The first people to colonize Mars might be reality TV show contestants. No, this is not a joke - it's a tremendously ambitious, eyebrow-raising plan devised by Dutch company Mars One. Next year, the company aims to select several teams of four astronauts each, and the public will be the final judge as to which team will get the ticket for a (one-way!) seven-month trip to the Red Planet in 2023.

Compared to the more traditional manned missions, "Mars to stay" missions have the obvious advantage of requiring much lower costs and dealing with highly simplified logistics. And simplicity seems to be the driving force behind the Mars One proposal, as the organizers say the whole thing can be achieved using already existing technology, choosing suppliers on the basis of price and quality rather than political or national preferences, like other agencies may do.

Still, it's obviously pretty hard to believe in the feasibility of such an expedition, especially in such a short timeframe. We spoke with Bas Lansdorp, one of the minds behind the project, to find out more on the financial details of the operation.

"We discussed the cost figures of the components with our potential suppliers. We included margins, setbacks and failures in the financial plan to make it as realistic as possible," says Lansdorp. "Our challenge is that the bills of our suppliers will come before we generate such large income. For now, we especially require the funds to have our suppliers perform conceptual design studies. After these studies, the technical feasibility will be even more clear than it is now."

According to Lansdorp, adopting only tried-and-true technologies - instead of brand-new developments that would require a lot of expensive research and testing - will allow to keep costs down to about US$6 billion to settle the first four astronauts into their new extraterrestrial homes. By contrast, the total cost of the Mars Science Laboratory, which is scheduled to land on the Martian surface in just over two months, is in the range of $US 2.5 billion.

But how can a reality show expect to raise six billion dollars? The short answer - by attempting to create the biggest media event ever.

"To attract sponsors, we will create appealing media content around the selection of the astronauts, the training, unmanned missions and other topics," says Lansdorp. "This should convince sponsors and investors to participate with the promise of an even bigger exposure later: we expect that almost every person on Earth will witness the landing of the first astronauts on Mars."

"Their departure from Earth, the journey to Mars and the first months on Mars will also attract a very large audience. After that, many people will tune in a couple of times per week to see how 'our people on Mars' are doing - a reality show that never ends."

Among Mars One's backers is Paul Römer, the co-creator of the reality TV show "Big Brother."

Here's a summary of how Mars One sees the scenario playing out (and some of the many challenges):

The astronaut selection process

Next year, Mars One will start considering applications from wannabe-cosmonauts all around the world, regardless of their country of origin. Those selected will then be placed in groups of four, and put through a rigid ten-year training program that will familiarize them with the equipment and teach them to deal with medical emergencies.

The training will also involve each group being placed in a simulation of the settlement in a cold, dry Earth environment (Lansdorp told us that the exact placement is yet to be determined) to see how they can cope with their very unique living situation.

The candidates will only be allowed to leave the base when wearing their space suits, they will have to cultivate their own food and all communications with the outside world will be artificially delayed by twenty minutes to simulate the conditions they would be facing on Mars.

Food, water and supplies

All the necessary supplies will be delivered in advance, and should be already in place when the four astronauts leave for their journey. Food, water and supplies will be delivered by eight unmanned expeditions, including two remotely controlled rovers that will aid in assembling the living quarters.

"The inflatable living units are 100 square meters each. There will be bedrooms, a living and dining room, working area and plant growth area," says Lansdorp. Eventually, the astronauts would be able to construct additional buildings with a brick-making machine and seal them to maintain adequate pressure and oxygenation levels.

The entire settlement will be powered by solar panels. Even though Mars receives only a fraction of the solar radiation the Earth does, its thinner atmosphere partly compensates for this, at it allows for more of that energy to filter through.

While solar power might be safer than a small nuclear reactor, the dust accumulating on the panels will have to be periodically removed, either by hand or by the on-site rovers.

As the "settlers" start cultivating their own crops, they will increasingly become more self-sufficient from Earth, which will decrease the per-year cost of the operation. Every two years, a further group of four will arrive and join the settlement, expanding capabilities and allowing the start more research, including the search for life on the planet.

The long trip to an alien planet

A trip to Mars via the Hohmann Transfer Orbit - the most convenient path for a spacecraft to travel between planets - would take six to eight months. During that time, the astronauts would be confined to a very limited space, exposed to more than twice the level of radiation that astronauts on the International Space Station have to cope with, and developing a high risk of osteoporosis caused by the absence of gravity.

Regarding osteoporosis, Mars One is confident that it can learn lessons from the ISS, citing the case of American astronaut Shannon Lucid, who lived in the MIR space station for 188 days and was in excellent physical condition once she returned to Earth. Mars One hopes that developments in osteoporosis medication and a very generous dose of exercise will help limit the effects of zero gravity, which should subside once the astronauts land on the planet.

Radiation could be a more serious issue. Mars One says that bursts of radiation from the sun come with a fair warning, which would allow the astronauts to take shelter under the radiation-proof section of the rocket for as long as several days. They won't be sheltered, however, from the background radiation for the entire duration of their trip, and there simply is no telling what the effects of such an exposure could be.

During the entire trip, showering won't be an option; instead, the astronauts will have to make do with wet wipes. Tinned food only, constant noise from the ventilators and equipment and a regimented routine of thee hours of exercise a day will add to their trials and tribulations.

As far as the psychological health of the astronauts, other projects such as Mars 500, in which six volunteers spent 17 months in isolation, have shown that this should not be an issue throughout the trip. The Mars 500 experiment, however, could not simulate the high-radiation, zero-gravity conditions that the Mars One astronauts would be facing.

As far as the rocket itself, Mars One offers some security in that it says it will use only well-established technology that is already in production. And, somewhat reassuringly, the landing sequence will already have been successfully performed eight times by identical, unmanned capsules by the time the astronauts attempt to land on the planet in 2023.

Settling on Mars

Once they have landed on the Martian surface, rovers will pick up the astronauts and bring them to the living quarters. Each astronaut will have a personal space of about 50 square meters (ca. 500 square feet), a welcome change from the harsh conditions during the trip to the planet.

Then, the astronauts will be busy performing two main tasks: construction and research. They will work on expanding their base, partly with the help of a brick-making machine that will allow them to construct new buildings. They could construct a space as big as 10 meters high, wide, and 50 meters long, to cultivate trees and bamboo for future projects.

Within the settlement, inflatable components will contain bedrooms, working areas, a living room and a plant production unit to grow their own food. They will be able to shower as normal, prepare fresh food in the kitchen, wear regular clothes. All Units will be connected by passageways, so that the astronauts can move freely from one end of the base to the other.

There will also be two rovers, each with a range of 80 km (50 miles), allowing for more exploration and research in the area surrounding the settlement.

Waiting for backup

Every two years, a group of four more astronauts is scheduled to land near the base and expand the settlement, bringing new supplies and progressively making the community more autonomous from Earth. Mars One says it will continue to send at least four new members every two years, until the population becomes 40 strong.

Then, Mars One speculates, if everything is going according to plan, a new village might be created at a different location on Mars. Eventually, in the distant future, the local population might reach the numbers necessary to build its own rocket and allow some of the astronauts to come back to Earth, if they so wished.

Living on Mars: A risky business

Living on Mars is, not surprisingly, likely to be a very risky endeavor - particularly during the first few years in which only a handful of people will be on site to deal with any problems that might arise. Even after a community of tens of people has been established, there are many things that could go wrong: an essential component of the settlement could break down, an astronaut might not survive if his or her space suit were to become seriously damaged, and many medical conditions would simply become untreatable without the right equipment.

"Living on Mars is comparable to getting by on Antarctica, and provides similar challenges," the Mars One website reads. "However, the South Pole now has a number of very advanced, large research stations that boast a great deal of modern facilities that provide a good quality of life. These looked very different 50 years ago. The Mars settlement will develop in the same way."

In Antartica, however, the gravity is not 38 percent of what we're accustomed to, and since we've only had a chance to study how the human body reacts to long exposures to either normal gravity or zero gravity (on the ISS), the effects of this "semi-gravity" are unknown. Robert Zubrin, another proponent of Mars settlement, states that the effects of long-term low gravity would include humans growing taller and developing a much weaker muscular mass over the years.

If this is true, the first Martian baby would have a very hard time if he or she was ever to come back to Earth - feeling twice as heavy and without the necessary power in the limbs to move about. But is not something we need to worry about in the near future, as high-radiation and low-gravity environments act as one big birth control system, decreasing sperm count.

A much more pressing problem is on-site radiation. Mars One says the astronauts will be partially protected by submerging the living units with a few feet of sand, and, in the case of sudden bursts coming from the Sun (which can be much more harmful), they will have ample warning and will be able to return to the base in time.

Mars One stresses that the levels of radiation will be less than that experienced by astronauts in the International Space Station: it should be pointed out, however, that while ISS astronauts only remain exposed for a few months at a time, the Mars astronauts would be living the rest of their lives on the planet, exposed to a much higher level of danger.

Mars One's "roadmap"

  • 2013: The astronaut selection process will begin. Mars One will build a replica of the settlement on an Earth desert to help the astronauts prepare and train, and for a realistic environment in which to test the equipment. The astronaut selection and the preparations in the simulated Mars base will be broadcast on television and online for the public to view and select the final four.
  • 2014: Start of the preparations for the supplies mission (due to launch in 2016) and for the first Mars communications satellite.
  • 2016: The supply mission will be launched for Mars in January 2016 and will land on the Red Planet in October 2016 with its cargo of 2,500 kilograms (5,500 lbs) of food.
  • 2018: A robotic exploration vehicle will land on Mars to join the supply Lander. This rover's task is to travel around the planet to determine the most favorable location for the settlement.
  • 2021: All the parts and features of the settlement reach their destination: two living units, two life support units, a second supplies unit and another rover. The two rovers take all components to the settlement location and prepare for the arrival of the astronauts.
  • 2022: All water, oxygen and atmosphere production will be ready. The Earth crew gets a go-ahead for the launch. Each component of the Mars transit vehicle is launched into a low orbit, and linked together. On September 14, 2022 the first four astronauts are begin their journey.
  • 2023: The astronauts land on Mars. They are picked up by the rovers, and link the other landers together. They set up the remaining solar panels, and begin their exploration. They will also research Mars’ history and any possible past life it hosted, as well as looking into present matters of interest, discovering, for instance, how Earth plants behave on Mars.
  • 2025: The second group lands. They are received by their planet-mates, who have completed the construction of their living habitats in which both groups take up residence. The second group have also brought new hardware with them, opening up even more possibilities for research.

The video below explains some of the steps involved in building the settlement, that, Lansdorp told us, will likely be in Utopia Planitia, a few hundred kilometers to the North West of the Viking 2 lander.

Source: Mars One