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Mars One illustration
Mars One has generated a lot of debate about its one-way mission plans. Can history be a guide to them? (credit: Mars One/Bryan Versteeg)

Lessons from Apollo for Mars One


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Mars One is promoting the challenging goal of establishing the first colonists on the Red Planet only 11 years from now. NASA’s Apollo program had an even shorter time horizon (eight years from John F. Kennedy’s public national commitment to place a human on the Moon to the Apollo 11 mission) so it’s inevitable that these two very ambitious space projects will be compared.

Mission risk and safety

A general impression is that the crew risk for the Mars One mission and for Apollo expeditions may be of a similar order of magnitude. However, some aspects of safety are not comparable. For example, in all segments of an Apollo mission there was a way to terminate the trip and bring the crew back to Earth. The lack of a return-to-Earth option is the key feature that makes Mars One’s goal feasible, but it also makes the risk harder to quantify.

Mars One’s plans may change a lot before they freeze the concept and progress on to detailed design. Flaws that appear as major risks in the current preliminary scheme should not be viewed with undue alarm.

Equipment failures are inevitable on an open-ended Mars colonization effort. This was not a big concern on the one- to two-week Apollo lunar expeditions. Machine technology has advanced tremendously in the last 50 years, so mechanical and electrical failures are less frequent, better understood, and more predictable that ever before. Techniques to detect impending failure can drastically reduce the risk of adverse consequences from that hazard.

Apollo’s early preliminary design concepts, though feasible, were soon obsolete as more efficient and safer ways to accomplish the mission were developed. In similar manner, Mars One’s plans may change a lot before they freeze the concept and progress on to detailed design. Flaws that appear as major risks in the current preliminary scheme should not be viewed with undue alarm.

Critical emerging technologies

In the early 1960s, the Apollo program gambled that it would be able to take advantage of several newly emerging technologies. NASA judged these developments to be so very desirable as to warrant the risk that they might not be perfected in time. These technologies included high power transistorized electronics, miniature on-board guidance computers, and the liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen rocket engine. If there had been problems that slowed development of any of these, the lunar landing would not have occurred in the ’60s.

Problems with major new hardware did come very close to delaying the lunar landing program. Two examples were the catastrophic failure of bearings on the giant crawler transporters that moved the Saturn rocket out to the launch pad, and the structural failure of a huge space simulation vacuum chamber built to qualify the Apollo Command and Service Modules for space.

Mars One will also have to gamble that new, enabling technologies (such as advanced spacesuits) will be perfected in time for use on the planet.

Human resources

From the earliest years of the human space program, NASA and its contractors faced unprecedented technical problems. For solutions they needed the best talent they could find. Many of the country’s most motivated engineers were attracted to the program because they wanted to be part of something exciting. And it wasn’t just engineers. Other people, from nurses to machinists, wanted to make history so they migrated to the NASA centers. The working environment was especially stimulating because the Space Race with the Soviet Union to land humans on the Moon was a real competition. Employees felt like they were on a team participating in a sporting event.

An obvious lesson from Apollo is that Mars One needs to acquire the best staff possible. Today that would mean recruiting folks who have actual hands-on human spaceflight experience.

NASA’s efforts to obtain outstanding talent included personal visits by managers to college campuses, where engineering school deans had been asked to look for exceptional students. When such individuals were identified, the agency would encourage them to come work for the government after graduation. That’s how legendary engineer Max Faget (whose name is on the patent for the Mercury capsule) and Guy Thibodaux (designer of the Scout solid fuel satellite launcher) were recruited. NASA’s talent search was not restricted to just the US. In the early 1960s, Canada cancelled its AVRO Arrow supersonic interceptor aircraft project, and suddenly scores of top engineers and designers didn’t have a job. NASA was able to scoop up these Canadians and relocate them to Texas to take critical roles in the Apollo program.

An obvious lesson from Apollo is that Mars One needs to acquire the best staff possible. Today that would mean recruiting folks who have actual hands-on human spaceflight experience. While there is plenty of public knowledge that shows what worked, the old hands know what was tried, but didn’t work, and that information is seldom found in books or on the Internet. For example, many of the unsuccessful X Prize teams included enthusiastic, highly motivated people, but the teams lacked actual spaceflight experience and that is important for success.

Promoting the idea

During the Apollo era, there were some who believed the goal of landing humans on the Moon by the end of the decade was too audacious and virtually impossible. But, the dynamic personalities and public persuasiveness of prominent individuals like Kennedy, rocket genius Wernher von Braun, and the leaders of that era’s magnificent aerospace industry provided enough momentum to carry the program forward. Politicians got on board once they realized the fantastic economic potential that Apollo would bring to their constituents. The general public understood that the Moon landing would be a unique event in the history of humanity and was proud to support such an effort. It helped that hundreds of thousands of Americans worked directly or indirectly on the project.

It will be hard for Mars One to gather similar support. A major public relations effort might help. It should be easier to persuade the public that settlement of our neighboring planet is a worthy goal, especially if they do not have to pay for it with their taxes. This Mars program must be endorsed by prominent national leaders and business personalities. Naturally the support of space heroes, like former astronauts and cosmonauts, is important, but for success the entire scientific community must get behind this endeavor. This will be a challenge.

During Apollo, scientists across a broad spectrum of fields supported NASA, in part because the Space Agency financed numerous research projects. Other federal agencies, for example the US Geological Service were heavily involved. A steady flow of scientific papers appeared in the technical literature reflecting studies done to support the program. Magazines ran articles, for example regular features by Wernher von Braun in Popular Mechanics magazine kept the general public informed and excited. It will not be so easy for Mars One to attract that level of attention.

Apart from successfully capturing the public’s imagination, the best thing about Mars One is that it seems to be addressing important questions about the hardware needed for Mars settlement.

In the early Apollo days some naysayers predicted failure. For example, one scientist incorrectly warned that any Moon landing was doomed since radar reflections proved the surface was covered with dust dozens of meters deep. Similarly, Mars One has no shortage of critics who are ready to point out flaws in its mission plan, no matter how preliminary the proposals.

Mars One faces especially daunting funding challenges, but so did Apollo. I remember passing by the front entrance at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston during a Moon mission. A group of demonstrators stood near the gate holding signs that stated, “We Are Hungry!” These protestors were a reminder that some people view taxpayer funds spent on space exploration as money that should instead go to social welfare.

Apart from successfully capturing the public’s imagination, the best thing about Mars One is that it seems to be addressing important questions about the hardware needed for Mars settlement. Recent criticisms of Mars One’s plans questioned whether regenerative life support systems can allow indefinite stays on the planet. As design progresses, will Mars One conclude that current or near future technology simply can’t provide a relatively autonomous, self-supporting colony?

A more feasible scheme

If Mars One comes to that conclusion, it could embrace a more feasible scheme: Send only one astronaut to the Red Planet and periodically resupply that single individual with all required provisions and consumables from Earth. This is the simplest and cheapest way to begin to colonize the planet.

Will Mars One have the audacity to propose a one-person, one-way mission? The concept is far too bold for NASA, but with the hope of the world as inspiration, Mars One has a chance to capture the legacy of Apollo and plant the seeds of humanity on the Red Planet.


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