Monday, March 16, 2015

Mars or Bust: Mars One Busted and Other Hopefuls

Knowing that I'm a planetary scientist and a space enthusiast, numerous people have been asking me about Mars over the past couple of weeks. Mars seems to be capturing people's attention and imagination, especially with the NASA Orion and Mars One news lately. People within the industry can't agree about what to make of it all, so the news media simplifies what they pick up and bits and pieces get out into the public conversation. When a marketing friend sent me a text message on Friday with a question from her boss about the group of astronauts going to Mars in five years, I knew I had to write about it.

To set the record straight: astronauts are not going to Mars in the next 5 years. Astronauts are not going to Mars in the next 15 years. I heard a news clip the last week where the anchor stated that it's widely accepted that the generation of our youth will land on Mars. This is not generally accepted nor is it a presumption we can make. I hope that astronauts land on Mars while I'm alive to see it, though nothing is certain.

Robotic probes have been to Mars. We have several active orbiters and rovers on or around the planet right now, collecting data for science. More scientific missions will launch to Mars in the next few years. Whether humans go to Mars depends on human considerations: funding priorities, technological advances, perseverance, and most importantly, political will.

The biggest Mars newsmaker at the moment is Mars One, the European company that wants to send a group of civilians on a one-way trip to the planet and fund the expedition with profits from a reality TV show. In the news lately is the list of 100 candidates who may be selected for the expedition, two of which are from my doctoral alma mater, one of which is a former classmate and lab colleague of mine. I've eaten in his home, met his wife and first child, and visited his church with him; he seems like a perfectly sane and rational person to me.

Making smaller headlines is the news about the MIT study that outlines how these potential astronauts might die very quickly and news that the original reality TV show production company has dropped the idea after they failed to agree on a contract. Others have also reported that they have very little raised in funds, no known hardware built, and contracted engineering studies with reputable companies have not been continued. The chances of them launching an expedition to anywhere other than this planet anytime soon are laughable. The fact that they launched a IndiGoGo crowd-funding campaign a year ago to take money from the wide-eyed and believing public takes the laughter out of me and makes me very wary of their intentions.

Just today, I read an article featuring one of the 100 candidates calling Mars One a scam for encouraging the candidates to donate money to the company and buy merchandise in order to increase their selection rankings. He also reports that the 100 candidates have had no training and were selected based on an initial video and a 10 minute video call. I had been using the phrase, “one step up from a scam,” but I applaud the courageously blunt wording.

I met the CEO of Mars One, Bas Lansdorp, at a conference two years ago. He was a keynote speaker at the the International Space Development Conference in San Diego. I was working as VIP Relations and handled all of the keynote speakers. I ended up having lunch with him and chatting with him even more about his goals and mission. I received standard answers that didn't really address my questions or provide any additional information. My impression even at that time: great skepticism. “Quite honestly, I don't think that it will happen, but I hope that he proves me wrong,” I wrote in my personal journal. My skepticism has only increased.

Buzz Aldrin asking Bas Lansdorp a question. I'm in the red dress on the left.

I had forgotten about this encounter until I refreshed my memory by reading my personal journal. Buzz Aldrin was sitting a few seats from me in the front row of Bas Lansdorp's talk. During the question and answer period, the Apollo astronaut suggested that Mars One could partner with the Golden Spike Company, a private lunar travel company aiming to send astronauts to the Moon. Bas seemed interested in the idea. Using my phone, I immediately sent an email to Golden Spike CEO Alan Stern about it. Alan wrote back immediately, so I talked to Bas about it after his talk and introduced them via email after. All of that happened within a matter of minutes. That is what happens when a millennial is sitting in the front row with the internet at her fingertips!

I have no idea if anything became of that exchange, but I digress. My point is, Mars One's actions over the past two years have only increased my skepticism of their plans. Buzz Aldrin has his own Mars transportation concept which will likely remain a paper project. Dennis Tito's fly-by Inspiration Mars mission with an older married couple seems to also have fizzled and died, or if anything is still being worked on, it's unknown to me. Last I heard, he asked NASA to help fund it, which is laughable because NASA can't even fully fund their own missions.

Which brings me to NASA's Mars ambitions. NASA certainly is serious about exploring the red planet and has sent many precursor robotic missions, but funding and political direction have been lacking and I see no signs that this will change. There was so much publicity surrounding the Orion capsule Exploration Flight Test (EFT-1) launch in December. A close friend of mine was working that mission and I was excited for her. But NASA PR was on overdrive, and not in a good way. Little of what was reported was truthful about the complexities of the mission and the future of NASA's human exploration program.

NASA is a government agency. Simply, the President sets the direction and Congress gives the money. The Presidential Administration and Congress have not been in agreement about NASA's direction since as long as I've been alive. President Obama said, “Let's go to an asteroid!” pretty much because it was something different than what President Bush had said (his direction was Moon-bound). Congress has been fighting him ever since. NASA is hopelessly lost until the Presidential Administration and Congress agree about the intermediate steps. But we all agree that Mars is the ultimate goal, someday, somehow. It certainly won't be in the budget and time frame they propose.

I'm only discussing human missions to Mars here. There are several robotic missions on the red planet operating right now: Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, MAVEN, and an Indian probe called Mars Orbiter Mission. The European Space Agency will launch ExoMars in 2016 and 2018. NASA's Mars 2020 rover is under consideration. NASA and partners have had huge successes in recent years sending robots to Mars. This is a great and crucial first step to human missions.

When I was working on my doctorate in planetary science, I spent the summer of 2012 working with Phil Metzger at Kennedy Space Center. Through my study with him, I learned that humans cannot easily land on Mars without a landing pad. The regolith (dirt) is too light and unstable to withstand blasts from retrorockets, so something as heavy as the Curiosity rover is about the limit that the ground can take. A human-carrying lander would blast a crater so unstable that they wouldn't be able to land. Somehow, we need to send a robot up there to build a landing pad before we land humans. There's also talk of using a robot to autonomously build other infrastructure such as habitats for humans when we land. The technology to do this is in the works but it will take us decades before we figure out how to do it.

I blasted regolith-like granular materials (in this case, beach sand) with jets of gas and watched the crater form.

I took microscope-scaled images of the regolith materials. This one is called JSC-Mars-1.

I do have faith in one man to accomplish what he sets his mind to: Elon Musk. Whether it's PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX, or any of his other ventures, that man gets things done. By modifying one of his Dragon capsules, he thinks that he can land humans on Mars with the help of NASA in a mission called Red Dragon. He is almost always overly optimistic with his schedule, so this won't happen any time soon. He has his own rockets, his own lander, and his own money, though he likely will need NASA's assistance. His goal is to retire on Mars and I hope he gets there. Though I'll have to see it to believe it.

Very little of what I see in the news about humans on Mars is realistic or honest, and that's disheartening. It's one thing to have a serious discussion about whether we as a society are willing to commit to a multi-decade, tens-of-billion or hundreds-of-billion dollar mission to send humans to Mars. It's another thing to give soundbite answers about how we're sending humans to Mars in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years. But the latter claim is what catches headlines and gets people excited.

I want people to get excited about space exploration! I worry that the kind of unrealistic discussion that has been promoted lately will turn people off and reenforce the notion that space exploration is a waste of money. As space advocates, if we're not honest sources of information about the industry, then why should the public and our legislators trust us? Let us further an honest dialog and further humanity's progress in our solar system.


  1. I'm being asked more and more these days by the public about Mars One. I reply, "What's their booster? What's their crew capsule? What's their habitat module? What's their lander? How are they going to feed the crew? How are they paying for all this?"

    They kinda shrug at me. Some will reply, "So it's a scam." I'll just say that perhaps these people are well intentioned, but they seem to have no skill other than selling merchandise.

    1. I'm sure the people you meet get mixed up and think Mars One is a NASA thing. No one can answer those questions, not even the CEO, I don't think.

  2. With regard to your point:
    > When I was working on my doctorate in planetary science, I spent the summer of 2012 working with Phil Metzger at Kennedy Space Center. Through my study with him, I learned that humans cannot easily land on Mars without a landing pad. The regolith (dirt) is too light and unstable to withstand blasts from retrorockets, so something as heavy as the Curiosity rover is about the limit that the ground can take.

    I'm skeptical of such a generalization. The conditions on the surface surely vary enormously; from hard rock, ice, loose soil and other combinations.

    There are a number of possible configurations of rocket nozzles. Perhaps that could mitigate the issue.

    1. Perhaps you're right. I'm not an aerospace engineer myself so I don't know if the design of the nozzle could disseminate the air pressure in such a way not to dig so deeply into the regolith. My guess is that anywhere there we'd want to land humans and it's safe to land humans is where there will be more flat soil and not so rocky.

  3. So what chances did your sane, rational friend think he had at going to Mars via Mars One?

    1. No idea. I don't recall ever having a conversation with him about it more than me wishing him good luck. It's been around two years since I've last seen him, and although he's still local to the area, I can't bring myself to reach out to him to ask without it seeming weird.

  4. "Just today, I read an article featuring one of the 100 candidates calling Mars One a scam for encouraging the candidates to donate money to the company and buy merchandise in order to increase their selection rankings."

    I assume that you are referring to Elmo Keep's article about Dr. Joseph Roche.

    There seems to be some confusion here. All Mars One community members receive "Ambassador Points" based on their financial support of the project, with applicants receiving a minimum of 100 points for paying their initial application fee. When you click the "Meet the Mars 100" button on Mars One's website, you get a multi-page list of the recently selected candidates which, by default, is sorted by how recently the candidates have been active on the site, but it can optionally be sorted by the candidates' name or by their "Ambassador Points".

    The writer of a story which appeared in The Guardian last month mistakenly believed that the points reflected the candidates' status in the selection process, and, after sorting by points, wrote about the "top ten hopefuls".

    Mars One did not make use of Ambassador Points in the selection process. In fact, many of the "Mars 100" have only the minimum 100 points, and only about a third of the group have more points than would be received by paying the initial application fee and buying a Mars One coffee mug. If Mars One really intended to select their candidates based on their financial contributions to the project, they did a poor job of it!


    1. A rebuttal to Elmo Keep's recent article, also on Medium, can be found at:


  5. Hi, nice article, we definitely need more people staying in the right mind and telling everytime we hear "Mars One participants"... that they absolutely won't go to Mars with this firm.
    I wrote my own article on the subject a month ago, and reached the same conclusion: the "selected 100" don't seriously risk anything except bankruptcy. The sole positive thing about Mars One is, in my opinion, the reflexion about planetary colonization, which I find somehow important.

    My own (french, sorry) post about it:

    (you have a nice website overall, since I just discovered it, btw)

    1. Thank you! I have read your article with the help of Google Translate. Very interesting.

      My blog is not even two weeks old so you wouldn't have come across it earlier.

    2. Eric> "the "selected 100" don't seriously risk anything except bankruptcy"


      Some of the candidates might be happy participating in a Mars themed reality TV show for a couple of seasons and then returning to real life, but quite a few are professionals or young PhD students with promising careers ahead of them, and they may soon have to weigh the impact of a break from their jobs or studies against the negligible chance that the project will raise enough funds (probably a good deal more than the initial $6B estimate) to actually fly.

      If Mars One had somehow raised the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to pay for construction of their initial lander and orbiter (still currently scheduled for a 2018 launch), that would have given them a greater degree of credence, but time is running out for that.

      It is possible that Lansdorp might postpone the launch for two years but attempt to proceed with crew selection and initial training, truly believing that the project just needs to prove its popularity in order to secure full funding. Candidates who aren't as certain about the prospect of funding but still feel loyalty to the project will be faced with a difficult decision.


    3. I saw an interview a year or two ago about a young man who broke up with his girlfriend because he was a Mars One candidate who didn't want attachments on Earth. This is a sad tale about the state of mind of some of these candidates who actually believe that they will be leaving Earth behind.

      Now, a Mars-themed reality TV show sounds like an interesting idea and could be done at one of the existing Mars analog sites. You may be on to something.

  6. I think more people would sign up for a trip to see the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and once we select the crew we'll be ready to discuss the in-flight entertainment options and well on our way to doodling ideas for a ship that would get them there. Let's sell tickets.

    Seriously though, for a realistic Mars mission you pretty much need a transfer ship that could support a Jupiter flyby (solar cells vs nuclear power excepted). It needs radiation shielding, at least partial artificial G, and ideally a completely closed life support loop, which probably means crops. If you're going to try and pull off a planetary mission with just a capsule and a glorified ISS module, you're better off shooting for Mercury where the short flight time keeps the trip within accepted zero-G endurance limits and the big hurdle is just getting enough delta-V to get there.

    Anyway, for a look at the landing problem SpaceX could have a grasshopper do a touch-and-go over a Martian soil analog and then return to the pad. If they want to land on Mars they're going to have to do something like that anyway. A crewed Dragon derivative should be quite different because the Super Dracos are mounted outwards at a significant angle, which introduces some large cosine losses but leaves the area directly under the capsule untouched.

    I imagine the problem would get even more interesting if we were trying to land a probe on Triton, where the frozen nitrogen surface would flash, but on the bright side, you might be able to move a Triton rover around with some skate/sled/hovercraft combination. I wouldn't put development in the budget just yet though.

    1. Interesting, I did not know this about SuperDracos! I half thought you made up the name until I Googled it. There are engineering solutions to all of the problems posed. We need to not only discover them, but build and test them, which is the hard part. I'm a fan of using the Moon as our local celestial testbed.