Saturday, September 20, 2014

M-A-R-S. Mars, Bitches. We are going to Mars.



It's funny, but we're really going, if these guys get their way...

 
Do you remember the Apollo space program?  If you do, then you're probably pretty old.  Because I'm sort of pretty old, and it happened before I was born.

Anyway, the Apollo program was a series of American manned space missions, beginning in the late 1950s, that peaked with the first human setting foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, as well as five subsequent moon landings.  The last such flight took place in December of 1972.

The manned missions to the moon realized the dream of a man named Wernher von Braun.  Von Braun was a square-jawed Nazi aerospace engineer (he invented the German V2 rocket), who was one of the true geniuses of the modern era.  

At the end of World War 2, he was captured by the US military, and brought to the United States.  His Nazi past was routinely papered over with lies, and he became the father of the American space program.  

He wanted to build a space station in low earth orbit, he wanted to send men to the moon, and he wanted to send men to Mars.  What's more, he had the technology chops to make it happen.  And starting in 1961, in an effort to show how much smarter we were than the Soviet Union, President John F. Kennedy gave him the budget.

The moon landings cost about $23 billion in 1960s money, the rough equivalent of over $150 billion today.  At its peak, the Apollo program employed over 400,000 people, and was supported by 20,000 universities and research institutions.  It was the largest peacetime mobilization of people and resources in human history.

And it resulted in exciting scenes like this:



Fast Forward to Now

It's 2014.  The future.  

But in terms of spaceflight, the future never arrived.  Wernher von Braun has been dead for 35 years.  We stopped going to the moon.  We ended the Space Shuttle program after it exploded for the second time, killing everybody on board.  What was the point of it, anyway? 

We don't even have manned space ships anymore.  We're dependent on hitching rides with the Russians to the International Space Station (ISS) (another von Braun idea, but miserably scanty compared to his original dreams for it).  The ISS itself is nearing the end of its useful life, and should fall to earth sometime after 2020. 

Yes, we have sent robot vehicles to Mars with a great deal of success, and we've sent probes deep into space, even beyond the far reaches of the solar system.  But it sure looks like we're not going anywhere.  

And why should we?  As it turns out, humans are evolutionarily adapted to life on Earth.  Surprise!  These meats suits we wear don't do well in outer space.  Our muscles atrophy from weightlessness.  There's no oxygen in space.  The increased solar radiation in space attacks our immune systems.  

Valentin Lebedev, the Russian cosmonaut who holds the record for the longest time in space at 221 days, went blind from cataracts, which were thought to have been caused by exposure to radiation.

It seems like a dismal time to be a manned space flight aficionado.  

But suddenly, there's optimism!  And it comes from an unexpected place.  

Thee Optimist, by definition, likes optimism.  He likes unfounded optimism most of all.


Giant penis drawing accidentally made by the tracks of Mars rover Curiosity.
   

Mars One

Recently, an organization named Mars One was called to my attention.  Mars One has made a big publicity splash in recent years, as part of the drive to privatize missions to outer space.  Mars One is based in The Netherlands, a small country that so far hasn't sent anyone into space.  

Most of the people who work at Mars One are Dutch, which is what you call people from The Netherlands.  Complicating matters further, The Netherlands is also sometimes known as Holland.  

To make things clearer for all my American friends, The Netherlands is not part of Scandinavia.  It has nothing to do with Denmark, and the people who live there cannot also be thought of as Danish, or Swiss, or Swedish, or Norwegian.  It is, however, in Europe.

The founder of Mars One is a man named Bas Lansdorp, which is an awesome name.  It sounds like the name of a man who came from outer space.  But Bas Lansdorp didn't come from space - he came from The Netherlands.  Earlier in his life, he started a wind energy company, which he then sold, so we know he's clever.   

Then he started Mars One.  

Mars, bitches.  Red rocks!  Bas Lansdorp looking very much like a man who can get things done.  A jacket and tie will do that. 
 
The stated purpose of Mars One is to send human beings to Mars.  The missions to Mars will begin in 2024, and will go every two years after that.  They will consist of four people in each mission.  

The people who go will establish a permanent colony on Mars.  To keep costs and technological demands low, the people who go to Mars can never return to Earth.  The trip to Mars is a one-way ticket.

Two years ago, Mars One held an open application process for would-be astronauts.  80,000 people applied.  Each person paid the equivalent of $5 to $75 (depending on what country they lived in) to apply.  This initial effort raised about $1 million.  From the original pool of applicants, Mars One has narrowed it down to a little over 1,000 people.  

Also, in early 2014, Mars One held a fundraising drive on a website called Indiegogo.com.  That effort netted almost $400,000.  Mars One estimates it will cost about $6 billion to get the first crew to Mars. 

At first listen, it all sounds pretty good.  So good, in fact, that you might say it sounds almost too good to be true.


Nifty artist's rendering of the future Mars One outpost.

Debbie Downer Arrives (on Mars)

Did anybody ever call you "Debbie Downer" before?  It hurts, doesn't it?  Why do people say mean things?  

That's okay, we'll soldier through the emotional pain, and continue with the blog post.

The whole Mars One thing, which looks very good when you're glancing at the artist's renderings, starts to get a little funky when you begin to unpack the numbers.  And then it gets funkier still.

Let's guess that Mars One has raised about $1.5 million from its fundraising, and from memorabilia they sell on their very nice website, www.mars-one.com.    

That's a healthy amount of money.  Except, you know, they need $6 billion, by their own estimate.  $1.5 million is about one-quarter of one-tenth of one percent of the money they say they need.  

And one thing we learned from the Apollo missions is that it takes a long time to put ambitious space travel missions together.  If they want to get people on Mars by 2024, they kind of need to start working on that now.

Except, you know, what else did we learn from the Apollo missions?  We learned that putting people on the moon (which I'm pretty sure is closer to Earth than Mars) cost a lot more than $6 billion, which they don't have anyway.  NASA, the US space agency (which operated the Apollo moon missions) has estimated that a trip to Mars would cost more like $100 billion.  

Yikes!  Where is Mars One going to get all that money?

But wait, there's more.  Remember how the Apollo missions required the efforts of 400,000 people?  Right now, Mars One has a total of eight (8) employees.  

Bas Lansdorp is one of them.  He has a degree in mechanical engineering.  So far, so good.  There's also a Chief Technical Officer with a degree in Physics.  There's a medical doctor.  There's an architect. 

Okay, getting a little weird now.  There's a Senior Marketing Strategist.  There's a Director of Communications.  And there are a couple of graphic artists.  And that's everybody.  

Half of the people working on this massive effort to send mankind to Mars would be equally well-suited to working at a boutique web design firm.  

Did I mention Mars One has a nice website?





The Astronauts

Let's go a little further.  The Apollo astronauts (and astronauts in general) were and are selected from among the "best of the best."  

They're highly athletic, or insanely smart.  They tend to have military backgrounds.  They were test pilots, or combat pilots.  They are used to going very, very fast, while high up in the air.  They don't spook easily.  

Astronauts often spend their entire lives preparing for the moment when they will go into space.  They are selected by governments, most often the United States and Russia (or the former Soviet Union), who expend millions of dollars and years of specialized training on each one.

In contrast, Mars One is choosing its astronauts from a vast pool of people willing to part with a few bucks and fill out a form to be considered.

At first, this seems kind of neat.  "Hey, anybody can be an astronaut!"  That's nice, but imagine if they chose NBA players this way.  Send in some money and maybe we'll pick you to play in the NBA.  

I think we can agree that the NBA is a place where elite athletes, the world's best basketball players, should play basketball.  And oddly enough, astronauts are more of an elite than NBA players.  

There have been 3,071 NBA players over the past 50 years.  At this moment, only 534 people have ever been to space, and only 24 of them have traveled outside of low Earth orbit.  Mars is a long way out of low Earth orbit.  

The Mars One system for selecting astronauts (and the Mars One budget for that matter) seems better suited to a reality show on TV than an actual mission to Mars.  Which gets us to the crux of the issue.  One of their stated fundraising strategies is to have a reality show.  

Ah.  

They plan to have a reality show.  On the show, we will watch contestants prepare for their upcoming trip to Mars.  They'll go through physical training, psychological testing, and endure extreme environments that mimic the isolation of space.  They'll also endure interpersonal relationships with their fellow contestants.  

People will fall in love.  People will grow to hate each other.  People will drop out because they can't take the stress anymore.  Or they can't hack the physical demands.  Or someone back home got sick.  

According to the Mars One website, at the end, everyone on Earth will have a chance to vote on who gets to go to Mars.  And then, in Season 2, we do it all over again.  After 5 or 6 seasons of this, the premise has been exhausted, and the public go back to watching swamp people shoot at ducks.

After the show gets canceled, there is no mission to Mars.  And what has happened is one of the more audacious publicity stunts in recent television history.


 

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