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‘The Martian’: Top Ten Lessons for Mars One - Part 1

‘The Martian’: Top Ten Lessons for Mars One - Part 1

by Natasha Schön on Wednesday, 12th August 2015 in Expert Opinions, People, Brian Enke

This story was contributed by Brian Enke, who is a Senior Space Research Analyst at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, USA. He is also the author of Shadows of Medusa and an adviser to 4Frontiers, the MarsDrive Consortium, and Mars One. In his spare time, Brian writes science fiction novels and short stories. Brian prepared a top-ten list of "The Martian"-inspired lessons for Mars One. In this first article we are starting with lessons 10 to 6. A second article with the remaining lessons is also published on Mars Exchange.

Mars mission planners aren’t much fun at parties. We constantly temper public excitement for a human settlement on Mars against the harsh difficulties and realities of making it happen. When we talk to people in a casual setting, nothing sucks all the life out of room quite like diving deeply into technical details. Eyes glaze over, people start drinking heavily or making excuses to leave… it’s just a bad scene.

With that in mind, I recently read a copy of Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian'. A friend loaned it to me - at a party. He assured me it was the best Mars novel since… my own novel, ‘Shadows of Medusa'. I think he had to say that to be polite, just as I had when I promised him I would read ‘The Martian’ and give him my opinion.

So here’s my critique of ‘The Martian’… or at least the parts most relevant to the Mars One project. Consider it a top-ten list of novel-inspired lessons for Mars One supporters to ponder. Referring back to this list may even help you survive your next party.

If you haven’t read ‘The Martian’ yet because you live in a comfortable cave somewhere, be warned. I may slip some spoilers into the discussion below, though I will do my best to avoid giving too much away.

10) Stay positive - and excited.

Whether you love the book or hate it - and I’ve talked to several people in either category - you have to admit that people have noticed it and formed opinions. After 20th Century Fox releases ‘The Martian’ as a full-length, star-studded movie sometime around early October, the buzz will only grow.

Mars One needs to tie into this buzz in a positive manner. Personally, from a science and engineering point of view, I cringe at some of the improbable scenes and plot devices in the book. OK. Whatever. Stepping back and taking a deep breath, I (we) need to chill out and get over it.

The book is what it is, faults and all. Perhaps the movie will fix some of the issues, or perhaps it won’t. In the end, all that matters is the message that the reader or viewer leaves with.

We need that message to be: “Mars exploration and settlement is a tough and risky business, but human ingenuity trumps any challenge.” Whenever we talk to anyone in the public, that’s our first and most important take-home point.

Emphasize the excitement of risk-taking within the context of the monumental historical drama unfolding before our eyes. That sort of excitement is highly contagious, even within the science community. We recently saw evidence of that excitement during our New Horizons spacecraft’s fly-by of Pluto, which generated over 12 billion web-hits on Social Media.

The public still loves all things related to space. Don’t do anything to squash their excitement.

9) People can understand a simple cost-benefit analysis… but keep it simple.

One troubling aspect of ‘The Martian’ is its antiquated, short-stay two-way mission plan. In the book, NASA went to a lot of trouble and expense to send a six-person crew to Mars. Why would the crew stay there for only 30 days?

Anyone in the private sector knows how to run a simple cost-benefit analysis. Here’s a quick one on the basic mission plan in the book. Let’s see… very high-cost, very low benefit. Fail.

Mars One must continue to emphasize the opposite approach. Its low-cost, high benefit plan completely eclipses the one in the book. In fact, I would wager anyone a drink that any Mars settlement-first mission plan trounces any traditional two-way mission plan on either the cost or benefit side of the equation - or both.

Stick to simple math and common sense. People will understand this at your next party, even if they have already wagered too many drinks.

8) Bring plenty of food and infrastructure supplies. Plenty.

The trailer and poster for the upcoming ‘The Martian’ movie blaze a simple message in large print: “Bring Him Home!”. Fine. Within the constraints the main character (Mark Watney) finds himself trapped in, this slogan makes sense. Since he has little food or equipment, the alternative of “Let Him Die!” is a terrible movie tag line.

Here’s the critical point settlement advocates should emphasize: Mars One will do much better. If NASA followed a settlement-first mission plan in the novel, Watney would never have found himself hopelessly stranded. Minus an Earth-return option, Watney’s crew would have ridden out the impossible Killer Dust Storm O’ Death in comfort and safety. The next day, their mission would have continued with barely a hiccup.

Behind the scenes, this approach only works if Mars One guarantees the crew has adequate food and supplies for at least two years in ALL reasonable situations. Fortunately, this is one part of a Mars mission plan that’s actually easier than it sounds - especially the food part. Emergency food rations don’t require much mass, are easy to spread amongst launches, and won’t spoil on the surface. You can even land them ballistically.

7) Minimize the crew’s time in space.

To paraphrase one of Robert Zubrin’s many great quotes: “The surface of Mars is the second safest place for humans in the solar system.” We can state this with confidence because we’ve explored everywhere else. After Earth, no other potential destination comes close to Mars in terms of relative safety.

‘The Martian’ provides a counter-example. The mission plan minimized the crew’s surface time while maximizing their time in space… and things ended up even worse. To avoid spoilers here, I’ll skip the details.

Watney’s crew didn’t seem to suffer any consequences from radiation or low/zero gravity, but that’s probably because all books end in the final chapter. Add a few more chapters, and we could see some serious problems.

Besides getting the crew onto the surface of Mars quickly and keeping them there, related lessons for Mars One could include: 1) spin the habitat on the way to Mars; 2) have the crew sleep in their storm shelter; 3) establish a regular exercise plan; 4) use robots for most extravehicular activities. None of these make a mission possible, but each make it better. Some are already in the Mars One roadmap.

6) Mars needs followers, not leaders.

Here’s a point where the novel scores an A+. Mark Watney is a surviver. Others have described him as an ‘engineer’s engineer.’ He collects data and reasons his way through problems toward solutions. When obstacles get in his way, he keeps going, pushing past them. He lacks leadership skills, but he executes his plans meticulously, attending to every detail.

Mars One needs several Mark Watneys on the crew, minus the vulgar language and sometimes poor attitude. A Mars settlement can get some of its planning and direction from Earth, as long as it remains within comms contact. One good leader is plenty - and perhaps even optional.

All crew members must identify issues properly, collect data, and show the ability to follow highly detailed instructions or orders. Above all, they must possess an unfailingly positive attitude. Watney’s attitude wavered occasionally, though he hid it well from the vultures in the media back on Earth. Mars One crews can’t expect to be that fortunate. Their positive attitudes must be real and constant.

Also read the top 5 lessons in ‘The Martian’: Top Ten Lessons for Mars One - Part 2!

Find more information about "The Martian" by Andy Weir.

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