Lockheed Martin Signs on to Private Mission to Mars

Artist’s concept of the Mars One Mars Lander due to launch in 2018.

Successful, high-profile entrepreneurs often claim to follow big dreams and have dramatic visions of the future, but they’re usually limited to relatively small-scale stuff.

Jeff Bezos may have re-invented shopping by putting it on the Internet, re-invented datacenter computing by putting it on the Internet, and promised to re-invent package delivery by promising to put the packages on drones and let customers watch them on the Internet.

Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp launched a successful wind-power development company called Ampyx Power, pitched the idea of using tethered aircraft to produce wind energy (Ted Talk video here), then sold his shares in wind to found a non-profit whose goal is to put humans on Mars by 2023.

If the difference between big dreams and big business is the ability to convince others there is business in your dreams, Lansdorp is on his way (again), following agreements by two major aerospace companies to take on some of the work of the unmanned missions that would precede any attempt by humans.

Today, Lansdorp’s Mars One announced it has hired Lockheed Martin for the $250,000 “mission concept study” that boils down to designing a Mars lander that could put equipment on Martian ground by 2018 to prepare for a manned mission before the end of 2025.

The agreement gives Mars One an ally that is a grizzled veteran of space exploration. In addition to its other work in defense and space exploration, Lockheed Martin designed NASA’s Phoenix robotic spacecraft, which landed on Mars in 2008 and explored for two years before going silent in 2010.

The Mars One lander will look like basically like Phoenix, but will be filled with far more advanced electronics to explore the surface beyond simply searching for water, which was Phoenix’ primary mission, according to Ed Sedivy, Lockheed Martin’s chief engineer for civilian space projects, in a statement announcing the deal.

Two major pieces will reach Mars, under the current plan. The lander will descend to the surface to have a look around while an orbiter remains in geosynchronous orbit above the landing spot to set up a high-bandwidth communications link between the lander and command centers on Earth.

“The goal is to demonstrate a few of the technologies that we need for the manned mission,” Lansdorp said.

The mission concept study for the orbiter is being handled by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. “Having managed the Phoenix spacecraft development, I can tell you, landing on Mars is challenging and a thrill and this is going to be a very exciting mission,” Sedivy said.

So far, Lockheed Martin has committed only to designing the mission study, not building the spacecraft, despite Lansdorp’s promise at a press conference that “Lockheed Martin will build the first Mars Lander.”

The lander itself will look for ways to create water on Mars’ surface, carry letters from children on Earth welcoming the first colonists, and may act as the first character in a reality TV series Lansdorp plans to show progress of the mission (and generate interest and advertising revenue).

It will have a robotic arm that can dig in the soil, equipment to extract water from Martian soil solar panels to power itself, and cameras to record and rebroadcast everything. Lansdorp has also talked about installing a balloon that could carry a camera hundreds of feet above the Martian surface, to give viewers a wider view of the red planet than the devoutly ground-hugging photography of the original Phoenix.

While the Mars One lander would be the first private mission to land on Mars, it’s far from the end of Lansdorp’s ambition. Mars One’s goal is to put humans on the red planet for extended periods, perhaps as permanent settlers before the year 2025.

Lansdorp has estimated it would cost $6 billion to get them there, but that the trip would be more inclusive than government-run missions.

Mars One is recruiting astronauts from a pool of more than 200,000 who volunteered at the request of Mars One, which will go through four rounds of selection to pick those actually slated to go on the Mars mission “and live there the rest of their lives,” the September recruiting announcement said, ominously.

Mars One has already launched a crowdfunding effort to pay for the mission, and plans a reality TV program starring Mars and the humans Mars One sends there to live.

Paul Romer, the producer who launched the internationally successful Big Brother reality TV series, reportedly told Lansdorp “funding should be no problem — if we create the biggest media event ever around it.”

Image: Mars One