NASA has been sending probes to Mars for the past 50 years, but they won’t get the first humans to Mars. Maybe they’ll tag along after the Chinese in the 2040s, or perhaps they may partner with a private mission and buy a few seats. But first, by themselves, unlikely. They haven’t got the mandate or, it seems, the organizational energy. Their current mission is to land on a rock. Maybe it’s good science, but it hasn’t captured the imagination of the wider public. The Land On A Rock mission mission feels like one of those “it sounded good at the time” moments. NASA chief Bolden has ruled out a Moon landing and says we won’t live to see humans on Mars either if priorities keep changing. That sounds like a threat, and I’m still not convinced.
Yet just today Bolden has announced that a crewed mission to Mars is the agency’s top priority. Really? Since when? This morning? Seems he’s now trying to spin the rock-landing mission as a kind of stepping stone to Mars.
Of course this is Bolden speaking to delegates at the Humans2Mars Summit: http://h2m.exploremars.org/ so we might expect some cheerful Mars news. But try to find any official NASA statements to support Bolden’s claim – there isn’t any – although I’d be absolutely delighted to be proved wrong! Other speakers at the summit include Buzz Aldrin (who’s launching his Mars book today), Rebecca Keiser and Dennis Tito. It’ll be interesting to see if anything definite comes from this latest Mars talkfest.
In the meantime, which companies have already got their policies out there?
( Keeping reading below the video )
The Inspiration Mars Foundation
The Foundation is keen on using the free-return opportunity of 2018 to launch a two-person (male & female) American mission to fly-by Mars. There would be no landing, but a fly-by as close as 100 miles would certainly help to generate momentum. How could crewed exploration to Mars halt when we’d come so close? It’d be like stopping the Apollo missions after the lunar orbit of Apollo 8. Planned launch date is January 5th 2018 with a mission duration of 501 days.
Says the Foundation on its site: “We plan to launch “A Mission for America” that will use existing space transportation hardware and further drive technology development. It will generate knowledge, experience and momentum for the next great era of space exploration. It will encourage and embolden all Americans to believe again, in doing the hard things that make our nation great, while inspiring the next generation of explorers to pursue their destiny through STEM education and exploration.”
An excellent start, but still no humans on Mars.
The Mars Initiative
The Mars Initiative
TMI aren’t going to get us to Mars directly, instead their goal is to reward whichever entity successfully launches a mission to settle Mars. TMI are taking public donations for the fund here. Personally I’d change the wording slightly to “whichever entity successfully lands on Mars to begin a permanent colony”. Launching is one thing, but successfully landing is quite another. The 50% failure rate of Mars probes is evidence of that. You can also get involved in other ways by becoming a volunteer.
It’s a great idea and they’ve already got my money to help the cause. (TMI: How about a web badge for subscribers?)
Theer’s many other Mars advocacy organisations such as http://marshome.org/, http://www.marsdrive.com/Home, and http://www.marssociety.org/. But good as they are they won’t get us to Mars by themselves.
The showiest and in some ways the most unlikely seeming Mars colonisation scheme is MarsOne. I wrote a piece about this strange concept: Mars One: Is this really how the human colonization of space will begin?. The gist of the plan is to fund a Mars colony by an ongoing global media campaign. The project founders include one of the founders of the “Big Brother” TV franchise, so you’d think this plan must have some chance of being viable.
MarsOne intends to land the first four-person team on Mars in 2023. That will be followed by five supply missions and another four-person team in 2025. All this is to be shown 24/7/365 in high-definition video from four cameras. There’s a few obvious questions here including “what happens if the ratings fall”, the “Apollo 13 effect” where ratings may well go up if things start going wrong, and “what if it turns into an awful disaster show”; and “if the Mars colonists are chosen for their calm disposition and co-operation won’t the TV show be boring?”. That might be trivialising the plan, but the whole thing is odd anyway. On the plus side the mission is a one-way trip so all the extra problems of the return journey are eliminated which you’d think must improve its chances of going ahead. With that in mind this project might also be called MarsOneWay, or tap into the truly awful end of pop culture with: “MarsOneDirection”.
MarsOne are currently accepting video applications. You can sample the world-be colonists on the MarsOne website and rate your favorites.
The most likely contender to get humans to Mars is currently SpaceX. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has certainly been clear that Mars is the ultimate goal. When asked he says SpaceX may get there as early as 2023. And how will this happen when some of the world’s richest nation states can’t seem to find the money? Musk says it’ll be funded through SpaceX’s commercial launch business as well as by innovating the launch process by making the booster reusable and thereby bringing down the launch cost by up to two orders of magnitude.
Hear what Musk says, starting at 14-minutes into this recent interview:
Musk says in the interview that he was asked by a friend what he intended to do now that he’d sold his stake in PayPal.
“I said ‘Well, I’ve always been interested in space but I don’t think there’s anything an individual can do in space because it’s the province of governments, usually large governments, but I am curious about when we’re going to send someone to Mars’.
“So I went onto the NASA website and tried to figure out where’s the place that tells you that – and I couldn’t find that. So I thought, either I’m bad at looking at websites or they have a terrible website because surely there must be a date. This should be on the front page. And then I discovered actually that NASA had no plans to send people to Mars, or even back to the Moon.
“This was really disppointing, so I thought maybe this is a question of national will. Do we need to get people excited about space again and try to get NASA a bigger budget and then we would send people to Mars?”
After a lot of research Musk came up with the “Mars Oasis” plan to set up a remote greenhouse on Mars in order to generate interest in Mars.
“I thought it important that humanity expand beyond Earth, and we’re not doing that, so I thought I could spur that on,” said Musk.
“I came to realize that I was wrong about my first premise, that there was a lack of will. In fact I think there is a tremendous amount of will in the United States for space exploration. The United States is essentially a nation of explorers, it’s a distillation of the human spirit of exploration. So of course it was quite silly of me to think that people lacked motivation.
“There’s actually plenty of will so long as people feel there is a way. So then I thought ‘I need to work on the way’.”
That ‘way’ is largely based on the concept of reusable launch vehicles, the 1950 & 60s sci-fi classic rocket made into reality. Musk says this will reduce the cost by two orders of magnitude. The fuel cost per launch, says Musk, is about the same as the cost to fuel a 747.
But how does all this get us to Mars?
Says Musk: “The first step is that we need to earn enough money to keep going as a company. So we have to make sure we’re launching satellites … and then also servicing the space station, transporting cargo … and taking people to and from the space station. That pays the bills. But in doing that we keep improving the technology to a point where we can make full reusability work and we have sufficient scale and sophistication to be able to take peple to Mars.”
When asked for a best guess for when humans will be on Mars, Musk says: “I think about 12 years, give or take two years.”
That would be somewhere in the window 2023 – 2027.
It’s interesting to note that MarsOne plans it’s first colonist mission in 2023. Might MarsOne contract SpaceX to transport the colonists? A tiny clue here might be that when asked whether the SpaceX Mars mission would be a roundtrip Musk smiled and said “probably”.
But if not a MarsOne – SpaceX mission then what flag might SpaceX carry? If they developed the capability and stated the intention, might seats be “for sale” to interested governments? Would any government even be interested since the usual aspect of “national engineering prestige” would be lost? Or is the whole question irrelevant and SpaceX would naturally carry American astronauts and fly under the US flag?
Let me know what you think in the comments.