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Mars One debate
Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin (right) opened the debate between Mars One and its critics last week at the society’s annual conference in Washington. (credit: D. Day)

Red planet rumble

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There is a saying at Houston’s Mission Control: “in God we trust, all others bring data.” I’ve seen that codified more bluntly in a refrigerator magnet: “We have charts and graphs to back us up, so #uck off.” Because of the profanity, the former was probably a more appropriate title for a debate that occurred on the campus of the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, on Thursday evening when two representatives of Mars One squared off against two of the members of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology group that produced a report a year ago calling into question the assertions that Mars One has made about the viability of their plan for sending humans to Mars within twelve years.

Mars One’s $6-billion price tag is based upon false assumptions and faulty data and is totally unrealistic, and yet Mars One uses that low price tag as a selling point to investors.

The MIT team, Sydney Do and Andrew Owens, both graduate research fellows and Ph.D. candidates at MIT, came armed with charts and graphs and data and PowerPoint (they are, after all, engineers.) The Mars One team, CEO Bas Lansdorp and one of his key technical people, Barry Finger, came armed with, well, a dream of sending humans to Mars. A nice fuzzy dream, filled with hope and powered by the human spirit and the desire to motivate schoolchildren.

The MIT team crushed them.

The title of the debate was “Is Mars One Feasible?” and the teams were introduced by Mars Society president Bob Zubrin. He stated, correctly, that both groups deserved a lot of credit for being willing to stand up in public and defend their points of view. According to Zubrin, too many people in the space field are willing to trash others behind their backs and not defend their views in public. He then demonstrated what he meant by trashing Franklin Chang-Diaz, who wasn’t even in the room. Never let it be said that Zubrin is unwilling to say nasty things about all the people he doesn’t like.

Sydney Do and Andrew Owens went first, and they came out guns blazing. Part of Mars One’s argument is based upon analogy: the United States went from no human spaceflights to putting a man on the Moon in eight years, so certainly today, with lots of experience and more advanced technology it should be possible to put humans on Mars in 50 percent more time and far less money, especially if you do it privately.

The MIT team had their own analogy, noting that Virgin Galactic has spent ten years and $600 million and still has not achieved their commercial suborbital spaceflight goal. Sending humans to Mars will be far more difficult than commercial suborbital spaceflight, and significantly more difficult than landing humans on the Moon. But Mars One has concluded, without any detailed analysis, that it will only cost $6 billion—thus, the $6 billion estimate barely even qualifies as a wild-assed guess. Do and Owens punctuated this point by singling out a particular aspect of Mars One’s proposal, a multi-purpose crewed Mars rover. In comparison, JPL built the Curiosity rover, with far fewer capabilities than what Mars One is proposing, for $2.6 billion, and is currently working on the Mars 2020 rover for roughly $1.5 billion. Therefore, even one relatively minor component of what Mars One is proposing to do is likely to eat up a substantial amount of what they claim as their total mission cost. Mars One’s $6-billion price tag is based upon false assumptions and faulty data and is totally unrealistic, and yet Mars One uses that low price tag as a selling point to investors.

The MIT team noted that whereas Mars One’s argument is that their one-way mission proposal is easier because it does not require a return trip and associated hardware, it trades this off instead for a permanent commitment to support the humans on Mars, which adds all kinds of increased complexity and requirements. That decision requires high reliability from the various systems such as life support, as well as a steady logistics train to keep resupplying the humans on Mars, and bringing spare parts for their machines. In fact, Mars One advocates adding people to the Mars outpost to build up a colony, meaning that the logistics requirement not only continues forever, but actually increases substantially as each new crew has to bring spare parts for themselves and the previous crew(s) to keep them alive on Mars.

“We don’t disagree that life support is a solvable challenge, but these problems are very complex,” Sydney Do said at one point. “It’s a house of cards: if one thing breaks, the whole thing fails. But you can’t assess the feasibility of the program unless you have a concept. If you’re still developing concepts, you don’t really have a plan.” That issue of what constituted a plan became a primary contention during the debate.

Finger started by conceding most of the MIT team’s points. He agreed that the Mars One plan lacks specificity and is mostly generalities.

Do and Owens were not so churlish to note that if some of the team members die on Mars it would actually make things easier logistically (especially if the Mars Onenauts are okay with cannibalism), but they outlined many of the ways that the “simpler” task of a one-way trip to Mars is in reality more complex. For example, relying heavily on in situ resources might reduce the amount of raw goods that have to be shipped to Mars, but it also increases the reliability, repair, and maintenance requirements for the ISRU systems. Furthermore, until there is a way to manufacture not only the spare parts, but also their raw materials on Mars—and raw materials like plastics and metals are produced on Earth with massive infrastructure—this is just going to drive the logistics demand up to the point where it is quickly unsustainable. In essence, Mars One has to promise its Mars crew members that it will support them for as long as they live, assuming that they will live for decades on Mars. That’s a huge promise, and a totally unrealistic one. What happens if four years after the first crew lands on Mars the group runs out of money and is unable to support them? They have no way of returning to Earth, and they die.

The Mars One team was represented by Lansdorp and Finger, the chief engineer and director of life support systems for Paragon Space Development Corporation. Finger took the podium and started by conceding most of the MIT team’s points. In fact, he said that he had been making many of those same points to Lansdorp himself. Finger agreed that the Mars One plan lacks specificity and is mostly generalities.

Mars One debate
Zubrin moderating the debate. (credit: D. Day)

Finger noted that he had been involved in a number of aerospace companies and worked on many projects, including Bigelow’s space habitats, and therefore his company was fully capable of taking on the life support task for Mars One. But he also made another subtle concession, which was that his company couldn’t handle all the other big tasks for the plan—launch vehicle procurement and payload integration, orbital operations, communications, navigation, spacecraft design, space and ground-based power, spacesuits, mobility (rovers), and entry, descent, and landing systems. The list is quite long, and all Paragon does is the life support. What Mars One really needs, Finger seemed to acknowledge, is a prime contractor that understands how to do all of these things, or has the knowledge and clout to subcontract the companies and hire the individuals who can provide what it lacks. These days that pretty much means either Boeing or Lockheed Martin, although some skills like deep space navigation and communication are not available commercially and reside at places like JPL or within NASA. At the very least, Mars One needs a program manager with experience integrating large, multi-billion dollar space projects, preferably human spacecraft. They don’t have such a person; neither Finger nor Lansdorp can fulfill that role.

Finger acknowledged that although NASA and its contractors have built life support systems for the International Space Station, sometimes they have been undone by amazingly simple things that nobody thought about, like lint clogging a fan and dust getting ingested into unexpected locations. (Finger didn’t mention it, but a few years ago NASA engineers experienced a surprise with their water recycling system on the ISS. On Earth they had tested it extensively, recycling urine and sweat from test subjects. It worked fine. But in space, weightless humans leech calcium from their bones. That got into the recycling system and gummed it up. It hadn’t occurred to anybody that urine produced in space would differ from that on Earth. Space is full of surprises.)

After Finger, Lansdorp took over and that’s where the contrast with the MIT team was perhaps most evident. Lansdorp conceded that the public plan that Mars One has put out is not really the plan that they’ll use for sending humans to Mars. That plan, he said, has yet to be developed. Mars One needs to hire somebody to develop it for them, a task that he estimates will cost about $15 million. When asked when that will happen, Lansdorp said that optimistically they could have the money in six weeks, but more likely it will take a year, and then it would take another year to develop the plan. If you do the math in your head, that means that maybe Mars One will have a detailed plan for sending humans to Mars by August 2017.

For years, Bas Lansdorp has used Apollo’s accomplishment—starting with a much lower knowledge base and accomplishing a Moon landing in only eight years—as proof that Mars One was feasible with 50 percent more time and maybe 5 percent of the money. At the debate he twisted the analogy further by noting that NASA went through numerous design reference options and spacecraft designs before settling on the Command and Service Module with Lunar Module configuration and the lunar orbit rendezvous mode. According to Lansdorp, this is the reason that it is acceptable for Mars One to not yet have a detailed plan. In a rebuttal, the MIT team members noted that NASA had settled on lunar orbit rendezvous a year after Kennedy’s announcement whereas Mars One has been around for four years and still doesn’t have anything resembling a definitive plan—at some point you have to decide on the major technical aspects in order to proceed.

Lansdorp said that despite having a rather rough year, their potential investors have not been scared off. Mars One is not simply about engineering, but spreading a broad message to the public about the importance of settling Mars.

At one point Owens asked Lansdorp about a comment Lansdorp had made on a television program saying that Mars One had a “detailed plan” for sending people to Mars. Lansdorp replied that there was essentially one thing he says to the press and investors, and then there is what he says at technical conferences. There is no detailed technical plan as anybody in the aerospace community would understand it.

Lansdorp said that despite having a rather rough year (see “The Ides of Mars One”, The Space Review, March 30, 2015), their potential investors have not been scared off. On Friday, during a separate talk, he revealed that Mars One had recently signed on a European sports and underwear clothing manufacturer that plans on holding a Mars One-themed fashion show. He said that another “cultural sponsor” had also signed up, but he could not yet reveal their name. These were signs of success, he claimed, because Mars One is not simply about engineering, but spreading a broad message to the public about the importance of settling Mars.

But there were also some massive leaps in Lansdorp’s remarks that brought subtle snorts of derision from some in the audience. At one point he suggested that we live in a world of surprises, so perhaps some multibillionaire will give Mars One the $6 billion they say is necessary and tell them to go do it. (One wonders what that billionaire would say after being informed that the real price tag is far higher and his money will barely provide a down payment.) Lansdorp also cited the Olympics as proof that big media deals were possible. If I heard him right, he said that Mars One could make eight times the amount on television than the Olympics does. Considering that the Olympics include more than one hundred countries and thousands of athletes, it’s difficult to see how there would be greater worldwide interest in the activities of four people living in a tin can on their way to Mars.

Indeed, one confusing part of the whole Mars One plan is the difference between investors and donors. No investor is going to give Mars One large amounts of money without the expectation of getting a return within a few years. What Mars One really needs is donors willing to give them huge amounts of money with no expectation of getting it back.

After each side had their say, they got to ask questions of each other. The MIT team continued to drill in on the technical issues and repeatedly asked when Mars One will have a plan. Lansdorp implied that if Mars One doesn’t send humans to Mars, nobody is going to do it. Certainly NASA won’t. The agency has been saying that Mars is 20 years away for four decades now, to which Owens replied that NASA’s inability to send humans to Mars does not indicate that Mars One has a viable plan for doing it themselves. Lansdorp and Finger also acknowledged that in order for Mars One to work, they are going to need NASA’s expertise (and, as numerous entrepreneurs have discovered in the past, the agency is less likely to want to help if you’ve badmouthed them before).

The two sides were to great extent talking past each other. Although Lansdorp was never explicit, he seemed to be saying that the specifics of the Mars One plan are not all that important, that what is really important is the dream. We all have to dream a little.

Sydney and Do said that they share the dream of sending humans to Mars, otherwise they would not be in graduate school studying it. But that goal needs to be supported by realism. “My position,” Do said, “Is that we should get all the technology developed before we go. The other option is to downscale: Try to go to orbit around Mars and come back. And that’s just one suggestion. To address issues of infeasibility you have to relax the cost, schedule, and scope dimensions.”

If somebody was scoring this debate, giving a point for each well-supported argument, deducting a point for each weak one, and subtracting multiple points every time somebody conceded the other side’s argument, then Mars One lost it hands down.

It was not easy to read the attitude of the room during the debate, but it was my impression that very few of the approximately 120 persons in attendance were swayed by Mars One, and there appeared to be a lot of doubtful looks when Lansdorp was on the stage. At Lansdorp’s talk the following day he appeared to have a small group of ardent supporters. At one point MIT’s Andrew Owens asked once again about when Mars One will have a technical plan and an angry audience member told him to sit down and be quiet.

Mars One fared better during a panel discussion before the debate when three of the “Mars 100” candidates spoke about why they wanted to go on a one-way trip to Mars. The candidates were Dr. Leila Zucker, Sonia Van Meter, and Oscar Matthews. The three were quite articulate and passionate, and also seemed realistic that Mars One may never happen. Zucker, a medical doctor, kept quoting sci-fi movies and television, and said she had the full support of her husband. Van Meter is more of a slick politico (she works as a political advisor), although perhaps somebody needs to coach her about referring to her “stepchildren.” In some ways they were better spokespersons than Lansdorp—certainly more honest—although they did resort to some of the same old space clichés: it is humanity’s destiny to explore, space is the final frontier, school children are inspired by Mars One. (Also, children are the future.)

If somebody was scoring this debate, giving a point for each well-supported argument, deducting a point for each weak one, and subtracting multiple points every time somebody conceded the other side’s argument, then Mars One lost it hands down. Not only did Barry Finger admit that MIT’s technical analysis and criticism was mostly right, but Lansdorp also admitted that their 12-year plan for landing humans on Mars by 2027 is mostly fiction. Furthermore, Lansdorp acknowledged that he pretty much twists the truth into a pretzel for potential investors when he tells them he knows how to do it and how much it will cost. He doesn’t have a clue.

An interesting question is how Mars One relates to Zubrin’s Mars Society. In the past couple of years Mars One has attracted far more attention than the Mars Society has gathered in a long long time. Mars One has its “Mars 100” team of potential Mars explorers, whereas the Mars Society’s annual convention did not even attract twice that number. Is Mars One’s existence helping the Mars Society’s cause or hurting it? They have certainly brought a lot of attention to the cause of settling Mars, but they haven’t exactly raised the quality of the discussion, especially since much of the media coverage seems to have a tone of “crazy Mars nuts with a death wish.” Mars One so far has come across looking at best like a bunch of naïve dreamers, and at worst like a con job.

How long can Lansdorp keep this up? A string of “cultural investors” may keep Mars One in the news for a few more years, and issuing press releases at strategic moments is an effective method of creating the illusion of progress. But after awhile people are going to tire of waiting on promises, just as they have tired of waiting on NASA promises about venturing beyond low Earth orbit. The cynicism about government’s ability to get humans to Mars drove people to groups like Mars One and the Mars Society. But when Mars One inevitably falls apart, that is only going to stoke the fires of cynicism even further. We may trust in god, but we should be wary of false prophets. And, above all else, ask to see the data.