Five South Africans have their hearts set on being among the 24 people selected to embark on a one-way mission to Mars.
But these big aspirations come with even bigger costs and the time to raise the required funds is running out.
The Mars One mission, an initiative spearheaded by the Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, has one goal: to establish a permanent human settlement on the Red Planet.
The landing of the first settlers is scheduled to happen in 2027 but its critics say this doesn’t allow enough time for vital technology gaps to be bridged. Equally important are the vast funding gaps to be overcome.
But the announcement of the Mars One mission has lit a fire under the United States government’s space agency Nasa, whichhas sinceannounced the timelines for its own manned mission.
The planet will be difficult to access, and it is estimated that it will take seven months to get there. It has almost no atmosphere, the air is not breathable, average temperatures are -50°C and violent dust storms are common. There is some evidence of water although scientists are not sure of this.
But supporters of the project say that Mars remains the only other planet in the solar system that has a chance of supporting human life.
Mars One has already whittled down applicants for the mission to 100 – known as the Mars 100 – five of whom are South Africans seeking to have their names go down in history.
“A one-way nature simplifies the mission,” says a quantum biology researcher, Adriana Marais. As one of the Mars 100, she says her family has been supportive of her endeavour. Her father is even writing a science fiction novel about the landing of a female protagonist, based on Marais’s venture, on a far-off planet.
“If the mission doesn’t go off, they would probably be partially relieved,” she says.
To achieve its aim, Mars One needs to raise billions of dollars to fund the mission. Mars One, according to its website, will be achieved from investments in the company, which expects to turn a profit on income from the sale of TV rights to footage of the mission as it unfolds. The idea is that the long and dangerous journey will make for great TV.
Mars One consists of a for-profit corporation and a nonprofit foundation. The for-profit corporation will finance the mission from investments and will hold exclusive media and intellectual property rights to the mission. The nonprofit foundation will own the outpost on Mars and train the crews.
Mars One estimates that putting the first four people on Mars will cost $6-billion, and each subsequent mission will cost $4-billion. The one-way nature of the mission simplifies the logistics and, of course, the cost requirements. But critics say that the cost estimates are far too low. (See below).
Mars One already claims to have had a very successful investment round, with another much larger round currently in its closing stages. Next, the company plans to list on the stock exchange.
The allure for investors is twofold: it is said the media revenue, particularly at the launch in 2026 and the landing in 2027, will be substantial.
“When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon, everyone who had access to a TV watched it happen,” the company said. “Mars One provides an even grander event – the colonisation of Mars – in the current media era, where unique content is a high-value asset, and about four billion people will be connected to the internet in 2027.”
The three weeks of the London Olympic Games yielded more than $4.5-billion from broadcasting rights and sponsorships, Mars One said. It estimates revenues from its own media exposure – between now and the first year after human landing – will be 10 times that of the Games.
Second, Mars One believes shareholder value will be created from new intellectual property rights that could result from designing, building and testing hardware for the mission.
Requests from the Mail & Guardian for more information from Mars One went unanswered, but it would appear that no broadcast partners have been announced.
The listing requirements of stock exchanges typically require that a company meets a certain annual income or market capitalisation threshold and that a certain number of shares are already in issue.
The company website says it receives 100 donations from several nations on a monthly basis. A crowdfunding initiative using the Indiegogo.com platform reached 78% of a $400 000 goal last year. At the cut-off date, more than 8 100 people had contributed $313 744 to fund the first step of the mission – to launch a private Mars lander and satellite mission in 2018 (now moved to 2020).
Once settled on Mars, finances will remain paramount and any colony on Mars will quickly have to find a way to fund its existence. (See below.)
Kobus Vermeulen, a business intelligence developer and one of the Mars 100, told the M&G that funding was always going to be the most difficult aspect of the mission.
“I haven’t spoken to a Mars 100 candidate yet [who] did not realise this, or thought it would be simple and that everything would go off without a hitch,” Vermeulen said.
“Mr Lansdorp and his team are working very hard to secure funding and are making good progress. Their money is mostly spent on concept designs, developing the training programme, and research at this early stage. That said, the mission may well be delayed further, and my response to that would be that it doesn’t matter so much if it actually does result in human beings walking on Mars in the long term.”
Regardless of the speculation that may have been sparked about the feasibility of the Mars One mission, announced in 2011, it has lit a fire under the likes of Nasa to forge ahead with their own undertakings.
In December last year, Nasa released its own timeline and said it is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX reusable rocket programme is also launching test rockets with the ultimate goal of sending a manned mission to Mars.
The pressure is on for Mars One to stick to its timeline (see graphic), or face being overtaken by others. Marais said the question now is whether a private foundation can beat Nasa to it.
“Establishing a settlement on Mars will be a human endeavour. It will be achieved through international collaboration. It won’t be a one-off thing. Once the first settlers have arrived it will be a matter of time before other space agencies and research groups follow suit,” she said.
Vermeulen said his main reason for joining the mission is to promote science and to help introduce the public to the idea of manned space flight beyond low Earth orbit.
“If no one is thinking about it and getting excited about the possibility, there will be no pressure on the governments of the world to make it reality,” he said. “I feel that Mars One has already made massive strides in these areas and has also placed Nasa’s focus squarely on Mars … In that respect I already consider the project a success.”
Philip Haupt, the director of the National Aerospace Centre based at the University of the Witwatersrand, said the Mars mission is a “big deal” in terms of the technological advancements it could bring.
The Apollo programme brought advancements for humanity in terms of materials, communications and technologies. “From 1961 to 1969, there was a huge leap in technology because we had a mission, we had something to aim for – a flagship project,” Haupt said.
But these projects are incredibly expensive undertakings.
“We have a long history of governments pumping in huge amounts of money to achieve [these] things and money being no problem, but we know with Elon Musk and SpaceX, they have stirred it up. It’s not pilots and military people in charge of new ventures in space. It’s the geeks.”
Haupt said this introduces a new way of thinking about space. “The drivers in private sector are different and a lot of it is about cost efficiencies and return on investment. I think that has changed. I think it is healthy. I think maybe a private sector should be a whole lot more involved.”
He said the mission is a huge undertaking with massive technological stumbling blocks, which will require “maximum human effort”.
The sociological side of the mission may be even greater, Haupt said. “Sending people to Mars one way, it’s massive thing for the human psyche to get around. We are making people go away and not come back. So who do we choose to go and how do we choose them?”
Coming up against criticism
Mars One claims the mission can take place with existing technology, but an independent feasibility analysis from graduates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are sceptical about the scope, cost and timing of the mission.
According to MIT, the hardware required for Apollo in 1961-1969 cost $102-billion, but Mars One estimates the cost of its first crew landing will be $6-billion, and $4-billion for each crew landing thereafter.
The Mars One founder and chief executive, Bas Lansdorp, said the landing systems required are comparable to the Nasa Curiosity mission, but the MIT researchers said Mars One would require a significant leap in technology, as the total mass landed on Mars to date is just over half of the mass of a single Mars One lander.
Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer, writes in a 1999 paper that human missions to Mars could be launched with present-day technology using a “Mars direct” type of approach. He said human explorers can be on Mars within 10 years of programme initiation, with total expenditure of not more than 20% of Nasa’s existing budget.
The MIT researchers also found that if food is to be produced from locally grown crops, new technology is needed, because the levels of oxygen the crops produce could eventually cause the colony to suffocate.
A possible solution would be to remove excess oxygen, but the technology would have to be developed. Importing food from Earth would be cheaper.
Melting ice for drinking water is another goal of Mars One but MIT’s analysis said this would require technology designed to bake water from soil. This is being developed but is not ready to be deployed in space.
The researchers found that, as the colony grew bigger, spare parts would quickly dominate the deliveries to Mars and make up as much as 62% of consignments from Earth.
The researchers suggest 3D printing could be a saving grace, enabling settlers to manufacture spare parts on Mars, but the technology would have to advance a great deal.
Some of the students on the MIT project were supported by Nasa fellowships.
Mars colony will have to pay its way
Mars is far away and its environment is hostile, according to an aerospace engineer and adviser to Mars One, Robert Zubrin. But, “of all the bodies in the solar system other than Earth, Mars is unique in that it has the resources required to support a population of sufficient size to create a new branch of human civilisation”.
Any such colony will ultimately have to pay its own way. In a paper, titled The Economic Viability of Mars Colonisation, Zubrin, who is president of the aerospace company Pioneer Astronautics and founder of the Mars Society, said the Earth launch and interplanetary transport to Mars will be expensive.
He also says Mars could have mineral ores which, if found to be of greater value than silver, or even of equal value, it could be brought back to Earth at a big profit.
But, without such resources, Mars could also pay for itself by sending back ideas.
Zubrin sees that the social conditions on Mars will make it “a pressure cooker for invention”, which could raise living standards on both Earth and Mars, and the patents could bring the Red Planet a large income.
In his paper, Zubrin assumed a cost of $1-billion per launch, or $320 000 per passenger, but estimated it could eventually drop to $30 000 per passenger. The small Martian population and transport cost would mean the cost of labour on Mars would be greater than on Earth, making emigration desirable.
A mechanism to enforce private property rights would also be a tremendous source of capital to finance the development of Martian settlements.
Zubrin sees colonisation occurring in four phases – exploration, base building, settlement and terraforming.
Exploration would seek to clear up outstanding scientific questions, to conduct a preliminary survey of resources, and to determine optimum locations for future human bases and settlements.
Base building could begin in earnest a decade after the first human landing and the purpose would be to develop and master techniques to produce food, clothing and shelter to support a large population.
The primary purpose of the settlement phase would be to populate Mars.
Terraforming would be stage in which methods, such as artificially producing greenhouse gases, could be used to create an environment in which the air is breathable by humans.