Bas Lansdorp gazed in awe at the landscape of Mars when the images came back: American space agency Nasa’s latest mission had just revealed a blood-red world scattered with boulders, dunes sculpted by ferocious winds and hills beckoning on the horizon. “The images of Sojourner on TV inspired me,” he recalls. “I thought: ‘I want to go there.’” There was one big problem, though: Nasa had calculated the cost of a human mission to Mars at US$500 billion. It was clearly a non-starter even for the agency’s astronauts, let alone private citizens.
But that was in 1997, when Lansdorp was an engineering student at the Netherlands’ University of Twente. Fastforward 16 years and the world of Mars exploration has been turned on its head. The first people to reach the Red Planet may not be astronauts from any government space agency but private individuals. Two companies – Mars One, which is headed by Lansdorp, and Inspiration Mars – this year announced plans to take volunteers to Mars at least a decade earlier than any government mission.
Can they pull it off? Plenty of people are taking them seriously. “These ideas are right,” says Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon. “And they will go a long way towards increasing enthusiasm for missions to Mars.”
The first cracks in Nasa’s monopoly of Mars exploration appeared in the 1990s, when Robert Zubrin, then an aerospace engineer at American corporation Martin Marietta, studied its ambitious plan, known as the Space Exploration Initiative. “It made no sense to me,” he recalls, “because it’s not the way we’ve explored Earth. When we’ve done it intelligently, it’s by living off the land.”
Zubrin, who today heads the Mars Society, came up with a solution. His Mars Direct proposal calls for a simple two-spacecraft mission. The first would land robotically and create fuel from the Martian air. Four astronauts would then set off in a second capsule; once landed, they would explore the surface and return in the other fuelledup rocket. The plan whittled the costs down to US$50 billion – half the cost of building and operating the International Space Station (ISS).
But Nasa focused its sights on the ISS. Even when United States President Barack Obama took up the banner for human missions beyond the moon in 2010, the priority was to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, with a mission to Mars and back “by the 2030s”.
Then along came the private sector. Most notable are the individuals who are paying for a ride to the ISS.
Meanwhile, the founder of PayPal and SpaceX, Elon Musk, has built the Falcon rocket, which has successfully carried cargo to the ISS. In future, it will ferry astronauts back and forth, too.
Nasa administrator Charles Bolden says that space is no longer the two-horse affair it once was. With many nations and companies in competition, “it’s more like the Olympics”.
FIRST OUT OF THE GATE for private missions to the Red Planet is Inspiration Mars. Founded by the world’s first commercial space tourist, Dennis Tito, this is a project aimed at sending a crew of two around Mars and back, without landing.
Because of the way the planets align, there is a very good launch window in 2018, when the round trip will take only 501 days, instead of two years or more. Tito says it will cost “a factor of 100” less than the Apollo moon missions, which cost about US$100 billion in today’s money.
Tito plans to launch his Mars expedition spacecraft on SpaceX’s next rocket, the more powerful Falcon Heavy.
On reaching Mars, it will skim the surface at a height of 160 kilometres, giving the crew a grandstand view of the planet’s giant volcanoes and canyons.
And there will be no problem getting home. Inspiration Mars is to be launched on a flight path that takes it looping around the Red Planet and then directly back to Earth.
“It’s a safe trajectory; gravity will always do its bit,” says Chris Welch, of the International Space University in Strasbourg, France.
The most dangerous phase is reserved for the last few minutes of the trip. On its return, the craft will hit Earth’s atmosphere at about 50,000 kilometres per hour – faster than any mission in history. To stop the astronauts from frying on re-entry, Tito’s team is working with the Nasa engineers who are building a heat shield for their new Orion capsule.
“I have a lot of time for Inspiration Mars; it’s involving a lot of good people,” Welch says. He points out that Tito is “not just some rich guy” – he once worked at Nasa on trajectories for robotic spacecraft heading for Mars.
LANSDORP PURSUED A VERY different career, designing tethered drones for generating electricity. But his Mars vision has never gone away and, in 2011, he sold his company shares and set up Mars One.
He’s optimistic that he can raise the US$6 billion needed for the mission through sponsorship and selling international rights to a television reality show. His finance model is inspired by the International Olympic Committee, which raised US$4 billion in a similar way over four years. “Media people have [said], ‘Money is no problem; but surely it’s not technically possible?’ Conversely, the tech people say it’s all possible on their side, but, ‘You’ll never raise that much money!’” he says.
Others are not so sure. Welch says it’s not a convincing financial model, as interest in the Mars One reality show would wane rapidly. “We know how quickly the public lost interest in Apollo,” he says. Only two years after Apollo 11, public approval of moon missions had dropped by a third.
So far, though, interest has been intense. As of last Monday, the application process for Mars One astronauts had attracted 100,000 submissions from more than 120 countries. TV audiences will later select a shortlist of 100 people from each country and the Mars One planners will whittle this down to five crews of four astronauts by 2015.
“Each crew will consist of two men and two women, from four continents,” says Lansdorp.
After seven years of training, Mars One will again call in the public vote. A TV audience will determine which crew will fly first – and then vote on which of the astronauts gets to be the Neil Armstrong of Mars.
What has really caught the public’s interest, however, is that the Mars One astronauts won’t be returning to Earth. “If you are enthusiastic enough about Mars to travel there, you would not want to take a return rocket,” says Lansdorp. “There’s a whole planet to explore.”
Mars One builds on Zubrin’s mantra – “use local resources, travel light and live off the land” – and robotic missions will be sent in advance to prepare the landing site. The first of these supply missions should land in 2016, with the pioneering astronauts touching down in 2023.
The media has hyped the concept as a suicide mission.
But Aldrin, though no huge fan of Mars One, endorses the basic idea. “It’s inappropriately called a ‘one-way’ trip. It should be called a ‘permanent base’ – and that’s a great idea.”
“Buzz is right,” says Lansdorp. “The message is colonisation.”
It’s the same spirit that inspired the Polynesians to sail the vast Pacific Ocean and make homes on unknown islands and the early US settlers who braved the Rocky mountains in wagon trains to reach the fertile west coast.
But the lesson from history is that exploration and colonisation aren’t guaranteed to be safe, and even Nasa is starting to realise that an over-cautious approach will never lead to Mars.
For all the fanfare over private missions, Nasa is the elephant in the room. Of all the runners, it has the greatest expertise and an assured budget. Nasa is already building the Orion capsule and is constructing a new heavy-lift rocket, the inelegantly named Space Launch System. And, along with the Russians, its experience of the effects of space on the human body is huge. In 2015 – the same year that China is considering launching a satellite to the Red Planet; as Qi Faren, a retired Shenzhou spacecraft designer, recently announced – two crew members on the ISS will start a one-year stint to determine how the body would cope with the long journey to Mars.
Nasa’s eventual mission to the Red Planet will match Zubrin’s cheap and simple approach much more closely than its original, ultra-expensive schedule. But what Nasa lacks at the moment is a detailed plan. Step forward Aldrin: in his latest book, Mission to Mars, he advises Nasa first to land three astronauts on Mars’ moon, Phobos, in 2025. Its weak gravity and nearby vantage point means the astronauts could oversee the robotic construction of a planetary base before going down to land around 2031.
Future astronauts would travel to Mars in an interplanetary shuttle that continuously cycles from Earth’s orbit to Mars’. “The problems are not insuperable,” says Aldrin. “But then I’m an optimistic guy.”
If there are serious medical problems in space, the crew can’t do much: a Mars-bound capsule is not the place to undertake open-heart surgery. The best solution, then, would be to ensure that the astronauts are as healthy as possible. Mission planners have even considered removing potentially troublesome organs, such as the appendix and the gall bladder, before the crew leave Earth.
When the human body is left hanging in virtually weightless conditions, muscles atrophy and bones lose calcium. All the planned Mars spacecraft will carry exercise equipment to minimise the extent to which the astronauts’ bodies waste away.
For Inspiration Mars, it’s not such a serious problem.
Its mission is only a touch longer than the 438-day record held by Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov for his stay on the defunct Mir space station. He suffered no long-term problems and is still active at the age of 71. For Mars One, the astronauts may arrive at their destination with slightly atrophied bodies but, says Lansdorp, “on Mars, with only 38 per cent Earth-gravity, that makes them Superman!” Much more dangerous are the effects of radiation on the body. The best measurements of what astronauts will have to endure were announced in May by Cary Zeitlin of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, in the US, whose team had a radiation detector on Nasa’s Curiosity probe as it travelled to Mars in 2011. “In terms of accumulated dose, it’s like getting a whole-body CT scan once every five or six days,” he says. During the Inspiration Mars round trip, the total dose would come to just twice the amount that Curiosity experienced, much lower than previous estimates. It is also within the lifetime limit that Nasa sets for its astronauts.
The second danger comes from the sun, which also shoots out dangerous particles. Curiosity suffered only a minor dose of solar radiation damage, because our star was near the minimum of its 11-year activity cycle. The Inspiration Mars launch date means it should be treated to similarly benign solar weather.
Launched five years later, during a solar maximum, Mars One will endure exactly the opposite extremes of radiation exposure. At these times, the sun’s increased power repels particles from deep space. According to Mars One’s chief technical officer, Arno Wielders, this provides an important advantage. “Solar max means that the galactic cosmic rays – which are the most difficult to shield from – are minimised,” he says.
But during the solar maximum there is a huge surge in high-speed protons from solar flares and solar storms.
After the Apollo 16 mission, in 1972, the sun blasted out lethal bursts of radiation. If Apollo 17 had reached its target during these flares, the moonwalkers might not have come back alive.
Ironically, the best protection from protons is not heavy lead shielding but a substance rich in protons, such as the hydrogen in water or organic molecules. In the case of Inspiration Mars, the astronauts may line the inside of their spacecraft with bags that contain their dried-up excrement.
Mars One, meanwhile, plans to launch with several thousand litres of water filling a hollow shell around the crew’s sleeping compartment. At the start, it will be pure water, but as the flight progresses, more and more of the compartments will be filled with waste liquid. “We have a very nice solution,” says Lansdorp.
Once they reach the Martian surface, astronauts won’t be in as much danger as Nasa once feared. Readings from Curiosity show that the radiation levels on Mars are no worse than on board the ISS; and the colonists can shelter from solar outbursts in a buried emergency shelter – or just by heading down a Martian cave.
Ultimately, a future Mars crew would probably be in more danger from pressures within. “The biggest problem is the psychosocial pressure,” says Welch. In the case of the two-astronaut crew of Inspiration Mars: “What if one goes ape-s*** and brains the other?” There have been warnings. Two cosmonauts on the early Russian space station Salyut 7 fell out to such an extent that they would only communicate through ground control.
Inspiration Mars intends to ensure harmony by selecting a long and happily married couple. But Nick Kanas of the University of California, San Francisco, has studied isolated crews both on Earth and on the ISS – and he’s not convinced. “Sending two people who are a couple on a trip like this should not be a lot different from sending any two people. I think the crew needs to be much larger to alleviate intra-crew stress.”
A bigger crew isn’t necessarily a better crew, however.
A ground-based simulation involving 27 volunteers descended into chaos on New Year’s Eve 1999 when a Russian tried to give a Canadian crew member a kiss and a Japanese volunteer walked out over the ensuing fracas.
A more recent simulation – Mars500 – was much more successful. After careful psychological selection, a crew of six male volunteers completed the “mission” without any serious fallings-out.
Assuming Mars One is successful, Kanas is optimistic that they can create a stable society, provided the crew is large and diverse enough. If the colony is to survive, though, the first settlers must have children. Lansdorp doesn’t see that as an immediate priority. “We don’t know if women can get pregnant in Mars-gravity,” he says, let alone how a foetus would develop or a baby grow to adulthood.
The colonists would have to undertake research on pregnant animals first. “The first Mars baby may come along 10 to 15 years after the first landing.”
Mars is undoubtedly the next frontier for humankind; but would these visionaries go there themselves?
“Absolutely not,” says Tito: he insists he’s not technically competent enough to repair any problems the spacecraft might suffer en route. Lansdorp would still love to go, but his competition rules him out.
“I will be very excited when the first crew leaves for Mars – but also extremely jealous.”