The Mars One Debate

I saw on the Mars Society’s webpage that the Mars One colonization program will debate their MIT critics at the society’s upcoming convention next month. I have a triple interest in the debate. My novel-in-progress, Red Soil Through Our Fingers, a Mars colonization novel. Secondly, as a former aerospace engineer, I have experience and a huge personal stake in the design and outcome of space exploration missions. And further, one of the listed critics of Mars One, Andrew Owens, is a friend and writing group member!

Needless to say, I have a few thoughts on the matter.

The Mars Society’s announcement is below:

The Mars Society is pleased to announce that a formal debate will be held at its 18th Annual International Mars Society Convention at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. August 13-16, 2015 on the proposition: “Is Mars One Feasible?”

Leading the affirmative team will be Mars One President Bas Lansdorp. The negative proposition will be argued by Sydney Do and Andrew Owens, two members of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology team that published a headline-making critique of the Mars One plan late last year.

At a public event on the evening of Thursday, August 13th, the two sides will have it out. The debate will begin with the negative team speaking for 20 minutes, followed by the affirmative team for 20 minutes. Then each side will have 10 minutes for rebuttal, after which there will be 30 minutes for questions from the audience, which may be directed to either side for a two minute answer, to be rebutted by the other with equal time.

Is Mars One feasible? Come and hear both sides and decide for yourself!

Some background on Mars One: Mars One is a nonprofit organization that is leading a grassroots mission to establish a colony on Mars. No government space programs are involved, and the funding is supposedly going to come from TV revenue resulting from the fact that the whole mission (including the lives of the colonists) will be video recorded. They recently even announced a “finalist” group of 100 potential first colonists. Basically a Mars reality show. The project has drawn a lot of popular support, some curiosity from the mainstream, and no shortage of incredulous reactions from many. Recently, they have been faced by a slew of negative press related to their colonist selection process and an MIT paper that is critical of the project’s technical feasibility.

With all of the well-grounded criticism of the mission that is out there, I’m surprised that the CEO of Mars One is sticking to his guns. The response from much of the Mars One community seems to be that the criticism of their mission is either jealousy from the “establishment” Mars colonization thinkers, or pure negative pessimism — what if, after all, the Massachusetts Bay Colonists had been convinced that the mission to the new world was impossible? Ignoring the colonial implications of the hypothetical for the moment, I think most rational people can see that there is orders of magnitude of difference between the the first American colonists and the first Mars colonists.

I’m not anti- Mars One: I love that they are actually trying. Personally, as a space junkie and science fiction, there are far worse problems than several thousand people who want Mars settlement badly enough that they are actually forming a nonprofit company, bringing people on board, negotiating contracts, and striving to make it happen. I love that Mars One is a popular movement, and not ordered top-down from a government for political reasons.  I love that technology has advanced enough to the point where such a plan is… well, crazy, not so crazy that it would just be outright dismissed immediately.

But here are the two main things I think we stand to lose if Mars One, as well-intentioned and bright-eyed as they are, proceeds on a faulty plan.

First and foremost: people will die. If you know anything about the history of spaceflight and recent launch failures, then you know that spaceflight is hard. Really hard. And even with teams of thousands of professional engineers, project staff, and technical crews who are the best in the business, these failures can happen. That’s not pessimism — that’s the vacuum-cold, tungsten-carbide-hard reality of spaceflight. Yes, a certain amount of risk is inherent in such an endeavor, no matter how well planned. But losing astronauts to unforeseen consequences is bad enough. Losing a hundred civilians and billions of dollars in equipment when we clearly knew better would be a different kind of tragedy.

Secondly, the overall space settlement movement will suffer. There are enough scientifically illiterate people and politicians out there already who fail to see the connection between exploration and bettering the human condition. These are the people who believe the space program is a huge waste of money, that investing in space is somehow ignoring the problems here on Earth, and that Mars colonies are the domain of foolish dreamers. Rebutting these beliefs is not the subject of this particular blog post — there are amazing things that expansion into space could do for humanity. But consider what effect a large, widely broadcasted, catastrophic Mars One failure would have on public opinion towards space settlement. They say the best argument against you is a poorly made argument for you… making space settlement a political live wire through foolish decisions would significant set back the overall effort to expand humanity into the solar system.

I think what further muddles the debate is that many people (including Mars One itself, and several articles out there on the web) are failing to draw the distinction between Mars settlement in general and the Mars One project in particular. It should be obvious from my arguments above that I am not opposed to Mars settlement… in fact I’m all for it. I sincerely doubt that any of the criticism of Mars One is coming from a place of pessimistic nay-saying or trying to tear down a movement out of jealousy at the new upstarts on the block. I can’t speak for any of the other critics, but what I believe we all want is this important work to be done properly. The fact that Mars One’s current plan is flawed does not mean that a) Mars settlement in general is a flawed idea, or b) Mars One can’t create a viable plan with some serious investment in engineering and significant modifications to their schedule and budget.

My hope is that Mars One takes all of this criticism seriously, especially the technical criticism from Andrew and the MIT team. Even if it ends up taking Mars One ten or twenty years longer than their idealism initially expected, a Mars settlement done right, through any entity, would be a victory for not just Mars One… but the next giant leap for all of humanity.

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