Should we go to Mars as a united planet Earth?

Yesterday I read an interesting article on the Explore Mars Inc website. An oped which will also be published in several media outlets. The crux of the story is very straightforward; “We should head to Mars as a united planet Earth”. Recent events in the space industry though makes me wonder. “Should we go to Mars as a united earth”?

Working together.
Now, I have to point out, I’m a member of Explore Mars Netherlands and therefor somewhat biased. Nevertheless I’ll give my own opinion. The article notes the great success of the unmanned robot rover Curiousity. Also it laments the end of cooperation between ESA and NASA on the future ExoMars project. The authors point out how succesful international cooperation is and as an example they mention the ISS. Even though the ISS is seen as a big white elephant.

Big white elephant ISS
A big white elephant?

The ISS project did finish though and is regularly used. Whether everybody is happy with the ISS and its operational costs remains to be seen. Explore Mars Inc sees the ISS as a model for getting big space projects started and finished and urges for a Sample Return Mission to Mars in the manner of international cooperation. As mentioned the scientific interest for a Sample Return Mission is clearly present. The question is how deep this interst is but how wide.

Robot fatigue.
From this point on I start to have my doubts. Curiousity may be a huge engineering success an its photos are again stunning, it doesn’t get the attention anymore of the wider public. Curiousity really is a big monster, but it isn’t exactly regularly frontpage news. The public and politicians are getting perhaps a bit of robot fatigue and Curiousity could be the last big robot to Mars. So what has happened? Short answer, a shifting focus.

Yet another big white elephant
Martian Sample Return Mission.

Shifting focus.
In fact, what the ISS did cause was a sense that international cooperation was expensive and cumbersome. At the time just after the cold war it was an excellent project to do and it did help to improve relations between former enemies. It also pointed to a severly disfunctional Space Shuttle program. The US clearly needed to reasses its manned space program.

And so it did. Gradually it allowed private parties to deliver space services in stead of NASA. For instance SpaceX is delivering cargo to the ISS as we speak. Also the US started to facilitate private companies to do their own “space thing” outside of NASA. Space tourism was born. These new policies will have implications for future space projects.

Big brother goes to Mars.
An important implication is that the attention of the media and the public is put back to Earth. In the near future it will be possible for average Joe to go suborbital and with a bit more money go full orbit. Suddenly space isn’t something exclusively for space and science geeks, you know, that 0.1% of the population. Space has become truely commercial. When we talk space we mention Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Burt Rutan etc.

One of the more adventurous commercial space projects is Mars One. This Dutch enterprise envisiones a one way ticket to Mars. This journey will use off the shelf commercial hardware and is fully private funded. No sciency jusification needed. It pays by streaming 24×7 the daily life of the crew to Earth just like Big Borther. On route and on Mars.

At the crossroads.
Will a United States or an EU still be interested in big ticket international projects like a Sample Return Mission when the public wants to go suborbital or visit a space hotel? Will the nations go to Mars as “One” if the true frontier and the commercial opportunities are near Earth? If commercial space keeps going forward we might have to choose which path to go. Big scientific robotic government programs catering for a tiny public of scientists or commercial space enterprises for a wide audience.

My guess is the future is rather like Mars One and less like yet antoher big white elephant of scientific space robot. We space geeks live in exciting times. Thanks to commercial space we see a glimmer of hope of the science fiction we love come true. If only for a tourist ride to near Earth Space.

A one way trip to Mars with Mars One

Recently Mars One got a lot of attention in the Dutch media, Arno Wielders did some television work and the organasation got to do a radio interview. Started in May 2012, Mars One certainly had its fair share of time in the spotlights. Maybe I finally should write my thoughts about it.

Well, what does Mars One want? In a nuttshell, a permanent settlement of humans on Mars. and do they want to accomplish that? By using of the shelf technology and finance the project purely commercially. As a big television event.

Mars One isn’t the first one to come up with a plan to colonize Mars. NASA tried it, but came with a ridiculous expensive project which was shot down almost immediately. With that bad experience in mind, the Mars Society presented their Mars Direct plan. The first practical approach to put humans on Mars.

Mars Direct uses off the shelf technology and tries to keep costs as low as possible. It did take a page from NASA, the astronauts returned back to earth after the visit to Mars. This does complicates things, you need to create an infrastructure to bring the people back.

Mars One Base
A permanent base on Mars envisioned by Mars One. Photo: Mars One

Also, like NASA, Mars Direct assumes that the astronauts will have to do something “useful”. Obviously that would be doing sciency stuff and since time on Mars is limited, the astronauts can’t be bothered with all kinds of mondane tasks. Like setting up a settlement. Another big issue of doing science as your main task is that you will come in conflict with the “robot crowd”. And that’s a can of political worms you don’t want to open.

So how does Mars One go about it. First, they make their intention quite clear. They want a permanent settlement of humans on Mars. Secondly, science isn’t their main goal. Instead they want a kind of “Big Brother” in space. A continous media stream of the daily life of the settlers will pay the bill of this endeavour. But most importantly, the journey is a one way ticket.

A one way ticket to Mars has been proposed earlier but got very negative reaction for being suicidal. It is a very clever idea though. It prevent much complcation and saves ton of money. Probably due to the rise of firms like SpaceX, Mars One doesn’t seem to crazy. Elon Musk has similar ideas about humans in space and has proven that it is possible to create a much cheaper space infrastructure.

For now Mars One has the wind in its sails. They can base their plan on the technologies developed by the likes of SpaceX and thanks to all the commercial space hooplah Mars One isn’t depicted as a bunch of lunatics. Also, not interfering with the science crowd (and their precious budgets), their Mars settlers can focus on one thing only, setting up a permanent settlement.

Mars One explains much better their project than I’ll ever can. They’ve got a fantastic website, well made and very clear. One last note, the roadmap they envision is awfully tight. I doubt it is possible on such a short notice, but that might not be that important. What counts is that Mars One presented a realistic and affordable plan to put humans on Mars. If it will be 2033 instead of 2023 would fine with me. I definitely will blog more on clubs like Mars One, what drives them and put my own spin ont it.