By Cody Fenwick
Photo courtesy of NASA.
Mars One, a non-profit organization dedicated to colonizing our planetary neighbor in the near future, released the list of the 100 final candidates for their first settlement mission last Monday. Comprised of 50 men and 50 women, this group potentially holds the names of the first four people to receive a one-way ticket to Mars.
The proposal may sound ridiculous, fantastical, or even delusional. But is there good reason to think humans can find a home beyond Earth?
BTR reached out to biologist Chris Patil, one of the final candidates for Mars One’s mission, for his take on the feasibility of such plans.
“There are major technical challenges at every step of the process,” Patil says.
The trip itself is no easy feat; the astronauts must endure over six months in a cramped spacecraft until they land.
“Once we’re there, we need to maintain highly efficient life support systems that generate enough air, water, and food for the crew, without interruption and essentially in perpetuity, all powered by solar energy,” Patil explains. “Neither of these things is impossible, but they’re both difficult.”
The team at Mars One is confident in its capabilities. In fact, the website claims, “The science and technology to place humans on Mars exists today.” The team has produced extensive plans for the mission and contacted several firms with whom they can contract to produce everything necessary for spaceflight and colonization.
Still undeveloped, however, is technology that would allow return trips from Mars. For this reason, potential Martian settlers only have the option of a one-way trip, which ought to weed out all but the most devoted.
Many are skeptical of the viability of Mars One’s plan, especially their optimistic 2024 departure date for the first crew. A group of researchers from MIT who studied Mars One’s plans claims to have found many flaws.
One particular worry concerns the production of food on the surface of Mars. Mars One plans to commit 80 square meters of the original habitat to cultivating food crops.
The MIT researchers suggest that the amount of plants necessary to nourish the original colonists would fill the habitat with unsafe levels of oxygen. This issue would require oxygen-removal technology, which has not been developed for spaceflight.
The researchers raise similar worries about the life support technologies rely on in situ (or site specific) resource utilization to produce oxygen, nitrogen, and water. Though the technology is in development, its success and utility is far from certain, and it won’t be tested on Mars until 2020.
Bas Lansdorp, CEO of Mars One, suggests that none of these considerations–or the others the MIT researchers mention–represent serious barriers for the planned colony. However, aside from asserting that current technologies can solve the problem of plants producing excess oxygen, he has failed to provide a substantial rebuttal to the paper from MIT. Instead, Lansdorp merely argues that he and his colleagues do not have time to address all the concerns outside groups might raise about Mars One.
Patil recognizes that caution is warranted.
“I’m a scientist and therefore a trained skeptic, so it gives me pause when the answer to critical questions is, ‘We haven’t finalized those details yet,’” he says. “This is a hugely complicated undertaking, and while I trust the organizers of Mars One, I’ll continue to be reticent until I know 100 percent of the technical details.”
But even the most meticulously planned mission will involve significant risks, particularly from “unknown unknowns”–that is, those potentially problematic factors that one doesn’t even think to consider. In any off-Earth mission, these factors abound, from the long-term effects of low-gravity to the psychological effects of planetary isolation.
“I think the biggest personal challenge,” Patil says, “will be taking four bright, high-functioning people with rich lives on Earth and training them to work together very closely, relying on each other for literally everything, for the rest of their lives.”
Joseph Roche, an assistant professor at Trinity College’s School of Education in Dublin, and also a finalist for the Mars One mission, recently alleged that Mars One is essentially a scam. Roche believes that the selection process was hardly thorough or rigorous enough to find sufficiently skilled candidates, that Mars One’s plan is hopelessly doomed, and that the organization is virtually broke. He worries that when Mars One “inevitably fails,” the public will lose faith in similar projects and institutions.
Other critics of Mars One include NASA’s Dr. Brian Muirhead, Chief Engineer for the Mars Science Laboratory. In 2013, shortly after Mars One went public about its plans, Muirhead said about the program, “That is way beyond our capability to do today.”
Muirhead stressed the difficulty of funding such a massive project. He also mentioned the difficulties faced even now of keeping astronauts alive in the space station, which is much more manageable than a Mars colony would be. Famed astrophysicist and TV presenter Neil deGrasse Tyson expressed similar concerns.
NASA, too, is looking towards Mars for human colonization. Its timeline, however, is more modest than that of Mars One, aiming to arrive on the planet sometime in the 2030s.
Whether any contemporary plan proves a success, it is easy to believe that humans will keep trying. Patil raises many questions that may only find their answers on the alien surface: “What if Mars had once been host to life?… Are we alone in the solar system? Is life vanishingly rare or abundant?”
He assesses, “Mars is the best place to investigate these issues, and I think that is the best reason to send human scientists to the red planet.”
Others, such as Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, argue more pragmatic reasons for colonizing mars. In an interview for Aeon, he said, “I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multiplanetary, in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen…”
Due to global catastrophic threats, such as asteroid impacts or dramatic climatic shifts, a home on Mars might be humanity’s only insurance plan against annihilation.