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Sunday 22 March 2015

Three difficult things that are easier than Mars One

Mars One, the reality TV initiative aimed at setting up a Martian colony twelve years from now, has been in the news again. Much of this recent publicity has been extremely negative, with scathing criticisms from various members of the scientific and aerospace establishments. For a project that needs a strong public image to secure investment, this kind of negativity is extremely damaging. In fact it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the project ends up collapsing, its supporters will no doubt blame the negativity of the skeptics, while the skeptics themselves will gleefully say “I told you so”.

Personally I never like being negative about other people’s bright ideas, but in the case of Mars One it’s hard not to be. The flaw lies not so much in their proposed solution, as in the problem they’ve chosen to solve. Getting humans to Mars is still beyond the capabilities of much more experienced organizations, such as NASA, Roscosmos and ESA, who have had far longer to think about it (the illustration above is from a study NASA did in 1964, over 50 years ago).

Rather than rehashing all the arguments for and against, I thought it would be fun to list three things that have never been done, but any one of which would still be a lot easier than setting up a human colony on Mars. Each of my three projects involves solving just a small subset of the problems facing Mars One, instead of having to solve all those problems simultaneously (and others as well).
  1. Set up a human colony on the floor of the ocean. This is just as inhospitable to human life as the surface of Mars, so you need to address all the same problems of a safe, self-contained living environment. But the destination is a lot closer, so it’s easier to get material down there. We also know for a fact that there’s enough water, oxygen and food nutrients to sustain the colonists indefinitely (with suitable processing) – something that has to be taken on faith in the case of Mars One. The deep-sea environment is more interesting than Mars, too, teeming with unfamiliar life-forms that would make much better TV than the virtually dead world of Mars. Finally, a trip to the ocean floor doesn’t have to be a one-way one, so the colonists wouldn’t be doomed to die if and when the TV show was cancelled.
  2. Establish a permanent base on the Moon. Technologically, this is easy – it’s basically the same as building the ISS, but a quarter of a million miles away instead of in low earth orbit. A quarter of a million miles may sound a long way, but the journey is more than a thousand times shorter than the Hohmann transfer orbit to Mars. On top of that, there are several opportunities to launch lunar missions every month, whereas Mars missions are limited to brief launch windows every two years. Even more importantly, the low lunar surface gravity means that getting people back to Earth is nothing like as difficult as it is from Mars. So rather than having to set up a permanent colony, you can rotate crews the same way they do with the ISS. In terms of reality TV this is great news, because it means you could run monthly competitions where the prize is a trip to the Moon. Lots of people willingly pay large sums of money each week to play the lottery, and I’ll bet many of them would do the same for a chance to visit the Moon (and appear on TV into the bargain).
  3. Send low-budget robot probes to Mars with a better than 95% success rate. That’s the kind of reliability that would be needed for crewed missions, but it’s only ever been achieved for top-of-the-range spacecraft like the Curiosity Rover – not the sort of budget hardware that a private venture like Mars One will have to use. As a general rule, Mars missions have a depressing tendency to fail – the overall success rate is just 47%. Unlike the previous two items, I’m not suggesting this one would make a good reality TV show. Quite the opposite, in fact – it’s all about rocket science, which is virtually guaranteed to have viewers switching to another channel. But that’s an important point in itself. While there’s plenty of human interest involved in setting up a Martian colony, there’s a lot of boring science and engineering too – and it’s the science and engineering that’s going to end up eating up all the money. It would be a lot smarter, in my opinion, to pick something like the ocean floor or lunar project, which offers the same level of human interest with far fewer technical challenges.


Anonymous said...

There's one important thing about setting up a base on Mars or the moon that a lot of people don't understand which is that neither of them has a magnetic field to protect the surface from the Sun's ultra-violet radiation. If the Earth had no magnetic field life here would have been impossible. And why exactly would anybody want to live on Mars ? The only justification for going there would be to extract its' natural elements and minerals. In other words after we'd stripped Earth we'd go to Mars and strip that too. I predict that nobody will ever set foot on Mars, in the coming couple of centuries Mankind will be too overwhelmed by the catastrophic fallout from climate change, overpopulation and environmental destruction to worry about Mars.

Andrew May said...

Your first point is close enough, Colin! Actually it's the upper layers of the Earth's atmosphere that protect us from UV radiation, while the magnetic field protects us from electrically charged particles. But that's a technical quibble! The basic point that the Earth offers natural protection for human life that wouldn't be there on Mars or the Moon is absolutely right. That doesn't mean there aren't other, artificial, ways to protect from high energy radiation, but it just adds to the technical problems that have to be surmounted.

When you talk about reasons for going to the planets, there are actually two questions - why should we send robot vehicles, and why should we send humans? There are several good arguments for sending robots (mainly scientific research and mineral extraction, as you suggest)... but no really good reasons for sending people. As well as the radiation issue you've already mentioned, there are at least two other big problems that affect humans but not robots. One is life support - a journey to Mars may take a couple of years, and people will need air, water, food and medical support to last that long. The second problem is getting the crew back home. Lifting off from the Moon was easy, because the escape velocity is so low, but that's not the case with Mars. So as well as sending the crew and all their food and water all the way to Mars, you also have to send enough rocket fuel to get them home again!

Ross said...

Human colonization of the oceans seems to be an under-exploited idea in science fiction. Of course, there have been SF works in this vein, but not that many. Maybe you can do a RETRO-FORTEANA piece on such works. They're "retro" enough at this point, since contemporary SF writers tend to leave the idea unexplored.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Ross, that's an excellent idea - I'll look into it!