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UPDATE: Are Humans Really Headed To Mars Anytime Soon?


This image provided by NASA shows a high-resolution 360-degree color panorama of Gale Crater taken by the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars on August 5, 2012.


March 18: NPR: Are Humans Really Headed to Mars Soon?

Public passion is all well and good, but it will take more than big talk to get to Mars by 2015, space specialists say. Even several rockets' worth of cash won't easily solve the technical challenges.

Read more of NPR's reality check on the chances of people being on the Red Planet within the next couple of decades.

Original Post Feb. 27:

Mars One Project's Technology May Be Possible, But Bigger Questions Remain

A reality TV stunt or realistic scientific endeavor? That seems to be the question everybody's asking since news came out last week that a Dutch company is planning to send groups of people on one-way trips to Mars -- with the mission to establish a permanent human presence on the red planet.

Kay Radzik Warren of Reno said she had the same reaction when she learned about the project, Mars One, on social media.

“I first met that with a, ‘Really? Sort of disbelief,’” said Radzik Warren. "And about two nanoseconds later, I said, 'Heck yea!'"

But the 54-year-old project manager said she browsed through the company’s website and found that the mission’s architecture and plan seemed feasible. She applied.

Kristin Richmond, a 32-year-old civil engineer from Folsom, said the project piqued her interest too.

“I started reading up on it... my very first initial reaction was ‘Oh, I’m going to apply for it, this is so cool,’” she said, though she put off actually turning in her application until the last minute. “It was just the glamour, the idea, of being the next Neil Armstrong.”

Richmond and Radzik Warren were among 100 people selected in the latest round to become potential astronauts. Eventually, six groups of four hopefuls will train until the mission’s projected launch in 2024. Their preparation will be documented in a reality television show. Those selected, known as the Mars 100, have already appeared on local news, nightly shows and in newspapers.

Whether or not the Mars One trip comes to pass -- the project has already captured people’s imaginations. More than 200,000 potential Martians around the globe initially applied, according to the company. Numerous experts and online commenters alike have weighed-in and speculated on the project’s feasibility.

One local scientist said the technology for a successful Mars One mission can be developed, but it’s unclear if the company, which plans to raise money through donations, sponsorships and merchandising, will be able to meet its timeline and raise the needed funds.

At an estimated cost of $6 billion, the actual journey to Mars will take seven months and require complicated technology and equipment, according to the Mars One website.  The company's list of equipment includes launchers, a transit vehicle with astronauts’ living units, rovers, Mars suits and a system that would allow the astronauts to stay in contact with Earth.

Dawn Sumner, a UC Davis professor in geology who worked with NASA on its Curiosity rover project, said the Mars plan may be possible because it would be a one-way trip. However, she expressed skepticism about the proposal's timeline.

“One of the challenges for Mars is ... we don't have the technology for getting people back,” Sumner said. “They're [Mars One] not bringing people back, so they don't actually have to worry about that part of it.”

The biggest question for Sumner is whether Mars One can develop the technology that provides long-term, life-support systems for the astronauts.

“The technology to create a breathable atmosphere for people and the details of water and growing enough food is, I think, the real challenge in terms of the technology, said Sumner. “Can you do something actually sustainable for years.”

And getting to the planet is just one hurdle. There's also the Mars atmosphere, which is very thin and air pressure, which is very low, said Sumner. And there are questions about the red planet's soil, which is very reactive and contains materials that scientists haven’t identified, said Sumner.

“So one of the things the astronauts would have to contend with is what happens when this dust gets into their habitat,” she said.

In past Rover missions, Sumner said about a third of the soil studied in Mars is "amorphous," which means scientists know what elements make up the dirt, but they haven’t identified what molecules those elements are forming.

Unknowns aside, Sumner said the idea of private space exploration like Mars One is intriguing, and it might inspire more people.

“It's really great to get people to dream about things that are really hard,” she said. “It's like the way they're pushing this is -- it's a human endeavor and it does take the science and technology development to do it. And if it inspires young people to work really hard to do amazing things, it’s great for them, it’s great of the economy, we can end up solving all sorts of problems on Earth maybe by trying to reach Mars.”

Richmond said she'd always had an interest in astronomy, but it wasn't a topic she looked into while growing up. Then, she took a one-day a week night class at Folsom Lake College, she was hooked.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Saturn through a telescope, but it’s absolutely incredible to see,” she said.

Meanwhile, Radzik Warren said it was her mother who always inspired her to look at the stars.

“My mom is a fan of astronomy, she had a telescope at one point, she’s still around, she’s 87 and she’s still always looking up to the night skies,” she said.

Kay Radzik Warren

Radzik Warren said her family -- including a husband, her sister and elderly parents -- and friends all support her to be part of Mars One. If the current timeline holds, she'll be 64-years-old at launch time. But she has no doubts about still wanting to go when the time comes. Even if it means the possibility of leaving family and friends behind for life.

“I am totally up for [it],” she said. “With some tweaking I think that it could be a success, if I can inspire anybody else to look forward to our future as a space faring people, I’ve done my part.”

The possibility of being a pioneer is one reason Richmond is motivated to be part of the mission. But when the time comes to go, she said she’s not quite sure how it will play out.

I honestly thought I would never get picked,” said Richmond. “But, now that I’ve gotten this far, I kind of see it as a really great platform for me to be able to promote science and technology and engineering to young people, and specifically young women...Yea, at this point, I feel like I could do it. But you never know until the moment of truth.”

Kristin Richmond