Two MIT engineering students just faced off with a private company that wants to send people on a one-way trip to Mars — and one group won by a landslide.
The debate stemmed from the students' scathing critique of Mars One's plan to set up a permanent human colony on Mars. That report, published in 2014, triggered widespread criticism of the company's too-low $6-billion budget, unrealistic timeline, and general lack of preparedness for the challenges of Mars.
On Aug. 13 at the Mars Society Conference, two of the MIT students picked apart Mars One's plan again — this time in front of CEO Bas Lansdorp and Barry Finger, chief engineer and director of life support systems for Paragon Space Development Corporation.
The public debate was pointedly titled "Is Mars One Feasible?"
The students, Sydney Do and Andrew Owens, came armed with charts, graphs, and data, all neatly presented in a killer PowerPoint presentation. Here's how it went down.
The MIT argument
In case you're not familiar with Mars One, Do and Owens summed up the basics of the company's project in one slide:
Mars One likes to point to the Apollo moon program as evidence that its mission plan will work. Lansdorp often reminds everyone that President John Kennedy knew NASA didn't have a plan when in 1961 he charged it to land a man on the moon before 1970. NASA pulled it off in only eight years.
The MIT team immediately crushed that argument. Mars One has existed for four years but not yet secured the required funding or negotiate contracts for any of the spacecraft, Mars habitats, and life support that future colonists will need. Meanwhile, Apollo had the US government's scientists and coffers at its disposal.
The students also pointed to another example: Virgin Galactic. The company, founded by entrepreneur Richard Branson, has spent more than 10 years and $600 million but has yet to achieve its goal of making space tourism available. And that's arguably a much less complex goal than sending people to live on Mars.
Then MIT tackled Mars One's budget. The company claims it will only take $6 billion to land the first crew of four astronauts on Mars.
They made a striking case by comparing the cost of the Apollo program to Mars One's proposed budget to the equipment required to get the job done:
One of the largest problems with Mars One's plan is that we don't have to technology to pull it off yet.
For example, Mars One wants to land a huge rover on the surface of the red planet, but we haven't achieved that with one of the (huge) size they have in mind. We'll need a much more advanced landing method, as the MIT students pointed out:
Lansdorp has repeatedly said Mars One will keep its budget down by making the trips one-way — no need to finance a return trip.
The problem, said the MIT students, is that a one-way ticket means Mars One is committing to resupplying its colonists for the rest of their lives. They'll need a fresh stock of food and spare parts for their habitats and life support machines at least every couple years. And those shipments won't be cheap:MIT
Mars One's counterattack
After MIT's stacked opening argument, Lansdorp and Finger had the chance to present Mars One's side.
Predictably, Lansdorp opened with the Apollo program argument. But he's also the first to tell you that Mars One has a long way to go.
"Our plan will change," Lansdorp said during the debate. "It will look nothing like what you see in the pictures."
Then Finger went up to the podium. He made the case that Paragon (the space development company supporting Mars One) is well-equipped to design the life support machines that colonists will need, including breathable air on Mars. The MIT students agreed with him on this point.
But Finger conceded to most of the other points the MIT students made, essentially agreeing that the Mars One plan is too generalized and nonspecific. He pointed out that Mars One desperately needs a primary contractor who knows how to build all of these satellites, rovers, and space habs that its colonists will need.
Lansdorp took over again and argued the only thing holding back Mars One is funding. If it had $6 billion in the bank right now, he said, then it could start commissioning the technical studies and negotiating contracts with suppliers.
And Lansdorp has always been relentlessly optimistic about getting that funding. He says it could happen at any moment.
"It's a crazy enough project that positive surprises can happen," he said. "It's so ambitious, and I think crazy is the right word, that we might actually get a phone call from a billionaire who says 'I want to make this happen, I want the first city on Mars to be called Gates-ville or Slim city.'" (Presumably a reference to billionaires Bill Gates and Carlos Slim).
In the rebuttals that followed, Lansdorp said that it's entirely possible that the budget could inflate two or three times its current size. But he said the cost doesn't matter to investors. They're more worried about the risks, like if a rocket explodes or if another company beats Mars One to the red planet.
And again Lansdorp said the Mars One plan will likely change. The budget and timeline on the company's website is simply based on the best information it had at the time, Lansdorp said.
"We'll continue to update our plan with the data we get," Lansdorp said.
The final moments of the debate made it pretty clear who won: the MIT students.
They circled back to the point that the Mars One mission is fundamentally unsustainable because the cost grows as the number of people living on Mars increases. Both parties agreed a critical step is to figure out a way to efficiently build things and grow food on Mars. (Maybe they can take a lesson from Mark Watney in "The Martian").
But the most pressing problem is that everything about Mars One's plan is still preliminary and needs further research and development.
"The topic of this debate is 'Is Mars One feasible?'" Do said. "But these projects are very complex. It's a house of cards, if any of them them don't work, then the whole thing fails."
"If you're still developing concepts, then you don't really have a plan," he added.
It seems safe to conclude that in its current state, the Mars One plan is not feasible.
You can watch the whole debate play out below: