Orbit? Check. Moon? Been there. Machines on Mars? Done that.
But, alas, more than 40 years after the "giant leap," we have yet to make the "even more giant leap"—to the next planet. A lot of people are unhappy about that, and a lot of people are hoping that the next giant small step will be their own.
Dutch entrepreneur and mechanical engineer Bas Lansdorp is planning to make that dream reality, at least for four people. He's the CEO of Mars One, a Helsinki, Finland-based company whose single mission is to settle people on Mars before NASA, the European Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or even the Turkmenistan National Space Agency, gets it together to do so. The schedule, as it stands, in brief: A first batch of supplies sent up in 2016, a first rover sent in 2018, a first batch of people sent up in 2023.
So what's Lansdorp got that the government agencies haven't got? What transforming, terraforming rocket has he devised to get to the fourth rock from the sun in ten years?
Mars One vision of the Mars colony in 2025. Image: Mars One
None, actually. What he has come up with is the idea and the marketing. He believes the technology and engineering to get us there is out there, and it's just a matter of bringing it all together. The money to get us there is also out there and again, it's just a matter of bringing it together. But the reason the project is feasible, if it is feasible, is not because of what it's got or is going to get, but what it lacks: a ticket home.
Dropping people on Mars and leaving them to their own devices for the rest of their lives, however much it might simplify logistics, is not a mission in which an agency like NASA is going to engage. Lansdorp says when he's spoken to NASA's engineers he's found them "extremely enthusiastic about it— the one-way idea is so brilliant it just makes things so much easier. But for the leadership it would be difficult to support that."
Mars One rover. Image: Mars One
But Mars One seems to have tapped into something determined about the psyche of Mars-driven space enthusiasts. This May, the company posted an application for would be Mars-or-bust astronauts. Within two weeks they'd received 80,000 completed applications. "It's good to see there's so much interest," says Lansdorp. "It will make it easier to come to terms with sponsors. There's still a long way to go before we see the hundreds of millions for the first mission, never mind six billon for the second."
Though Lansdorp happens to be a mechanical engineer, he hasn't built a thing to get anyone off the ground. But that just may be his genius. "If Mars One was trying to make designs for these components it would be a complete waste of time," he says. "We are a small team, a much too small team to organize a mission to Mars. There is so much experience in these companies. We've tried to stay as close as possible to what they already build." However, Lansdorp's engineering background has been functional. "If you visit these aerospace companies and have no idea what you're talking about, it's difficult for them to take you seriously," he notes.
Concepts for Mars One habitat. Image: Bryan
One of the companies that has taken Mars One seriously is Astrobotic, Pittsburgh, PA., producer of rovers and other things robotic. They are "just at the beginning of the relationship," says President John Thorton. "As of now there's nothing that holds us back technically." Other "supplier" companies include the life support maker, Paragon, and SpaceX, which, for now, will provide the launch vehicle.
To be sure, Mars One has received its share of skepticism. But not from the people that matter, claims Lansdorp. "If you talk to a radiation expert he says, 'Not a problem. We can build the shielding. But what about funding? You'll never get the funding.' If you talk to the space lawyer, he'll say, 'Of course, not all the regulations are in place, but you have more than enough time. But what about the radiation? You can't do that.' If you ask people about their area of expertise, I haven't met a single person that says, 'That's not possible.'"
Lansdorp, whatever his genius for getting other people to space, will not be going himself. "For the first mission, I don't think I'm the right guy," he says. "I'm trained as an engineer, but one characteristic of entrepreneurs is impatience. It's a good trait if you want everything done yesterday, but it's not good if you want to sit in a capsule with three other people.
"And my girlfriend wouldn't be coming with me. So that's a big no no."
Michael Abrams is an independent writer.
If you ask people about their area of expertise, I haven't met a single person that says 'That’s not possible.'
Bas Lansdorp, Mars One