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.

Neil Armstrong passed away

Since I’m a bit involved in Explore Mars I got a somewhat closer to one of the first men walking on the moon, Buzz Aldrin. Well, probably as close I’ll ever get. Buzz is an advisor to Explore Mars. Still, it must be awsome to the American Explore Mars members to work with Buzz now and then.

Neil Armstrong passed away

Yesterday, August 25th, the other one, Neil Armstrong passed away. Old age got the better of him and he died from complications during a surgery. I was too young when Gagarin died but Neil and Buzz were always there, alive and kicking. It is odd now that the first man on moon isn’t among us anymore.

That first moonlanding is now 43 years ago and I’ll bet you that in the many commentaries, blogs, articles, etcetera, the question will asked, “why did we stop at the moon and didn’t we go any further?”. People no doubt will reflect on Armstrongs death and conclude that manned space got stuck and there was no progress after the Apollo program.

Progress is a relative term. Progress implies a starting point and a direction, when neither is made explicit the usage of the word progress will sound empty. A lot has happened since Apollo, most importantly a fledgling new direction for progress is suggested. Commercial manned space travel, tourist to low earth orbit and perhaps beyond.

Off the beaten track
Sometimes the old direction isn’t perhaps the best one and it is better to choose a new one. In the Space industry this can take a long time, but it is possible. Elon Musk saw that the old way of doing space travel had its best time and started is own rocket company. Musk showed us that there is another way. A new organization, Mars One, completely baffled the mainstream media with their “one way ticket” to Mars. And surprisingly Mars One wasn’t dismissed as a bunch of nutcases.

It will be a long road still towards a Space civilaization, whether on Mars or somewhere else. Scientific research is still seen by many, even manned space advocates, as the only reason for our presence in space. Of course this is false and it makes the proponents for manned space travel, like Explore Mars and the Mars Society, an easy target for the opponents of a human presence in space, like the Planetary Society.

Neil Armstrong didn’t do to much about space advocacy, I believe. Buzz Aldrin, on the other hand, is a staunch proponent of humans in space. I hope Buzz will be among us for many years in order to spread the good word. And I hope people will see the Apollo program as just one of many possible direction and not as the last really big achievement of western civilization, because we have done so much more since then.

Steve Jobs died

Never owned one piece of an Apple product, no hardware no software. Still, I’m very sad that Steve Jobs died last Wednesday. He was one of a very select group of people that changed, touched life’s of so many individuals across the world.

Without him personal computing would have looked a lot different today and probably the industry wouldn’t be pushed to provide computers for the ordinary consumer.

Personally the rise of consumer computing (whether be PC, tablet or other way mobile) affected me in two ways. First it gave me the chance to make a career shift when I needed it the most. It gave me the possibility to earn a decent wage and to create a bit of security which most people in my situation will find hard to do.

Secondly, personal computing allowed me to be a space geek in stead of a just a space enthusiast. Thanks to my computer skills I could start doing the website for the Mars Society and now its successor Explore Mars. It brought me in contact with many other space geek-s, one of them who actually had flown in space.

Steve Jobs died

There is one other point I want to bring up, Steve Jobs was a visionary and he was able make his vision a reality. In many respects he shares this aspect with leaders in the space community, to have a bold dream and make it real, to envision a different and better world and then pursue it.

People die, that’s nature for you. Hopefully they leave something behind, Steve Jobs certainly did in a game changing way. Probably the coming days people will talk on and on about the loss of Jobs, but it is perhaps better to start to look at that tiny little dream you have and honour Jobs by making that small idea a reality.

Shortage of engineers

Recently my thoughts were wandering to the state of engineering in Holland these day. I do have a degree in mechanical engineering, though I’m working almost fourteen years in IT as a specialist. Now and then I get a bit nostalgic.

Usually I google on “shortage of engineers”, a lament from the industry which it is moaning about for at least twenty years. And behold, a small search results in articles as recent as this year. To many vacancies and to few student, Holland will descend in the Dark Ages if immediate action isn’t taken.

“Shortage? Really?”.
Unfortunately, this is not my experience and of many others, no doubt. I started my career in engineering as expected with my fresh degree and saw some industrial companies from the inside. What struck me most is that these companies were really struggling, as a result I was sacked twice.

Money was short and so was pay, those companies that were not in the red were very hardnosed to their employees. Cheap office space, no perks, and most of all they tended to sack their precious engineers at short notice when the economy went south.

Now that was many years ago and I made a switch to IT and the financial industry. An excellent decision. So did, and still does, exist really a shortage of engineers? Short answer, “no”.

Yet how does a western nation as Holland keep its level of high consumption? It clearly is lacking in innovation of new products, for which you need plenty of engineers. Innovation is a government policy for about 20 years and they keep failing at it. Also I can’t remember in recent years a new mind blowing product Holland showed the world. It is a riddle which is bugging me for many years. Especially now a see a lot of high value production (think Philips) and IT jobs going to Asia.

Borrow as if there’s no tomorrow.
I’m able to come up with only a few possible answers.

  • First, most production is local and can’t outsourced that easily. Think of toilet paper, canned food, produce etc. How badly does one need to innovate a can of fruit is syrup? The production of all this local consumption only need maintenance. Since only recently babyboomers starting to leave the workforce en masse, an urgent need for engineers didn’t exist really.
  • Secondly, we borrowed heavily from future generation. Most western nations have a serious debt problem, especially the Dutch households with its infamous mortgage scheme. Both government and private citizen are deeply in debt and with this debt they bought consumption. Obviously, as we learned last couple of years, this gig is up. For the last 40 years Holland could afford to do with less engineers, since we could so easily buy our consumption from other countries with borrowed money. The lenders start to not play along though.
  • Another part of Dutch society, the pensioners, got some extra consumption thanks to risky investments by the pension funds. These funds were allowed to invest more in risky stocks an bonds, which went well as long a the market went up. And up they pretty much did after the shock of 9-11. The result was that the funds could guarantee the benefits to the pensioners, offer early retirements and keep premiums low for contributors, the workforce. Of course they were kidding themselves, the stock market went south and some funds came in serious trouble. Again, it was guaranteeing a western style consumption without the necessary production. Therefore no engineers needed.

All this reflects in a poor labour market for engineers, whence gradual lower level of entries for engineering courses. Young people decided, and still deciding, to start careers in different industries, which is possible thanks to the massive debts. Well, until now that is.

“Mum! Dad! I’m going to be an engineer!”. “Are you sure about that, fruit of my lions?”. So you still want to be an engineer, but what future awaits you? What if there aren’t enough industrial companies?

Well, since the trick of borrowing from the future will be of the table, a western consumption lifestyle has to be in lock step with a proper production level. Already the pension age is raised in Holland and most likely young people will start to save like crazy as in Japan in lieu of future pension security. Maybe we have to work until we drop or when we can afford to stop. Either way we have to produce more ourselves.

Create your own engineering job!
What we need is new engineering and industrial businesses. And not just another failing government scheme, like an “Innovatie Platform”. Easier said than done, making a product needs machines, factory facilities and serious investments up front. You can start Google or Apple in a garage, a production line is a whole different ballgame.

It is possible though, just look at America. SpaceX is a rocket producing company which successfully launches into space. As is Scaled Composite or Aerojet. Sexy new innovative companies will inspire young people to become engineer and give them a proper job. As a bonus, governments won’t have to lure teenagers to engineering schools and deceiving them with the false prospect of a guaranteed job.

My final thought is that as an engineer you shouldn’t bemoan the lack of vacancies, but perhaps create you own job by starting an engineering business. An aerospace company might be far fetched, but I think there will be new opportunities for local production. Dutch society simply can’t get any more cheap credit to buy, increasingly expensive, Asian products and services.

Concluding, the best way to stop this silly discussion about engineer shortages is to teach engineers to start their own high tech business and that way inspire new generations to become engineer.