Interview: The new manned space missions racing to Mars

Mars One’s plan would include robotic missions to find the perfect location for a colony, then a NASA-style rover which would build the foundations.

The world’s first space tourist, billionaire Dennis Tito, announced plans for a mission to Mars in 2018 this week - but it’s not the only project with eyes on the Red Planet.

NASA held a briefing one hour after Tito’s announcement, recapping its plans for its new Orion deep space capsule - its first new manned mission after the Space Shuttle.

There are also several other private missions in the planning stages - with Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, even naming a ticket price of $500,000 per person.

"We know we're eventually going to Mars," said NASA’s Dan Dumbacher.

Unlike Tito's mission - which will fly past Mars - several missions aim to land on the surface, and build colonies there where people will live out their lives.

[Related: Wanted: 'married couple' for mission to Mars]

“In principle, getting humans to Mars is possible now,” says Bas Landsdorp, founder of Netherlands firm Mars One, which aims to start a colony on Mars in 2023.

“We have received more than 8,000 emails from over 100 countries, volunteering for our astronaut selection programme. A small percentage don’t know it’s one way, but most do.”

“Dennis Tito’s mission involves 500 days in space - longer than anyone has ever been in one go. Our plan involves a stay in space that’s pretty much the same as ones astronauts have already done on the International Space Station - seven months.”

“The challenges you face include using a rocket to push humans into space - we already do this for the Space Station. Mars is a bit more challenging, but the Apollo moon missions also required more energy. You also need to protect yourself against space radiation, but again this is a known risk.”

Mars One’s plan would include robotic missions to find the perfect location for a colony, then a NASA-style rover which would build the foundations.

“Before we send humans there, a second rover will fly in 2020,” says Lansdorp. “The robots will ensure there is oxygen, breathable air and water. Then our first pair of colonists will depart in September 2022, arriving in April 2023.”

Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, says that the eventual goal of his SpaceX company is a colony of 80,000 people on Mars - although he admitted it could cost $36 billion.

“Once there are regular Mars flights, you can get the cost down to half a million dollars for someone to move to Mars,” Musk said in a speech to the Royal Aeronautical Society.

“I think there are enough people who would buy that."

Mars One aims to raise money through television events. One of the founders of the company is Paul Romer, formerly of Endemol, the creators of Big Brother.

“Our challenge is that we have to get investment up front,” says Lansdorp. “We estimate it will cost $6 billion to get the first two colonists to Mars, then $4 billion per pair thereafter. But the whole world will be watching. The revenue for the Olympic games was $1 billion per week - and this will be the first time humans actually leave the Earth.”

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