The Netherlands usually gets mentioned in conversations about tulips, cheese, and windmills… but it seems another topic might soon join the mix. Mars One, a non-profit organization (we touched upon them briefly in our previous Mars coverage) founded by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, is closing its registration round for people who are interested in a one-way ticket to Mars as soon as 2023. And you bet that many are interested… within two weeks of its launch, the selection programme received more than 78,000 registrations and to date around 165,000 applications have signed up. So one might wonder, what drives these people to sign up for something they know will mean they will never see family and friends again?
Well, according to the trailer for One Way Astronaut – a documentary about those determined to throw it all away in the hopes of becoming the first human off world settlers – “you’re just never going to know what you’re going to find” while exploring the environment. To many it is a dream, born out of their childhood imagination. Curiosity killed the cat as they say, but it won’t stop these applicants from following their dreams. As the foundation puts it: “Human settlement of Mars is the next giant leap for humankind.” and it would be hard to find anyone who would contest that this feat would be right up there with the moon landing, the discovery of America, and so on as an event that will go into the history books as defining for our species.
For most, 2023 might sound like a very ambitious date but then one cannot underestimate the drive and determination of humankind to explore. The Mars One foundation is not looking to develop its own technology to accomplish its mission, because the private space industry already invented what is needed to go to Mars they claim. After the first missions make sure that supplies are available and a reliable surface habitat is set up before the first crew lands, more settlers and cargo will then follow every two years. This will of course cost a heavy sum, around the $6 billion mark in fact, which Lansdorp says will be funded primarily through a reality-TV program about about the red planet’s first colonists. And just when you thought we would some day see the end of “Big Brother”…
“Mars is the stepping stone of the human race on its voyage into the universe.”
It would entail a craft existing of two parts: the Martian lander with a heat shield, in which the crew would also ascent into Earth orbit, and a cylindrical craft split into three floors. Travelling through space for long durations brings up major issues, perhaps the most important one being the muscle and bone wastage that weightlessness causes, which would render astronauts unable to walk upon arrival at their destination. To prevent this, the team explains that the two parts would, once in space, unwind from eachother on a steel cable. Short truster bursts would then set in motion the rotation needed to generate artificial gravity similar to Earth’s.
Aside from the deconditioning of the human body, another cause for concern is solar and cosmic radiation. Several solutions are proposed, including running water within the shell of the cruise craft to absorb the radtiation, while another solution would mean fitting superconducting magnets to the craft that would generate a magnetosphere similar to Earth’s.
As more prominent organisations start to report of the possibilities of the first human visit to Mars, and the race to launch paying customers into space is heating up. But colonizing another planet, can you imagine? We already introduced the Inspiration Mars Foundation, headed up by business tycoon Dennis Tito. Another project out there is the Dutch Mars One which will be looking to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars in 2023 – talk about being ambitious! And then of course there is billionaire inventor Elon Musk of SpaceX who has also plans to visit the Red Planet, possibly permanently.
We might see the day when we will look up at the sky, and see our second home, like a red dot in a vast ocean of space. It might make us redefine our place in the universe… who knows.
A few weeks ago we wrote about Dennis Tito, the first paying passenger to go into space. Earlier this year, Tito announced the formation of the Inspiration Mars Foundation, a nonprofit organisation with a very specific short-term objective: sending a two-person American crew on a historic journey within 100 miles around the Red Planet and return to Earth safely. Tito has experience with this type of flyby missions from his days as a scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory but this one pushes the envelope much further – no human has ever traveled to another planet.
Also interesting is that the Foundation is pushed for time to reach its objective – in 2018 both planets (Earth and Mars) will align, offering a unique orbit opportunity to travel to Mars and back in just 501 days. You can check out the announcement made earlier this year below:
As Tito says during the announcement, space is very complex and there is a lot to learn, even when the outline of the mission is simple. More on the Inspiration Mars Foundation soon hopefully, as they get closer to their objective!
Dennis Tito is, while not the first non-astronaut in space, definitely the first space tourist. Self-funded with the capital he built up through his company Wilshire Associates (investment management since 1972), you wouldn’t exactly class him as the average neighbour living around the corner. With a Bachelor of Science in Astronautics and Aeronautics from NYU and a Master of Science in Engineering Science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Tito was already well on his way to achieving his 40-year goal. On top of that, he is also a former scientist of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Being a pioneer is rarely easy, and often very expensive and the same goes for Tito. His milestone adventure set the New York born engineer and entrepreneur back $20 million. A small sum if you compare it to the value of the international clientele his company represents ($12.5 trillion) but definitely not even in the same ballpark as the flights Virgin Galactic, XCor Aerospace and others will offer in coming year (around the $100k-$250k mark seems to be the benchmark – given those flights won’t offer you to stay in orbit on board the ISS). Tito however did do it in 2001, over a decade before any of these companies would achieve flying humans into space on a commercial space flight. And he didn’t have an easy ride – NASA refused to take him up, or even train him on the grounds that he was not a trained astronaut… so the Russians trained him for 900 hours and facilitated the trip. Ten years before that, in 1991, he looked into going up into space on a trip to Moscow. Unfortunately his ticket became void in disastrous fashion, when the MIR space station fell uncontrollably from the sky that year.
It was space tourism company Space Adventures who brokered for Tito to join the Soyuz TM-32 mission in April 2001 and he ended up staying in orbit – most of that on board the International Space Station – for nearly 8 days. As we saw with later space tourists, he did several scientific experiments while doing his 128 orbits around the Earth. Not resting there, in January 2013 Tito founded the Inspiration Mars Foundation. Its mission: “launch a manned mission to flyby Mars in 2018“. That trip would take 501 days taking into account the shortest route possible with today’s technology – although it would probably take a considerable amount of training for the astronauts selected to withstand the psychological and physical rigors of that journey.
“I often thought that if I did spend my last penny, I could live on social security for the rest of my life and still be happy, because I’d achieved what I wanted to achieve. It was a sense of completeness – from then on, everything is a bonus. And the last 10 years, everything since then, has been just extra. And I think I am one of the happiest humans alive because of that.”
Remember Spirit, the lonely rover that drove around on the surface of Mars for years past its mission end date? Well, it seems its bigger brother Curiosity might have thrown a spanner in the works in regards to a human settlement on Mars, or interplanetary travel in general. At a news conference yesterday, NASA presented new findings from the Mars Science Laboratory Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) aboard Curiosity, showing that astronauts on a trip to Mars would be subjected to a dose of radiation nearly equal to their career limit. Auch.
Over their career, NASA limits astronauts’ increased risk of cancer and central nervous system damage to 3 percent. That translates to a cumulative radiation dose of between about 800 millisieverts and 1,200 millisieverts, depending on a person’s age, gender and other factors. Results from Curiosity indicate that astronauts would receive a radiation dose of about 660 millisieverts during a 360-day roundtrip flight – and that’s calculated according to the fastest travel possible with today’s chemical rockets. To put that dose in context, an astronaut circling orbit on the International Space Station for 6 months, would receive about 100 millisieverts.
So what’s next? Well, one possible avenue that will need to be explored is how to shield astronauts from the bombardment by radiation from cosmic rays and solar outbursts. Another avenue would be to speed up the journey by developing the next generation of propulsion systems. And what about putting all the engineering challenges aside for a minute, and looking at the human body, what if some day we could just counter that damage with our own DNA…
Whatever road we take, it seems like we shouldn’t be packing our bags for Mars just yet…