Mars One believes it can achieve a manned mission in 2024 – sooner than NASA, the European Space Agency, the Russians or Chinese, and on a fraction of their budgets.
If the project does go ahead, the crew would have to make it through nine months of interplanetary travel without being killed by mishap, radiation – or each other.
And even then, a recent study suggested they will only last 68 days on Mars before dying – due to lack of food and water.
However, Anu Ojha OBE, director of the UK National Space Academy Programme, has warned the applicants not to get their hopes up as the mission is unlikely to ever leave the ground.
Ojha said: “Obviously this is something that has captured the public’s imagination, and Mars One obviously has a great PR team, but space engineering obeys the laws of physics not PR.”
Mars One is the brainchild of Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp who was inspired by the images of Mars sent back by the Sojourner rover in 1997, when he was a student.
Lansdorp, who will not make the journey himself, has an impressive team working on the project including former NASA employees Dr Norbert Kraft, who specialises in the physiological and psychological effects of space travel and space architect Kristian von Bengtson.
Physicist Arno Wielders, who previously worked for Dutch Space, is also on board, as well as a number of other advisers from around the world with backgrounds in space engineering, science and technology, marketing, design and television production.
The ultimate aim is to see a large, self-sustaining colony on Mars, but Ojha, who is also a director at the National Space Centre in Leicester, said there are three major stumbling blocks for the mission: technology, funding and human psychology.
“In terms of technology, it’s pushing the absolute boundaries and there seems to be a lot of technological naivety on the part of the people running it”, he said.
“There are some elements that seem reasonable, but overall it’s concerning, and the timescales are also questionable.”
While Mars One is planning the one way mission for 2024, NASA, with its long established expertise and technology, is looking to be able to send humans to Mars and bring them back again by the mid 2030s.
This is estimated to cost up to as much as £100 billion (£64.9bn) for the space agency, while Mars One believes it can do it for an optimistic $6 billion (£3.9bn) – and there are even questions over whether or not they will be able to achieve that much funding.
The private enterprise is hoping to raise money through a TV deal and additional funding from the exposure that will bring the project.
Last year it said it had teamed up with programme makers Endemol, but the Big Brother creators recently pulled out of the deal claiming they were “unable to reach agreement on the details of the contract”.
Mars One did not respond to questioning by the Sunday Herald over its funding, but its website showed that as at January this year, it had raised just $759,816 from donations, merchandising, and a crowdfunding campaign.
It is unclear what other funding the project has.
Ojha said: “The business model has so many holes in it, it’s shaky to say the least. And when you ask them how much money they have raised, they say it’s still ongoing. The time scales and the business model – they’re completely unrealistic.”
Mars One plans to send several unmanned rockets to Mars ahead of the 2024 mission, with the first of these scheduled to take place in 2018.
These will include missions with robots to find a suitable location for a base and assemble it ahead of the humans’ arrival.
The project claims it will use only existing technology for the mission, buying in materials from proven suppliers including Lockheed Martin or SpaceX.
The equipment involved includes several simulation outposts for training, a rocket launcher, a transit vehicle to take the crew to Mars, a Mars landing capsule, two rovers, a Mars suit and a communications system.
However, experts have warned that much of this equipment has not been fully tested.
Physicist professor Todd Huffman is a big supporter of attempting a manned mission to Mars, but he also has serious concerns about Mars One, claiming it is “scientifically irresponsible”.
He said: “The plan stretches the technology in many places.
“The launch vehicle they want to use has not actually ever launched yet, let alone make a trip to Mars.
“The living spaces have not been made nor has it been tested whether they can be robotically assembled and by what kind of robot.
“A suitable site would also need to be found for the living spaces and the details of how water extraction will take place have not been understood.
“If you assign a 90 per cent chance to success to each of those things, all of which are necessary for human survival, you end up with about a 50 per cent chance of failure, ending in the death of the colonists – and that would likely not make good television.”
He added: “Unless we [wait for] quite a lot of technology and exploration to happen first, it is basically worse than a one-way ticket for the colonists – it is almost surely a suicide mission if carried out within this next decade.”
Although most scientists believe the mission will not go ahead, some have also warned of the psychological impact on the people selected for the mission if it does.
Ojha said: “The thing that’s really captured the public’s imagination is this idea of it being a one way trip, but this brings another set of problems in terms of human psychology.
“The longest period a human has spent in space is 438 days – they’re talking about sending people on a one way trip.
“Lots of the people I’ve seen interviewed, they’re really excited about taking part, but have they really thought about what they’re doing and what the implications are?
“I would tell them to go to Antarctica for six months in the middle of winter and that’s about 1 per cent of what they’ll be experiencing on Mars.
“Human psychology is far more fragile than we think.”
However, while many scientists warn of the dangers and do not believe the mission will proceed, they have praised Mars One for sparking the public’s interest in planetary science.
Dr John Bridges, of the Space Research Centre in Leicester, said: “It’s a very interesting and innovative project, but the time scales are very challenging.
“I believe they’re planning for 2024 and it’s 2015 now. So for something as major as this, it’s a very challenging timescale
“But it’s fantastic that people are thinking about this, that industry is getting involved and raising awareness of planetary science.”
Ojha added: “Mars One has been great in a way because it’s once again drawn people’s imagination to the idea of space engineering and exploration.
“But the reality is that there are serious concerns about the project’s space engineering, funding and medical implications.”
Lansdorp has previously said that most people are “surprised to hear that the manned missions will be happening in ten years time, with a budget ten times less than Nasa”.
He added: “But I think that if you really spend time studying Mars One, you cannot believe there is not a good chance we will make it.
“At the same time, it’s a hugely ambitious plan, there’s many things that can go wrong with such a big plan.
“But I believe we have a good plan and we can overcome the challenges.”
However, he has also conceded that the current plans are an “optimum schedule”, adding: “If one rocket doesn’t launch, or a lander doesn’t work on Mars before a human goes, any major malfunctions will result in a two year delay.”
Mars One declined the Sunday Herald’s request to interview someone from the project and failed to answer any of our questions.