Published July 24, 2012
There’s an old joke about sending someone you hate on a one-way trip to Mars. Now, a Dutch entrepreneur has formed a company around this concept -- and it’s no joke.
Bas Lansdorp, the 35-year-old founder of Mars One, told FoxNews.com his company is serious about a one-way mission. The company will hold a worldwide lottery next year to select 40 people for a training team. They will then set up a mock colony in the desert, possibly somewhere in the U.S., for three months. This initial team will be reduced to ten crew members.
They will then be sent to Mars, never again to return.
“We will send humans to Mars in 2023,” he told FoxNews.com. “They will live there the rest of their lives. There will be a habitat waiting for them, and we’ll start sending four people every two years.”
The habitat will consist of several housing structures that Mars One will launch before 2023. In 2016, the company plans to launch the first supply vessel. In 2018, it plans to send a rover.
Lansdorp says his four-person company will coordinate the launches, but it will work with suppliers for the ship and rockets. For example, Mars One might use the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, which is currently being developed as a launch system for larger spacecraft.
To help fund the project, Lansdorp says there could be a reality show based on the selection process and test colony. Paul Römer, the co-founder and executive producer of the show "Big Brother," is an adviser for Mars One. Other advisers include Nobel Prize winner Dr. Gerard 't Hooft and Brian Enke, an analyst at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., who studies space missions.
Even with the complexities of sending a human to Mars, attention has centered on the one-way trip. Those selected won’t come back to Earth, although a return mission to retrieve the explorers might not be out of the question.
“In theory, it is less complex to get people back to Earth once you have a sustainable settlement on Mars,” Lansdorp told FoxNews.com. “However, our astronauts will be offered a one-way trip. We have no idea when it will be possible to offer return tickets.”
Norbert Kraft, a former NASA researcher who studied group psychology for long-term human missions, says the Mars One crew will have to be carefully selected by psychiatrists and prepped to deal with psychological factors like how to collaborate in stressful situations and anticipate problems.
Meanwhile, NASA has maintained that future missions will probably involve robots. That said, in late 2010, a director of NASA's Ames Research Center in California did make an off-hand comment about a DARPA project to send a spaceship with humans on a 100-year mission to Mars.
Buzz Aldrin, the lunar module pilot with Neil Armstrong who landed on the moon, has maintained for years that the only way for humans to reach Mars is to plan a one-way mission.
Still, the Mars One project faces some tough issues. Lansdorp says colonists would have to grow plants using a chemical process called hydroponics, which does not use soil. The spaceship design will have to be large enough to accommodate passengers and the fuel needed to reach the Red Planet, which is about 34 million miles from Earth at the closest launch point and orbital position. And, if there are any delays in developing the rockets or technology needed for the trip, Mars One would suffer.
Enke says scientists have learned more about the Martian climate and geography in recent years. He says scientists view a trip to Mars as safer and more affordable now than in the past. Missions that involve only robots will not capture the public’s attention as much as a human mission.
“Over those next ten years, NASA has planned a series of highly complex robotic missions to return a small sample of Martian regolith back to Earth. The cost of these missions will easily exceed $5 billion. When judged in terms of cost-benefit ratio or chances of mission success, these uber-expensive and risky robotic missions now have a hard time competing with simplified human missions,” says Enke.
Enke and Lansdorp both argued that a human can explore in a way a robot can’t. There’s a six-minute delay between communications from Earth to the robot, so the robots would need to be highly autonomous and pre-programmed. Yet, a human can make decisions and judgments as needed.
Enke, who prefers the term “extended stay” mission, says round-trip missions are much more complex because of the need for a contingency return trip. The mission to Mars, he says, removes 90 percent of the uncertainty. “Most of the complexity in short-stay missions involves creating fuel for the return trip, landing and launching an ascent vehicle for the return, orbital rendezvous, or returning to Earth.”
Still, Lansdorp has not quite announced how the Mars One lottery will work. The selection process will start next year, he says. Unfortunately, you can’t make any suggestions.