So a friend of mine shared somebody’s Facebook post that is one of the most negative attacks on Mars One yet. I’m not even going to hide any names to protect the guilty. This link will take you right to the original post by Alexander Ilin. This is a man who, first, needs to read The Case for Mars and, second, visit the FAQ page on the official Mars One website. If he just does those two things, he will see that people have already thought about many of the issues he brings up.
I won’t even get into that highly unrealistic picture that looks like a ripoff of a 1950s science fiction magazine cover, so I’ll start with his accusation that Bas Lansdorp called himself a manager who is going to let engineers work out most of the details. I’m not sure how this is a problem. James Webb was not an aerospace engineer. Instead, he was a good NASA administrator who acted as an interface between politicians and the engineers who did the real work of creating rockets like the Saturn V. This is how you get people to the Moon. It’s called leadership. Bas Lansdorp may well turn out to be a James Webb type who does not try to micromanage his engineers but can interact with the rest of the world while the engineers do the work of figuring out the technical problems associated with colonizing Mars.
The Mars Underground
Should we avoid contaminating Mars at all costs? I am not sure that it’s possible if we want to do a serious job of even just getting robots there. Every single Mars rover went through a process that theoretically should have killed all Earth-based life forms that might have hitched a ride and a few people who were involved in the process were honest about the fact that they might have missed something. So maybe we should just make sure that aspiring Martians are as healthy as possible before sending them to Mars and then not worry about the fact that they could introduce something new into the Martian environment.
It’s obvious, though, that Alexander Ilin is a science purist who thinks that we should wait and try to find out if there is native life on Mars first. Robotic probes have tossed up only tantalizing hints of the possibility of life without providing conclusive proof. Perhaps they weren’t equipped with the right tools. Every Mars probe has been designed to collect data and send it back to Earth. They can’t interpret data the way a human can. Perhaps humans on the scene, working with sophisticated tools along with their own brains, would have been able to tell whether adding water to a sample triggered some form of life that had been dormant or it simply activated a chemical reaction that sort of resembled biological process.
Promoting Mars: Showing the Public the Value of Mars Exploration
Alexander Ilin claims that the Mars One settlers will only be able to cover a five-mile radius during their explorations, thus wasting billions of dollars on a scientific mission of questionable return. However, compare that to the fact that the distance record for travel on another world is 25 miles and was set by a spunky little rover called Opportunity. When you do the math, you might find out that a 5-mile radius will give us an area of about 78.54 square miles. If that’s not enough to get at least some science in, there’s not going to be a lot we can do anyhow. Besides, the biggest “scientific” achievement of Mars One will be the establishment of proof that humans can live and work on Mars on a long-term basis. That’s the whole point of the project. Any other science we get out of it will be purely a bonus.
Just getting to Mars is going to be a challenge, but not the insurmountable obstacle he makes it out to be. The idea of assembling modules in orbit is basically a rehashed version of the “Earth orbit rendezvous” idea that was popular when NASA was still bantering around ideas for getting to the Moon. The radiation is going to be intense, but not if we have good radiation shielding and a kind of “bunker” we can retreat to when there’s a coronal mass ejection. One idea is simply to pack all our food and water into the walls, and then gradually replace it with waste products as we consume the food. The landing isn’t going to be easy, but aerobraking is doable if we don’t mind orbiting Mars several times before landing. This is how the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter did it. So, basically, all of the arguments being used against a trip to Mars can be debunked simply because most of the risks are known and NASA has already worked out several landing methods that can be adapted for use to bring hardware and settlers to the Martian surface.
The problem of water he mentions is very solvable. Water on Mars is not really as scarce as Mister Ilin makes it out to be. It is simply frozen into the Martian regolith. A scoop of regolith taken by the Curiosity rover contained 2% water. Future Martians will simply have to extract it and that is not very difficult if you have the right kind of equipment. The Mars One plan has rovers scooping soil into the life support modules to be “baked” so that essential resources like water can be extracted. You don’t even need that much power when all you’re really doing is turning ice into vapor. For instance, here’s a water extraction experiment that fellow Mars One candidate Hampton Black posted on Youtube.
Water Extraction Experiment
The issue of whether the “greenhouse” can produce enough food is also going to be a nonissue if we do it right. Basically, when you grow food indoors, you don’t have to deal with growing seasons interrupted by a long winter. You can grow food year-round. The current “greenhouse” plan for Mars One calls for a floor plan that covers fifty square meters. That might not sound like much when you’re producing food for four people, but remember that the square meter is a two-dimensional unit. You can actually stack hydroponics racks as long as you make sure each rack is getting a sufficient amount of light from efficient light bulbs that are specifically designed to emit only the wavelengths that plants actually use. If you think you can’t get enough food for a family of four from a space that is a little less than the size of a decent apartment, I challenge you to try it yourself using systems similar to what we’ll be using on Mars. You might be surprised and, as the video below shows, you can actually do it more cheaply than you might think.
A Cheap Hydroponics System
I could go on a lot longer about Alexander Ilin‘s post, but I think you get my point. The real value of Mars One isn’t going to be about either science or entertaining the people back home who wish they had the nerve to sign up. It’s going to be about proving that people really can live on Mars. It would be convenient if people like Mister Ilin could educate themselves about the very real technology and theories that exist right now and can be used to live on Mars. Until then, we’ll just have to prove that it can be done.