The Mars One project is an endeavor to send a group of people on a one-way trip to Mars, thereby establishing the first ever human colony in outer space. This sample science essay is to discuss this project in greater depth. The essay will have four main parts.
- A basic description of the nature of the project
- Reflection on technical considerations that are relevant to the project
- Ethical considerations that are relevant to the project
- Hurdles that must be overcome at both the technical and practical levels
The Mars One Project: Dreams of space colonization
It may read like a page from one of H.G. Wells’ famous science fiction novels, but this project is based in fact and real life. This is how the Dutch non-profit organization Mars One has described the nature of its own project:
“Mars One is a not-for-profit foundation that will establish a permanent human settlement on Mars. Human settlement is possible today with existing technologies. The first footprint on Mars and lives of the crew thereon will captivate and inspire generations; it is this public interest that will help finance the human mission to Mars” (paragraph 1).
According to the current timeline of the project, the first human beings should begin arriving at Mars in the year 2025, a mere ten years from now; and more people will arrive at two-year intervals from that point onward in order to contribute to the expansion of the human colony on Mars. The project, then, quite literally consists of sending human beings on a mission to Mars; this capsule description of Mars One is accurate and not misleading in any way.
One way ticket on a space adventure
An important aspect of the project, however, is that it the astronauts who participate in it will be knowingly signing up for a one-way ticket: that is, if they make it to Mars, they will be spending the rest of their natural lives there; they will not be returning to Earth. The main reason for this is the obvious one that no technology or infrastructure exists on Mars that the colonists could use in order to launch a shuttle back to their home planet. However, many of the astronauts who are in running for the project would seem to be more or less undaunted by this prospect. For example, Cruddas has reported the following regarding one of the participants in the project:
“She believes that the whole purpose of the mission is to inspire a new generation and that she has a responsibility to those who come after her. And she is unfazed by those who claim the whole idea is improbable,” on the grounds that “pioneers are always ridiculed” (paragraph 7).
Many of the prospective participants in the Mars One project likely hold a similar sentiment that they are fulfilling a pioneering role on behalf of the human species as a whole and that whatever personal sacrifices are implied by a one-way trip to Mars would thus be worth it, on the balance. Garber has interestingly contextualized this ethos in terms of other adventurers, such as Magellan, who also embarked on voyages with little hope of ever returning home again.
Read more space exploration topics: Earth-Like Planets Discovered with the Kepler Telescope
In addition, it would seem that there is also something in the works regarding a reality television show based on the ongoing astronaut selection process. Mars One recently released a shortlist of the one-hundred astronauts still in the running for selection for the final voyage, but the process must proceed further. The media/entertainment company Endemol, responsible for the infamous television show Big Brother, has apparently expressed interest in working with the Mars One organization in order to produce such a television show (see Tartaglione).
In order to actually be selected for the Mars One mission, prospective participants will have to pass a series of rigorous physical and psychological tests that confirm their ability to withstand unusual pressures in both group and isolated situations. Therefore, the idea is that this would make a good reality television show. This assumption may not be entirely incorrect if one considers the rather poor quality of many such shows that actually are in the air at the present time.
Technical considerations for colonizing Mars
One of the main barriers to the implementation of the Mars One project can be identified at the level of technology. More specifically, it would seem that the organization has made incredibly optimistic projections regarding both the timeline and the budget of the project. For example, Devlin has indicated that one Nobel laureate who actually supports the Mars One project nevertheless suggested that it would be necessary to increase all estimates at the levels of both timeline and budget by a factor of ten (paragraph 3).
One implication of this advice would be that it would perhaps be feasible to establish a permanent colony on Mars, not in ten years from now but rather in a hundred years. The founder of the project, Bas Lansdorp, has disagreed with this assessment; but the extent to which his optimism is founded on actual evidence (as opposed to just abstract fantasies) is a question currently under debate. The scientific evidence, however, would seem to be tending toward the conclusion that it is going to be very difficult for Mars One to meet its objective according to its currently stated timeline and budget. In fact, Mars One reports on its website that budget constraints as one of its challenges.
For example, an important study was recently published by graduate students working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, entitled “An Independent Assessment of the Technical Feasibility of the Mars One Mission Plan.” A key finding of this study was that given the current level of available technology, the first astronaut on Mars would meet with death by suffocation within sixty-eight days—that is, just over two months. This is due to the fact that extant technologies will not be adequate for maintaining the level of oxygen balance that will be needed for the purposes of a long-term colony on Mars.
More technology needed, fewer resources available
Likewise, the study also found that several other technologies that would be needed in order to actually establish a colony are at the present time not even under development. Naturally, this means that far greater financial investment would be needed in order to render the Mars One project feasible and that it will take a considerably longer time than currently projected in order to get all the needed technologies up to an adequate level. Again, the founder of the Mars One project has disagreed with this evaluation. However, it is now up to Mars One itself to publish a report that can convincingly demonstrate why the findings of the report by Do et al. do not in fact accurately describe the reality of the situation.
In general, the point can be made about human nature that the imagination has a strong tendency to outrun reality, especially when emotions run high. The prospect of establishing a permanent human colony on Mars is clearly exciting for many people, and there is thus a strong intrinsic incentive to believe in Lansdrop’s optimism regarding the budget and especially the timeline of the project. However, it is clear that if the project does succeed, it will fundamentally be an achievement of science, and that it must thus be based on rigorous evidence and empirically functional technology, and not just wishful thinking or ambitious dreams.
In this context, the suggestion could perhaps be made that Mars One should “slow down” for a moment and ensure that the technical prerequisites of the project’s success have in fact been met. After all, if they have not been met, then Mars One (as well as everyone else) will find out soon enough; this is obviously not the kind of problem that can be solved simply by pretending it does not exist and merely letting time pass.
In addition to the technical considerations discussed above, there are also ethical considerations that must be made as the Mars One project gets underway. One of the most apparent ones has to do with the fact that the project is offering one-way tickets; this raises the question of whether making such a proposition is even ethical, and whether prospective participants have an ethical right to sign up for such an endeavor. The concern becomes especially acute if one bears in mind that the astronauts will almost certainly meet with premature death, especially since it will be difficult for the project to keep up with advances in healthcare technology.
There are all kinds of problems that could arise on Mars itself that may not be fathomable from a current perspective, and there will be no way to help the colonists when this occurs. In a sense, participants are almost knowingly signing up to sacrifice themselves for what they perceive to be the cause of humanity. It is not clear whether the Mars One organization has the right kind of authority to accept this kind of moral burden.
Depriving astronauts of socialization with family and friends is unethical
In addition, Lin and Abney have delineated a host of ethical issues that would emerge simply out of the unprecedented nature of the proposed project.
“Real-time interaction with friends and family back on Earth will be impossible. To make things worse, for the duration of their lives, the Mars One participants would know direct interaction only with their fellow settlers who, even if all goes well, would increase from only three people in the first two years to 23 others after 10 years” (paragraph 21).
That is, the colonists will be subjected to a level of social isolation that is scarcely even imaginable from the standpoint of normal life on Earth. Research on diminished communication due to technology already shows serious signs of social decay in isolated individuals. It is questionable whether anyone can really be deemed fully competent to accept such a proposition, and whether the Mars One organization can in good conscience offer them such a wager. For example, a given woman could well be fascinated by the abstract idea of being the first human being to have a baby on Mars; however, the concrete prospect of actually raising a child in such an environment should clearly give any sane person a reason for extreme concern.
Several other concrete ethical dilemmas can also emerge within the context created by a long-term mission to Mars. For example, Lin and Abney have discussed the example of “lifeboat ethics”, or what ought to be done in the event that one astronaut would need to be sacrificed in order for the rest to live:
“In 2025, you are the captain of a spaceship bringing four crewmembers to the red planet. Calculations show there will not be enough oxygen for all four crew members to survive. Unless one person stops breathing immediately, all four will asphyxiate before landing” (paragraph 6).
Such scenarios are not fantastic at all; rather, they reflect the actual situations that can emerge on an actual space mission with a terrible realism. There is no indication that Mars One has even begun reflecting on what protocols should be in place for dealing with such situations in the event that they should arise.
Understanding the pros and cons of the Mars One Project
In summary, this essay has consisted of an overview of and reflection on the Mars One project. It began with a description of the project, proceeded to reflect on technical considerations and finally reflected on ethical considerations. On the basis of this discussion, the main conclusion that can be reached is that the Mars One project, although inspiring in its level of ambition and vision, currently exists only at a rather high level of abstraction. This is true at technical level in terms of the mismatch between budget and timeline projections on the one hand and the empirical evidence regarding available technologies on the other; and it is also true at the ethical level in terms of a basic lack of critical reflection on the prospective conditions of actual life for the participants in the project. Mars One may thus need to become considerably more concrete before its project can be said to be truly feasible.
Cruddas, Sarah. “Mars One: ‘We’re All Going to Die, But It’s Important What You Do Before You Die.” CNN. 18 Feb. 2015. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/17/tech/mars-one-final-100/index.html.
Devlin, Hannah. “Mars One Plan to Colonize Red Planet Unrealistic, Says Leading Supporter.” Guardian. 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/feb/23/mars-one-plan-colonise-red-planet-unrealistic-leading-supporter.
Do, Sydney, Koki Ho, Samuel Schreiner, Andrew Owens, and Oliver de Weck. “An Independent Assessment of the Technical Feasibility of the Mars One Mission Plan.” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2014. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. http://web.mit.edu/sydneydo/Public/Mars%20One%20Feasibility%20Analysis%20IAC14.pdf.
Garber, Megan. “Dying in Space: An American Dream.” Atlantic. 29 Apr. 2013. Web. 23 Feb. 2015 http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/04/dying-in-space-anamerican-dream/275345/.
Lin, Patrick, and Keith Abney. “Introduction to Astronaut Bioethics.” Slate. 6 Oct. 2014. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/10/astronaut_bioethics_would_it_be_unethical_to_give_birth_on_mars.html.
Mars One. “About Mars One.” n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. http://www.mars-one.com/about-mars-one.
Tartaglione, Nancy. “Endemol to Produce Reality Series on Mars One’s Mission to Colonize the Red Planet.” Internet Movie Database. 2 Jun. 2014. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. http://www.imdb.com/news/ni57242558/.