Astronaut Julie Payette poured cold water on the hopes of potential Mars astronauts, speaking to a gathering on Wednesday at the International Civil Aviation Organization’s headquarters in Montreal. “Nobody is going anywhere in 10 years,” she said.
Payette has been to space twice, in 1999 and 2009, and is now chief operating officer at the Montreal Science Centre.
Aside from calling into question our capacity for actually getting to Mars at all, Payette took a swipe at Mars One, a Dutch project that has signed up a significant, if unclear, number of people willing to take the journey and establish a foothold on the Red Planet within 10 years.
“We don’t have the technology to go to Mars, with everything we know today, so I don’t think that a marketing company and a TV-type of selection is sending anybody anywhere,” she said, adding, “So if you meet any of those people, don’t tell them they’re courageous, because the only courage they had was to sign up on a website.”
For the better part of a year, Mars One had the benefit of the doubt from the world’s media, getting good exposure owing to the stories of willing participants who would do what it took to be first inhabitants of a permanent base on Mars.
Stating that its ambition was to establish a colony on Mars by 2025 at a mission cost of $6 billion, Mars One still has six Canadians remaining among a long list of 100 applicants still in the running.
But recent claims, from both logistical and ethical standpoints, have called into doubt whether Mars One ever intended to get off the ground.
American Mars hopefuls paid a $38 admission fee, while Mexicans paid $15. The fee is adjusted according to each nation’s GDP.
The Mars One organization has three paid employees, including CEO Bas Lansdorp.
Mars One claims to have had 200,000 applicants for the Mars mission. This number hasn’t been verified, though it has been repeated widely as fact.
For three paid staff to wade through 200,000 applications for a credible space mission and still run the marketing and fundraising end of their business, not to mention the pesky unresolved details around scientific hardware, stretches belief a little thin.
Mars One’s chief medical officer told the Guardian that he was processing 80,000 applications. NBC news estimated total applications to Mars One at 2,782 after counting video essays that candidates were required to upload.
Set your watch. Class action lawsuit to reclaim those applications fees lifting off in 10, 9, 8…
“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.” – Chris Hadfield
Melissa Ede, one of 23 U.K. applicants, had to organize her own medical evaluation which she paid for out of pocket. Ede told Newsweek that she has yet to meet a representative from Mars One and that her next interview will be via Skype.
In a “tips for candidates” document distributed in February, Mars One instructed applicants, “We do kindly ask for you to donate 75 per cent of your profit to Mars One,” referring to any speaker fees or media appearances that the Mars hopefuls might squeeze out of the public interest associated with the mission.
One clue that Mars One is less than savory might have come from the fact that their revenue source outside of “crowd-funding”, advertising revenue and “private investors” was that the whole thing would be wrapped up in a reality show.
That’ll be fun, watching four people die on live television, after we’ve seen them flying through space for almost a year, arguing with each other while the producers back on Earth invent phony personal dramas to help improve ratings and keep the show interesting.
This is after, of course, the 10-year “training camp” that will all be filmed and broadcast in the run-up to lift-off. Riveting television, for the ethically challenged.
Mars One estimates that they’ll be able to sell TV rights for $8 billion. This figure, even if it were hinged in any kind of reality, is probably more untenable than the mission itself.
The Mars One IndieGogo campaign raised $313,744 of its $400,000 target. Again, not a bad haul for something that will never happen. And not a bad cut for IndieGogo, at 9% for a failed campaign.
Hearing Mars One describe it, at least on their website, skepticism about the mission speaks to a lack of imagination or willingness to take risk.
But it’s right to be skeptical of a mission that is so clearly an attempt to goose public optimism for marketing and PR purposes, playing on the hopes and insecurities of people who want nothing more than to believe in a great cause, or, to put it less charitably, to become famous.
The Mars One mission is not a JFK moment for humanity. JFK had NASA at his disposal, and the Cold War to fuel a competitive mission to beat the Soviet Union to the moon.
We’re going because we want to be famous.
Let’s turn to the grown-ups now, like Julie Payette and a few other people who are actually in a position to know what they’re talking about, for a little perspective.
Chris Hadfield cautioned, in an interview for a Medium article regarding Mars One, “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.”
If there’s a person alive who knows anything about the physical human limits of space travel, it’s Chris Hadfield, who has spent a total of 166 days in orbit on three separate missions. He was incapable of standing up in a shower after he returned to Earth, so great is the toll of space travel.
The record holder for time in space is Valery Polyakov, who spent 437 days on the MIR space station in the 1990s. He exercised two hours a day, just to mitigate the physical deterioration and bone density loss that happens in zero gravity.
Another cosmonaut, Valentin Lebedev, lost his eyesight to cataracts provoked by elevated radiation levels during his 211 days in orbit in 1982.
It will apparently take between seven and nine months to get to Mars, and then the Martian colonists will be living at 38% Earth’s gravity, permanently.
If the four Mars One colonists arrive alive and manage to set up a camp, they’ll have a two-year wait until the next four astronauts arrive. They’ll need food and water, with no Martian water that we know of yet.
Last autumn, four MIT students presented “An Independent Assessment of the Feasibility of the Mars One Mission Plan” at the International Astronautical Congress in Toronto.
In their detailed analysis of what would actually be required to set up a rudimentary method of growing food on Mars, the students called into doubt the practical reality of Mars One’s numbers. Their more likely scenario is that the astronauts would asphyxiate in the process of attempting to grow the food.
Given that it cost $2.74 billion to send the Curiosity Rover, a space laboratory the size of a hatchback, it seems dubious at best to claim to be able to send a manned spacecraft to Mars 10 years from now for only twice that budget.
On the Mars One website, the technological specifications about the trip specify the use of third-party private operators. “Mars One anticipates using Space X Falcon Heavy, an upgraded version of the Falcon 9, which is in use by Space X 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 is the same Falcon 9 rocket that blew up in the skies over Texas last August. That represents a setback for Elon Musk, but he’s likely to try again after they work out the kinks. SpaceX, however, has no ongoing contracts with Mars One and has denied involvement.
Elon Musk has talked about how cool it would be to die on Mars. “SpaceX is only 12 years old now,” he said to Aeon in September. “Between now and 2040, the company’s lifespan will have tripled. If we have linear improvement in technology, as opposed to logarithmic, then we should have a significant base on Mars, perhaps with thousands or tens of thousands of people.”
Given his successes with Tesla and, barring the occasional explosion, SpaceX, you’d think if anyone outside of NASA could get us there, it would be Musk. But he has a fairly realistic grasp of the challenges.
“Excluding organic growth, if you could take 100 people at a time, you would need 10,000 trips to get to a million people,” he said. “But you would also need a lot of cargo to support those people. In fact, your cargo to person ratio is going to be quite high. It would probably be 10 cargo trips for every human trip, so more like 100,000 trips. And we’re talking 100,000 trips of a giant spaceship.”
Musk’s credibility is also helped by the fact that he is not motivated by the need to create a reality TV show to help fund the mission.
“We don’t have the technology to go to Mars, with everything we know today, so I don’t think that a marketing company and a TV-type of selection is sending anybody anywhere.” – Julie Payette
Gerard ‘t Hooft, a theoretical physicist at Utrecht University, Nobel laureate and early supporter of Mars One, told the Guardian in February, “When they first asked me to be involved I told them ‘you have to put a zero after everything’, implying that a launch date 100 years from now with a budget of tens of billions of dollars would be an achievable goal, adding, ‘People don’t want something 100 years from now.'”
Yes, Mars is in our future, most likely, but as Julie Payette put it none too gently, “nobody is going anywhere in 10 years.”
We haven’t been back to the moon since 1972. How can we talk about going to Mars when we don’t even have a base on the moon yet?
As Chris Hadfield points out, the moon is where we need to test the possibility of life on another “planet” before we can even think about repeating the process on 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?”
What’s clear at this point is that the brains behind Mars One are not the people who are going to “figure all that out”. They can’t even run an IndieGogo campaign.
“It’s not a race, it’s not an entertainment event,” continues Hadfield. “We didn’t explore the world to entertain other people. We did it as a natural extension of human curiosity and matching capability. And that’s what will continue to drive us.”
On Halloween in 1938, Orson Welles broadcast an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, presenting a Martian invasion as if it were a news broadcast interrupting a program of light music. Panic ensued. For all anyone knew at the time, the black lines visible on Mars from Earth were the roadways or canals of a great civilization. We didn’t know anything about Mars.
FCC Chairman Frank P. McNinch launched an investigation into the broadcast, saying, “The widespread public reaction to this broadcast, as indicated by the press, is another demonstration of the power and force of radio and points out again the serious public responsibility of those who are licensed to operate the station.”
Mars One has, for the past couple years, had a pretty good ride out of the media. It’s an inspiring story, going to Mars. People want to believe, and doubters can be dismissed on the basis that they’re just not dreaming hard enough.
Mars One CEO Bas Lansdorp seems to have already resigned himself to being a footnote in history, saying, “Even if we don’t make it, I’m sure we will inspire other people who can.”
Have you ever felt inspired by a reality show? Or have you generally felt afterwards like something had been taken away from you?
Probably the best outcome from the Mars One fiasco is that we as a species will have to face up to the reality that space travel is difficult and expensive and probably can’t be accomplished through crowd-funding or the extraterrestrial equivalent of Uber.
Maybe we’ll have to learn to accept that the planet we evolved to be alive on is Earth and to finally begin treating it well enough to keep us alive into the indefinite future, instead of blowing it off for the first inhospitable rock that catches our eye now that we’re so bored with Earth.
In the meantime, enjoy this trailer from Brian De Palma’s film Mission to Mars. It’s as close as you’re ever going to get.