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Neil deGrasse Tyson gave Mars One’s CEO a softball interview

Neil deGrasse Tyson recently welcomed Bas Lansdorp, the CEO of Mars One, on his science talk show, Star Talk. For the episode, which airs tonight at 11PM ET on the National Geographic Channel, Lansdorp sat down with Tyson to discuss Mars One’s plan to send a group of space settlers to Mars — and then leave them there. Lansdorp has received a lot of publicity for his idea, as well as a hefty amount of criticism. But Tyson was unexpectedly open to the CEO’s ideas, giving Lansdorp a platform to explain the Mars One concept — while providing very little commentary on the improbability of the mission.

Lansdorp has long claimed that the trip to the Red Planet can be done using existing rocket technology, but that a return trip would be too hard and too expensive. With the ultimate goal of establishing a permanent settlement, the first stage of Mars One can be accomplished for $6 billion, with the first group of settlers launching in 2026, according to the CEO.

Tyson was unexpectedly open to the CEO’s ideas

To many, this plan doesn’t hold up. But the most compelling critique of Mars One has come from MIT. A study analyzed how Mars One plans to execute its mission, and ultimately concluded that if the colonists somehow made it to Mars, they would likely starve, suffocate, explode, or run out of spare parts to keep themselves alive. Above all, Mars One requires a lot more money and a huge leap in technological innovation in order to work, the report said. Earlier this year, Lansdorp was given the chance to publicly debate the MIT researchers who conducted the study. He wasn’t able to refute anything the researchers found and didn’t have facts to back up his claims.

After the debate disaster, Lansdorp is back in the spotlight again with Star Talk. My fellow space cadet, Sean O’Kane, and I previewed the episode, hoping to watch Tyson, a prominent astrophysicist, appropriately scrutinize Lansdorp’s talking points. Here are our thoughts on how the interview went down.

Mars One Applicants

Loren: I think my favorite Lansdorp talking point is how Mars One had more than 200,000 people apply to be astronauts for the mission. That claim has been more or less debunked by now, but that didn’t stop Lansdorp from spouting it to Tyson, who didn’t challenge him. When NASA asked for astronaut applications in 2011, the space agency only received 6,300 online applications. I highly doubt there are even more people out there eager to die on Mars.

Sean: The "200,000 applicants" claim was a farce, something that Mars One has even admitted. The total number of completed applications was just 4,227 — a number that the company cops to on its own website.

The "200,000 applicants" claim was a farce

Loren: But let’s pretend that Mars One did receive 200,000 applicants. No one seems to have addressed how messed up it is to pick crew members 10 years before they’re supposed to take the trip to Mars, on a vehicle that hasn’t been picked yet. NASA astronauts go through basic training for two years before their missions, but their training is geared toward the various flight systems they’ll be expected to operate, such as the Soyuz or the International Space Station. How can this crew train properly for flight when they have no idea what their flight control systems will look like?

Also, the applicants don’t seem to have been picked using the criteria a mission like this would require. All they had to do was send in a video application and then be quizzed by one of Mars One’s medical officers over Skype. The "Mars 100" — the final 100 applicants being considered for the mission — are an eclectic bunch, too. There are aerospace engineers and ER doctors, and then there are political consultants and musicians. It’s not what you’d expect for such an ambitious project.

Sean: Lansdorp claims that Mars One will be able to train these final 100 applicants over the course of the next decade — in time for the first launch — and that this is enough time for them to learn the skills necessary for survival. But, much like the company’s other plans, detailed information about how they plan to do this hasn’t been made public.

Funding the Mission

A graphic of what the Mars One habitat will look like. (Mars One)

Sean: Another thing we’ve heard is that Lansdorp plans to fund essentially the entire mission by filming it as a documentary series or reality show. I have no doubt that people would be interested in watching this, especially the landing, but there’s truth in the jokes Eugene Mirman, a comedian who was one of Tyson’s guests, made about this. Much of the actual mission is going to be, by television standards, awfully boring. And Tyson is right to point out that "reality"-type series thrive on interpersonal drama, which is dangerous for a complicated mission like this.

Loren: Lansdorp also loves to compare the Mars One reality show to the Olympic Games, which he did with Tyson. He says such a show would be so popular that it would generate more revenue than the Games. But Lansdorp doesn’t mention that NBC lost $223 million on the London Olympics. The network hints that it buys the rights for the Olympics because of NBC’s long history of broadcasting the games, and for the chance of boosting its other programming. I doubt a network will be as eager to spend that kind of money on a show about a mission that probably won’t happen.

Lansdorp loves to compare the Mars One reality show to the Olympic Games

Sean: And who knows what TV or internet revenue streams (or distribution models) will look like by the time they launch? Nothing like betting the future farm on an idea from the past.

Loren: Also, the idea that you only need $6 billion for the first leg of the trip — which involves sending over all of the supplies needed to set up the colony — is ridiculous. Just to keep the space station running costs NASA $3 billion a year. There’s no way $6 billion will cover the costs of all the equipment needed for the settlement, as well as sending the equipment and the colonists to Mars. And as MIT pointed out, Mars One doesn’t even consider the sheer amount of spare parts they’re going to need to sustain the colony indefinitely.

Landing Heavy Payloads on Mars

Loren: One of the big problems with getting to Mars — and there are many — is actually landing on the planet. Mars has a much thinner atmosphere than Earth, so there isn’t as much wind resistance to slow down a lander — especially a heavy one. NASA says it only knows how to land one metric ton on Mars without crashing. That’s how much the payload carrying the Curiosity rover weighed when it landed. But you’ll need to land even more than that to start a colony. Despite this obstacle, Lansdorp says he knows how to make that happen.

He told Tyson that if you pick a landing site with a lower elevation than the Curiosity rover’s landing site, then the lander will have to pass through much more air during its descent, and the added wind resistance will help to slow it down. That way, he’ll be able to land up to three metric tons on Mars with current landing technology. That’s an incredibly bold claim, and Tyson didn’t really fight him on it.

This is a common theme with Mars One — making problems seem trivial and easy

Sean: Listen, it’s not like the Curiosity rover landed at the very top of a mountain or something. In fact, it landed at the very bottom of one — in a crater, some 14,000 feet below Martian sea level! In the episode, Lansdorp said Curiosity landed at 2 kilometers above Martian "0," so I'm not really sure where he got that from.

Lansdorp likes to talk about how new innovations aren’t needed for his plan to work, but that seems unlikely. The amount of risk in the Curiosity rover’s landing was crazy; there were so many potential points of failure — multiple parachutes, rocket boosters, a "sky crane" — it’s incredible that the whole process even worked. Mars One wants to land three times as much weight on the surface, including human lives, and yet we still have no idea how that would work. This is a common theme with Mars One — making problems that NASA admits it has no solution for seem trivial and easy.

Conclusion

Loren: At this point, it baffles me to see Bas Lansdorp and Mars One given airtime without having their claims challenged. Everything the company has shown so far has been incomplete at best and highly questionable at worst. And it was even more disappointing to see someone like Tyson hand Lansdorp a pass. Fortunately, Tyson’s guests, comedian Eugene Mirman and former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, provided the appropriate amount of skepticism to Tyson’s taped interview with Lansdorp. And toward the end of the episode, Bill Nye showed up in a pre-recorded video and shut the conversation down, saying that we should be sending explorers to Mars — not "corpses." Sick burn, Nye.

It was more disappointing to see someone like Tyson hand Lansdorp a pass

Sean: It was nice to see skepticism about Mars One’s ambitions and plans, though I wasn’t expecting it to come more from Mirman and Massimino than from Tyson. Here’s the thing: Whether you want to be hypercritical of Mars One or you think what Mars One is doing is fun, this company has 100 people’s lives in its hands now. Even if they never launch, participants will have to take time off from their lives to train for the mission. And then Mars One will further narrow the candidate pool, asking 24 of those people to devote even more of their lives to this mission. Everything Mars One does from here on out — every tweet, every talk show appearance, every bold claim — needs to be looked at through that critical lens.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that NASA knows how to land 1,000 metric tons. It's just one metric ton, and the text has been updated.


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