Mars One Attacks - but negative tactics aren't the right path to follow

Mosaic of Mars from Viking Orbiter 1 Credit: Nasa/USGS

I can understand Mars One CEO Bas Lansdorp’s frustration with the never-ending criticism of his plans to settle the red planet. But that doesn’t justify the negative attacks Mars One’s leadership has launched at MIT’s researchers. Mars One must take the high road if it wants to earn the credibility it needs.

What did MIT researchers really say?

Mars One bases its audacious plans to settle Mars on its ability to recruit players in the space industry who can adapt existing technologies. Critics dismiss their plans as technologically naive and financially unsound. When a study out of MIT identified potential issues with the Mars One mission architecture, the media jumped on it as “proof” that Mars One would fail. The headlines in the mainstream media - and inexcusably the space and science media - focused on the simulation’s most sensational scenario: the settlers die after 68 days. 

If you actually read the paper, however, you will see that “An Independent Assessment of the Technical Feasibility of the Mars One Mission Architecture” isn’t an attempt to discredit Mars One or proof that settling Mars is impossible. There’s been so little research into such a “drastic departure” from space agencies' Apollo-style approaches that the researchers wanted to identify the technical and logistic issues that Mars One’s contractors must address. They created a simulation of a habitat's life support systems, maintenance rates, and the logistics of Earth-to-Mars resupply. As they say in the paper's introduction:

Such technology is still at a relatively low technology readiness level and as such the mass, volume, and power required by these systems are quite uncertain. This uncertainty is compounded by a lack of operational data to produce reliability numbers for a spares analysis.

In addition, the 68-days-to-death scenario that the media ran with wasn't even a significant part of the study. Buried deep in the middle of the paper, it was the outcome of a first-run simulation they performed before building more sophisticated models. The only conclusion that the researchers drew from the result was that the habitat would need an oxygen removal system that "has not yet been developed for spaceflight."

Mars One flips from positive to negative

The early responses from Mars One’s executives politely expressed optimism that their plans will work. Lansdorp even cited oxygen removal technologies used in hospitals today as an example of the technology's availability. 

Over the past month, though, Lansdorp and his team have switched to launching negative attacks on the MIT research. Lansdorp told Business Insider science writer Kelly Dickerson:

The so-called MIT report was actually written by a few undergraduate students. They have made very incorrect assumptions about our mission, which basically resulted in a completely different mission to Mars with, honestly, a very bad design. Of course such a badly designed mission will result in all kinds of issues and higher cost.

Huffington Post Live recently interviewed Mars One Chief Medical Officer Dr. Norbert Kraft.  When asked what he made of the research results (starts at the 3:30 mark), Kraft said:

Those findings are made up and fake because they didn’t talk to anyone at Mars One… this is how science should not be done. Ever. This is a big disappointment for the scientific community that someone just made things up.

I beg to differ

Lansdorp’s and Kraft’s negative attacks on the integrity of the work and the professionalism of the researchers is unjustified and irresponsible.

First of all, the study’s authors are not “undergraduate students.” Three of the authors, including lead author Sydney Do, are PhD candidates at MIT’s Strategic Engineering Research Group. One author is an MIT graduate student and Nasa Space Technology Research Fellow who specializes in using lunar and martian raw materials for long-term space exploration. The final author, Olivier de Weck is an MIT Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems, head of MIT’s Strategic Engineering Research Group, and editor-in-chief of the journal Systems Engineering

These young scientists may not have decades of experience. They are, however, the world’s top talents specializing in space system architectures at one of the planet’s top research universities. They are the next generation of scientists whose research supports the same space industry upon which Mars One depends. 

Second, Kraft’s statement that Do and his colleagues didn’t talk to Mars One is self-serving misdirection. In a November 25, 2014 interview on The Space Show by host Dr. David Livingston, Do explained (starts at the 9:40 mark):

We even contacted Mars One beforehand to see if we could get data from them to support our analysis and we weren’t able to get that data from them…. We just didn’t get a response from them.

Kraft may say that nobody ever contacted him, but why would they? Kraft is a doctor, not an  engineer. He specializes in the physiological and psychological effects of long-duration spaceflight, not the engineering of life support systems or the logistics of interplanetary resupply processes. 

Third, an honest reading of the original paper - as well as the team’s comments in subsequent interviews - makes it clear that their goal was never to discredit Mars One or “prove” that settlement is impossible. In response to the wave of lazy reporting from the mainstream media, the team posted an “Open Letter on the Mars One Analysis Conducted by MIT Researchers” in which they state:

We have great respect for the enthusiasm for space exploration that the Mars One program has generated and our goal is not to detract from this, but rather to drive it forward - towards enabling affordable, sustainable Mars colonization.

In their Reddit AMA, Do and his colleagues said:

Just to be clear, it is not our aim to discredit anyone - we are big fans of Mars exploration and colonization as well, and it is our goal to identify current challenges and a technology roadmap for it to actually happen.

Professor de Weck even explained in the original MIT press release:

We’re not saying, black and white, Mars One is infeasible, but we do think it’s not really feasible under the assumptions they’ve made. We’re pointing to technologies that could be helpful to invest in with high priority, to move them along the feasibility path.

Finally, Kraft’s accusation that Do and his team faked their work and are an embarrassment to the scientific community is absurd and deeply insulting. The bedrock of science is the independent reproducibility of openly published research results. If anything, it’s Mars One that has refused to explain how they will achieve their technological goals or allow anyone to independently assess their plans.

In fact, the MIT study is exactly the kind of engineering analysis that needs to be done before anyone thinks of going to Mars. Nasa technology strategy manager Tracy Gill even said that the MIT research could...

...provide a benefit to mission planners by allowing them to evaluate a larger spectrum of mission architectures with better confidence in their analysis.

Crossing the gulf between “this tech ought to work” and “this tech will work” - between “it works on Earth” to “it works on Mars” - is what makes rocket science so hard. It’s the iterative process of testing assumptions and evaluating trades that leads to engineering designs on which people can stake their lives.

Lansdorp’s and Kraft’s scornful dismissals of the MIT study, and the young researchers who created it, are insulting at best. At worst, the attacks sound suspiciously like deceptive attempts to cast fear, uncertainty, and doubt on a legitimate, well-intentioned study by future leaders in the space community.

Don't bite the hands that feed you

Mars One has made audacious claims. The burden of proof rests on Mars One to answer its critics with facts, not attacks. Furthermore, Mars One can't succeed without the active participation of the world's space industry and the space science community. Unless Lansdorp, Kraft, and the rest of Mars One’s leadership take the high road, they will lose any hope of respect and credibility among the very people they need to settle Mars.