Are Humans Really Headed To Mars Anytime Soon? Public passion is all well and good, but it will take more than big talk to get to Mars by 2025, space specialists say. Even several rockets' worth of cash won't easily solve the technical challenges.
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Are Humans Really Headed To Mars Anytime Soon?

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Are Humans Really Headed To Mars Anytime Soon?

Are Humans Really Headed To Mars Anytime Soon?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Imagine stepping into a spaceship to blast off to Mars knowing you'll never return to Earth - OK, Steve, how about that? It's a scenario that has gotten a lot of attention lately because of a group called Mars One.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARS ONE PROMOTIONAL VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The colonization of Mars is the adventure of the century.

MONTAGNE: The group claims to have a Mars mission in the works. Its dramatic promotional video features 100 finalists selected for its astronaut corps. But talking about a Mars voyage is a long way from actually getting the money, building the ship and blasting off - obviously - as NPR science correspondent Nell GreenfieldBoyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Mars is waiting, so if we wanted to go, we could just go, right?

MARY LYNNE DITTMAR: No, we can't. (Laughter) We're nowhere near ready to go to Mars.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Mary Lynne Dittmar is an aerospace consultant in Washington, D.C. She says most people just don't get how hard this would be.

DITTMAR: The distances that are involved and the complexities that are involved in going and staying there are really enormous.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A trip to Mars would take more than half a year one way. You'll need to bring along a ton of food plus oxygen. Then there's the question of whether you can even land on a planet with such a thin atmosphere.

DITTMAR: We don't know yet how we're going to manage landing the sheer amount of mass on Mars that we're going to have to land on Mars in order to be able to have habitation.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And if they make it to the surface, the first Martians will have to cope with everything from cancer-causing radiation to dust. It's everywhere.

DITTMAR: The small period of time that we spent on the moon, dust was a huge issue. Mars has a big dust problem, too.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Nonetheless, a Dutch venture called Mars One has captured the public's imagination with its plan to colonize Mars by 2025. The group is led by Bas Lansdorp. He says they've been featured on CNN, The New York Times.

BAS LANSDORP: And actually on NPR. We've been on NPR I think, twice already.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: His Mars dream started almost 20 years ago. Lansdorp was watching TV and was stunned by vivid images of the red Martian surface sent back by a NASA rover.

LANSDORP: And for some reason that I really cannot explain, I wanted to go to Mars and build a new human settlement there.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Lansdorp is a mechanical engineer by training. He's worked in wind energy, and he now has a business plan for Mars. He says the voyage should pay for itself because it will be a media spectacle. Everyone in the world will want to watch the whole adventure. He envisions a reality TV show with sponsorships and advertising.

LANSDORP: We expect it's worth up to 10 Olympic Games of media revenue, which is 45 billion U.S. dollars.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Of course, sponsors of the Olympics can be pretty confident that the games will happen. I asked Lansdorp how he responds to skeptics who say that Mars One is basically just a website and a marketing plan.

LANSDORP: Well, I think that the people who say that really haven't paid attention to what we've achieved already.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says lots of people apply to their astronaut corps, paying a fee to do so. And the group has commissioned two studies from established aerospace companies. The Mars One plan calls for first sending out a small robotic lander about three years from now. Lansdorp says he can do this more cheaply than NASA. But won't it still cost hundreds of millions of dollars?

LANSDORP: Certainly moving in that direction, yes.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I mean - doesn't sound like you've raised anything like that so far.

LANSDORP: We don't need that kind of money yet because we are not yet building the actual lander. But these are the kinds of investments that we're currently in negotiation for.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: How much has he raised? He won't say. John Logsdon is a space policy expert at George Washington University. He seriously doubts that Mars One has the right stuff.

JOHN LOGSDON: I just don't find it a credible proposition.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That doesn't mean he thinks the idea of going to Mars in the next couple of decades is a total fantasy.

LOGSDON: I would like to see, once again, people leave this planet and go someplace else. Whether I'll be around in the 2030s to see the first missions to Mars - I hope so.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: You think they'll really be in the 2030s?

LOGSDON: They could be.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says they could be because humans on Mars in the 2030s is NASA's stated goal. But unlike the days of Apollo, Logsdon says NASA can't expect any big infusion of cash. It will have to cobble together the pieces of a Mars program on its current budget.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The support systems are go for static tests.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Low-speed data systems are go.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: High-speed data systems are go.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Last week in Utah, the agency test-fired part of a huge, new rocket. NASA says it needs this rocket to go out into deep space, back to the moon and beyond.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Its first flight should come in 2018. Jason Crusan is director of Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA.

JASON CRUSAN: We are developing many of the different systems to move from this low Earth-orbit phase that we're in today with the space station, into deep space and onwards towards Mars.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But that does not impress an aerospace engineer named Robert Zubrin. He's president of the Mars Society, which has long pushed for human missions.

ROBERT ZUBRIN: The NASA humans-to-Mars program is all sizzle and no steak.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says sure, NASA is building a big rocket and a little capsule, but where's key stuff like the space habitation module you'll need for any real long-term mission?

ZUBRIN: There is no program. There isn't even a plan. There's just chatter.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I asked him, if we're ever actually going to get to Mars, what's your best bet about what could make that happen?

ZUBRIN: No one can know the future, but I would say that the strongest initiative going on right now, the one that is making visible dynamic progress, is the SpaceX initiative.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: SpaceX, the first private company to have a capsule docked with the international space station.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Four, three, two, one, zero. We have liftoff, Falcon 9.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's a SpaceX rocket blasting off to the station to deliver cargo for NASA. It may soon take up astronauts, too. The founder of SpaceX is Elon Musk. Zubrin says he is, quote, "quite a person."

ZUBRIN: I mean, he developed spacecraft for one-tenth the cost and one-third the time that NASA and the aerospace major companies have done.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And everyone knows he's gung-ho for Mars. You only have to go online, and in five seconds you can find videos of Musk talking about the need to put humans on another planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELON MUSK: I just think that a future where humanity is a spacefaring civilization, out there exploring the stars is an incredibly exciting future and inspiring, and so that's what we're trying to help make happen.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: When will SpaceX go to Mars?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUSK: Best case - 10 years. Worst case - 15 to 20 years.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And Musk has announced that later this year, he hopes to unveil plans for getting large numbers of people to the red planet, a project called the Mars Colonial Transporter. Nell GreenfieldBoyce, NPR News.

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