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Recently much attention has been paid to the Mars One initiative, a Dutch “space” organization devoted to bringing humans to Our Red Neighbour in 2023, by the blogosphere. As any regular visitor of our site will know, we of Republic of Lagrangia are very sceptical about any plan involving the colonization of the Moon or Mars. In this post I will discuss why we believe that Mars One is almost certainly deemed to be a failure. However, I will not touch the question whether Mars One is a hoax, which would imply that the people behind this group are deliberately pursuing a fraud, a sever accusation. Instead I believe it will be sufficient to deal with the relevant arguments only.
As I said Mars One aims to send four human beings to Mars by the year 2023, that is ten years from now. The idea is that those people will stay on the Fourth planet for the rest of their lives. Some people will be shocked by this idea, but it makes perfectly sense if you are really interested in colonizing outer space; in this case there is no real need to go back to Earth. This is a big difference between Mars One and projected manned missions to Mars of, for instance, NASA. After a successful first manned landing, they intend to launch four-men crews each two years. In fact the whole scheme as pursued by Mars One is not originally, it has essentially copied from Robert Zubrin’s Mars Direct proposal.
Unlike other space settlement initiatives, Mars One will be entirely funded though private means, e.g. no government involvement and no tax money for this project. This raises of course the question how to fund this program. Essentially Mars One intends to collect money from the public, however they realize this will not be enough, therefore they have thought about a source of revenue for funding their project. One of the “theorems” of space colonization is that the creation of a source revenue is essential for space colonization, because investors wants to make profits (see also this post).
How does Mars One plan to generate revenue? Well, their idea is to use the whole thing as the subject of one great reality TV show, and to sell the broadcasting rights in order to fund the entire project. You will not find another suggested source of revenue, other than just begging for donations. Actually this “business plan” is just silly. Why? Because the team of Mars One grossly overestimate the total revenue what can be collected this way. There are many reasons to be sceptical whether this finance strategy will generate enough money to fund the whole mission. First we have to ask how many people are actually going to watch this reality show, whether they will watch the entire series, at least whether they will watch regularly instead of just watching a few episodes. Since the trip to Mars will take some one or two years, during this time the astronauts will be locked up in their space craft and almost every day will be much the same, it is reasonably to assume that a lot of prospective TV viewers will become bored after just a few episodes. Also we have to consider that a lot of people will only watch the launch and landing of the crew, while ignoring the intermediate episodes.
Even if the first mission to Mars could be funded through this reality show, we have to ask whether the subsequent missions can be funded in the same way. Normally TV series, including reality TV, are cancelled after a few seasons (if not earlier because of declining rates) and only a very few shows manage to survives more than five seasons. And if manned Mars missions are becoming more common, more people will lose their interest to follow the whole mission, with the exception of a few die hard fanatics. While series like Deadliest catch can survive with a relatively small base of hard core viewers, Mars mission cannot.
Not only Mars One does not have a sound business plan, their very schedule is in our opinion quite optimistic: a manned landing on Mars in 2023. That’s in ten years from now. This may seem as no big problem, a closer look at their entire schedule, however, reveals another story. They plan to launch a supply mission in 2016, just in three years from now. Such supply mission is necessary (and is again derived from Zubrin’s plan), and any delay will also delay all other dates. Due to the orbital periods of the Earth and Mars, there is every two years, a so-called launch window for mission to Mars (whether they are manned or not), so if you miss the first you have to two wait at least two years. Of course you can launch a spacecraft to Mars at any time, but then you have to take into account a much longer travel time, and additional fuel costs and so.
According to their own schedule, Mars One has to start in 2014 with the preparations of the supply mission. If there will be a delay in this phase, then they will miss their 2016 launch window and subsequently miss their “2023” target. Whether they will get their preparations finished on time, is partially depended on whether they will be able to get sufficient funding for their enterprise. Our conclusion is therefore that the schedule of Mars One is too ambitious and too optimistic. Its rigidity will ultimately be the downfall of Mars One.