The Mars One Project

In 2011, the Mars One project was launched. Founded by the Dutch engineer Bas Lansdorp, its ambition is to establish a permanent human colony on Mars by the early 2030s using existing techniques and components. One of the founder’s promises is to carry out the mission for six billion dollars. Quite intriguing isn’t it?

Although a mission to Mars has fallen somewhat into the background, Mars has always been an irresistible attraction. The red planet seems to us to be both within reach and at the same time out of reach. Within reach because there seems to be a new breath animating the conquest of space. Out of reach because there is still a significant amount of technological and human challenges to overcome.

The Mars One project

One of the features of this plan is the selection of future astronauts from civil society. Basically, anyone over 18 and in good health can participate in the selection process. This is why more than 200.000 candidates applied between 2013 and 2015. Of course the candidates had to pass numerous aptitude tests afterwards, both physical and mental. Such a mission is not without its share of mental difficulties and the organizers had to carefully choose the people who would be best suited to lead a human mission to Mars. Hence Mars One established five key characteristics an astronaut must have: resiliency, adaptability, curiosity, ability to trust and creativity. Those are of course general criteria and there are many qualifications to meet.

The training of the Mars One’s selected candidates should have started in 2017. A major part of the training, as organized by the project, consists of training the future astronauts to endure the best possible the long period of time they will have to face and during which they would only remain among themselves, with no one else to rely on. Consequently they’ll be sequestered in a remote location, in a place resembling Martian landscapes, and learning to repair components of the habitat and the order, training to perform medical procedures and learning to grow food.

There are many challenges to overcome before seeing a man for the first time on Mars. The mission roadmap extends over fifteen years and includes several preliminary stage before the launch of the astronauts. It includes the launch of communications satellite in 2024, the launch of a rover and a second communications satellite in 2026, the launch of six cargo missions in 2029, all of this to arrive at the launch of the first human crew bound for Mars in 2031.

Mars One’s funding model is based on four main poles: donations, intellectual property rights on the hardware created by Mars One’s suppliers, merchandise and broadcasting rights. However, the main source of funding will mainly be the broadcasting of a permanent reality TV program. The progress of the crew’s training and then the mission to Mars will be shared and broadcast via a documentary series and via the Internet.

An interesting point of the project is its estimated low cost: the estimation to bring the first four people to Mars is no more than six billion dollars. In comparison studies that have calculated the cost of sending men to Mars estimated it at around 200 billion American dollars.

How to explain such a low cost? According to Mars One, one of the reasons missions to Mars are so expensive, if it were to be organized by NASA for exemple, is because they include the cost of returning to Earth. And precisely one of the main characteristics of this project is that it is a one-way ticket to Mars. Thus the weight of the material, provisions and fuel to be sent will be significantly lower, especially since the future colonists will have to be autonomous. For instance, they’ll have to grow their own food. The purpose of the colony is to establish a self-sufficient base on Mars.

Why has the project failed?

However this project is too ambitious for such a short period of time. The project that received wide media coverage. Indeed someone launching a detailed program to go to Mars, funded by a reality TV program, does not happen very often. Yet it quickly lost its credibility when we started to take a closer look at it due to two major issues.

First: technical reasons. A trip to Mars, and even more when it aims to establish a human colony there, requires the use of several technologies, some of which are not yet mastered. For instance, we do not yet have an operational technique for landing a ship over one ton. In comparison, the empty weight of Space X’s Dragon capsule is 4.2 tons. However, a trip of such magnitude necessarily requires a more comfortable vessel than a capsule in order to support the duration of the trip, requires a quantity of provisions and equipment, etc. Several techniques are under study but none has really reached maturity yet. Another example is the production of fuel and oxygen on site to avoid having to bring everything. These production systems are still only at the experimental stage. We see the same problem with the autonomous on site food production systems.

Then we have the human reasons. The psychological impact that space travel has had on astronauts is not without significance. It has been shown that astronauts, who have been trained for this purpose for years and who have already made flights, were mentally and physically affected by these long journeys. It can be argued without a doubt that the Mars One project will cause a trying psychological situation that has never been experienced before. Indeed, communications with Earth will not be instantaneous, astronauts will quickly no longer have visuals on Earth, they will no longer be able to depend on Earth and no repatriation will be possible. The stress generated will be enormous, especially since no return to Earth is planned.

On top of that we do not know the long-term effects of a prolonged trip outside the protective atmosphere of the Earth, especially in terms of radiation for example.

Five students of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology made a serious report on the Mars One project and came to the conclusion that the astronauts would die 68 days after the landing. Not really optimistic.

The project launched by Bas Lansdorp seems to be currently at a standstill, mainly due to a lack of funding. Indeed the start-up had been divided into two companies: Mars One Foundation, which is non profit and Mars One Ventures, which for profit. The latter was bought in 2016 by Swiss financiers, InFin Innovative Finance AG, but unfortunately it went bankrupt.

Unless the project receives sufficient funding, it seems to end for good. However, the project of a mission to Mars seems to be the goal of several projects and it is reasonable to expect such a mission within a few decades.