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MIT Students Analysis of the Mars One Mission Plan, Tuesday, 11-25-14 November 26, 2014

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MIT Students Analysis of the Mars One Mission Plan, Tuesday, 11-25-14


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Guests:  Sydney Do, Koki Ho, Sam Schreiner, Andrew Owens.  Topic:  This program provides a comprehensive discussion of the Mars One Mission Plan by the MIT student team.  Please direct all comments and questions regarding Space Show programs/guest(s) to the Space Show blog, https://thespaceshow.wordpress.com.  Comments and questions should be relevant to the specific Space Show program. Written Transcripts of Space Show programs are a violation of our copyright and are not permitted without prior written consent, even if for your own use. We do not permit the commercial use of Space Show programs or any part thereof, nor do we permit editing, YouTube clips, or clips placed on other private channels & websites. Space Show programs can be quoted, but the quote must be cited or referenced using the proper citation format. Contact The Space Show for further information. In addition, please remember that your Amazon purchases can help support The Space Show/OGLF. See http://www.onegiantleapfoundation.org/amazon.htm.  For those listening to archives using live365.com and rating the programs, please email me as to why you assign a specific rating to the show. This will help me bring better programming to the audience.  We welcomed the MIT team from the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics to discuss their paper and work “An Independent Assessment Of The Technical Feasibility Of The Mars One Mission Plan.  Download their study at http://web.mit.edu/sydneydo/Public/Mars%20One%20Feasibility%20Analysis%20IAC14.pdf.  You can also download the Reddit discussion mentioned in the second half of our program at http://www.reddit.com/r/Futurology/comments/2irk1u/mit_study_predicts_marsone_colony_will_run_out_of.  In addition, check out the MIT Strategic Research Engineering Group at http://strategic.mit.edu.  During the first segment of our 1 hour 49 minute program, Sydney started with background on why the team undertook the Mars One Mission Plan analysis, told us their goals and objectives for doing the analysis, and the role that each team member played in examining the Mars One Mission Plan.  We addressed most of the issues brought to our attention by the MIT study, many in great detail.  We also asked the team about their feedback from the space community as well as Mars One. So far, they have not been in touch with Mars One though they did ask Mars One for information in doing their analysis but no reply was received.  What they have heard from Mars One to date has been through third party reports.  On the other hand, the public’s response has been both very good and helpful.  You will have a better understanding of this and the open source software the team used when you listen to Kirk’s call at the top of the second segment.  The MIT team did not seek out or interview any of the Mars One mission volunteers, advocates, or supporters.  Much was said about Mars One website claims that their mission could be done with current technology including technology used on the ISS.  The MIT team took a hard look at these claims and then evaluated the claims which fell short.  They explained the technologies, the TRLs, and why they fell short of Mars One claims and needs.  We also talked about the ever increasing launch mass every two years with a new crew, supplies, etc.  They showed how this was not sustainable and why.  We talked about the very high number of launches needed before the first crew ever got to Mars plus the increasing number of launches needed at each two year launch window using the Falcon Heavy and a modified Dragon as suggested by Mars One.  The number of launches and their close-in interval has never been done before, even on a global basis.  We talked about making parts on Mars with 3D printing but noted that was not a current technology but that it would evolve over time with no time line available as to when 3D printing could reduce launch masses on the resupply missions.  Much was said about growing crops on Mars, separating the crop environment from the human environment and why, the need for much larger crop space than suggested by Mars One, plus a host of other critically related issues revolving around CO2 and O2.  As you will hear, the logistics of the Mars One settlement are complicated, costly, and very challenging.  The MIT team also determined that it might prove cheaper to bring food up from Earth rather than trying to grow the needed food supplies on Mars.  The MIT team pointed out that the one way mission not only made the Mars settlement far more complex but significantly more costly given it does not have an ending point.  During both segments, our MIT guests pointed out many of the assumptions in play by Mars One, where they were able to work with Mars One assumptions, and when they had to go to the literature, including NASA, to work the problem.  In this segment, I asked out guests at what point would the Mars One settlement be independent from Earth.  Their answer might surprise you.  As the segment closed, a listener asked if they had read the book “The Martian” and what they thought of it.  A few team members had read it & they liked it.  Listen to what they said about that type of survival on Mars and how missions were plan to avoid such a predicament.


In the second segment, Kirk was first up with his call from Trinidad.  He talked about the plant models and open source files and the error the MIT team made which they briefly mentioned in the first segment.  This relates to a flaw in the open source program dealing with CO2 and O2.  It’s a good discussion which also took place offline with Sydney and Kirk.  The MIT team is working this problem and error.  This is important so do pay attention to the discussion with Kirk.  Food systems were talked about again with the team suggesting the colony would be better off bringing food from Earth.  INSITU Resource Usage was talked about as well as sustainability issues to get the settlement up to 12 people over several years.  Tim called in asking about a Mars One analog here on Earth and what drove the costs so high for Mars One.  Again, we heard the one way mission was a huge cost driver.  Tim also asked if the costs would be the same for a lunar settlement.  Surprisingly, our guests said the costs would be similar if the lunar settlement was a one way project as the same type of issues would then have to be dealt with just as is the case for Mars.  Our final call was from John in Montana who applauded the team for their realism.  He mentioned that the health of the crew on Mars was not considered but assuming the crew is healthy when it lands on Mars and can live their, as people age, their medical care and costs rise.  As we heard, no such analysis was made or considered for these issues or their ethical component which the MIT team brought up.  Here we learned that the main assumption was a healthy crew from landing on Mars all the way through the Martian settlement process.  Such an assumption is not realistic but to do the analysis, one has to decide at what level an illness or injury will be treated and at what level crew members will not get treatment.  As the team said, to answer these questions also requires a study of ethics.  In fact, given the extreme financial requirements for the mission plan and its continuation every two years, our guests were asked what would happen and who would pay to keep the Martian settlers alive if Mars One defaulted and could not come up with the needed funds to sustain the mission.  While our guests were familiar with this issue, it was not part of their study.  Nobody knows if governments would come to the rescue or if the Martian settlers would be left to their own survival efforts.  The MIT team said these types of ethical issues would need resolution for any Mars settlement mission. They also questioned if it would be sufficient to just sign informed consent documents that included their knowing there would be no rescue attempts for any reason.  They suggested the UN as the forum that might undertake this type of analysis and policy.  As the show was ending, our team was asked about animal food stocks brought from Earth.  Each of our guests offered us closing comments which you will want to hear.


Please post your comments/questions on TSS blog.


1. DougSpace - December 9, 2014

A very interesting show indeed. I think that it was most educational to learn more about the logistics side of things.

Having said that, I’m frustrated by how much press that Mars One gets. Within the informed space advocacy community, Mars One is widely believed to be implausible. The reasons are generally the same: Skepticism about the funding approach, the risk / ethical concerns, and various technical problems. Yet the very fact that people could die doing it somehow, morbidly causes it to be given far more consideration than alternate concepts.

I would second the comment that it would be great if a similar analysis could be done with a lunar base / settlement. My own Cis-lunar One and Lunar One concepts would avoid many of the problems discussed with the Mars One plan. If you already have a reusable cis-lunar transportation system in place then it doesn’t have to be a one-way trip. If people want out, if they become sick or old, they just return to Earth.

Yes, there could be an associated reality TV show but that wouldn’t have to be the main source of funding. Rather, the settlement’s production of propellant for a transportation system would. Spare parts could be sent on shorter notice and one wouldn’t be so totally dependent upon everything working out the very first time. The launch windows are far better for the Moon and so emergency resupply could be available if needed.

As for whether the resupply costs would go up over the long run for a lunar mission just as for the Mars One mission one needs to take into account the technical progress of the base within about the first three years.

By mass, the major needs of a settlement are, water, air, food, plant food, and bulky metal parts. But any settlement worth its salt would utilize local resources from the get-go for water, air, food, and plant food. The settlement DOES NOT have to recycle 100% like Biosphere 2 attempted. Rather it can recycle something like 75% and then bring in in situ material to replenish losses.

Within the first three years or so, I think it possible to implement systems to extract metals from local resources and produce the bulky parts. The remaining replacement parts tend to be high-tech but low mass. For example, a single cubic meter box could deliver 10,000 Pentium-sized computer chips.

So, initially, the bulkiest supplies would be produced locally and so wouldn’t have to be shipped. Over time, more and more parts would be produced locally thereby reducing the amount of resupply needed per settler. More settlers X less resupply per settler may mean a wash in terms of total resupply mass.

2. Kirk - November 30, 2014

A question for Sam Schreiner:

Sam, you worked on the analysis of the ISRU systems. How would you compare the technological readiness of the various ISRU components which were included in the baseline model to the Oxygen Removal Assembly which was excluded because it has not been flown on the ISS?

CASEO Cabin Air Separator for EVA Oxygen (mentioned in your paper) was intended for the ISS as a replacement source of high-pressure, high-purity oxygen that had previously been delivered by the shuttle. The project went through Preliminary Design Review, but was canceled in favor of the 6,000 psi high pressure NORS Nitrogen Oxygen Recharge System tanks. Are the ISRU component designs more mature than those for oxygen removal such as CASEO? (BTW, the first NORS flown, a nitrogen tank, was on the ill fated Cygnus CRS Orb-3. SpaceX CRS-5 was supposed to take up the first oxygen tank, but part of the manifest reshuffling has it taking up a replacement nitrogen tank instead.)

I also wonder how applicable ISS flight is in determining equipment’s readiness level for Mars habitat use. While 0.38 g Mars gravity is certainly not the same as Earth normal 1.0 g, both are worlds away from microgravity where there is neither gravity induced flow of liquids nor natural convective heat transfer. Microgravity systems are often more complicated than their gravitational counterparts, making them more expensive, heavier, and less reliable. In in some cases, microgravity systems may take advantage of their unique environment and thus not even be operational in a gravitational environment. Were I headed for Mars, I would rather have Mars specific equipment which had been designed for and tested in 0.38 g and a 20/40/40 O2/N2/Ar atmosphere (somewhat less thermally conductive than 20/80 O2/N2), but I’d sooner trust a robust, Earth-based system than one designed for the microgravity environment of the ISS.

Sam Schreiner - December 9, 2014

Hi Kirk, thanks for your question! I apologize for the delayed reply.

First, let me say that assessing the technology readiness level (TRL) of a particular technology is definitely difficult. I’ll use the NASA definitions as guidelines (http://esto.nasa.gov/files/trl_definitions.pdf).

As has been stated quite often, oxygen removal technology has been demonstrated on Earth, but not on Mars. As a non-expert on that particular technology, I would estimate that the TRL is around Level 4-5, because the technology has been demonstrated and validated (on Earth), but not in an entirely relevant environment (in space/on Mars). Others can chime in on this.

Concerning ISRU, the TRL is somewhat more complicated. The technology needed to “bake” Martian soil in an oven has been demonstrated in an operational environment as a part of the SAM instrument onboard the Curiosity rover (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sample_Analysis_at_Mars), which places that particular technology around TRL 8. That being said, the SAM oven on Curiosity is meant for sample analysis, not for production of water. An actual oven to produce large quantities of water vapor and the associated system to condense and purify the water have not been demonstrated on Mars. I would imagine the technology to purify water generated from the Martian soil will definitely require some development and testing. As a first-order estimate, I’d put the soil processor to be around TRL 4-5, as stated in the paper.

The atmospheric processor is at a different TRL than the soil oven. Although Martian atmospheric processing has received significant research and development, it has primarily focused on capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and processing that to produce oxygen. The Mars One plan is to process the atmosphere to extract nitrogen and argon. The system I designed in the paper uses a zeolite membrane to separate out the CO2, but it’s a very preliminary design. There are many ways to separate nitrogen and argon from a CO2-dominated atmosphere and a distant relative of this technology has been demonstrated in high-quality nitrogen or argon production facilities here on Earth. But of course, no nitrogen/argon separator systems have been demonstrated on the Martian atmosphere or a Martian atmospheric simulant, to my knowledge. As stated in the paper, I would put the atmospheric processor around TRL 3.

So the bottom line is that I would say that the Soil Processor is at a similar TRL as oxygen removal technology, but the Atmospheric Processor is at a lower TRL. Our report highlights the fact that ISRU technology is a great way to support a more sustainable Martian settlement, but the technology definitely requires more development before we’re ready to ship it off to Mars.

3. Space-for-All at HobbySpace » Mars One update - November 30, 2014

[…] Update: A recent episode of The Space Show discussed a student simulation of the Mars One plan: MIT Students Analysis of the Mars One Mission Plan, Tuesday, 11-25-14 – Thespaceshow’s … – […]

4. Andy Hill - November 29, 2014

I would be surprised if a moon mission would generate resupply issues at a similar level to that as one on Mars at a similar rate. For one thing the level of spares sent could be substantially reduced to only those items that had to be replaced immediately, anything that could wait a few days or weeks could be stored on Earth and launched when needed as the 26 month Martian launch window would not apply.

A lot of the habitat could be built tele-robotically before the colonists took up residence to shake down the whole set up before-hand.

Also in an emergency the colonists could take refuge in a shelter and wait for help, something they couldn’t do on Mars.

It would be interesting to see a detailed comparison between the two.

Matt - November 30, 2014

Mr. Hill, you are right, a self-contained and supplied habitat shall be not subject of real interests, if not a long time habitat function and technology is already demonstrated at Moon (and even at Earth). I remember to the failed Biosphere projects, which should that even on Earth it is very difficult to establish such a habitat. I think a Martian self-supplied habitat is far out of our reach and will takes one or two centuries to reach that level.

5. Matt - November 29, 2014

I thank Dr. Livingston that he give listener and callers with his show the opportunity to review such not very realistic ideas as “MarsOne” on a scientific and trustable basis in depth based on critical thinking to open eyes on what is real. This is important. Thanks!

My view: Settlement activities on Mars will not happen in next two years.

Matt - November 29, 2014

Correction, sorry, there is a small error happened, please read instead “not happen in next two years” better “not happen in next two hundred years”:

6. The Space Show - November 27, 2014


Thanks for your clarification call during the program with the MIT Team plus your blog post which offers us even more clarification on the important issues you raise. That said, I would like to offer my opinion and make a suggestion to the MIT Team for their future Mars One analysis work.

During the discussion with the MIT Team, I brought up the issue of financing the mission and mission economics. This related to the ability to continue meeting the increasing costs required to maintain the Mars One project from crew to crew to crew, including all the launches, food supply, spare parts supply, and resupply of that already on Mars needing repair or replacement. Based on the back of the envelope very quick analysis made during our program, it was very easy to see that the substantial increase in costs from one mission to the next one two years later, including all the launches needed for each Mars launch window mission, might quickly rise to a point that is unaffordable for all the participants. At that point, Sydney and team members mentioned there might also be ethical issues to consider as to who takes over funding missions and supporting those already on Mars, especially involving the use of public money. Not only are the cost, revenue, and economic details to be considered in the Mars One model plus any models used by the MIT Team, there is an additional underlying assumption that Dr. Jurist brought up during his call in the second segment of our program.

The Mars One Mission Program and the MIT Team considered only a healthy crew arriving on Mars, a healthy crew living and working on Mars, plus there was no consideration of aging for the crew, increased medical care and possibly hardware needed for medical needs for an aging crew (remember on Earth we typically need more medical support and care as we get older). The problem with making an assumption that ignores the reality of the health of the crew in transit to Mars and on Mars is that if reality more closely approximates the human condition on Earth, the resupply efforts and possibly the needed mass going to Mars will significantly distort the current models as the costs escalate significantly with each crew and resupply mission. While it may not now be possible to accurately estimate these added costs, possible additional launches, and the productivity of the crews on Mars (it may not be near what is projected), zeroing this out could be a huge and fatal error for Mars One, exacerbating what may already be a set of costs and economics that prove unaffordable, even for rich nations.

My suggestion to the MIT Team is that if you intend to supplement your Mars One Mission Analysis, bring in a small team from the MIT Business and Economic Departments and have them run the numbers on what this will cost based on the Mars One model, the number of launches using published launch prices for the likely available rockets such as the Falcon Heavy and a modified Dragon, the mass, food, spares, etc. Add this cost and economic analysis based on your model and the Mars One model to the mix of your overall analysis of their mission plan. I strongly urge you to supplement your plan with this information (Note that Mars One has a revenue generation plan which should be part of the consideration), and economic study. While I am not downgrading the importance of your technical analysis of the Mars One Mission Plan, what good s it if the project is unaffordable from the start and never launches? I believe the economic analysis I am suggesting goes right along with the technical side of things.

If ethical issues arise as suggested on the show, to make quality choices based on the ethics involved in supporting those on Mars with public funds for example, or even deciding to treat certain health related conditions including the aging of the crews, the costs for such decisions will need to be known. While I know getting hard costs for these issues can’t be done at this time, but one can certainly make a set of reasonable assumptions and estimate those costs, again offset by Mars One revenue projections.

Finally, I believe it would also be important to add a section for both the technical and the economic/cost analysis that looks at the assumptions Mars One uses as well as the MIT Team(s) assumptions and clearly explain those assumptions, even pointing out their strong and weak points. Assumption making is done all the time in business, public projects, even in medical work, so its not unreasonable to identify the assumptions and provide a test of the reasonableness of any assumption used in the project’s analysis.

One last point. It is not my intention to dowse Mars One with ice water. I believe the MIT Team did an excellent job with their study and I concur with their goals and objectives. This type of work has the potential to support Mars One into developing a more comprehensive and realistic mission plan. If for any reason Mars One does not work out, this is important work for those Mars human spaceflight and settlement projects that will come after Mars One. If the goal is to settle on Mars, have a viable settlement, and be able to keep it going on into the future, then the full range of issues impacting the mission, including economic and human factors, needs to be evaluated to make the mission strong and viable. Most of us, myself included, want to see humans on Mars and the Moon. To make this happen, the mission planners and architects will need to be steeped in the reality of multiple and related disciplines. I believe such a mission can be successfully carried out for Mars as well as the Moon. I think the MIT Team’s current and future work will help make such planetary settlements a reality. Sooner rather than later.


7. Robert Walker - November 27, 2014

Just to say, great show! And – this logistics thing – quite an eye opener. For the Moon also, and for the likes of the Stanford Torus and other space stations / habitats.

I don’t think the Stanford study looked into logistics of spare parts resupply to the torus, from what I remember of it. If it was like this analysis, they would need 10,000 falcon heavies a year to resupply it just for spare parts as the equipment failed and needed to be replaced.

You don’t think about this on Earth where it’s labour costs that matter if you get in an electrician etc – and buildings are also so much easier to maintain, not so high tech, and the transport of the equipment is usually just a small part of the total cost. But can easily see it spiraling out of control in space.


8. Kirk - November 27, 2014

When Sydney Do said that the excess O2 generation in their baseline model which lead to the crew death on day 68 originally predicted by the faulty code would actually happen in a later simulation, he did not mean that it would happen at a later date in that same simulation, say day 168, but that it would happen in a later iteration of the their modeled habitat design, assuming that they were addressing only one issue at a time. Two problems generated by their high crop growth model are insufficient CO2 and excessive O2, but the latter can only occur once the former is addressed.

In essence, if you grow enough crops to provide 100% of your crew’s food, your crops will require twice as much CO2 as will be generated by the crew and generate twice as much O2 as will be required by the crew. In a closed system, such as a biosphere simulation, inedible plant matter and human manure is aerobically composted, producing CO2, consuming O2, and hopefully bringing the system into balance. But these habitat models sequester the dry waste, bringing about the imbalance. However, before the excess O2 can be generated, there must be an additional source of CO2.

The error in the biological simulation code allowed the generation of excessive O2 even though they had not addressed the CO2 issue. With the corrected code, the baseline model as they described it would have run for the full 26 months without any O2 problems, but would have suffered from poor crop yield (approximately 50% of that expected), forcing the crew to rely on their backup food supplies.

If the baseline model is modified to include a CO2 injection system but not an O2 removal system, that is, if only one of these two issues are addressed, then the excess O2 generation and its associated issues will reappear when modeled under the fixed biological simulation code.

9. Michael J. Listner - November 26, 2014

As a frequent guest to the Space Show, I want to commend David for providing quality content like this that isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions. To that end, kudos to the MIT students who took on this undertaking and agreed to put themselves and their work to be scrutinized not only be their peers but the space community as well.

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