Ask Ethan #20: Is the Mars One crew doomed? – Starts With A Bang

What Mars One is counting on is that they can safely land a heavier payload than ever before, that they can do it more precisely than ever before (as in, within just a few hundred meters of previous successful landings), and they can do it for only 12% of the projected costs, with a total estimated budget of just $6 billion instead of the $50 billion price tag to do it right.

via Ask Ethan #20: Is the Mars One crew doomed? – Starts With A Bang.

Somewhat related to my Mars post yesterday, Ethan Siegel answered a reader’s question, and explains why the Mars One initiative is a terrible idea.

I’m not sure that Mars One isn’t more bite than bark.  But if they actually do reach an implementation phase, I’d have to wonder if they would be doing the Mars cause any real benefit if they simply sent four people to their likely deaths.  Having it happen on reality TV would just make it worse, and might stifle actual exploration for decades to come.

A good deal of their plan seems to depend on using SpaceX technology.  I wonder to what extent they’ve actually discussed this with Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX.  Musk strikes me a far too level headed to have his company name tangled up in something that has a high chance of ending in disaster.

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5 Responses to Ask Ethan #20: Is the Mars One crew doomed? – Starts With A Bang

  1. Andy Clark says:

    I am a dreamer . . . . . . . I have always been that way. I can fault any of the logic of those who express grave doubts about the feasibility of the MarsOne Project. There are far more crosses than ticks for the probability of it ever taking place within the the time frames that the organisation has stated, if at all ever takes place at all. All that being said . . . . I have subscribed up and make a donation ona monthly basis, because at least someone is trying to make something happen with regard to extending human exploration beyond Earth Orbit. The last time humans travelled beyond Earth Orbit was December 1972 with Apollo 17, 41 years ago. Remember all the other Saturn V rockets and Apollo hardware – some which is now sitting in visitors centres – which was bought and paid for but ultimately because of the fear of NASA and the politicians of the time, of losing a crew in space and the loss of interest of the American public of funding these missions, all those later missions being scrubbed. So now for 41 years, we have had to rely on all of those incredible robotic missions – Mariner, Voyager, Viking, Cassini Huygens – relaying those incredible images and data back to Earth for us to study and interpret the voluminous amount of data they have amassed. Whilst what has been achieved by these incredible craft, nothing will ever truly engage humanity and subsequently the funding for extending mans reach beyond low Earth orbit, is a human mission – boots on an alien planet. We all know the only reason why America went to the Moon was because it was really an extension of The Cold War into space. With Apollo 11 finally putting Neil Aarmstrong and Buz Aldrin on the surface of the Moonand planting the ‘Stars and Stripes’, Kennedy’s challenge was fulfilled and the later more complex and scientific missions were the victims of apathy and cutbacks. NASA is now developing SLS and Orion to once again give it the ability to launch humans beyond low Earth orbit. But, it will always have to battle with Congress and with whatever Administration is in power for the funding for such projects. That flu pending can be granted by a pro space, science administration and then just as easily pulled or scaled back within the the lifetime of a presidency. Truthfully, there is only one manned space programme that is. Eying funded by a government at this present moment in time that I think has the will and the continuity of funding to put humans at least on to the surface of the Moon in the next twenty years or so and that is the Chinese Space Prgramme. They are not hampered by the electoral cycles and having to constantly be involved with all the wheeling and dealing with senators and votes to deliver the pro votes required. What will re-awaken the American public and in turn the politicians to give NASA the funding and go ahead will be the sight of a Chinese astronaut planting the Chinese flag on the surface of the Moon or even worse, a couple of smiling Chinese astronauts doing a ‘facey’ with an iPhone camera at ‘Tranquillity Base’! No, in ow it is the time for private industries, businesses and visionaries to come up with innovative – and yes sometimes what may seem outlandish schemes – to further the course of manned space exploration beyond low Earth Orbit. After all think about it, Europeans only undertook explorations in there sailing ships beyond the visible horizon in those flimsy sailing ships after securing patronage from who would ever give them the funds to construct and provision those voyages. And let us also remember once those ships disappeared beyond the horizon, they really were on their own. There were no guarantees of safe passage or a safe return. No radio, data relay satellites, deep space tracking networks or two way communication with a ‘mission control centre’ to monitor the progress of the voyage or call upon a team of experts to help resolve technical or medical problems. As with those old voyages of discovery and Spaceflight now, it is not a risk free business. Putting any human beings on top of a of a launch vehicle filled with highly volatile, combustible proponents and launching them into a void filled with radiation, is and always will be a high risk business. But there have been no shortage of volunteers both in government and privately funded manned space missions. And that is after the Apollo 1 fire, Apollo 13, Challenger and Columbia tragedies. The next phase of true manned space exploration as far as democratic countries is concerned, will have to be led by private venture capital and those funds scrutinised via a business plans. There will be the likes of charismatic visionaries such the Richard Branson, Elon Musk who will be required to bang the drum for funding and yes, they will expect something in return for putting up the seed money,just as those explorers of old – if they were ever seen again – were expected to bring back bounty from the New World. No one should think that there will be no risks. If you never take risks you would never walk out of your front door. Even if the MarsOne project never gets beyond the fund raising stage, I am prepared to take the chance and give them my monthly donation. All they are doing is what Sir Walter Raleigh, Christopher Columbus and all those other earlier adventurers of old did and that is carrying on that tradition. Good luck to them. If the TV companies want to chip in towards the costs by negotiating with the MarsOne fund raising with TV deals, go for it if that’s what it takes to get the funds. All those thousands of applicants who put there CV’s in if they get through the selection process will I am sure if it gets beyond the drawing board, will be made well aware that just as in the days of the old ancient mariners, there cannot possibly be any guarantees of them surviving the journey to Mars and that it will be a one way trip. What is new about that notion. The West Coast of America would never have been discovered if those originall settlers who arrived on the East Coast had not been prepared to take the risks of pushing on towards the Rocky Mountains and beyond. I bet that initially far more died in the attempt of trying than those who finally stood on the West coast and witnessed The Sun set over the pacific. I am supporting the MarsOne Project simply because they are trying and are following an age old tradition of trying to put together a project that has the slimmest possible chance of allowing human beings the chance of seeing what those first colonists who arrived on the West Coast of America, watch the Sun set on another world. I did say that I am a dreamer . . . . . . but if you are not prepared to dream or contemplate what now might now seem to be impossible . . . . . mankind would never walked out of The Rift Valley in Africa all those thousands of years ago.


    • I appreciate your detailed thoughts. I’m very much a supporter of space exploration, however I also strive to be realistic. By all means, we should dream big, but we have to have some knowledge of the real difficulties when we try to do implementation.

      On the spirit of exploration, I covered that a bit in my post yesterday, but it’s important to remember that Columbus and Raleigh had strong economic incentives for what they did. We need to find that for manned space exploration, or find a way to make it much cheaper.


      • aopg71 says:

        You are absolutely correct in your conclusions. As I mentioned and admit to being, I am a dreamer . . . . we have gone past the days of flag planting and testing the strengths or otherwise of political ideologies into who can land a man on The Moon first. The human exploration of space is now intrinsically linked with a valid reason for going somewhere and the reduction of the costs of getting a payload into Earth orbit and beyond. Of course, where human exploration is concerned, costs are always going to be greater because of the of extra systems for life support and safety. But the risk factors can only be reduced within the bounds of realistic expectations. Spaceflight will always be a high risk business. Which is why President Eisenhower was pretty much adamant that the original Mercury 7, had to come from a test flying background and preferably military. Plus of course they were paid military salaries and subject to all the rules and regulations and disciplinary procedures that government employees would be bound to I suppose. But I wholeheartedly agree with your conclusions. However I can’t help but wonder how much all of these financial constraints and other realities would change, if way out there in Saturn Orbit, Cassini returned an image with a large black ‘monolith’ floating out there, or the Curiosity Rover sent back an image containing a discarded ‘Coco Cola’ can or a ‘Big Mac’ box . . . . . . of course only after these images could be proved beyond doubt not to have had some enhancement or embellishment with the help of Adobe Photoshop or some such other package!


      • Brett says:

        While I’m not opposed to manned space exploration, I think there tends to be a lot of romanticism about it that leads to bad comparisons with the Americas in terms of colonization. Most of our solar system isn’t the New World – it’s Antarctica, or rather a whole bunch of places that make Antarctica look temperate by comparison. We go to Antarctica to do science, and we’d probably have people temporarily stationed down there to do mining, oil extraction, and fishing if it was legal in Antarctic waters. But we don’t live there.

        Truth is, I wouldn’t be surprised if any permanent colonies in space were pretty far off. Progress in getting beyond what we know in terms of getting into space (such as bi-propellant rocketry) has been slow-going, and the exotic alternatives don’t get government funding because conventional rocketry has sufficed. Moreover, once you get away from government-funded missions, there’s not a lot left in the commercial space launch market.


  2. Brett says:

    I’m tempted to just dismiss Mars One as a scam, but it does supposedly have Zubrin doing advisory stuff, and there’s been a lot of foolishly optimistic New Space ventures over the past two decades. In any case, I don’t think there’s a chance of them having the money they need in the time in would take to do a one-way Mars mission by 2024. They’ll probably do some type of Mars Society-esque “training mission” with whoever gets fully selected by their screening process, and then the funding will dry up and nothing will happen afterwards.

    Ethan points out the landing problems, which Amy Shira Teitel has gone into over at her blog. Mars has just enough atmosphere to be problematic, but not enough to do a great job of braking spacecraft. You can’t fire existing retro rockets above Mach One in that atmosphere, which means you need some incredibly huge parachutes to slow your 40-ton lander down to the speed where it can land with retro rockets. We might figure out how to do supersonic retro rockets, or we might be stuck waiting until if or when we produce fuel in Mars’ orbit which is then used to slow landing spacecraft down to a safe velocity during descent.


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