Mars Exchange
Grant Anderson and Barry Finger from Paragon about technical feasibility and challenges of Mars One

Grant Anderson and Barry Finger from Paragon about technical feasibility and challenges of Mars One

by Natasha Schön on Thursday, 25th February 2016 in Inside 360, Paragon, Technology

Paragon Space Development Corporation is a premier provider of environmental controls for extreme and hazardous environments. Mars One contracted Paragon to complete the initial conceptual design of the Surface Habitat Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS) due to their specialization in engineering and manufacturing thermal control and life support systems with a specific focus on extreme environments. In this Mars Exchange interview, we asked Grant Anderson (GA), President and CEO of Paragon Space Development Corporation, and Barry Finger (BF), Paragon Chief Engineer, Director of Life Support Systems, some questions about their cooperation with Mars One.

Can you tell us about how the initial contact with Mars One was established? You were asked to give a quote for conceptual analysis for life support for a permanent settlement mission. How did you react?

(GA)     Bas Lansdorp found Paragon because Paragon is an innovative environmental control company that has a pulse on the latest technology available. He came to the United States, before the Mars One website even launched, and interviewed us about whether this is even possible, and after initial discussions he came back and said 'I want you to give me a report on how you would do the environmental control system'.

(BF)      For us that was pretty exciting. It's not every day that a private company comes and asks you to work on a mission to Mars and is willing to pay you to do it. I mean this is why we come to work every day, so it's a great opportunity; we were excited to go work on this.

What do you think of the technical feasibility of the Mars One project?

(BF)      From the ECLSS perspective, we as an industry are ready to go do this mission. And if I would digress, if the Apollo program would have continued back in the '70's, there is no reason why that program wouldn't have marched on forward, developing the technologies all those decades ago, to do this type of mission. So it's really about will, and funding, to go and get it done, not whether or not we technically can do it.

(GA)     Technically, it's still getting the mass down on Mars reliably, where you want it, so it's useable. And that is the hardest technical task that Mars One has.

(BF)      The job is not going to be easy; doing this type of work or any type of precision engineering work and manufacturing takes a lot of effort. So in no way do we trivialize the amount of work and the complexity ahead to go make it happen. But, technically, it is definitely doable.

How would you react if statements are made that the technology for life support systems for permanent settlement on Mars is not available?

(BF)      Our position is that the fundamental technologies do exist and are available, especially to get this mission off the ground and to make it happen, and that's developing the physiochemical life support systems that can keep humans alive for extended periods of time, multiple years on a planetary surface. It's fair to talk about the feasibility of bio-regenerative life support. A lot of work has been done in that field over the years – the Russians, the Americans, Europeans have all done work in this area, specifically in the area for space life support for long term habitation. There is a tremendous amount of knowledge there to build on, but unlike physiochemical life support systems that are flown on existing spacecraft and past spacecraft, no one has built a bio-regenerative life support system in a remote environment outside of the Earth, and shown that you can do that long term. Grant and I actually have some challenges, we go back and forth on that, I believe it is definitely doable and possible – it is a form of applied engineering; it's agricultural engineering, if you will. And then there are other things that that have to happen; it's building the equipment they have to have to harvest the biomass and the edible part of the plant; there is work to be done there, it just hasn't matured to the level that physiochemical life support systems have.

(GA)     To answer your question directly, there really is not a technology that has not been developed. It's a matter of implementation; it's a matter of taking that and making it reliable and maintainable, and something that you are willing to hang your life on, because your life will depend on it. And that is an implementation of the technology, but it is not the technology itself.

Can you comment on the added complexity of the life support systems on Mars for permanent settlement compared to the complexity of the return mission?

(GA)      It doesn't really add complexity necessarily; the difference in having a non-return mission is that you evolve from what we feel initially has to be a physiochemical system to eventually a bio-regenerative system where you are growing your food. That is the one thing that is a complexity of long term settlement on Mars.

According to you, what is the biggest challenge to come from Mars One to make their mission a reality?

(BF)      There are two things; one is programmatic, which we don't get into too much, but historically, whether it's a government funded space program or a private endeavor, sustained funding to do the work and to have the will to go and make it happen is a huge stumbling block. You've got to have someone who is committed to making it happen and have the funding to do the work. And then, on the technical side, there is a lot of work to be done with the idea of really implementing in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), which is where you have to live off the land, and you have to extract consumables or useable products from the environment. And looking at the conceptual design, it is a dirty, messy process when it comes to extracting water from the Martian regolith--the soil on Mars. You have solids, liquids and gasses, you have mechanical equipment that has to work, day in and day out, to separate the water from the local environment. You have to build very good machines that are robust and reliable, and are not big or heavy. So that's one of the technical challenges, and I think that it’s solvable.

(GA)     You also need to pull a team together to develop this kind of technology, and take it forward. If you have gaps in the funding, that team then disappears, and you come back and you end up with a learning curve problem. So making sure it's a sustained effort is very important. Additionally, on the ISRU side, two of the major assumptions that Mars One gave us was that there would be enough water available and extractable in the surrounding area where you land, and the other one is that there would be enough electricity. And those are the two going-in assumptions that all of our answers are based on. As long as those two things are true, you can then live off the land and create a sustainable environment.

Why does Paragon as a company, or you as individuals, support Mars One?

(GA)     Well, as a company, this is what Paragon was founded for. We've been in business for more than two decades, and we do life support in extreme environments, and Mars is the Mount Everest of extreme environments, and maybe it's a little easier than some other places, even on Earth or under water, but it's so far away. It's a tough job to do, and that's the mission of this company. So for us to say we wouldn't do this would go against 22 years of work that we've done to build this company.

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