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‘The Martian’: Top Ten Lessons for Mars One - Part 2

‘The Martian’: Top Ten Lessons for Mars One - Part 2

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. This article contains the remaining lessons (5 - 0). Find lessons 10 - 6 here.

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 to promise 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 on Mars, 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.

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

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

7) Minimize the crew’s time in space.

6) Mars needs followers, not leaders.

5) Never hide information from the crew.

Here’s another point where ‘The Martian’ shines. In the book, NASA hid some important facts from the crew, and they nearly paid the price. The ultimate solution only happened after NASA ‘fessed up’ and worked honestly with the crew.

This lesson should be pretty obvious, so I’m not going to spend much time hashing it out. Other Mars novels have bashed their readers to a bloody pulp with this theme too, including one I may have written a while back, heh heh.

Lies and deceit have no place in a Mars settlement, where lives hang on every decision. Some reality TV shows thrive on fake drama. In a Mars settlement, the drama and danger are real.

4) It’s lonely at the top.

If you want to be the first, you have to like being alone. Stated in a more practical way, when you’re a settler in the first settlement on Mars, you have no neighbors when you need to borrow some folding chairs for your next party.

In the novel, NASA worked out a deal to buy a Chinese rocket when they found themselves without one of their own. Somehow, this rocket had just the right capabilities at just the right time. I hope the movie producers leave this weak thread out, even though it illustrates a subtle but important lesson for Mars One.

International cooperation sounds great in a book or movie. In reality, it won’t work if no one else has the resources you need to buy or borrow. A Mars settlement may not become self-sufficient for decades. We should scrounge around for some good neighbors.

By promoting, accelerating, and collaborating with other groups and individuals interested in Mars settlement right from the start (and yes, I’m talking about you, SpaceX), these groups can help each other when things go wrong. Mars is a big planet, and there’s room for everyone. Why have one settlement when having five or ten is much better?

3) Use Mars areosynchronous orbit wisely.

I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with the letter S.

S is for Satellites. Mars One would benefit from at least one orbital spy camera with the ability to track surface events in real time and transmit the imagery back to the settlement - and Earth. In the book, NASA didn’t know Watney survived his accident until many months later (partly due to NASA ineptitude). That situation is unacceptable.

A Mars Society friend of mine, who happens to be a lead engineer on a high-resolution Mars orbital camera beginning with the letter H, ranted to me for ten minutes about the lack of orbital imagery in the early chapters of the book. For him, this oversight killed the whole book.

Eyes in the sky are critical on any Mars mission, and particularly on a settlement-first mission. Local resource extraction teams and field equipment must be tracked at all times. Hazards (like Impossible Killer Dust Storms O’ Death) must be monitored.

If it has enough pixel resolution, a spy satellite in areosynchronous orbit (altitude ~17,000 km) probably makes the most sense - and indeed this is the current Mars One roadmap. Always monitoring the settlement as its primary task, the camera could also generate revenue by farming out imagery to space agencies or media outlets. No one has ever flown an areosynchronous satellite, leading to the old joke in the science community: “It’s always 2:00 on Mars.”

2) Don’t forget, humans aren’t the only things going to Mars.

This Mars mission is brought to you by the letters S and R, and the number 3. Since S is for Satellites (in lesson #3), R is for Robots, and the number 3 is for 3D Printers.

The novel described some useful future-tech inventions, like nano-woven habitat cloth, nuclear spaceships, and durable life support equipment. But… where are all the robots? And 3D printers? And other tech for basic infrastructure?

Perhaps the fictitious mission planners thought they wouldn’t need much infrastructure on a simple 30-day mission. Think again. Any two-way mission, even a simplistic 30-day mission like the one in the novel, must include enough infrastructure to keep the crew alive for much longer periods of time. To do otherwise exposes the crew to unacceptable levels of risk.

Mission planners can’t possibly account for every possible issue or failure… but they can maximize the ability of the crew to deal with a wide range of issues on their own. The key word is flexibility, and the key technology appears to be 3D printing. We didn’t even have this weapon in our arsenal ten years ago, and now it’s hard to imagine designing a Mars mission without it.

Some suspicious readers may suspect where I’m going with this line of reasoning. For everyone else, I’ll come right out and say it. The safest possible two-way Mars mission is a settlement-first mission. If you happen to prefer two-way missions… why not frame your mission around a settlement-first mission? You could even call your two-way mission ‘Mars One’… except that name is taken already.

The shameless use of tele-robotics also maximizes crew flexibility. If a settlement has an adequate infrastructure, the crew should rarely need to step outside. This notion might not seem very adventurous to some, but it’s a great way to keep people alive on Mars.

Some critics carry this point to ridiculous extremes, questioning whether you need humans on Mars at all. Why not just send machines? Alas, these critics might find some solace in ‘The Martian.’

Even I, a steadfast advocate of sending humans-to-Mars, can’t find much value in the 30-day mission plan in the novel. NASA could have done this mission with robots, tele-operated by a crew unsafely in Mars orbit.

After the movie release of ‘The Martian,’ when will we see a half-baked New York Times editorial questioning why we should bother sending human explorers to Mars? I’ll bet another party drink it happens within two weeks. Anyone care to take that bet?

As with most things in life, moderation is the best robotics policy. Send some humans and some robots on the right mission. That’s the approach Mars One should emphasize (and is). Robots can help build and run a settlement, but they can’t live in one. They can’t live anywhere: they are dumb, lifeless machines. Duh.

1) SPF is the most important acronym on a Mars mission.

SPF has nothing to do with sunscreen ratings. Within the context of Mars mission planning, the acronym stands for ‘Single Point of Failure.’ An SPF is a single event, failing piece of equipment, or oversight that can doom the whole mission. On Mars, you never want one of anything.

The book ‘The Martian’ contains a staggering number of SPFs within the initial mission plan. The main sources of SPFs are, of course, one habitat, one Mars Ascent Vehicle, and one Earth Return Vehicle. Without each piece of equipment working flawlessly - including all critical subsystems and components down to rivets and wires - the entire crew is dead. Period.

To be fair to the author, most proposed two-way Mars mission architectures gloss over these weaknesses without batting an eyelash. Mars One cannot afford to do so.

Herein lies the real magic of the Mars One mission plan. No ascent vehicle… no return vehicle… many redundant habitats… the mission planners have already gone out of their way to eliminate the worst SPFs. They must maintain this focus throughout the construction, launch, landing, and base assembly stages, eliminating every SPF they can find. Send at least two of everything… or zero.

SPFs grow like weeds and are just as hard to remove once their roots sink in. Lucky for us, weeds won’t grow very well on Mars. At least we’ve got that going for us.

0) Ten lessons above, in better context…

After the movie release, discussion about Mars should grow and peak. Will that discussion help the cause of sending human explorers and settlers to Mars, or hurt it? Keep in mind at your future parties: a large part of the answer is up to us. We can help the movie succeed, or we can help it fail.

The major media outlets will paint a broad landscape based on box office revenue. If the movie succeeds, they will credit the brilliant acting, plot, action, or other things essential in a good movie but not a good Mars mission. Fine. We can live with that, work with it, and over time, educate people on the lessons above - on how to make a Mars settlement real.

But if the movie flops, the knee-jerk media reaction will cite the failure as proof of public apathy toward space. Reporters and journalists won’t blame any of the technical issues above because THEY don’t care about these issues. The media will be more than happy to “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” as the saying goes. And we will lose a golden opportunity to help that baby grow and mature into an adult Martian.

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

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