Spaceflight Insider

OPINION: Mars One should take MIT’s disturbing report seriously

Artist's conception of the Mars One colony. Image Credit: Mars One / Brian Versteeg

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.”

To date, no commercial spacecraft has sent crews to sub-orbit or orbit - let alone to another world. Image Credit SpaceX

To date, no commercial spacecraft has sent crews to sub-orbit or orbit – let alone to another world. Image Credit SpaceX

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.”

Bas Lansdorp, CEO of Mars One. Photo Credit: Mars One

Bas Lansdorp, CEO of Mars One. Photo Credit: Mars One

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 “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.

The Martian surface as seen by the Curiosity rover. Will this landscape be the home of a thriving colony...or a graveyard for a failed and foolhardy expedition? Photo Credit: NASA

The Martian surface as seen by the Curiosity rover. Will this landscape be the home of a thriving colony…or a graveyard for a failed and foolhardy expedition? Photo Credit: NASA

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.”

Astronaut Chris Hadfield weighed in on the feasibility of going to Mars now. Photo Credit: NASA

Astronaut Chris Hadfield weighed in on the feasibility of going to Mars now. Photo Credit: NASA

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

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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.

Reader Comments

This report is like what they said about the Wright Brothers can’t fly won’t work. From what I understand about SpaceX is they consider themselves as the transportation service. It will take others as smart as these MIT students to come up with a workable habitat system. If there is a will, there is a way…

This differs drastically from what they Wright Brothers accomplished–they made a series of technical advances within a self-sustaining ecology (and economy). Mars One proposes an entire new ecology, something we do not yet know how to create. Things like 3-D printing will help greatly for spare parts that are small and largely homogeneous and and an Eric Drexler-like nanotechnology can do wonders, but we aren’t there yet. We aren’t even close.

Building an ecology requires large amounts of highly diverse elements. In terms of colonizing Mars, this means everything from the semiconductor manufacturing lines required to create the LEDs to heavy machinery to haul those habitats around and to dig deeply enough to get the requisite radiation shielding.

Sitting in your living room, look around you and see just how many different kinds of things are present. Don’t forget to see the paint on the wall, the multiple different kinds of plastics, and the wood framing on that holds it all up. The functions provided by all of these things are required to live on Mars. Throw in the need to mine for, and transport, your water and the uncertainties due to the effects of lowered gravity on infant and child development. Lastly, throw in the number of people you need to have to obtain the skills to produce all of this.

Settling Mars will be *hard*. I do happen to think it will also be necessary; we’re in deep trouble if we stay on one planet. So, let’s dig into this problem and solve it. Make doing or supporting it one of your life goals. Contact your elected officials. Get a job at SpaceX, Boeing, or one of the growing number of companies that make up the space economy. Don’t be oblivious about how hard it will be–be excited!

Mars one is the same as the x prize idea keep trying until the goal is reached.The only part mars one achieved are the willing travelers. They have to raise the money and hope the technology has evolved to get them there and sustain them.At the very least they have got people thinking about the possibility.

I think the wright brothers is a good example of the Mars One mission. For one, the MIT report does not conflict with that. Because when the Write brothers demonstrated the airplane, the passenger ended up dead.

So it all boils down to how many sacrifices you are willing to make. Though I will point out that they are volunteers so they can take any risks they wish.

Personally, I think they are better off waiting a few years on their deadlines. To limit risks.

Such possibilities would be instead of just using SpaceX as a taxi. Try working within SpaceX’s plan to get to mars as there would be a larger budget to work with.

It sounds a lot like Mars One wants to be the first ones to mars rather than anything else though.

The analogy that works for me is early English charter companies sending settlers to the Americas. Private companies w/state support, they had to raise money from investors, find settlers, provision, transport and navigate to a hostile environment where their expectations were wildly incorrect and their technologies unsuitable. They were months away from re-supply, communication impossible, the environment incredibly hostile and unforgiving. The few early colonial survived arguably only because of assistance from friendly native – which Mars (probably 🙂 ) lacks.

The first Martian colonists are most likely to earn with their lives the lessons we will need for long term success.

I propose we name the first settlement “Roanake” or “New Albion” or…. you get the idea

Colonists immediately became land owners. This allowed them to use it as collateral, write it up as an asset, lease, rent or sell any portion and had mineral, water and forestry and game rights. I do not believe it will be quite the same for Mars. No land titles or rights of property.

Or “Croatoan”, for those who like semi-obscure unresolved references.

Gregory L. Mitchell

This really seems like “STAR TREK” revisited.Someone tried to compare this to the Wright Bros.@ Kitty Hawk.Their aircraft only flew a bit over 100 yds.AND no more than 75ft.over ground!!Some difference between Kitty Hawk and this venture.All right you say they will be volunteers so this sheds a different light on it.#1 will we gain enough knowledge from this to offset the cost.#2 who will pay for this costly trip?Certainly not the taxpayer who has been strapped enough already!Astronaut Chris Hadfield who has been trained and spent time on the ISS should be consulted and listened too,before any cock-amamy project such as this should be undertaken!! Respectfully,Gregory L.Mitchell,Caldwell,N.J.

My analogy of the Wright Bros. was referring to the comment can not be done with the current drawn up plan. I did not know they even had a plan yet. It is still ten years off when SpaceX will have something that will even get us there. I think Elon Musk was making these statements of go to Mars to instill a desire for this type of an endeavor. So there is plenty of time to come up with the ideas for a complex living structures for that planet.

We need the big companies like as an example; Walmart, Home Depot, Entertainment Industries, Food Industries, Bottled Water Companies, Heavy Equipment Companies, Construction Companies, etc. to donate money and resources to this project. Then you will need an organization to direct this complex endeavor.

What we need to actually make this happen is more than what Star Trek can possibly depict in their movies.

Well you know what Canada? We don’t want China on Mars first because they could block us from ever space-faring, limit extra-terrestrial property, even hold earth hostage.

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