The Mars One Plan: Bleak? or Needs to be Tweeked?

Not so “bleak.”  Image Credit: Mars One

Last week at the International Astronautical Congress, a team of graduate students from MIT presented a paper entitled, “An Independent Assessment Of the Technical Feasibility Of The Mars One Mission Plan.” This week, space media began reporting on the study with headlines such as this:  “MIT Analysis Paints Bleak Outcome for Mars One Concept”  from Marcia Smith’s reliably informative site.

A close read of the 35 page paper however, might suggest the word “bleak” is a bit overstated. “Needs to be tweaked” might equally apply.

In presenting the first independent analysis of the Mars One mission concept, the MIT team has provided a well needed counterbalance to the overly general plans put forth on the Mars One website, and raises a number of very legitimate concerns. For anyone seriously interested in the Mars One concept, or Mars colonization in general, it is certainly worth a read.

The MIT team developed an Architectural Analysis Tool to examine the concept based on the habitat layout described by Mars One, but in the absence of specific information, elected to take what is effectively promotional literature literally, and the apply existing NASA standards and studies to fill in the blanks.  It led to some interesting, and yes, bleak results. Notably, based on existing assumptions the first crew member could be expected to perish from hypoxia at approximately 68 into the surface stay.

A first simulation of the baseline Mars One habitat indicated that with no ISRU-derived resources, the first crew fatality would occur approximately 68 days into the mission. This would be a result of suffocation from too low an oxygen partial pressure within the environment, as depicted in Figure 8.


The key factor here, and one acknowledged by the authors, is that by excluding readily available ISRU derived oxygen from ice or the CO2 atmosphere, because the website states that oxygen will come from crops grown internally, a literal interpretation leads to a very bad 68th day. Presumably, if the concept makes it to the launch pad, ISRU for oxygen would be an integral component, no matter how many crops are grown, which leads to the next point.

Because the website also states that the colonists will have to grow all of their own food, the study authors assume just that, and quickly reach the reasonable conclusion that quite a bit more hab space will be needed than Mars One describes. Other findings, the humidity from shared space would be almost intolerable, and spiking oxygen level as crops mature would lead to dangerous fire potential. Again, while the plan as presented would indeed be problematical, it all depends to the degree of fidelity the final product holds to the initial plan.  It seems reasonable to assume that as the concept evolves, Mars One would reach the same conclusion that a surprisingly modest mass of pre-packaged for the entire first cycle would open the door towards gradual integration of supplementary local crops, grown in an isolated environment.

Other elements are questionable as well, such as the assumption that each departing crew vessel would require 4 Falcon Heavy launches. While the language is open to interpretation (the math is not)  it appears that three Falcon Heavies launched to LEO, one for the Lander/Mars Transit Vehicle,  and two for the propulsion elements, and one standard Falcon 9/Dragon for the departing crew transfer and construction crew return to Earth would be sufficient.  On the other hand, as the study points out, other elements of the concept appear to be highly optimistic where the total mass requirements are concerned.

“Finally, the space logistics analysis revealed that for the most optimist scenario considered, establishing the first crew of a Mars settlement will require approximately 15 Falcon Heavy launches costing $4.5 billion, and these values will grow with additional crews. It is important to note that these numbers are derived considering only the ECLS and ISRU systems with spare parts. Future work will have to integrate other analyses, such as communications and power systems, to capture a more realistic estimate of mission cost.”

While presented as a legitimate concern, $4.5 billion is after all a large sum of money, and a very tall hurdle to overcome, it still leads to an interesting counterpoint which the authors of the NASA funded study do not address. NASA is well on the way to spending $16 billion to get the Orion capsule alone through one crewed flight, a number which excludes the development costs of the Space Launch System as well as its ground infrastructure. The agency cannot even begin to put a price tag on gong to Mars. It would be interesting to see the same team run the numbers on that.

There is no doubt that Mars One is risky concept, and if it is to ever gain real traction, it will have to endure a lot more scrutiny than presented in the MIT study.  It should probably begin with a clear statement that Mars One is meant as an evolving concept, in which the final product may differ considerable from what has initially been put forward on a time frame which like all space projects, is subject to change.  At the same time, its many critics might want to at least consider how much of the risk to any future Mars mission, whether one way of with a return ticket, could be reduced through advancing the Technological Readiness Level (TRL) of some of the core technologies the MIT team identifies.

Finally, they might want to ask why the U.S. is committed to a very different, but perhaps even more financially implausible plan.

Note: Throughout the study, the MIT team took as an assumption that the SpaceX Dragon is capable of handling Mars Entry, Descent and Landing as described in the NASA Ames Red Dragon mission concept, even in the expanded 5 meter form that the authors assume from unofficial sources.  That is a capability which has yet to be put to the test, and it doesn’t appear that NASA is in any hurry to find out.

For an agency which talks about Mars almost non-stop, why is that?

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