There have been some recent movement in the private sector involving manned missions to Mars. One called Inspiration Mars plans a manned flyby in 2018, another known as Mars One plans a one way trip to Mars with a manned landing in 2023. This one is particularly interesting as over 200,000 people applied to become the first Martians, never to return to Earth.
These “missions” have nice web sites, and great goals but are the plans realistic? It does not take any real engineering to put a web site together with a bunch of lofty goals so lets do a little experiment with one of these projects. We apply some basic logic and systems engineering, Lets take a closer look at the Mars One mission.
If you look at the Mars One web site they have outlined a plan to establish a permanent residence on Mars by 2023, no return trip to Earth needed. They will use a series of Dragon (or other) capsules connected together as a habitat to form a home for the new Martians. Here is the basic plan and schedule:
2013 – Start Crew Selection
2015 – Start Crew Training
2016 – Launch a Communications Satellite to Mars
2018 – Launch a Rover to Mars
2020 – Launch outposts to Mars
2021 – Outpost Operational
2022 – Launch Crew to Mars
2023 – Landing of crew 1
2024 – Landing of crew 2
To accomplish this they intend to use commercial technology like the Falcon 9 and the Dragon capsule. (Neither of which have yet put a man into orbit). According to their web suite “Mars One mission plan integrates components that are well tested and readily available from industry leaders worldwide.” Let us now look at each phase of their plan and see how realistic it is.
Crew selection and start training by 2015.
Well how hard is that really. People apply, you pick them and your done. Why this part of the project takes two years seems a bit odd but that is the plan. So far so good.
Launch a communications satellite to Mars by 2016.
Things start to get a bit more difficult here. They state they will use existing technology such as the Falcon 9, but these technologies do not yet exist, and even if they did one does not just walk up to the rocket store and say give me a Falcon please. These have to be ordered years in advance.
It is 2013 now, if a rocket has not even been ordered yet it is already to late to make the launch date. As for the communications satellite you cannot go to radio shack and get one of these either. A few years for construction would be a small miracle all by itself. Of course you also have to design the satellite, build ground stations to listen to it, or get them from somewhere else like NASA’s deep space network. They boast on the site their communications satellite will have data bandwidth about 4 times that of the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. That is great…good luck with that.
Launch a rover to Mars by 2018
Well if you thought getting a satellite to mars by 2016 was hard, a lander is going to be even more of a challenge. Designing and building a rover in time to launch it and get it to Mars in the next five years will be something that has never been done in the history of all the space programs in the world. The soft landing, communications, and hundreds of other technical issues are daunting.
Launch Outposts to Mars in 2020
This one is particularly interesting. They want to launch Dragon capsules to Mars, six of them to be exact. Using the “rover signal as a beacon” (This also assumes the rover stays alive and functioning for two years on the surface of Mars).
Outpost Operational by 2021
The intend to put the capsules that have landed on mars on a traitor and tow them up to 10 kilometers to the base camp using the rovers..Wow. Our current mars rovers have not managed to travel nearly this far, On top of just traveling the will be lifting a large heavy capsule onto a trailer and then towing it. Once that is done the automated outpost will also do other cool but never before done things like dig up Martian soil, extract water from it to make oxygen and water for drinking. Then somehow deposit the used soil on top of the inflatable habitat modules for radiation shielding. Again NASA has managed to get a few scoops of soil analyzed, but nothing like this. Mars one is not only going to find an area with enough soil borne water to support the crew they are going to dig the soil up, using robotics, and extract the needed water. Perhaps that would be good for them to test this on Earth first to see how viable it really is.
Launch Crew in 2022 and land in 2023
If they manage to get this far they will have demonstrated they are the finest set of engineers and program managers in the history of manned space flight. The concept of a one way trip is something that may be hard to swallow but it may indeed be the best option. Unlike the Moon Mars may actually have life, bacteria still there. If we send men there do we really want to take a chance and return them, and these Martian organisms back with them? Not only does it make the logistics of sending men there (you don’t need to launch a rocket from Mars to return them), it is safer for the rest if us on Earth.
A private manned mission to Mars is a great idea, can it happen, sure. Is this a firmly engineered plan that has hope of succeeding, you be the judge. We look forward to 2016 when they launch their first piece of hardware to see if they stay on track.