Federico Barni focuses his telescope on the hopes and doubts of the private space age
In late September, when the Mangalyaan Indian spacecraft entered Mars’ orbit, we were reminded of the high prestige space missions still hold in the international community. Some think this was the spark needed to reignite a space race that seems to have lost its public appeal.
In this age where private interests and capitals dominate the world’s economy, it’s perhaps unsurprising that commercial companies are already turning their gaze to the stars.
Despite the recent accident, Virgin Galactic is intending to continue developing space tourism with their suborbital flight programs, and SpaceX’s unmanned Dragon rocket now regularly supplies the International Space Station.
MarsOne, a Dutch startup born in 2012, is planning to “establish the foundation of a permanent Martian settlement from which we will prosper, learn, and grow”. No plans for the return of the four initial astronauts leaving Earth in 2025 have been devised.
Those lucky (or unlucky) enough to pass the audition and selection phases will get to be trained specifically to spend the rest of their existence in a pre-built biosphere on Mars. According to MarsOne CEO Bas Lansdorp, the economical and logistical complications of a return mission are the only obstacles to a successful and realistic plan. This claim appears to be supported by a number of academics and manufacturers.
Not everyone shares Lansdorp’s optimism. Deadly solar and galactic radiation can reach Mars’ surface undisturbed, probably resulting in high radiation exposure, vomiting, diarrhea and the colonists’ consequential deaths. Even if they survived that enticing sequence of events, there are also the psychological consequences of choosing to spend the rest of your life in isolation to consider.
Adding to the skepticism, MIT scientists have recently released an accurate analysis of MarsOne’s technical plans, highlighting some fundamental flaws. The report generally criticises the optimism of the proposal, demonstrating for example that 200 square metres of growing space will be needed to sustain the settlers, instead of the 50 initially proposed.
Yet the tone of the report is not entirely negative. The team only considers the mission to be unfeasible under the assumptions originally made, and point out what technologies to invest in and which problems still need solving.
Technical concerns are not the only difficulty that MarsOne has to face. Lansdorp’s plan is to fund this project on the basis of donations, merchandising, sponsorships and the sale of media rights. While it has been reported that donations, as of 25 January 2014, amounted to $313,744, with $400,000 being the initial goal, the mission is calculated to require $6 billion.
One of the biggest revenues is expected to come from the sale of the rights to televise the events which, together with the selection and training process, will be broadcast as Reality TV. Many criticised the move as being cheap – but the idea to exploit the consumer’s voyeurism to make a profit, whilst simultaneously elevating an intellectually poor medium to tell an unprecedented story, might be one of the most original aspects of the project.
Although it’s unlikely that a small Dutch startup will succeed in raising 6 billion dollars in this way, a recent investigation conducted by the Journal of Cosmology estimated that television broadcast of such a project, if backed by governments, could bring in about 30 billion $USD alone.
Finally, the unlikelihood of return even in a successful scenario raises ethical questions. Many criticise the idea of sacrificing one’s own life for the sake of science and exploration. Recently, a Fatwa officially issued by the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment has declared one-way missions to Mars as fundamentally suicidal, and therefore in conflict with Islamic principles.
But if we adopt a different point of view, the fact the 200,000 people applied for this opportunity might mean that humanity is still capable of inspiring idealism and ambition.
The MarsOne project definitely seems to presents significant shortcomings in its mission architecture, but certainly brought its own contribution to the international debate. It was capable of attracting the attention of researchers, and raised the possibility of a privately funded second space age.
While its human ambassadors might never reach Mars, the future might look upon MarsOne as a naive yet visionary attempt that paved the way for greater things to come.
Featured image credit: D Mitriy/Wikipedia