Mars One: Hit for Humanity or Sci Fi Miss?

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Astronomy is a natural science that deals with all that originates outside the atmosphere of the Earth – including our neighbour planet Mars.

Credit: NASA / USGS

In one of humanity’s most boldest initiatives yet, the Mars One project is set to establish a permanent human colony on Mars by the year 2027. The project is led by the Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, who initiated the project back in 2012.

So what is this Mars One project? Most, if not all of us have already heard about this project but if not, here is the lowdown:

Artist’s Conception of Mars Colonization – Credit: NASA Ames Research Centre

  • By the end of this year (2015), from the 100 applicants that were shortlisted to permanently settle on Mars, 40 will be chosen for 7 years of full-time training for the mission
  • Of the 40 chosen, there will be 6-10 teams that will undergo training, with one team selected by an audience based on their overall teamwork and emotional capabilities
  • Lansdorp has projected costs of $6 billion USD for the entire mission
  • Funding was to originally come from a reality-style TV show, but in February of this year talks failed, and instead the mission will be broadcasted as a documentary
  • In 2022, an exploration vehicle will go to Mars to find a suitable settlement area
  • In 2027, the first colonists will arrive – never to return to Earth again. 

There are many more details with regards to the mission, several of which are still undergoing revision by the Mars One team. The hope that a group of humans will successfully colonize Mars begs several questions and has brought upon several criticisms from established scientists and academics all around the world.

I remember having this debate in my astronomy class this year and from what I remember, majority of us were skeptical about the mission and its potential benefits. Lansdorp and his team have stated that the mission will help to further understand the origins of our solar system, of life and of ‘our’ place within this universe. These are definitely great research endeavours which will help us to further understand what life is and what is beyond our planet but there are significant problems and implications associated with this mission.

First – the money. Majority of the investments will be done through the private sector, where investors will be able to buy shares of the Mars One corporation. Other fund sources include crowdfunding, donations and merchandise and from applicants paying a portion for their application process. The last count from the crowdfunding campaign shows that only around $759, 816, or 0.01% of the $6 billion USD budget has been secured. With only a couple of years to go, how will Mars One raise enough money? Several others have also stated that the $6 billion budget is unrealistic – estimates must be a lot higher taking into consideration things like building new technologies, sustaining these technologies and simply sustaining a permanent life on a different planet.

Secondly, another major issue with this trip is the technology and timeline for the mission. We don’t have the existing technology yet to help these colonizers survive on Mars, let alone even get to Mars. Mars One has planned to buy SpaceX spacecraft pods for the Mars mission, but Elon Musk (founder of SpaceX) stated:

“The illustrations that I’ve seen basically has them (Mars One) using a bunch of SpaceX rockets and Dragon spacecraft and I’m like OK, if they want to buy a bunch of Dragons and Falcon land rockets that’s cool, we’ll certainly sell them…But I don’t think they’ve got anywhere near the funding to buy even one, so I think therefore it’s (the mission) unrealistic.”

Credit: Business Insider

With the time closing in even sooner and without nearly enough funds, chances are looking bleak to successfully the launch the mission in time.

There are even greater implications. The mission is to be permanent, meaning there is no return journey. Once these humans colonize the planet, they will never be able to see their loved ones or return again. This brings forth several ethical questions including one of the biggest concerns which are possible pyschological issues. Going into the universe, living on another planet, never to see, hear or smell the sights and sounds of our only home is deeply disturbing. Mars One plans to prevent this by choosing applicants who are mentally and physically healthy and stable – but who’s to say that once they are placed in that physical reality that their mental states won’t change? There is no guarantee that group members will get along with each other. Another point to note is that communication with anyone on Earth will lag by a whole 20 minutes. There will be no real-time communication possible at all.

Furthermore, there is no guarantee that accidents won’t happen on the 6 to 8 month journey to or even on the planet itself. The atmosphere is composed of carbon dioxide, and there is very little research on the biological effects of living on the planet. Not enough research has been conducted to understand the potential effects and best methods to combat issues that could come up. Conditions could change at any moment, and because there are so many unfamiliar aspects of this mission, in my view it is highly unlikely that the mission will follow the outlined timeline.

Even with all the training, I don’t think it will realistically be enough. The mission has so many unknowns, so many missing variables that must be ironed out before it is set forth.

Some may consider my viewpoint to be pessimistic, as some of my astronomy classmates pointed out. Sure – this is a very adventurous plan that may help to further comprehend the mysteries of our universe and potentially allow for human life to successfully expand out into the reaches of space…but the key word is may. There is no guarantee, with too many risks associated. We lack the existing knowledge, technology, money, and psychological capacity to set forth on this mission. With all the political, environmental, medical, and human issues we are currently dealing with, it makes more sense for the funds to be applied towards understanding our own Earth and to help solve problems to maintain and increase longevity on this planet. It will not be surprising for this mission to fail. If, in the future we do build on the capacities to carry on this mission – well, we will hold onto that discussion until it happens. For now, I leave you with a quote by da Vinci himself:

“For once you have tasted flight you will walk the Earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.” – Leonardo da Vinci 

Let us know in the poll and comments section about your thoughts and stance on the Mars One mission and/or general thoughts about astronomy and the universe!

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