I have a feeling we’ll be debating the merits of the Mars One plan for the next decade or so, and perhaps even after the actual colonization mission is underway (if that indeed happens). I’ve been pretty critical about certain aspects of the plan, namely the reality television funding model, and people who know way more about the science than I do have expressed skepticism about whether the current mission model is feasible. The UAE even issued a fatwa against Muslims traveling to Mars, likening the endeavor to suicide. But not everyone is down on the idea of sending human colonists on a one-way trip to Mars. On Wednesday, the idea received got vocal support from a pretty compelling person: Buzz Aldrin.
Aldrin spoke at MIT’s AeroAstro 100 conference this week, arguing that it doesn’t make sense to bring Mars-bound astronauts back:
What are you going to do when you bring them back here that can possibly compare [to] the value that they would be if they stayed there and Mars wasn’t empty? And then, they helped to work with the next group and it builds up a cadre of people. When we’ve got 100—or whatever it is—then we start bringing people back.
He’s certainly right that after spending billions of dollars to put humans on Mars, it would cost at least that much to get them back. While at some point it might be feasible to synthesize our own rocket fuel out of elements such as deuterium that exist on the Red Planet, we’re far from having that system in place. A return trip would require bringing roughly twice as much fuel as we’d need just to get there. And as we know, every ounce on a rocket equates to thousands of dollars, so carting a seven or eight month supply of fuel to the would be particularly costly.
Aldrin also has a point that perhaps remaining on Mars is the best way to utilize the people who made it there, particularly if they can successfully implement some of the processes and systems needed for a functioning colony. If people keep returning to Mars, the lack of experienced personnel and continuity could prove to be problematic. If I were a new Mars colonist, I sure would feel better if there were folks waiting for me who had been there for a while and had a least some aspects of life figured out.
But some members of the panel disagreed with Aldrin. Vance Brand said, “people need a fighting chance to return.” Mars One seems to agree with both of them—it brands its mission as a one-way trip, but then acknowledges that after a period of time, once technology and our knowledge of the planet has advanced sufficiently, it might be possible for astronauts to return home if they want to. They say:
This in no way excludes the possibility of a return flight at some point in the future. It is likely that technological progress will make this less complex down the line, not to mention the fact that once the planet is inhabited, it will be that much easier to build the returning rocket there. This means that in time it could be possible for astronauts to return to Earth at some point in the future, should they want to do so.
Of course, this is hypothetical on top of hypothetical, but Aldrin’s point is well taken here—it does seem like a one-way trip is the most feasible way to get humans on Mars within the next decade or two.
It will be interesting to see if NASA, which has also expressed interest in putting people on Mars, will consider what Aldrin suggests. While talking about manned Mars missions, NASA has carefully avoided committing to any kind of plan involving permanent emigration, likely due to the risk factors of such an endeavor. Elon Musk, who has plans of his own, says he wants to “die on Mars—just not on impact.”