, etc). Dragon is going to take a lot of development to land on the Martian surface. And it’s going to need a lot of fuel to do so.
  3. I’m not sure there’s enough room in their proposed colony for four people plus the equipment necessary to provide food for those four people. I think they need more inflatable greenhouses, at the least. But this is an point about which I’m not the expert.
  4. Mars One claims that no new technology is necessary to achieve their goals. This statement, I have to say, is bogus. They rightly identify in-situ resource utilization as the best way to provide air, water, and food for their colonists. We need to develop the technology to do that. The colonists need to be shielded from radiation while in transit. We know solutions that might work, but we need to develop and implement the technology. Furthermore, the colonists are going to need products that go beyond the most basic: How will they produce any medicines they require? How will they conduct surgeries with such a small staff? How will they maintain their colony? This project will need a very high level of automation and/or telepresence support from Earth – involving technologies that exist only theoretically today.
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