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New Zealand Science Teacher

Science Education & Society

Mars One: inspired vision or doomed mission?

Mars One is among several Mars colonisation projects that have graduated beyond thought experiment territory, and into the planning of actual detail, writes JAYLAN BOYLE.

Left: Artist’s impression of what a Mars colony might look like. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center.









THE theme of humanity leaving this little blue rock – under duress or just for fun – is one that has fascinated writers and dreamers since we discovered Earth is very much finite.

Now that there’s not a square inch of this planet that we haven’t been to, humanity needs a new holiday destination. The idea of ‘extra earth’ colonisation also takes on a bit more urgency now that our ecosystem looks like it could potentially burst at the seams in the not too distant future.

We could go way back to the Sanskrit epic ‘Mahabaratha’ for an archaic example of a tale that sees people leave Earth – in this case, in search of the creator Brahma – and return to find that many aeons have passed (thus also maybe qualifying as the first time travel story).

But it was during the 1950s – the golden age of science fiction – that the idea of colonising other planets really grabbed the public imagination. Seminal works like Farmer in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein, about a boy whose family emigrates to the newly terraformed Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter, started flying off the shelves as humanity ventured into space for the first time. This outpouring of ‘space age’ imagination created the foundations for the tradition of modern science fiction.

The 1950s and 60s will be remembered not just as the space age, but as the age of the atom. Growing anxiety over our newly acquired ability to annihilate ourselves was another driver of classic science fiction concerning extra-earth colonisation, not as an achievement, but as an escape route. Ray Bradbury’s short story collection The Martian Chronicles is a masterpiece of dystopian science fiction chronicling the colonisation of Mars by human refugees.

The Martian alternative

Now that we live in a time when the idea of leaving Earth for good can be considered a not-too-distant viability, those crunching the numbers are once again looking to the red planet: it’s not too far away (in relative terms); it has accessible water in the form of polar ice caps and subterranean deposits; and it has something like an atmosphere.

Dutch entrepreneur and founder of the Mars One project Bas Lansdorp is one of those special people prepared to look the doom merchants in the eye and say ‘why not?’

Mars One is a private endeavour that has put forward conceptual plans to establish a permanent colony on Mars by 2025. NASA has publically said that it is sceptical as to the ability of a private company – deriving much of its money from crowd funding – to get the project off the ground. Given the funding model, no-one will be too surprised to learn that some of the money required is intended to come from a reality TV show that will document the journey of the astronauts, their arrival, and pioneering efforts to set up a home on Mars.

Mars One is among several projects that have graduated beyond thought experiments and into the planning stages. Another prominent project that’s been getting attention since the 90s is Mars Direct, the brain child of NASA engineers Robert Zubrin and David Baker, but Mars One has arguably gone a step further, and appears confident enough in its progress to begin calling for volunteer space pioneers – much to the consternation of the learned folk at MIT, but more on that later.

Mars One is also grabbing headlines due to its very 21st century approach to the astronomical funding required, of which every cent will be needed: the one-way Mars One trip is estimated to cost around 6 billion dollars.

Though it’s a one-way ticket in the truest sense of the word – none of the four astronauts pencilled into the first Mars One mission will ever see earth again – some 200,000 would-be space pioneers have put their name forward.

Any trip to Mars will present quite a big problem: just for a kick-off, the astronauts can expect to spend at least six to seven months (other estimates put this at more like 10 months) sitting in a tin can - as acclaimed space oddity David Bowie puts it - before they even get there.

The following is by absolutely no means an exhaustive list of the difficulties faced by any attempt to colonise Mars. There will be many other complications, but these are some of the bigger, more glaring issues.

The basics

On Earth, even before there were supermarkets, we’ve always been able to get what we need by just walking around a bit. To state the very obvious, that’s not the case on Mars.


This is one of the easier resources to get out of the red planet. The Mars One project plans to get its water by heating Martian soil, which it is now known contains a heck of a lot of the stuff in frozen form. That’s according to NASA’s Curiosity Rover anyway, not known for its fanciful optimism. It simply tested the soil, and found that if you were to heat a cubic foot of Mars dirt, you’d get about a litre of water. Easy, no? Possibly. The problem, of course, is that this technique requires heat, and there’s some doubt over whether it would be feasible to do this on a scale that would provide for the needs of even a small party of Mars homesteaders.

Food and air

Here’s where the people in white coats at MIT think that our Mars pilgrims are going to run into serious problems.

Air and food would be inextricably linked in the Mars One village. Food would have to be grown, and growing plants would provide the colonisers with oxygen. There’s a big problem that MIT says hasn’t been solved by any existing technology: plants, in a closed environment, produce a lot of oxygen. an An extremely oxygen-rich environment is a major hazard, as things tend to start spontaneously exploding. So it becomes necessary to vent the excess oxygen. The issue is that scientists haven’t yet figured out how to do this without also chucking out the nitrogen. The air we breathe here on terra firma is about 80 per cent nitrogen, not to mention the fact that Mars One plans to pressurise its living pods with the stuff. So MIT thinks that something of a feedback loop will ensue, resulting in the air pressure becoming so thin that it becomes unbreathable. They’ve even – somewhat morbidly – calculated that the first casualty of hypoxia (deprivation of oxygen) will choke on day 68.

To paraphrase an article appearing on the Smithsonian Institute’s website, NASA probably wouldn’t choose to send astronauts to their certain demise, but there’s no telling what a reality TV show would do.

Hostile environment

Life is in the journey

Mars is about as hospitable to human life (and as far we know, life in general) as the inside of a volcano. Our intrepid pioneers will be faced with severe disadvantage before they even plant a flag in the red dirt.

Let’s conservatively imagine that the journey takes eight months. Exposure to weightlessness and its consequent muscle and organ atrophication could mean that a spritely 50-year-old will get to Mars with the physique of an 80-year-old. Ask yourself how your granddad/ma would get on founding a colony, in a spacesuit, millions of miles from daytime TV. At that age, I personally hope to be able to feed myself. I’m not optimistic that I’ll be bounding around in a pressure suit not really designed for senior mobility.

Warped vision

We’ve known about the detrimental physical effects of space travel for many years now, but there’s a related issue that’s beginning to cause alarm, and it’s a biggie if you’re male and over 45.

When astronaut Mike Barratt blasted off to the international space station, he was – like many of his peers – beginning to squint when he looked at anything far off. When he got back, he had the distance vision of an eagle, but found his arms seemed no longer long enough to read without glasses. After two years, Mike’s condition hadn’t improved, along with ten of his male colleagues of a similar age. It’s got the NASA medical unit scrambling: they’ve got a name for it – papilledema – and to the complete confusion of all, woman aren’t affected by it.

The condition is again caused by weightlessness, resulting in ‘intracranial pressure’ on the noggins of older males, which re-shapes and flattens the optic nerve, and results in odd micro-folds on the surface of the retina. There’s currently no treatment, although some sufferers do improve with time.

Bottom line: there’s not much point in firing a rocket at Mars if half the occupants will all be functionally blind by the time they get there. Having said that, experience tells us that middle aged men have no need of instructions, so they’ll be fine when it comes time to break open the living module flat-packs.

This place really lacks atmos...

Earth’s atmosphere is its life support system. Mars doesn’t have one. Or much of one anyway, and what is there is about 95 per cent carbon dioxide. If you’ve seen the original Total Recall, you were treated to a pretty good simulation of what happens when fleshy life-form (in the very fleshy form of Arnold Schwarzenegger) meets very thin atmosphere. It’s not just that breathing is impossible; Earth’s halo creates atmospheric pressure, which basically holds us meat-bags together. Without it, things get very messy very quickly, and one’s eyeballs tend to end up a bit displaced.

A climate of fear

The weather’s not flash either. It’s really, really rubbish actually: Mars has a mean surface temperature of -50 degrees Celsius; Earth’s is a tropical 14 degrees.

Any scientist who’s spent time in Antarctica – Napoleon and Hitler might be keen to comment, too – will testify that this kind of brutal cold plays havoc with instrumentation and anything with moving bits, even when you can just duck up to New Zealand to thaw out for a bit.

Maybe if the weather were a bit more consistent, things wouldn’t be so bad? It’s not. Mars has a greater degree of axial tilt (obliquity) than earth, which creates seasons that vary wildly in temperature, and that means even greater stress on technology. Then there’s the fact that Mars has just enough atmosphere and zero liquid water… Both factors that help to create…

Dust storms

We’re not talking about a bit of grit in your eye here. A dust storm on Mars would truly be something to behold, and also the last thing you’d ever behold if you didn’t get underground very quickly. They can develop in a matter of hours, and can – no kidding – envelope the entire planet for weeks. Here’s a before and after. 

The dust itself? Well, there’s no moisture on Mars to absorb particulate matter away from the atmosphere as there is here on Earth, and there’s no grassland to hold the dirt on the ground. Here’s a picture of what happened in America in the 1930s when naïve farmers stripped great swathes of greenery off the land. Ouch.

Well, the dust on Mars is likely to be a great deal worse. We’re talking about a planet that hasn’t had atmospheric moisture in countless millions of years, meaning the particles make microscopic look fat. That means they float real good, despite the lack of an atmosphere, and they get absolutely everywhere. It’s like outback Australia times a million. Again, this is very, very bad news for anything electronic or mechanical, and has already caused problems for the automated Mars rovers we’ve sent.

You’re looking radiant. In a bad way.

Drumroll please. This is the real biggie. Because as it stands – according to the Smithsonian Institute at least, who many are inclined to believe – roughly ten per cent of Mars colonists between the ages of 25 to 34 of any mission lasting 1000 days would find themselves battling the climate, the atmosphere, the dust storms – and cancer. Bearing in mind that a colonisation mission is going to be a lot longer than 1000 days, the incidence of ‘the big C’ would presumably climb proportionately.

Though there’s doubtless plenty of crazies who’d sign up despite the risk, NASA wouldn’t take a bar of those Russian roulette odds. OSH wouldn’t be best pleased, either. Again, though, there’s no telling what a reality TV show would do to lift ratings: imagine the voyeuristic kicks to be had when getting ‘voted off the island’ goes rather deeper than international humiliation.

Despite more than a half-century of humanity’s collective finger hovering over the big red button that will incinerate the world, there’s not a great deal we can do about radiation. Shielding would seem the obvious solution. Unfortunately, nobody’s really figured out how to do that effectively, beyond dropping a massive amount of concrete on the source, which definitely isn’t a magic bullet solution: ask all the people who don’t live anywhere near Chernobyl. Encasing the source in lead stops a lot of radiation, too, but neither of these solutions are remotely feasible for a trip to Mars, until scientists come up with a propulsion system that can lift the whole mess into space. Not so long ago, it was all we could do to get a dog into orbit, and Laika wasn’t covered in concrete. Laika also didn’t come home, and she wasn’t ‘retired to the farm.’

Radiation doesn’t just cause cancer. It can mess with your mind in the form of neurological degradation, and it’s very bad for the human reproductive system, which – though definitely not top priority for those arriving on Mars; that’s likely to be those killer dust storms – will spell the end of any Mars colony within a generation.

-          Jaylan Boyle is a journalist at APN Educational Media.

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