Fly Me to Mars

Posted by Science Explored on November 22, 2013

Early one morning in April 2022, a group of brave, self-selected individuals will launch into space to begin a 210-day journey to the red planet.  Their mission is simple:  establish a permanent human settlement on Mars.  Bas Lansdorp and Arno Wielders, co-founders of Mars One (the organization behind this future Martian colony), are eager to demonstrate that humanity already possess the technology to make a sustainable, thriving habitat on Mars.  Their entrepreneurial work follows in suit with Elon Musk’s SpaceX program, which routinely resupplies the International Space Station.  We are entering an era of privatized space travel where governments are no longer the gatekeepers of the cosmos.  Still, Mars One also carries a more somber yet social mission; concerns of our planet’s health and overpopulation are powerful driving forces for Lansdorp and Wielders.  The Danish duo also sees the mission as an opportunity to unite humanity in much the way the Apollo Moon landings did decades ago.

Mars One HabitatAbove:  artist rendition of what the habitat modules of the Mars One project may look like.  The habitats would be shielded from cosmic rays and solar radiation under several feet of Martian soil.

Mars One’s leadership relates the mission to Mars like that of climbing Mount Everest.  The greatest risk is to human life – Mars is unforgiving and largely unknown.  Great care has been taken to design life support units that will act as homes and laboratories for the initial crew.  The plans call for solar panels to generate electricity, a heating system to melt subsurface ice into potable water and also produce oxygen through electrolysis, and a nitrogen and argon gas extractor that takes these inert (yet necessary for breathing) gases out of the Martian atmosphere.  Replacement parts and equipment will also arrive from Earth periodically, but in a crisis, the colonists will have to rely on their own ingenuity.  Fortunately, by growing their own food using hydroponic racks, the Martian colonists will be able to produce enough food to supply their needs while creating an opportunity to recycle organic waste.  Nonetheless, this is no “glamping” sojourn.  Cosmic rays, solar radiation, Martian weather, equipment failure, and the stresses of living in confined spaces are very real dangers. 

As funders pour in – bear in mind that the bulk of the cost (over 2/3) of the Mars One project is simply in blasting out of Earth’s gravity and landing on Mars – the the project is picking up steam.  Over 100,000 people across the globe have already submitted their names to be part of an intensive training program to select the astronauts for the maiden voyage; some seek adventure while others want to be one of the first people to set foot on the red planet.  What’s the catch?  The trip is a one-way journey.  At this time, it is financially unfeasible and a technological nightmare to pack the Mars One Transit Vehicle with enough fuel and supplies to make a return journey.  Future technology might provide a way to more easily retrieve inhabitants, but, for the time being, these pioneers will live out their lives under a red-orange sky.  Nonethless, the settlement on Mars won’t be lonely for long; a second crew will depart in 2024 to expand the colony.  Did we mention they are still taking applications?