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article imageOp-Ed: Hey, MIT — What about success on Mars?

By Paul Wallis     Oct 19, 2014 in Science
Sydney - The Massachusetts Institute of Technology study of the Mars One project has come up with a few very interesting, but debatable figures and options. There's a bit more to this issue than the usual obituary for human hopes, this time.
The MIT study is very thorough, and includes a lot of basic elements derived from the ISS space station, the stated model for Mars One.
The prognosis isn’t good. It’s not, however, infallible. It includes a lot of necessary measures, using different case scenarios based on given parameters, reasonable enough for the purposes of a study. The scenarios including growing food, not growing food, oxygen and nitrogen depletion, and water depletion, accounting for calorie intake and full recycling.
The news that’s making headlines is interesting, but pretty badly expressed, like this from News Corp:
“…the level of oxygen in the atmosphere would become a fire hazard as the colony’s first wheat crop reached maturity, and venting the oxygen would not solve the issue. Death by suffocation would invariably follow.”
Clear as mud, guys, and wrong, in some major respects. They’re not talking about suffocation, and that’s not a quote from the paper, as far as I can find.
The MIT study does include a fire hazard, but also states that one of the problems is the lack of a space-based oxygen extraction system. These systems are common on Earth, but haven’t been adapted for use in space.
Being fair, MIT have used the most efficient examples available for their findings. This study isn’t pure negativity; it’s an analysis of risks and a useful exercise in charting some scenarios. It’s thorough, and goes into good, if acronym-happy, examinations of failure risks, which are significant.
Also seriously, the analysis of the cost and values of the first 15 missions to supply the colony indicate a massive cost, around $4.5 billion and rising over 10 years, and some issues with efficiencies in terms of colony population movement. These are logistic issues, as well as functional issues, and they’re not trivial.
The MIT study is good, and worth looking at as a realistic assessment of a very wide range of practical issues.
That said –
1. “Too much” oxygen in a space colony is a little bit disingenuous, to my way of thinking, in an environment with a demand for more oxygen. Feel free to become hysterical with outraged superior knowledge at this point, (I’m sure someone will), but how many lettuces and other plants breathing heavily does it take to create a real fire hazard? Won’t these plants be progressively consumed? Don’t plants contain a lot of nitrogen, and water?
2. You don’t have to “extract oxygen”, you simply have to maintain a safe level. Venting atmosphere, in regulated amounts, isn’t exactly an unknown technology. Simply calculate the ratios, release X amount, stabilize according to atmospheric mass/oxygen ratio of about 20%. Anyone with a few minutes and a calculator could figure that out.
3. There are two sources of CO2, and O2, people and plants. If you remove 1% of the atmosphere, at normal pressures, does that cause a problem? It’s simply a matter of volumes relative to space.
I ask because I’m a qualified horticulturalist. Sure, many plants give off oxygen, but they also take in a lot of carbon dioxide. They serve a natural purpose as a passive recycling system in an enclosed environment. Too much un-recycled CO2 would be pretty gruesome, to say the least, and the crew will be producing the large amounts that humans produce, every second.
Yes, the Mars One station will inevitably produce given amounts of gases, but so what? It’s a manageable problem. Another option — simply grow the plants in a separate section, with regulated atmospheric management. No risk to the crew at all.
Why do so many scientists spend so much time saying things are impossible?
I’m not going to recycle the arguments here. See Karen Graham’s recent article for an analysis of the MIT paper and the rebuttal by Mars One.
There’s a much bigger, much nastier, issue. The problem is that peak scientific bodies seem to make a habit of finding reasons not to do space exploration, or other practical things for the benefit of humanity. Instead of new power systems, for example, we have endless (and useless, so far) decades of speculation about “dark matter”. Instead of innovation, we have reasons for not doing things and budget cuts.
Science isn’t supposed to be a spectator. Nor is it supposed to sit on its fully qualified, insular backside failing to solve problems. There’s a problem, you fix it. That’s what real science does.
Is MIT, of all possible scientific organizations on Earth, saying these problems aren’t fixable? No, it definitely isn’t. Quite the opposite; it’s identifying problems and saying solutions need to be developed.
That’s the problem — issues are identified, and nothing is done about solving the problems. An appropriate next step would be, particularly for MIT, to find those solutions. These are real challenges for the future. They must be solved, sooner or later.
While you’re at it, guys, why not more interest in hydrogen-based energy systems, onsite Mars tech (mentioned by MIT) and more options for the colonists? What about underground storage? What about materials extraction from Mars, like silica, etc for onsite use? These people need as many cards as possible to play on Mars if they hit trouble, so let's see some productive talk, not more post mortems of something that hasn't happened yet. .
The problem with space exploration, like everything else in this damn world, is too much talk about problems and absolutely no attempt to solve them. That has to change, and soon.
For the record — the Mars One project hasn't been "destroyed". It's still on. Seems some people are prepared to face risks, while others just talk about them.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about mars one, Massachussetts Institute of Technology, oxygen excess on Mars One, Negativity of science, Mars crops
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