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Are Humans Really Headed To Mars Anytime Soon?


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Mars, anyone? Six researchers from the Mars Society sport their best space duds during this 2014 simulation of the conditions that explorers of the Red Planet might face. (From left) Ian Silversides, Anastasiya Stepanova, Alexandre Mangeot and Claude-Michel Laroche.
Image credit: Micke Sebastien

With recent news headlines proclaiming that dozens of people have been selected as finalists for a Martian astronaut corps, it might seem like a trip to this alien world might finally be close at hand.

But let’s have a little reality check. What are the chances that we really will see people on the Red Planet in the next couple of decades?

Most people just don’t get how hard this would be, says Mary Lynne Dittmar, an aerospace consultant in Washington, D.C. “The distances that are involved and the complexities that are involved in going and staying there are really enormous,” she says.

Dittmar ticks off a list of challenges: The trip will take more than half a year, one way, and you’ll need to bring a bunch of food, plus oxygen. Then there’s the question of whether you can even land on a planet with such a thin atmosphere. And if people do manage to make it to the surface, the first Martians will have to cope with everything from cancer-causing radiation to dust.

“Mars has a big dust problem,” Dittmar notes.

Still, a Dutch venture called Mars One has captured the public’s imagination with its plan to colonize Mars by 2025. Bas Lansdorp, the group’s CEO, says they’ve been featured in major media outlets like CNN and the New York Times. “We’ve been on NPR — I think twice already,” Lansdorp says.

Lansdorp is a mechanical engineer by training who has worked on wind energy technology. His Mars dream started almost 20 years ago, when he was watching Dutch TV and was stunned by vivid images of the red Martian surface sent back by a NASA rover.

“For some reason that I really cannot explain, I wanted to go to Mars and build a new human settlement there,” he says.

Lansdorp believes the voyage will likely pay for itself because it will be a media spectacle. Everyone in the world will want to watch the whole adventure, he says. Mars One is planning a reality TV show with sponsorships and advertising.

“We expect it’s worth up to 10 Olympic Games’ [worth] of media revenue, which is $45 billion,” says Lansdorp.

Of course, sponsors of the Olympics can be pretty confident that their games will happen. When asked how he responds to skeptics who say that Mars One is basically just a website and a marketing plan, Lansdorp says, “I think that the people who say that really haven’t paid attention to what we’ve achieved already.”

Lots of people applied to be part of the Mars One astronaut corps — paying a fee to do so. And the group has commissioned a couple of studies from established aerospace companies.

The Mars One plan calls for first sending out a small robotic lander in 2018. Lansdorp says he can do this more cheaply than NASA. But missions like that typically cost hundreds of millions of dollars. When told that it didn’t sound like he’d raised anything like that amount of money, Lansdorp replied that “we don’t need that kind of money yet because we’re not yet building the actual lander. But these are the kinds of investments that we’re currently in negotiation for.”

How much has he raised? He won’t say.

Some longtime space watchers say they seriously doubt whether Mars One has the right stuff. “I just don’t find it a credible proposition,” says John Logsdon, a space policy specialist and professor emeritus at George Washington University.

But that doesn’t mean he thinks the idea of going to Mars in the next couple of decades is a total fantasy.

“I would like to see, once again, people leave this planet and go someplace else,” says Logsdon. “Whether I’ll be around in the 2030s to see the first missions to Mars … I hope so.”

Getting humans to Mars in the 2030s is NASA’s stated goal. The trouble, Logsdon says, is that NASA can’t expect any big infusion of cash to get the job done.

In his book After Apollo? Logsdon describes a serious proposal by NASA to push for Mars after the first moon landing. Under that plan, the first missions were scheduled for the 1980s. But President Richard Nixon didn’t go for an expensive, Apollo-like program aimed at Mars, and no other administration has either.

That means that NASA will have to cobble together the pieces of a Mars program on its current budget.

Last week, in Utah, the agency test-fired part of a new rocket that NASA says it will need to be able to go out into deep space — to the moon and beyond. The rocket’s first flight (with no people on board) should come in 2018.

“We are developing many of the different systems to move from this low, Earth-orbit phase that we’re in today with the space station, into deep space and onward toward Mars,” says Jason Crusan, director for advanced exploration systems at NASA.

But that does not impress the president of the Mars Society. “The NASA humans-to-Mars program is all sizzle and no steak,” says Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer who heads the society, which has long pushed for human missions.

NASA is building a big rocket and a little capsule, says Zubrin, but where’s key stuff like the space habitation module that you’d need for any real, long-term mission? “There is no program,” he says. “There isn’t even a plan. There’s just chatter.”

So who’s got the best shot at really making a Mars mission happen?

“No one can know the future,” says Zubrin, “but I would say that the strongest initiative going on right now — the one that’s making visible, dynamic progress — is the SpaceX initiative.”

SpaceX is the first private company to have a robotic capsule actually dock with the international space station. The firm currently delivers cargo for NASA, and may soon transport astronauts, too.

The founder of SpaceX is Elon Musk. Zubrin calls Musk “quite a person.”

“He developed spacecraft for one-tenth the cost and one-third the time that NASA and the aerospace major companies have done,” Zubrin points out.

Plus, everyone knows Musk is gung-ho for Mars. He makes no secret of the fact that he founded SpaceX to help make sure that life exists on more than one planet. Although, as he noted on Twitter last week, “The rumor that I’m building a spaceship to get back to my home planet Mars is totally untrue.”

A search online instantly turns up videos of Musk talking about why we need to go to Mars: “I just think that a future where humanity is a spacefaring civilization and out there exploring the stars is an incredibly exciting future, and inspiring,” Musk told an interviewer for the website of the Wall Street Journal a few years ago, adding, “and so that’s what we’re trying to help make happen.” Space X, he predicted, will get people to Mars in 10 to 20 years.

Musk also announced, in another recent online discussion, that sometime in 2015 he hopes to unveil plans for the Mars Colonial Transporter, a plan for getting large numbers of people to the Red Planet.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript :

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Imagine stepping into a spaceship to blast off to Mars knowing you’ll never return to Earth – OK, Steve, how about that? It’s a scenario that has gotten a lot of attention lately because of a group called Mars One.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARS ONE PROMOTIONAL VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The colonization of Mars is the adventure of the century.

MONTAGNE: The group claims to have a Mars mission in the works. Its dramatic promotional video features 100 finalists selected for its astronaut corps. But talking about a Mars voyage is a long way from actually getting the money, building the ship and blasting off – obviously – as NPR science correspondent Nell GreenfieldBoyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Mars is waiting, so if we wanted to go, we could just go, right?

MARY LYNNE DITTMAR: No, we can’t. (Laughter) We’re nowhere near ready to go to Mars.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Mary Lynne Dittmar is an aerospace consultant in Washington, D.C. She says most people just don’t get how hard this would be.

DITTMAR: The distances that are involved and the complexities that are involved in going and staying there are really enormous.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A trip to Mars would take more than half a year one way. You’ll need to bring along a ton of food plus oxygen. Then there’s the question of whether you can even land on a planet with such a thin atmosphere.

DITTMAR: We don’t know yet how we’re going to manage landing the sheer amount of mass on Mars that we’re going to have to land on Mars in order to be able to have habitation.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And if they make it to the surface, the first Martians will have to cope with everything from cancer-causing radiation to dust. It’s everywhere.

DITTMAR: The small period of time that we spent on the moon, dust was a huge issue. Mars has a big dust problem, too.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Nonetheless, a Dutch venture called Mars One has captured the public’s imagination with its plan to colonize Mars by 2025. The group is led by Bas Lansdorp. He says they’ve been featured on CNN, The New York Times.

BAS LANSDORP: And actually on NPR. We’ve been on NPR I think, twice already.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: His Mars dream started almost 20 years ago. Lansdorp was watching TV and was stunned by vivid images of the red Martian surface sent back by a NASA rover.

LANSDORP: And for some reason that I really cannot explain, I wanted to go to Mars and build a new human settlement there.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Lansdorp is a mechanical engineer by training. He’s worked in wind energy, and he now has a business plan for Mars. He says the voyage should pay for itself because it will be a media spectacle. Everyone in the world will want to watch the whole adventure. He envisions a reality TV show with sponsorships and advertising.

LANSDORP: We expect it’s worth up to 10 Olympic Games of media revenue, which is 45 billion U.S. dollars.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Of course, sponsors of the Olympics can be pretty confident that the games will happen. I asked Lansdorp how he responds to skeptics who say that Mars One is basically just a website and a marketing plan.

LANSDORP: Well, I think that the people who say that really haven’t paid attention to what we’ve achieved already.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says lots of people apply to their astronaut corps, paying a fee to do so. And the group has commissioned two studies from established aerospace companies. The Mars One plan calls for first sending out a small robotic lander about three years from now. Lansdorp says he can do this more cheaply than NASA. But won’t it still cost hundreds of millions of dollars?

LANSDORP: Certainly moving in that direction, yes.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I mean – doesn’t sound like you’ve raised anything like that so far.

LANSDORP: We don’t need that kind of money yet because we are not yet building the actual lander. But these are the kinds of investments that we’re currently in negotiation for.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: How much has he raised? He won’t say. John Logsdon is a space policy expert at George Washington University. He seriously doubts that Mars One has the right stuff.

JOHN LOGSDON: I just don’t find it a credible proposition.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That doesn’t mean he thinks the idea of going to Mars in the next couple of decades is a total fantasy.

LOGSDON: I would like to see, once again, people leave this planet and go someplace else. Whether I’ll be around in the 2030s to see the first missions to Mars – I hope so.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: You think they’ll really be in the 2030s?

LOGSDON: They could be.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says they could be because humans on Mars in the 2030s is NASA’s stated goal. But unlike the days of Apollo, Logsdon says NASA can’t expect any big infusion of cash. It will have to cobble together the pieces of a Mars program on its current budget.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The support systems are go for static tests.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Low-speed data systems are go.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: High-speed data systems are go.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Last week in Utah, the agency test-fired part of a huge, new rocket. NASA says it needs this rocket to go out into deep space, back to the moon and beyond.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Its first flight should come in 2018. Jason Crusan is director of Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA.

JASON CRUSAN: We are developing many of the different systems to move from this low Earth-orbit phase that we’re in today with the space station, into deep space and onwards towards Mars.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But that does not impress an aerospace engineer named Robert Zubrin. He’s president of the Mars Society, which has long pushed for human missions.

ROBERT ZUBRIN: The NASA humans-to-Mars program is all sizzle and no steak.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says sure, NASA is building a big rocket and a little capsule, but where’s key stuff like the space habitation module you’ll need for any real long-term mission?

ZUBRIN: There is no program. There isn’t even a plan. There’s just chatter.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I asked him, if we’re ever actually going to get to Mars, what’s your best bet about what could make that happen?

ZUBRIN: No one can know the future, but I would say that the strongest initiative going on right now, the one that is making visible dynamic progress, is the SpaceX initiative.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: SpaceX, the first private company to have a capsule docked with the international space station.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Four, three, two, one, zero. We have liftoff, Falcon 9.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That’s a SpaceX rocket blasting off to the station to deliver cargo for NASA. It may soon take up astronauts, too. The founder of SpaceX is Elon Musk. Zubrin says he is, quote, “quite a person.”

ZUBRIN: I mean, he developed spacecraft for one-tenth the cost and one-third the time that NASA and the aerospace major companies have done.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And everyone knows he’s gung-ho for Mars. You only have to go online, and in five seconds you can find videos of Musk talking about the need to put humans on another planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELON MUSK: I just think that a future where humanity is a spacefaring civilization, out there exploring the stars is an incredibly exciting future and inspiring, and so that’s what we’re trying to help make happen.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: When will SpaceX go to Mars?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUSK: Best case – 10 years. Worst case – 15 to 20 years.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And Musk has announced that later this year, he hopes to unveil plans for getting large numbers of people to the red planet, a project called the Mars Colonial Transporter. Nell GreenfieldBoyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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