Want to go to Mars? Applications opening soon

27th June 2012

Artist's impression of the Mars One settlement.

Artist's impression of the Mars One settlement in 2028. Image credit: Mars One/Copyrighted, used with permission.

Earlier this year, Dutch engineer Bas Lansdorp and Dutch physicist Arno Wielders announced that their company, Mars One, will put four people on Mars by 2023[1a]. The catch is that they will have no way to come home. They will grow their own food, create their own oxygen, and begin building larger living spaces for the four extra people who will join them every two years, creating the first human colony anywhere other than Earth.

1. Mars One

Mars One plan to begin a nine-year training program for 40 astronauts in 2013. This will involve living in a simulation of the settlement in a desert on Earth, learning how all the equipment works, and undergoing medical training, as well as training in geology and exobiology. A suitable location will be chosen and supplies will be sent across in three missions, starting in 2016. The astronauts will embark on their seven month journey in 2022, and by the time they arrive, the living habitat will already be up and running[2].

Although Mars One hope to start a new, self-sufficient colony on Mars, they suggest that the astronauts may be able to come home one day, if the technology involved continues to progress and the project is successful enough to afford it[3].

Since their announcement, Mars One has undergone a lot of criticism, with many suggesting that their plan is a hoax[4]. This may be because they lack experience and have not stated how they will resolve some of the technical problems involved, but it may also be because of the unique way they aim to acquire funding.

2. Is this really possible?

2.1 Problems with funding

Mars One estimate that it will cost at least $6 billion to put the first four people on Mars[5], and they plan to raise this money by allowing the public to watch the astronauts for almost 24 hours a day, from the start of their training in 2013, for as long as they remain on Mars. Paul Römer, co-creator of Big Brother, is an ambassador to the project, which will allow the public to choose which team of trainees will be on the first launch, and who will be the first to step foot on the planet[1b].

Although it seems safe to assume that the public will be interested in watching the first person land on Mars, Mars One will not be able to put them there for at least ten years, and they will have to have the costs covered by then. They acknowledge that reality TV is a risky business model, and claim to be "very interested" in "realistic alternative business cases", which should be emailed to "info [at] mars-one.com"[6].

Photographs of Earth and Mars. The size is to scale, and Mars is about half the size of the Earth.
Photographs of Mars’ north pole.

Earth and Mars to scale, and the Martian north polar cap. The white is mostly frozen water and the dark patches are sand dunes. Image credit: NASA/Public domain & NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems/Public domain.

2.2 Problems with technology

Mars One state that their project only involves pre-existing technology, most of which is already being used on the International Space Station, and that they have suppliers for everything they need[1c].

A one-way crewed mission to Mars will require[7a]:

  • A rocket and spacecraft for every mission.

  • Mars suits, so the astronauts can leave their habitat.

  • Mars Rovers, so they can travel further, and carry specimens and specialist equipment.

  • A communications system, so they can interact with people on Earth.

  • A habitable place for them to live and work, with a functioning life support system.

Many of these things will be relatively easy to make. Mars Suits are pressurised suits that supply the astronauts with oxygen, just like normal space suits. The Mars Rovers would be very similar to the Lunar Rovers that were taken to the Moon, and a communications system would consist of satellites conveying information at the speed of light, leading to a delay of between 3 and 20 minutes[7b].

The biggest challenges will probably be the rocket and spacecraft, and the life support system. The spacecraft will need to provide protection against the large doses of solar radiation that can occur sporadically, but this problem can be solved by building a reinforced shelter the astronauts can wait inside[8].

Landing a spacecraft on Mars will be more difficult. Mars has an atmosphere, and so you cannot use the same method that NASA used to land people on the Moon. Previous missions to Mars have always used a parachute to slow their decent. Yet the atmosphere is so thin that it can only slow about a tonne to the right speed, and anything heavier is destroyed. It's not yet known what the total weight of a crewed mission to Mars will be, but NASA estimates that you would need to land at least 40 tonnes worth of equipment at a time[9].

Mars One plan to use the Falcon Heavy launch system and the Dragon spacecraft, both designed by SpaceX. The Falcon Heavy is still in development. The Dragon spacecraft has already docked with the International Space Station, but it would still need to be modified in order to land on Mars. This possibility is currently being researched at NASA's Ames Research Center[10].

In 2011, researcher John Karcz advised NASA that the Dragon would be able to safely deliver up to a tonne without using a parachute, and that supersonic retro-propulsion would allow it to carry even more[11]. Retro-propulsion involves firing rockets in the direction the craft is travelling in, in order to slow it down. In order to land safely on Mars, this will need to be done while the spacecraft is still travelling faster than the speed of sound.

It's still not known how this will be achieved but NASA seems optimistic, they hope to launch an uncrewed mission to Mars using both the Falcon Heavy and the Dragon in 2018, two years after Mars One's first potential launch[12].

Photograph of the SpaceX Dragon capsule, which is attached to a rocket.

A SpaceX Dragon capsule joined to a Falcon 9 rocket. Image credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann/Public domain.

Photograph of the SpaceX Dragon capsule at the ISS.

A SpaceX Dragon capsule at the International Space Station. Image credit: NASA/Public domain.

A self-sufficient habitat will also be difficult to construct on Mars. It'll need to be covered in layers of sand in order to protect the astronauts from radiation, and incorporate a life support system that provides energy, food, water, and oxygen.

Mars One claims that their Mars Rovers will be able to travel in a 40 km radius, giving the astronauts an area of over 5000 square km to explore, an area about twice the size of Luxemburg. Mars One plan to cover up to 60% of this surface in solar panels in order to provide the habitat with electricity.

One problem with this is that Mars is dusty, and the whole of the planet's surface can be covered in dust storms for weeks. During this time, far less light will get through, but Mars One claims there'll still be enough to provide life support. When it's safe to do so, the astronauts will have to use the Rover to blow the dust away[13].

Although rations will be available when they arrive, Mars One plans for its astronauts to grow their own food hydroponically, inside greenhouses. There is water within the Martian soil, and Mars One plan on extracting it by heating the soil and collecting the evaporation. Part of this water can be used for drinking, cleaning, and feeding crops, and part will be used to produce oxygen. They plan to fill the rest of the artificial atmosphere with the inert gases nitrogen and argon, which can be extracted from Mars' atmosphere[14].

Although Mars One should be able to verify that the life support systems works before the astronauts leave Earth, if anything does go wrong they will have to solve the problem themselves. Once there, they will have to be completely self-sufficient. The Earth will be just another star in the sky.

2.3 Problems with people

In order for the Mars One mission to be a success, the astronauts will have to cope with the psychological strains of both isolation and confinement, while constantly being monitored by cameras.

The trip there will be stressful as the astronauts will have very little personal space, there will be constant noise, they will be unable to shower, and they will have to live on minimal rations of food and water. They may have to spend days at a time inside the small refuge designed to protect them from solar radiation, and will have to regularly exercise to prevent osteoporosis.

Mars One does not think this will be a problem, since many would be willing to undergo these stresses in order to travel to another planet[15a]. They will screen applicants so only those that will be able to cope under such conditions will go, and the Mars-500 project seems to show that some people can function well when isolated in small groups[16].

Mars One also point out that once the 7-month journey is complete, the astronauts will move into the much larger living habitats. These provide about 250 cubic metres, per person, to live, work, and grow crops in. This is about the size of a family home in the UK[15b].

Once inside, they will be able be able to wear normal clothes, shower, grow and cook fresh food, use the internet, and begin work researching Mars. Although they'll still not have much of a view, since the habitats must be covered in layers of sand to prevent radiation poisoning.

Despite these problems, Mars One claims that it's not a hoax. One of its ambassadors is Professor Gerard 't Hooft, who won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Physics, and its co-founder, Arno Wielders, set up the Netherlands branch of the Mars Society in 1998, the same year that it was founded by NASA engineer Robert Zubrin.

Zubrin stated that:

"what they're planning to do is extremely difficult, but not impossible. It's possible, technically and financially, to get humans to Mars in about a decade and establish them there"[17].

2.4 Other Missions to Mars

Europe, Russia, and China
In 2001, the European Space Agency (ESA) laid out a long-term plan that would eventually lead to a crewed mission to Mars, although it has no predicted launch date. The ESA teamed up with Russia and China to conduct the Mars-500 experiment from 2007 to 2011. This involved three crewmembers living in a simulated environment, first a simulated transit vehicle and then a Martian habitat, for up to 17 months at a time. It was considered a success.

NASA has been considering crewed missions to Mars since 1987, when they announced that they would aim to put humans on Mars by the 2020s. This goal was approved by President Ronald Reagan in 1988, and by President George H. W. Bush in 1989. These ideas were put aside in the 1990s, and human exploration was removed from NASA's agenda in 1996. That same year, NASA engineer Robert Zubrin released The Case for Mars, a book based upon a research paper he wrote with fellow engineer David Baker in 1990. Zubrin went on to form the Mars Society.

In 2004, President George W. Bush announced that human exploration was back on NASA's agenda, suggesting that a lunar outpost may be developed in the 2020s. In 2010, President Barack Obama predicted that NASA would launch a crewed mission to an asteroid in 2025, and put people into orbit around Mars by the mid-2030s, with a crewed mission to the surface to follow.

The Mars Society
The Mars Society is a non-profit organisation based in the USA, with chapters around the world. It was founded by NASA engineer Robert Zubrin in 1998. The Mars Society's proposal to eventually colonise Mars is based on a research paper Zubrin wrote with fellow engineer David Baker in 1990. They claim that a crewed mission to Mars, known as Mars Direct, is possible with current technology at a total cost of $30 billion. Members of the Mars Society Steering Committee include Buzz Aldrin, the second person to walk on the Moon, and Bruce Mackenzie, co-founder of the Mars Homestead Project.

The Mars Homestead Project
The Mars Homestead Project is run by non-profit organization The Mars Foundation, which is based in the USA. It intends to design and fund the development of a permanent settlement on Mars, but it has not yet set a launch date.

MarsDrive is another non-profit organization based in the USA, although it also has branches in the UK, Brazil, and Australia. Its goal is to involve the public in developing a plan to put a person on Mars.

3. Why send humans to Mars?

If the Mars One project is possible in theory, then this leaves the question of whether we should send people to Mars.

Some argue that we shouldn't consider colonising Mars until we have colonised the Moon, which is over 100 times closer[18]. The Moon may be even more difficult to colonise, however, because it's so different from Earth. Mars has a much greater gravitational field than the Moon, which allows it to retain an atmosphere, and a day on Mars is less than an hour longer than a day on Earth.




Length of year

365.3 days

687.0 days (1.9 Earth years)

365.3 days (1 Earth year) to orbit the Sun, 27.3 days (0.07 Earth years) to orbit the Earth

Length of day

23 hrs 56 min

24 hrs 37 min (41 min longer than Earth's)

29.53 days (almost 30 times longer than Earth's)

Equatorial radius

6,400 km

3,400 km (53% of Earth's)

1,700 km (26% of Earth's)

Surface composition

Liquid water, rock, and frozen water

Mostly rock, with some frozen water

Mostly rock, with some frozen water

Surface area (land)

149 million km2

145 million km2 (97% of Earth's)

38 million km2 (26% of Earth's)

Surface area (ocean)

361 million km2

0 km2 (0% of Earth's)

0 km2 (0% of Earth's)


9.8 m/s2

3.7 m/s2 (38% of Earth's)

1.6 m/s2 (16% of Earth's)

Global magnetic field (surface)

24000 - 66000 nT



Daytime temperature of atmosphere (min)

10 °C

-89 °C (99 °C colder than Earth)

-178 °C (188 °C colder than Earth)

Daytime temperature of atmosphere (max)

20 °C

-31 °C (51 °C colder than Earth)

117 °C (97 °C warmer than Earth)

Surface pressure

101.33 kPa

0.64 kPa (0.63% of Earth's)

3.16 billionths of a kPa (3 billionths of a % of Earth's)

Composition of atmosphere

78.1% nitrogen,
21.0% oxygen,
1% composed of water vapour, argon, and carbon dioxide.
Trace amounts of neon, helium, methane, krypton, and hydrogen.

95.3% carbon dioxide,
2.7% nitrogen,
1.6% argon,
0.13% oxygen,
0.08% carbon monoxide.
Trace amounts of water vapour, nitrogen oxide, neon, hydrogen-deuterium-oxygen, krypton, and xenon.

Trace amounts of helium 4, neon, hydrogen, argon, methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide, oxygen, aluminium, and silicon.

The closest planet to the Earth is Venus, but no one could survive on Venus' surface. This means that it cannot be colonised in the same way, although it may be possible for a crew to remain in orbit. NASA considered a crewed fly-by mission to Venus in the 1960s, but the idea has since been abandoned[23].

Another argument against a crewed mission to Mars is the cost. Mars One claims they can send the first four people to Mars for $6 billion. They want to eventually send more than four people, and so their overall budget might be closer to The Mars Society's estimated cost of $30 billion over twenty years.

To put this into perspective, NASA's 2012 budget is $18.7 billion[24], which is just over half a percent of the US Federal Budget[25]. $30 billion is less than the profit that Apple makes in two years[26], and about half of Bill Gates' personal net worth[27].

Some argue that we shouldn't consider spending billions on space travel while there are so many problems on Earth[28]. The world would probably be a better place if we applied that sort of reasoning to many things, but it seems unfair to single out space travel and not, for example, events like the Olympics. The 2012 Summer Olympics are estimated to cost about $17 billion[29]. If it costs this much every four years from now on, then the twenty-year Mars One budget is spent every eight years.

As with the Olympics, some of this money will be used to provide jobs for the potentially hundreds of thousands of people involved. A crewed mission to Mars would also have the advantage of developing new technology that could help people on Earth, particularly since the astronauts must be self-sufficient.

Some argue that crewed space travel is still a waste of money because it's cheaper to send robotic probes[30]. Yet robotic probes are not as good at gathering data as humans. Humans are more mobile, and have the advantage of being able to recognise objects and think critically. And even if they weren't, there are other benefits to human exploration than data gathering, that is why we have explored as much of the Earth as possible.

Perhaps the biggest worry is that a crewed mission to Mars will contaminate the Martian surface with bacteria[31]. These may kill any native life forms, and destroy geologically interesting sites. This would mean that we'd never know if life evolved independently on Mars. One response to this is that Mars has probably already been contaminated by bacteria from Earth since meteors can transport them there. However, this does not address another worry, that if life does exist on Mars, then it may be hazardous to humans.

Artist’s impression of Mars being terraformed so that it contains land covered in plants and oceans.

Artist's impression of the terraforming of Mars. Image credit: Daein Ballard/CC-SA.

While some argue that people should not go to Mars because they will contaminate it, others argue that we should not go until we can completely terraform it, potentially destroying all native life. This is because Mars cannot offer people the same quality of life as the Earth while all life forms must live under layers of sand, and people cannot go outside without protection from the air pressure and toxic atmosphere[32].

In order to terraform Mars, we would have to raise the temperature enough to melt the frozen water and carbon dioxide, producing oceans and clouds. The extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would create a greenhouse effect and increase the atmospheric pressure. Plant life, like plankton, could then be used to create oxygen, which would eventually make the atmosphere breathable.

The main problem with this is that it'd be difficult for Mars to retain an atmosphere, since it has almost no magnetic field. We will not be able to terraform Mars until we can solve this problem, and so it's still not known if people will ever be able to walk freely on the Martian surface[33][34].

If none of this has put you off and you still wish to be the first person on Mars, then keep an eye on the Mars One website, as applications will be opening soon. Anyone from any country can apply, although it will help if you have skills in engineering, medicine, biology, or geology, but most importantly, you must be willing to leave behind almost everyone you have ever met in order to embark on the greatest adventure in history.

UPDATE: As of 2016, Mars One is still selecting candidates. They now plan to send their first robotic mission in 2020, rather than 2016, and their first crewed mission in 2026, rather than 2022. You can follow their progress here. The ESA still has no launch date for a crewed mission to Mars, and NASA still hope to send a person to Mars in the mid-2030s.

4. References

  1. (a, b, c) Mars One, 'Mars One will settle men on Mars in 2023', last accessed 15-02-16.

  2. Mars One, 'Roadmap', last accessed 15-02-16.

  3. Mars One, 'Is this ethical?', last accessed 15-02-16.

  4. Holligan, A., 2012, 'Can the Dutch do reality TV in space?', BBC News, last accessed 15-02-16.

  5. Mars One, 'Will Mars One meet the exact time schedule?', last accessed 15-02-16.

  6. Mars One, 'Why reality TV to finance the mission?', last accessed 15-02-16.

  7. (a, b) Mars One, 'The Technology', last accessed 15-02-16.

  8. NASA, 'Space Faring: The Radiation Challenge', last accessed 15-02-16.

  9. Kinney, D. J., 2011, 'Aerodynamic and aerothermal environment models for a Mars entry, descent, and landing systems analysis study', 49th AIAA Aerospace Sciences Meeting, Orlando, FL.

  10. Karcz, J., et al, 2012, 'Red Dragon: Low-Cost Access to the Surface of Mars Using Commercial Capabilities', NASA, last accessed 15-02-16.

  11. Karcz J., 2011, 'Red Dragon: The Feasibility of a Dragon-derived Mars lander for scientific and human-precursor investigation', NASA Advisory CouncilScience Committee, last accessed 15-02-16.

  12. Hand, E., 2011, 'Dragon offers ticket to Mars', Nature News, last accessed 15-02-16.

  13. Mars One, 'What are the risks of dust and sand on Mars?', last accessed 15-02-16.

  14. Mars One, 'Will the astronauts have enough water, food and oxygen?', last accessed 15-02-16.

  15. (a, b) Mars One, 'How much living space will the astronauts have?', last accessed 15-02-16.

  16. Feichtinger, E., et al, 2012, 'Mars-500—A testbed for psychological crew support during future human exploration missions', IEEE Aerospace Conference 2012.

  17. Taylor, A., 2012, 'This Incredible Plan For A Mission To Mars In 2023 Is No Hoax', Business Insider, last accessed 15-02-16.

  18. NASA, 'En route to Mars, the Moon', last accessed 15-02-16.

  19. NASA, 'Earth Fact Sheet', last accessed 15-02-16.

  20. Domingo, M. C., 2012, 'An overview of the internet of underwater things', Journal of Network and Computer Applications, 35, pp.1879-1890.

  21. NASA, 'Mars Fact Sheet', last accessed 15-02-16.

  22. NASA, 'Moon Fact Sheet', last accessed 15-02-16.

  23. Cassidy, D. E., Davis, C. L., and Skeer, M. H., 1967, 'Preliminary Considerations of Venus Exploration Via Manned Flyby', JPL History Collection.

  24. NASA, 'NASA Announces Fiscal Year 2012 Budget', last accessed 15-02-16.

  25. The American Presidency Project, 'Federal Budget Receipts and Outlays: Coolidge - Obama', University of California, Santa Barbara, last accessed 15-02-16.

  26. Apple Press Info, 'Apple Reports Fourth Quarter Results', last accessed 15-02-16.

  27. Kroll, L. and Dolan, K. A., 2011, 'World's Billionaires 2011: A Record Year In Numbers, Money And Impact', Forbes, last accessed 15-02-16.

  28. DeGroot, G., 2009, 'The space race is a pointless waste of money', The Telegraph, last accessed 15-02-16.

  29. BBC News, 2012, 'London 2012: Olympic security cost raises concern among MPs', last accessed 15-02-16.

  30. Slakey, F. and Spudis, P. D., 2008, 'Robots vs. Humans: Who Should Explore Space?', Scientific American, 18, pp.26-33.

  31. Rummel, J. D., 2001, 'Planetary exploration in the time of astrobiology: protecting against biological contamination', Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98, pp.2128-2131.

  32. Merlin, M., 2011, 'One-Way Mission to Mars - Ethics Fail ', Thoughts Arise, last accessed 15-02-16.

  33. Zubrin, R. M. and McKay, C. P., 1997, 'Technological requirements for terraforming Mars', Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, 50, pp.309.

  34. NASA, 'The Solar Wind at Mars', last accessed 15-02-16.

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