Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Rocket Boosters

Still collecting notes on the big Mars One post (see here, here and here).

One aspect of the story that I probably haven't spent enough time on is boosterism. As we try to reconstruct the journalistic wreckage of the collapsing story , it's essential to keep in mind the role that reporters' and commentators' attitude toward manned space exploration played. This is a story told, analyzed, and even critiqued largely by people who wanted it to be true.

Generally this attitude expressed itself in a "don't ask, don't tell" variant of confirmation bias: reporters for the most part simply did not go looking for details that would contradict the narrative. Occasionally, though, this lapsed into deliberate exaggeration, which brings us to Nobel Prize winning physicist, Dr. Gerard ‘t Hooft.

Dr. 't Hooft was an early and vocal advocate for the program (officially designated an "ambassador"). Here's an excerpt from his statement on the Mars One site:
"Mars One is an extraordinarily daring initiative by people with vision and imagination. All confronted with it will, like I did, respond with skepticism: This will never work. NASA has had ideas like this on the books for decades, American President Bush wanted to launch a manned Mars mission too, and it never happened. Too costly, too complicated, and too chancy, even for NASA!

But look and listen to this proposal properly! Problems are there to be solved. What is being put forward here is achievable! Here we have an enterprise that is financed exclusively by private firms, not the taxpayer’s dime. Rather than political mumbo-jumbo, we have real discussion with the general public. Only people who, like myself, are inspired by the project can contribute if they want. It will certainly be a spectacle worth watching. And, naturally, one thing stands front and centre: the technical feasibility.


This is when you ask me: aren’t you a scientist? What does science gain from this? Well, there are also scientific Mars missions. They cost a fraction of what this project will allocate. They are all robotic missions, but in the end science will be guaranteed to gain a great deal from human presence on various celestial bodies in our solar system. Universities don’t have the money for that. National governments have immediate priorities elsewhere. This project seems to me to be the only way to fulfill dreams of mankind’s expansion into space. It sounds like an amazingly fascinating experiment. Let’s get started!"
Perhaps even more telling is this 2013 interview from New Scientist reprinted here by Slate.

[emphasis added]
Govert Schilling: How did you get involved with a project that sells one-way tickets to Mars?
Gerard 't Hooft: The concept fits in with my own ideas about human exploration of space, which I described in my book, Playing with Planets. In fact, the co-founder and general director of Mars One, Bas Lansdorp, once attended one of my lectures. When he asked me to become an ambassador for Mars One, my first reaction was that it will take much longer and cost much more than they currently envision. However, after learning more about the research they had carried out, I became convinced that human flights to Mars could become a reality within 10 years. So in the end, I said yes.


GS: Wouldn't you prefer to be involved in a more scientific mission?
GtH: In a sense, this is a scientific project. There are many scientific questions that need to be addressed, and I am sure there will be plenty of scientific spin-offs, too. A lot of technological research on all aspects of the mission has already been carried out, and many of the major problems have been identified. One of the toughest problems is the radiation environment in interplanetary space. Then there needs to be research into the design of the space suits, the choice of the best location for the outpost on Mars, and the availability of water on the planet, in the form of ice. The plan is to grow food in greenhouses with artificial lighting, powered by efficient solar cells—this will involve a lot of interesting research. The most exciting question might be whether the whole idea is feasible at all. I welcome suggestions and queries from fellow scientists.

GS: How do you feel about being associated with a project funded by reality TV shows? Might you live to regret it?
GtH: Well, if people blame me for it, I have brought it on myself. However, this is the world we live in today—governments are not prepared to finance projects like Mars One, so the money has to come from some other source, and if it is a TV show like Big Brother or X Factor, then so be it.

Then again, I would rather not be involved with the TV show itself. And yes, at times I have asked myself what I have got myself into. After all, it does sound like a crazy plan. But so far, it is still fun, everything is still on track, and there do not appear to be any major obstacles. So I would tell my critics to let the facts speak for themselves.

GS: Would you encourage younger scientists to get involved?
GtH: It would not surprise me if it takes Mars One more than 10 years to put the first humans on Mars, and I can imagine it will cost more than the $6 billion currently envisioned. I have always been careful about those claims. If the project fails, my reputation may sustain some damage, but I am pretty sure I will survive that. Younger scientists, with their careers ahead of them, might run a bigger risk in that respect. Then again, I do not see how it could be held against you if you were to take part in technological design studies or in addressing various scientific issues.
In addition to the previously mentioned desire to believe which runs palpably through these statements, there are a couple of other aspects that should be noted. The first is the dissatisfaction with the pace of government-fund manned exploration. The second is the note of doubt that creeps in among the cheer-leading when the subject of budget and schedule comes up.

That was 2013. Late in 2014, bad news started breaking rapidly, most notably an extraordinarily damning analysis from students at MIT. That report appears to have been a trigger for this shift in tone [emphasis added].
The budget and timeline for plans by a Dutch organisation to colonise Mars are highly unrealistic, one of the project’s most eminent supporters has suggested.

Gerard ’t Hooft, a Dutch Nobel laureate and ambassador for Mars One, said he did not believe the mission could take off by 2024 as planned.

“It will take quite a bit longer and be quite a bit more expensive. When they first asked me to be involved I told them ‘you have to put a zero after everything’,” he said, implying that a launch date 100 years from now with a budget of tens of billions of dollars would be an achievable goal. But, ’t Hooft added, “People don’t want something 100 years from now.”
A recent analysis by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) identified crucial flaws with Mars One’s published plans and predicted that even if the astronauts got to the surface unscathed, the first person would suffocate within 68 days because of a lack of equipment to balance oxygen levels effectively.

T’Hooft, of Utrecht University, said he was concerned by the findings. “I understand the scepticism very well. People from outside will say ‘wait a minute, you have to be careful with what you’re doing and what you’re claiming’. Maybe there’s a need to reassess,” he said.

He added that the “proper thing” would be for Mars One to publish its own analysis to demonstrate that their own more favourable projections about life on the Red Planet were sound.

Despite being sceptical about the details, t’Hooft said he still supported the project’s overall goals. “Let them be optimistic and see how far they get,” he said.
Just to review, all three major stages of the Mars One proposal have turned out to be fatally flawed:

There was little chance of raising six billion dollars through sponsorships and reality shows;

There was even less chance of setting up a colony on that budget, let alone in the next ten years;

Even if the project could reach Mars, the technology is nowhere near where it would need to be to sustain the colonists.

T’Hooft probably didn't know much about television and the intricacies of entertainment accounting and it seems likely that he initially took the word the Mars One people about the state of the habitat technology, but when it came to budget and schedule, t’Hooft knew he was misleading people, even if he believed it was for a good causee.

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