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Humans on Mars by 2023?

Reality TV goes to Mars! Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp is leading a group visionaries and businesspeople who want to send four humans to Mars by 2023, and they say they can achieve their goal at an estimated cost of $6 billion USD. How can they do it? By building it into a global media spectacle. And oh, by the way, this will be a one-way trip.

“Who would be able to look away from an adventure such as this one?” asks Lansdorp in his bio on the Mars One website. “Who wouldn’t be compelled to watch, talk about, get involved in the biggest undertaking mankind has ever made? The entire world will be able to follow this giant leap from the start; from the very first astronaut selections to the established, independent village years later. The media focus that comes with the public’s attention opens pathways to sponsors and investors.”

As far as the one-way mission (a concept that Universe Today has written about extensively) the Mars One website notes, “this is no way excludes the possibility of a return flight at some point in the future.”

Artist concept of the Mars One lander, a variant on the SpaceX Dragon. Credit: Mars One

The difference between this mission and the one proposed by Jim McLane back in 2008 is that McLane wanted to send just one person to Mars.

However, the Mars One group says that once the first trip is successful and Mars becomes developed, it will be “much easier to build the returning rocket there.”

In a Q&A on reddit, Lansdorp said the biggest challenge will be financing.

“We have estimated, and discussed with our suppliers that it will cost about 6 billion US$ to get the first crew of four people to Mars. We plan to organize the biggest media event ever around our mission. When we launch people to Mars and when they land, the whole world will watch. After that a lot of people will be very interested to see how ‘our people on Mars’ are doing.”

But the big challenge is that the biggest expenditures will be building the equipment before they send people to Mars. “This is why we are building a very strong technical case now. If we can convince sponsors and investors that this will really happen, then we believe that we can convince them to help us finance it,” Lansdorp said.

As far as technologies, Mars One expects to use a SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy as a launch vehicle, a transit vehicle/space habitat built by Thales Alenia Space, a variant on the SpaceX Dragon as the lander, an inflatable habitat built by ILC Dover, a rover vehicle by MDA Space Missions, and Mars spacesuits made by Paragon.

The project website says “no new technologies” will be needed, but does any space agency or company really have a good handle on providing providing ample air, oxygen, energy, food and water for extended (lifetimes?) periods of time? Instead, the website provides more details on FAQ’s like, What will the astronauts do on Mars? Why should we go to Mars? Is it safe to live on Mars? How does the Mars base communicate with Earth? And the Mars One team emphasizes that this can be done with current technology. However, no one really knows how to land large payloads on Mars yet, so at least some development will be required there.

Who will go? Later this year they will begin to take applications and eventually 40 people will take part in a rigid, decade-long training program (which sounds very expensive) where the ‘contestants” will essentially be voted off the island to get to the final four astronauts. The selection and training process will be broadcast via television and online to public, with viewers voting on the final selected four.

It’s an intriguing proposition, but one filled with technological hurdles. I’ve just finished reading Ben Bova’s “Mars,” so I’m also thinking the Mars One folks will need to be on the lookout for micrometeorite swarms.

Mars One website.


Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today's Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT's Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Brenda Jean Louise June 7, 2012, 12:25 PM

    A one way trip? Now that’s preposterous. Especially for a first run attempt. No new technology? Methinks a fradulent scheme is afoot. But then again, there are plenty of dupes willing to vote against the Democrats for one reason or another. -P.T.Barnum said there’s a sucker born every minute-

  • lcrowell June 7, 2012, 1:28 PM

    Gerard ‘t Hooft is one of the major physicist of the latter 20th century. I think he initially had it right about this. It is interesting that he later signed off on this program. There is a curious tendency for great scientists to go off on some quirky trend in their later career Hawking recently sounded off about invading space aliens, and Pauling spend the last decades of his life on a bizarre vitamin C trend.

    This program is the last thing I would want to do. If you do go to Mars you are forced to spend the rest of your life confined in this cramped habitat cobbled together from capsule-landers. Going outside of course requires wearing a spacesuit. This appears to be a perfect prescription for going insane.

    This program is clearly designed to work on some absolute minimum. The quoted $6 billion cost is absurdly low of course, where such a mission profile on even the most minimal engineering specs would likely cost ten times that. It also means that to reduce costs thing like the health physics or safety concerns are minimized. The crew of this mission would be subjected to a constant dose of radiation up to 10 times that on Earth, and solar CMEs could produce transient radiation doses far higher. In fact the crew could die before they even reach Mars because of this.

    Without continual follow on missions there is no point to this. Putting four astronaut-colonists on Mars so they live out to the last of their days is of no purpose unless there is some follow up of more astronaut-colonists. It seems strange to just put up this colony on Mars only to watch the inhabitants age and die, probably fairly quickly due to radiation induced cancer or sickness, and to terminate the program there. If the purpose of this is to explore Mars then it seems preferable to put robots on Mars.


    • Gore Gogore June 8, 2012, 6:15 PM

      you`re joking right ? Cause there are a lot of us that believes it`s nicer to die there than here of the same problems as one would die there (only from other causes)…I for example prefer to die the death of a conqueror than the slow death of a slave. Even if a slave of the Earth…

      • lcrowell June 8, 2012, 8:42 PM

        There is a host of things not right with this idea. The average temperature of Earth is about that of freezing water. The average temperature on Mars is that of dry ice. It is really cold. So one little bit that appears to have been neglected is the necessary propane service needed just to keep warm. Oh and yeah, you need to have the oxygen service as well given the Martian thin atmosphere of CO_2. It will require a lot of solar panels to run anything, particularly given the solar irradiance is about half that on Earth. It would require football fields of solar panels to provide electric heat. This project did not mention dragging a nuclear power plant with them.

        Frankly I could well imagine growing old in some place like New Caledonia, spending my last years on the beach, enjoying the warm sunsets and generally farting around. That sounds a whole lot better than hunkering down in some space habitat that after a couple of years will start to smell like a locker room.


        • wjwbudro June 9, 2012, 12:34 AM

          Was wondering when someone was going to address the basics, like the need to breath, eat and maintain body temp for a few years or so?

          • lcrowell June 9, 2012, 1:26 AM

            The website is pretty glib about some of these issues. In particular one of the landers is a supply store with all the food and so forth. Again that is not gong to work. The average human consumes about a half ton of food a year. For four people on Mars that is two tons per year, 20 tons for a decade and … . Growing food would be very hard. You would have to set up a biodome of some kind with complicated environmental controls, oxygen production, CO_2 scrubbers and so forth. The Martian soil would have to be completely reconditioned chemically and biologically. The Martian regolith is full of perchlorates, so growing something in that would be like watering your garden with bleach. Since the material is biologically dead FAPP, you would need to carry fertilizer to set up a biodome for gardening or horticulture. If there are Martian microbes living in that regolith that complicates things considerably. The challenge would be formidable and very expensive.

            This is the latest of the space colony fantasies, which I suspect will burn off like the morning fog as have previous ones. Seriously, the more you think about it the problems with really trying to live on another planet are huge. Even just a visit is a tough problem. The other thing is that extreme environments humans have gone into always involve a type of enclosure with a complicated environmental system. There have been some undersea habitats established for a while, Antarctic stations are much the same, and clearly any habitat system in space is a double down on the same. These extreme environments mean one is not going into then for the freedom of expanse and elbow room, but really one is forced into a confined enclosure. So far all of these have required constant resupply trips from the outside world as well. The more extreme the environment the more costly is the maintenance of a habitat, the more supplies and fuel are needed, and the more its inhabitants rely with their lives upon the functional working order of the system. In the case of something in space you have the energy costs of getting out of Earth’s gravity field and with Mars you have the long distance between the two planets as well.

            We may simply have to face the possibility that space is something we can explore by virtual reality through probes, instruments or robots around or on other planets, but which is simply not a set of environments we humans are going to set ourselves up in.


          • wjwbudro June 10, 2012, 1:37 AM

            Thanks LC. It amazes me that these pie in the sky ideas keep making headlines; A few backers with a few billion and we’re on our way! The issues you hit on are but a scratch on the surface. I have but a mere fraction of the knowledge you possess and with just a bit of research even I can appreciate the complexity, not to mention draining Fort Knox (assuming there’s something left to drain) to finance it.

          • lcrowell June 10, 2012, 2:19 PM

            There are a range of issues glibly discussed. The colony does not seem to have a general power system, nor are the power requirements per person laid out. Manned space systems are worked out into great detail, down to how many grams of food or kilowatts of power per day are used by each of the crew. This grand idea seems to ignore an explicit requirements or specs for a general power system that can run life support systems, lighting, water recycling and so forth.

            This is really more absurd than the recent announcement about mining asteroids. This ignored a large number of complicated issues. It is easy to draw up a web page with pictures or video CGI depictions, just as artists in the 1950s drew up pictures of lunar colonies or the big circular station in space and so forth. I suspect that in time this will fade out as have other space colony ideas.

            If there is even a slim chance for humanity in space, it must come with the next economic step. As near as I can see, this next step most likely or probable is with solar power satellites. The human element might come in with the maintenance of such systems. The commodity is massless and nowhere as complicated as mineral extraction from an asteroid. Solar power satellites have at this time a margin of a clear mission objective, by way contrast with plopping several guys down on Mars to live out the rest of their lives.


  • DavidKSharp June 7, 2012, 3:18 PM

    I like Zubrin’s Idea of sending a light front loader/backhoe. Remember that a Methane burning internal combustion engine can run in Mars atmosphere. A trench (some explosives might be needed) say 15 meters by 30 meters could be excavated and lightweight modular composite arches could then be erected to span the trench and covered with composite panels that are rolled over or laid across the arches and covered with a meter of soil. at the end of the trench, which would shallow out to the surface, an airlock could be fixed in place and sealed off with soil. This would create a huge radiation proof pressurized volume in which modular composite structures could be built. In fact, I’m note sure that Zubrin’s Mars Direct plan couldn’t be done for the same price as Mars One which would not strand people there for the rest of their lives.I encourage everyone to read his book, “The Case for Mars” and compare it to this plan. Mars One would cost 6 Billion according to McLane but Zubrin’s Mars Direct was estimated to be around 4 to 8 Billion if done by the private sector (40 Billion if by NASA) for ten manned missions.

  • DavidKSharp June 7, 2012, 3:25 PM

    I’m not sure that Zubrin’s Mars Direct plan, which would not strand people on the planet for the rest of their lives, couldn’t be done for the same price as Mars One .I encourage everyone to read Zubrin’s book, “The Case for Mars” and compare it to this plan. Mars One would cost 6 Billion according to McLane but Zubrin’s Mars Direct was estimated to be around 4 to 8 Billion if done by the private sector for ten manned missions.

  • DarkGnat June 7, 2012, 3:29 PM

    I think setting up an outpost in a cave or lava tube would be best, as it would shield them from radiation. However they will still get high doses on the way to Mars. A powerful magnetic field might protect them, but it would also make it difficult to communicate with the spacecraft.

    A one way trip is lunacy though. The “contestants” would probably begin to suffer from various mental disorders within months. They may lose it, and decide to take a walk without a pressure suit or something.

    I could see a temporary trip, with a return vehicle. Yes it doubles (at least) the cost of the mission, but allowing the astronauts to come back as heros would be a major moral booster for the world. Plus leaving them to die (send all the supplies you want, but that’s still what it is) is just wrong. I’m sure they will have to sign a waver, but what if they change their minds and beg to come home? Are we cruel enough to leave them? If we are going to send supply ships, why not send a return ship?

    This would make a great movie (with actors and special effects) but not a “reality” show.

    That said, I could see a “Survivor – LEO” show someday.

    • delphinus100 June 7, 2012, 6:12 PM

      “A powerful magnetic field might protect them, but it would also make it difficult to communicate with the spacecraft.”

      Magnetic fields don’t affect the passage of radio-frequency signals…but if not carefully excluded from the ship’s habitable volumes, strong magnetic fields have biological effects of their own…

      • Bertie Seyffert June 7, 2012, 11:54 PM

        A strong magnetic field inside a planet’s atmosphere would very likely generate a plasma in the area it affects. It’s this plasma which could hinder the passage of radio waves… Also, having a plasma to walk through each time you need to go outside would be quite a technical hassle, I think.

        • delphinus100 June 8, 2012, 1:41 AM

          DarkGnat was addressing exposure ‘on the way to Mars.’

          Once on the surface, you have passive brute-force mass options. Especially if you can indeed find stable, accessible caves and lavatubes.

    • M Peter Selman June 7, 2012, 6:43 PM

      A non-metallic, inflatable habitat with a high hydrogen content would provide good radiation protection. Surrounding the habitable space with drinking-water, which doubles as storage, can further reduce radiation exposure.

  • Torbjörn Larsson June 7, 2012, 7:18 PM

    I just saw this proposal yesterday, and now it explodes with interest here!

    What they have managed to do is to cover the enterprize with a possible media cash inflow throughout. I didn’t believe that was possible, so initially I had the same reaction as the wellknown physicist ‘t Hooft.

    Now, that ‘t Hooft changed his mind may not mean much.*

    The entrepreneuralship of Lansdorp is what I can see confined to a wind energy startup that proposes to use automatic sailplanes reeling out lines to generate electric power. Needless to say the market for such technology is limited as they run up against safety and land use constraints.

    I think this technological naiveté is mirrored in parts of the suggested venture.

    Crafts have to be transported within a larger landing zone by rovers that seem to use solar power – the current MERs provide some few hundred watt – or possibly by methane & oxygen insitu production from the martian CO2 atmosphere by hauling seed hydrogen with.

    In my personal summation, a not too insane proposal that could work at least as well as similar ones. Commercial competition will be good for the area in any case.

    no one really knows how to land large payloads on Mars yet, so at least some development will be required there.

    That is correct, but the recent NASA study on the Red Dragon concept seem to verify that you can land a Dragon with at least 1 mt of cargo in the lower parts of Mars (~ 1 km below the geode). Especially the northern plains would be a reasonable target.

    This already approach or exceed the capability of the NASA type of sky crane. A larger Dragon would presumably land a larger cargo mass.

    * ‘t Hooft, as so many theoretical physicists, puts part of his effort into exploratory science. But he has now long been on a sustained effort to show the basis for quantum mechanics wrong and replace it with a classical statistical approach, one of the very predictions QM makes is an erroneus approach.

  • pepper2000 June 7, 2012, 10:10 PM

    It would be neat to put humans on Mars, but I think the benefits of doing so are rather amorphous and overstated. We are already learning a vast amount through rovers, and I think that continuing to use rovers to explore Mars, and other planets/moons, will be of much greater value, not to mention greater practicality, than humans. Think about the advances in robotics and even artificial intelligence that would have great benefits on Earth.

    • delphinus100 June 8, 2012, 1:50 AM

      “We are already learning a vast amount through rovers, and I think that continuing to use rovers to explore Mars, and other planets/moons,”

      You assume that ‘science’ is the only, or even the main reason humans leave Earth. It’s not. Science is rightly along for the ride, but it never has been the real reason.

      If it was just basic research, and if Antarctica is any kind of model, you might want a permanent presence, but not permanent colonists.

    • Aerandir90 June 8, 2012, 1:50 AM

      We could learn vastly more at greater rates if there were humans there to tend to various tasks. Carl Sagan talks about this more in his book Cosmos but just to summarize:
      1) Roving vehicles will be able to travel faster and take on more risk, not just in terms of speed but also without long communication delays preventing an unmanned rover from getting far quickly.
      2) Human eyes and dexterity can greatly complement our friendly bots to perform quicker science and therefore make on-spot decisions about what rock to peer at or what crater to go to next.
      3) Humans can perform several maintenance tasks thus extending the lifespans of equipment/vehicles.

      Of course this all comes at the cost of human life-support but then again, can you truly put a price on questions like ‘Did/does Mars have life?’

      All that talk by the way leaves out the idea of colonizing Mars which sounds like something which I feel almost certain of transpiring by the end of this millennium at the very latest.

  • Bertie Seyffert June 8, 2012, 12:04 AM

    This is freakin amazing!!!!!!!!! I would even consider going!! Wow!!! The moment commercial space flight gets a decent success, it seems, things really start happening!!! Many people have commented that we’ve been capable of getting there for years, and perhaps now that space flight has been liberated from a controlled administration into a free marketplace, it will!!!

    On a more serious note: I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Red Mars” a while back (awesome book!) where a large group is taken for training and slowly whittled down to a group of 100 to settle mars for a year, and in it Robinson has some very interesting technical themes, such as the use of bamboo as a building material. The main point being that in a lower gravity the materials don’t need to be as strong, and as it so happens (according to Robinson) bamboo fits beautifully as a building material on Mars! Now, I’m not suggesting they build buildings with the stuff, but still, imagine how cool it would be if they made the interior of their capsules/habitats even more liveable with bamboo furniture/stuff 😀

    Very random, I know. Just thought I’d share 😀

  • Kawarthajon June 8, 2012, 3:56 AM

    Yeah, they sure are hoping that it will be a media spectacle – they need money, lots and lots and lots and lots of money, to pull off a stunt like this. I don’t think they will be able to pull it off, however. Right now, they are just hoping that the spectacle will be enough to raise some cash and pay their salaries. Maybe good advertising for some of the other things the company does.

    Besides, $6 billion is peanuts. They will need a lot more than $6 billion to pull this off, I don’t care if they aren’t bringing people back. It costs about $5 billion to retrofit a nuclear power plant here on Earth, $1.5 billion per space shuttle launch and I really doubt they can pull off a Mars mission for a mere $6 billion. So beware potential investors – they will keep asking you for more and more money!

  • tenstripe June 8, 2012, 4:47 AM

    A one way trip would be alright if it were in the right circumstances. First, a quality life would have to be sustainable indefinately. The first martians would have to be at right age with several skill sets. They would know and accept the one way mission; nobody is going to live forever. Why stay several years then come back and die anyway? Once people settle down they really don’t like to move anyway.

  • Dick Fineman June 8, 2012, 2:55 PM

    all they need to do is land near the Face, find Don Cheadle, and decipher the genetic code that unlocks the entrance. It was always going to be a one way trip… 😛