Mars One: Balancing Skepticism and Optimism

There are lots of “ifs” in a controversial plan to send people to Mars by 2025.

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Mars One, a private enterprise founded in the Netherlands to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars, was again in the news: The first round of finalists had been selected—culled from about 200,000 people down to 1,058. Some of the hopefuls, who are globally distributed, had come forward to give more media exposure to the idea, and perhaps also revenue for the project. So when I learned that Bas Lansdorp, CEO of Mars One, was going to be a keynote speaker at the Product Innovation Congress held last month in Berlin, I was anxious to hear his talk.

The project’s roadmap is ambitious to say the least. Mars One plans to send the first humans to Mars by 2025, after rover and cargo missions are launched in 2020 and 2022 to prepare for the human settlement. Crew training is supposed to start next year, and the initial robotic outpost is slated to be operational by 2023.

Can this really be done? Three aspects of the project need to be evaluated: technology, expertise, and budget.

Lansdorp claims the settlement can be built using only existing technology. When Paul Davies and I put together our book on a one-way mission to Mars, which drew on the expertise of several contributors, we came to a similar conclusion. Some issues still need to be worked out, including enhanced protection from solar flares while the spacecraft travels from Earth to Mars. But in general, we are nearly there. If the will and the needed finances are in place, we could be ready within a few years.

There’s more reason to worry about the project’s expertise. Mars One distinguishes between team members, advisers, and ambassadors. With a few noteworthy exceptions, the expertise of the involved participants does not seem to match what would be needed for such a bold project.

The largest looming question, of course, is money. The idea of having such a huge project funded solely by donations, sponsorships, merchandising, and the sale of media rights is daring, and I have a very difficult time seeing how it could come to fruition. There have been some great ideas about using such an approach, but a slick website won’t be enough. Perhaps I’m too much of a skeptical dinosaur.

After Lansdorp’s talk, I met with him and had a chance to voice some of my skepticism, especially regarding the finances. I’m still skeptical, but a bit more optimistic. Much will depend on whether the planned robotic rover mission succeeds. If it does, there’s a good chance that this bold endeavor might work out after all. And frankly, it may be the only game in town. I consider the chances of a NASA- or ESA-sponsored Mars mission within the next 20 years to be zero for all practical purposes.

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