OPINION: Mars One should take MIT’s disturbing report seriously
On May 11, 2014, Spaceflight Insider discussed Mars One, an ambitious plan to send a one-way mission to colonize the Red Planet. Four volunteers will travel on the first mission, slated to take place in 2024, followed by subsequent missions to expand the fledgling colony. But a disturbing computer simulation by students at MIT indicates that the Mars One plan is a doomed venture before it even gets off the ground. The study, by MIT students Sydney Do, Koki Ho, Samuel Schreiner, Andrew Owens, and Olivier de Weck was presented to the 65th International Astronautical Congress in Toronto. It points up potentially deadly flaws in the Mars One mission architecture as it is currently designed. These problems the effort could lead to the crew facing starvation, suffocation, and even incineration. Do, a doctoral student in aeronautics and astronautics, said in an e-mail to The Huffington Post: “We found many problem areas, many of which revolve around the current capability of state-of-the-art technologies. These problems in turn impact the long-term sustainability of the Mars One Plan.”
De Weck, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems, said, “We’re not saying, black and white, Mars One is infeasible, but we do think it’s not really feasible under the assumptions they’ve made. We’re pointing to technologies that could be helpful to invest in with high priority, to move them along the feasibility path.”
In its current form, Mars One would rely on food from locally grown crops. The MIT simulation showed oxygen content would rise to the point that it becomes a fire hazard. As designed, any excess gas would be automatically vented, but then the colony would run out of nitrogen, which would make it impossible to maintain enough atmospheric pressure for the colonists to survive. Further, the technology to bake water out of the Martian soil is not yet ready to fly on an actual mission.
Mars One plans to use Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX )Dragon capsules for the habitats, but the MIT report points out that the Dragon 8 capsule is much smaller than Mars One’s plan for a 5-meter Dragon 9, and: “…there has been no announcement from SpaceX regarding the development of a scaled-up version.”
Given that the crew-rated version of the Dragon spacecraft has never flown to orbit, let alone supported any crew whatsoever – is more cause for concern. The Mars One initiative – is dependent on a configuration of a spacecraft that has yet to prove its crewed capabilities.
But the most important finding, according to Do, is that the cost of delivering spare parts to the colony would be prohibitive.
“Bringing food along would remove any issues with crop-derived excess oxygen consumption, and any risks with sub-optimal growth yields and crop failure,” Do said. “On Mars, you need lighting and watering systems, and for lighting, we found it requires 875 LED systems, which fail over time. So you need to provide spare parts for that, making the initial system heavier.”
The study’s report states: “In general, technology development will have to focus on improving the reliability of ECLS (Environmental Control and Life Support) systems, the TRL (Technology Readiness Level) of ISRU (In-Situ Resource Utilization) systems, and either the capability of Mars in-situ manufacturing and/or the cost of launch. Improving these factors will help to dramatically reduce the mass and cost of Mars settlement architectures.”
For his part, Bas Lansdorp, the CEO of Mars One, stands by his mission architecture.
“The mission design has been discussed with engineering teams from aerospace companies like Paragon Space Development and Lockheed Martin,” he said in an e-mail to Space.com. “These engineers have actually been building these systems, and each team we talked to is leading in the world. Our current mission design is the result of our own studies and their feedback, and we are very confident that our budgets, timelines and requirements are feasible.”
“While we disagree with their conclusions on oxygen,” Lansdorp said in another e-mail, this one to The Huffington Post. “…we do agree with them that it is important to assess the spare part strategy of the outpost very carefully. This is something that Mars One will assess very carefully in the eight years that our teams train in a copy of the Mars outpost here on Earth.”
Oddly, Lansdorp told The Huffington Post that the students took Mars One’s planning documents “a bit too literally.”
Engineers do tend to take things literally, and one would think that the planning of something as ambitious and dangerous as the first Mars colony would be literal. But one of the problems the students had in assessing Mars One’s plans was the lack of specific information.
Their report states, “Unofficial sources have stated that the Mars One habitat will be based on a 5 meter diameter, 25m3 variant of the SpaceX Dragon capsule. The current Dragon 9 capsule has a diameter of 3.6 meters and a pressurized volume of 11m3 and there has been no announcement from SpaceX regarding the development of a scaled-up version.”
It is a bit strange that they had to base any part of their study on “unofficial sources.” After reviewing a number of technologies which are either unspecified or not yet fully developed and rated for spaceflight, the report stated, “As a result of the lack of relevant data and operational experience, several assumptions have had to be made to analyse the Mars One mission plan. These have been made based on extrapolations of the current state of the art, and on the fundamental design philosophies discussed earlier.”
Lansdorp’s reaction to the report sounded a bit defensive. Perhaps Mars One is not as well thought-out as it needs to be. Perhaps it’s aiming too far, too soon.
On Oct. 17, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who garnered widespread fame for his videos and tweets from the International Space Station, told The Daily Mail that we should return to the Moon—perhaps for generations—before sending humans to Mars.
Although he was not talking specifically about Mars One, his personal—and fairly recent—experience in space speaks loudly to those whose understandable desire to reach for Mars may be overshadowing their judgment of what is currently achievable.
“The next logical destination? It’s obviously the Moon as it’s just three days away,” Hadfield said. “If there’s a mistake we can turn around and come back. …There’s sort of a public appetite for going to Mars right now in a big hurry, but there’s no tech to make it safe enough and affordable.”
Hadfield’s words sound like they came directly from the MIT report. He knows firsthand the dangers as well as the thrills of spaceflight.
However, Lansdorp is confident he can overcome the challenges outlined by MIT, and since the Mars One project is all-volunteer, there’s no reason not to wish them success.
Let’s just hope they’re considering all the difficulties that they may encounter. When dedicated to a goal, it’s easy to overlook or minimize problems. In this new era of space exploration, the recent successes of private companies have emboldened groups to reach for ever-loftier goals. However, as these firms and organizations run the risk of overreaching – and in the case of space exploration – such mistakes can be deadly. To put it another way, Lansdorp needs to avoid “go fever.”
The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not, necessarily reflect those of SpaceFlight Insider
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.