200,000 brave and/or insane people have supposedly signed up for a one-way mission to Mars. But the truth about Mars One, the company behind the effort, is much weirder (and far more worrying) than anyone has previously reported.
By Elmo Keep
Illustrations by Josh Cochran
Photographs by Daniel Boud
When Josh was 10 years old, he sat cross-legged on the floor in his parent’s neat, suburban home in Australia, enraptured. It was May 1996 and Andy Thomas had just stepped out of the space shuttle Endeavour and onto the tarmac of Runway 33 of the Kennedy Space Center. In his flight suit, bright orange against the blue of the sky, he talked in his clipped and measured British-sounding tones about seeing his hometown of Adelaide from the God-like vantage of space. These TV images would stick in Josh’s mind like gum to a boot sole.
Andy Thomas was just like Josh, Josh reckoned. He was an Australian. An Australian who’d made it all the way to NASA. Who’d been to space and back. And everyone in the world, it seemed, wanted to talk to him about it. If Andy Thomas had done it, then Josh could do it, too. That could be Josh someday, speaking before the world’s media, beaming out of everyone’s television, one of just over 500 people to ever leave the orbit of this planet. In that moment Josh wanted only one thing out of life: to be an astronaut.
Josh is now 29. He has been a member of the Royal Marine Commandos. An engineer. A physicist. A blast specialist, a mining technician, and, briefly, a scuba instructor. He’s worked for one of the most famous artists alive. He was also a stand-up comedian—he plays Keith the Anger Management Koala, a foul-mouthed, sociopathic character in a furry suit, who provides Josh a remove from himself to exorcise a few of the demons he’s been carrying around. It’s a pretty weird show.
One day in 2012, Josh was sitting in an Edinburgh Starbucks, feeling down, when he came across a call for volunteers for a fledgling space program; the application process would be open soon. There was just one catch. The mission was one way.
This was his shot. This was big. This was it. All these years, fostering that childhood dream. Finally, his life was going to change forever.
When the time came, Josh filled out the form. Could he describe a time when he had been scared? A different time when he had been stressed? Why was it important that the mission be one way?
He paid the registration fee, uploaded a video explaining why he should be chosen for the mission, and hit send.
Then he waited.
Mars One, a private, not-for-profit company, registered in the Netherlands, might have come to your attention when it announced via press release that it had received over 200,000 applications for the chance to be the first human being on the surface of Mars.
Despite not being a space-faring agency, it claims that by 2025 it will send four colonists to the planet. Ultimately, it says, there will be at least six groups of four, a mix of men and women, who will train on Earth for 10 years until they are ready to be shot into space strapped to a rocket, never to return.
It estimates the mission will cost only about $6 billion, tens if not hundreds of billions less than any manned Mars mission so far proposed by NASA. Mars One openly admits that it is “not an aerospace company and will not manufacture mission hardware. All equipment will be developed by third-party suppliers and integrated in established facilities.” That’s how it will keep costs down, by outsourcing everything to private enterprise.
It is, essentially, a marketing campaign with two goals: first, to raise enough interest among the global community in a manned Mars mission so that crowd-funding and advertising revenues will be generated to the tune of billions of dollars; and, second, to use this money — largely to be raised through a reality television series documenting the training process and journey to Mars from Earth — to pay for the mission itself.
The mission is open to anyone in the world who wants to volunteer. These people don’t have to have any special qualifications whatsoever; they need only be in robust physical and mental health and willing to undertake the mission at their own risk. As the proposed program progresses, they will have to prove themselves adept and nimble learners, able to amass an enormous amount of new practical knowledge, not only in the high-pressure intricacies of spaceflight, but in learning how to perform rudimentary surgery and dentistry, how to recycle resources, how to take commands, and maintain a harmonious team dynamic for the rest of their natural lives.
Two hundred thousand applicants would seem to suggest that the plan has solid legs — a staggering number of people willing to sacrifice their lives on Earth to take part in an open-source, crowd-powered, corporately sponsored mission into deep space. A huge amount of interest in this endeavor clearly demonstrated right off the bat.
If only any of it were true.
There have been 43 unmanned missions to Mars so far. Twenty one have failed.
Mars is freezing, minus 62 degrees Celsius on average, although on a hot midday, at the equator, during summer, it can get up to 20 degrees Celsius.
It is barren, free of geological features other than its frozen ice caps, vast deserts, and enormous mountain peaks.
Mars is not close.
Mars has almost no atmosphere, burned off over billions of years by solar winds, leaving the surface exposed to deadly amounts of radiation. Roughly every five years, the planet is blanketed in a dust storm that blocks the sun for months at a time.
For the Mars One colonists this would be home, with no way back. Forever.
Josh lives on the other side of Australia from me. The flight to Perth is almost as far as from New York to Los Angeles. As the hours pass, the plane crosses over the great expanse of the Nullarbor Plain, which forms part of the huge and arid desert taking up most of the country’s interior. Inland are the monoliths of the ancient Petermann Orogeny, Uluru and Kata Tjuta; the Great Sandy Desert; the Pilbara and its billions-year-old rock formations; the Wolfe Creek meteorite crater; the lands and 150 languages of the world’s oldest native people, Aboriginal Australians. Finally, Western Australia: The continental shelf it sits on has barely shifted in the past four billion years, making it a portal through which scientists can peer at the earliest incarnations of the Earth.
Josh’s parents’ property, on the outskirts of Perth, is on a long narrow road and looks directly over a large lake, glinting silver in the distance under the midday sun. Josh let me in, made me a coffee, and left me to wander the patio while he took some phone calls. Josh is prone to self-deprecating remarks, and punctuates his sentences with a hard, cackling laugh. He’s wearing an ensemble favored by many Australian men, even in the middle of winter: shorts, sneakers, and a hoodie. His hair and beard are both shorn short against his skull, and right away his internet handle I’ve been seeing in all our correspondence going back six months makes sense: The Mighty Ginge, local slang for redhead. He seems like a tightly curled power cord.
When Mars One announced that it had received 200,000 applications from around the world, Josh’s heart sank. That list was sure to include a ton of fighter pilots, ex-space agency engineers, private space company employees, scientists, geologists, people with Ph.D.s and genius IQs, even Nobel laureates — literally thousands of candidates far more qualified than Josh was. So when he found himself on the shortlist of people who were ready to live out their days on the lonely surface of Mars, he was shocked, to put it mildly.
Before he’d applied for Mars One, Josh had met a girl at the Redhead Days festival in the Netherlands. Eli did not have red hair, but was brunette; Josh was drawn to her easygoing demeanor, her effortless good moods, and they fell very much in love. But a shot at Mars would be a serious, life-changing turn of events, and Josh knew that he would have to fully commit if he was ever going to make it to the final selection. He didn’t even wait for the application deadline to break it off.
“I couldn’t maintain a long-term relationship knowing how much I needed to commit to this,” he says. “I’d be a pretty shit boyfriend if I was stopping her from meeting other people. I had to make a decision that I had to give up relationships generally in order to be able to do this. I had to choose Mars over her.”
“I don’t think it would be fair if I told him no,” Eli says now. “And then he’d have to choose and it would be a lose-lose situation. Either he would pick me and resent me at some point maybe, because of the choice he had to make. Or if he picked Mars One without me being on board with it, it would also be lose-lose. So now as it is, it’s a bit shitty, to be honest. It’s not a perfect situation.” For Eli, they are always tied together, Josh and Mars.
Josh moved back from England to his parent’s house in Australia to dedicate his life full time to Mars. He was going to do whatever it took to make sure he would be in the final selection. He’s appeared on national television, on radio, in the local papers to talk about Mars One; he visits primary school classrooms to talk with young kids he hopes will be inspired to follow a path in the sciences, to follow their passions and dreams and make their lives into something meaningful. He’s been writing a book he’s hoping someone will publish, about how colonizing Mars would affect the human body, mind, and soul, not to mention the future of humanity. Josh has spent three years on this now and has 50,000 words to show for it. He’s invested everything he has—financially, emotionally, romantically, professionally—in Mars One’s cause.
In the kitchen, Josh’s mother, Shelley, has put out a platter of chips and dip for us while Josh makes cup after cup of coffee, which I start refusing when my heart starts beating too fast. Shelley has the kind of neat, short gray haircut worn by women of a certain age who’ve realized that long hair is for the birds. She heats up last night’s lasagna for our lunch, which is exactly as delicious as you would expect mother’s-next-day-lasagna to be. I try not to eat too fast while I ask Shelley how she feels about her only son wanting to leave the Earth forever.
“I feel incredibly proud that he’s suitable and that he’s passionate about it,” she says, speaking shyly in a quiet, measured tone. “When he told me, I thought, ‘Are you crazy?’ But now I see the passion. It’s what gets him out of bed in the mornings. His eyes sparkle when he’s talking about it.”
Josh interjects, “You’ve probably seen me go through a few different career options where that wasn’t the case.”
I say that I would handcuff myself to the ankle of anyone I loved who wanted to take a one-way rocket into space.
I ask how Josh’s father, David, feels about it. “Dad is very outwardly supportive. Though he’s becoming less supportive as it becomes more of a reality,” Josh says with a laugh. “He pulled me up on it a month back, and said, ‘What’s this really about?’” The question hangs in the air a moment, unanswered.
Mars One has a core staff of only three people: Norbert Kraft, chief medical officer; Arno Wielders, chief technical officer, and Bas Lansdorp, CEO. (There are a few other employees listed on the website, but when I asked Lansdorp if those people were paid, he refused to comment.) Wielders and Lansdorp are based in their native Netherlands, while Kraft is in San Jose, where I speak with him over Skype.
Before joining Mars One, Kraft had worked for NASA, as well as for the Russian and Japanese space agencies, where his focus was on modeling psychological testing for long-haul space flights. He was tasked with whittling down the 200,000 applicants — a not inconsiderable job for one person. Assessing the suitability of someone who volunteers to take a very, very slow suicide mission into space raises a dizzying array of questions. Can a person truly psychologically comprehend the hard reality of never coming back? What if the intense isolation brings on a psychotic break in one or more of the crew? How will they stave off boredom, irritation, or anger in the cramped quarters of the shuttle in the several months it will take to get to Mars? And then forever after that? What to make of someone with a spouse and children who volunteers for the mission?
It was easy to get rid of a lot people who weren’t really serious, he says, speaking in a thick Austrian accent. “If they don’t fill out their application, they’re out. Or if they don’t even know why they applied, if they’re asking ‘Is it Mars? Or is it the moon?’ they’re out.
“Anybody we didn’t consider serious we considered kind of an idiot. In the videos, some applied naked. I mean, how can you come to a job interview and apply naked? So that was quite easy.”
Kraft says that some of the candidates discovered in the course of their medical checks that they were seriously ill, some with cancer, some in need of operations. “So maybe I saved some lives there.” By May, he’d gotten the list down to 700 or so.
I am struck by Kraft’s absolute faith that this will all come off without a hitch, as though it can be made real just by believing in it.
“I want them as soon as possible to be absolutely independent from Earth. This is their goal, and they will do their own society. So you have to think it’s exciting by itself to start everything from scratch: They will have their own constitution, their own laws. They have their own holidays. They definitely have different hours, but they have to really decide by themselves, and that’s why they have to be such mature people to go there. You have to have the right start from the beginning.”
The details of Mars One’s mission remain vague. Kraft tells me that any technical questions have to be directed to Arno Wielders, who rebuffs requests for an interview, replying through the press office that he is too busy. Instead, I am directed to the website. On a page titled “The Technology,” it states very optimistically: “No new technology developments are required to establish a human settlement on Mars. Mars One has visited major aerospace companies around the world to discuss the requirements, budget, and timelines with their engineers and business developers. The current mission plan was composed on the basis of feedback received in these meetings.”
Pretty much every proposal I find on the FAQ, from the landing unit to the living unit to the astronauts’ suits, is currently theoretical. Which is somewhat putting the cart before the horse, only the cart is a pencil drawing of a toy wheelbarrow. Here’s what it says, for instance, about how they will actually get people there: “Mars One anticipates using SpaceX Falcon Heavy, an upgraded version of the Falcon 9, which is in use by SpaceX currently. The Falcon Heavy is slated to undergo test flights in 2014, granting ample time for fine-tuning prior to the Mars One missions.”
This summer, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket prototype broke apart over Texas after “an anomaly forced the destruction on the craft.” A month later NASA lost a Russian-built rocket on launch bound for resupply of the International Space Station, its fireball in the night sky over Wallops Flight Facility visible for miles around. Two weeks ago, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceshipTwo exploded during a test flight over the Mojave, killing one pilot and injuring another. It’s a fraught moment even for private space missions far less theoretical than Mars One.
No human being has left low-Earth orbit since the last Apollo mission in 1972, and the effect of long-term space travel is not a vast topic of scientific medical literature.
The longest any person has spent in space was the 14 months cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov lived on the now-decommissioned Mir Space Station; another cosmonaut, Valentin Lebedev, spent 211 days in orbit in 1982, during which the elevated radiation levels resulted in his losing his eyesight to cataracts. The flight to Mars is projected to take between seven and nine months.
Exposure to galactic cosmic rays increases the likelihood of cancer and Alzheimer’s, as well as suppressing human immune systems. Building a craft capable of insulating astronauts from such deep-space radiation, including lethal amounts from solar flares that can erupt without warning (while finding a way to keep the craft light enough to be able to carry sufficient fuel), remains a work in progress.
Zero gravity has a deleterious effect on the human body; over the course of a trip to Mars, it could result in a loss of 20% of muscle mass total and the loss of 1.5% bone density per month. To mitigate these effects, astronauts on long-haul missions usually engage in rigorous, tethered exercise regimens. Like so:
Gravity on Mars is only 38% that of Earth’s. What this would mean for the long-term health of colonists on Mars is not known.
How the colonists might cope with a deficiency in vitamin D from a lack of sunlight, however, is. Vitamin D deficiency can also cause loss of muscle and bone density, can suppress immune strength, and at its most severe causes blindness. The same goes for the intercranial pressure zero gravity places on the human eyeball.
Sleep patterns are badly disturbed by space travel, and more than half of astronauts on long-haul missions take sedatives to help them sleep. Fatigue and lethargy result in impaired cognitive functions and an increase in critical errors, which is why astronauts only have 6.5 “fit” work hours per day.
A lack of energy can be exacerbated by the limited diet astronauts must subsist on. Once their initial supplies ran out, Mars colonists would eat only food they could grow themselves, a plant-based diet, augmented by legumes and maybe insects.
Depression, anxiety, listlessness, hallucinations, and chronic stress have all been reported in live missions and training simulations. As have communication breakdowns and conflict among crews and between mission command.
A well-known effect on astronauts out on long missions is the dip at the halfway point, when the excitement has worn off and the return home seems unbearably distant. There is no way to know how a human mind will encounter passing the threshold of no return, when the Earth recedes from sight, and the pitch black enormity of deep space and the impossibility of ever turning back sinks in.
Eventually the four Mars One colonists will arrive on an inhospitable alien world, with only themselves for company for two years, until another flight with four colonists is hoped to arrive if they, too, survive the perilous trip through the vacuum of space. They will never speak to anyone but one another in real time ever again; the delay in relaying communications between Mars and Earth is 20 minutes, minimum.
They would be the most isolated human beings in history — a mantle currently held by Michael Collins, who orbited the dark side of the moon, alone, in 1969, though he has said of his incredible solo journey that he never felt lonely.
After lunch I ask Josh to take me to the beach because I’ve never seen this side of the country before. When we get there his big black labrador, Diesel, shoots off across the grass. The beach is miles long in both directions, soft white sand with tough, long grasses growing out of the dunes. The coast of Western Australia looks out, seemingly forever, over the Indian Ocean. Out there are trenches more than 10,000 meters deep, in one of which is thought to lie the wreckage of flight MH370.
Josh has a book an old friend gave him that contains a hundred-item bucket list, and he’s already ticked off 60 or so. Some of the things are kind of dumb (Take part in a lineup; get backstage with a rock star), some of them are impressive (Catch a fish with your bare hands; Save someone’s life), some of them are practically impossible (Write a best seller; Capture the moment in an award-winning photograph.) There’s one thing on Josh’s list that isn’t in the book that he’d love to do before he left the Earth forever for a life on Mars if he made the cut.
“I’m dying to scuba dive with leopard seals in Antarctica,” he says, watching Diesel somehow lose a stick we’d been tossing into the water for him to fetch. “That would be amazing.”
I can’t doubt his commitment to the program, but I also can’t help thinking of all the things Josh has tried his hand at in his short life and found them all wanting. So many of the items on that bucket list are life pursuits he’s thrown himself into and then abandoned.
Josh earned a bachelor’s degree in applied physics at Curtin University in Perth, but he couldn’t understand why academics, who grappled daily with such enormous, fundamental questions, weren’t more animated, more outwardly ambitious, hungrier for experience of the world. Besides, his father had long wanted for Josh to follow him into the armed services — which is why Josh joined the Australian Army, training first as an explosives engineer and then as a Navy diver. But after a time, this work came to bore him.
The largest mineral-rich deposits on the continent are in Josh’s home state of Western Australia, and so he put his degree and experience to work in the mines as a blast specialist. You could make a lot of money in a short amount of time this way, and soon Josh had a not-immodest nest egg he had built up over a year. He was 22 years old, and if he was honest about it, he didn’t know quite what to do next.
If he were even more honest, Josh would admit that he’d hated the work in the mines so much that he’d thought seriously about killing himself. He’d been that depressed. “Me blowing big chunks out of the ground, I’m not making the world a better place,” he says of what had made him consider for a brief moment that suicide would solve a lot of problems at once. “That was what it was.”
So, in 2009, Josh shipped off for the rainy climate of England and the Royal Marine Commandos. The Commandos are a notoriously hardened elite force, breaking men down and rebuilding them as extremely efficient killers, often later deployed in black ops. Josh lasted 11 months. He contracted Lyme disease on a training outing, and didn’t make it to Afghanistan with his original unit. Even so, he knew he had to leave when a commanding officer asked a young recruit of around 18: If they had a man tied to a chair they suspected was a member of the Taliban, would they shoot the man in the head point-blank?
Yes, said the recruit without hesitation.
“I closed the door, sat down, and said, ‘Who the fuck are these people?’”
He put in his papers a few days later. He had no job, nowhere to live, and just about no money. But he was happy already. It was some months after this when Josh found himself working for the British conceptual artist, Damien Hirst, who needed an explosives expert at short notice for a U2 video. The strangeness of the art world made Josh’s head spin. But the job was interesting and the people were great and the pay was okay and he wasn’t being taught how to kill other people anymore.
In & Out of Love was an installation piece Hirst has exhibited a few times over the past few decades. The work is a large white room filled with dozens of live butterflies that alight on blank white canvases, on bowls of sugar water and fruit, on the plants that run low along the walls and on the observers of the work as they walk around inside the room. Josh was given the task of rearing the butterflies, and he figured out over time through making small adjustments in humidity, temperature, and light how to raise these tiny art-world celebrities from their cocoons to robust health of four-week-long lives. It was a strange but also lovely and immensely satisfying thing to discover that you were unusually good at, with no formal training whatsoever, the gentle art of butterfly husbandry.
The turnover of staff inside Hirst’s operation was high, and while the 2012 Tate retrospective show was still in full swing, Josh was let go. He was sad to be leaving the butterflies to whom he felt quite duty-bound. But he was also “kind of over the bullshit” of the art world and ready to dedicate more time to his emerging passion as a stand-up comic, dressing up in his koala suit, touring his show Keith Looks Back in Anger to the famed Edinburgh comedy festival. Soon enough he’d given that up, too, for Mars.
Going one-way into space isn’t something you can bail on when it turns out not to be what you want. But maybe for Josh that’s the point: Having the options taken away and being left with only one purpose for the rest of your life could be the answer he’s been looking for all these years.
David Willson is one of the few people inside NASA who cautiously thinks what Mars One is doing is “kind of cool.” He’s Australian, too, and an unabashed nerd who proudly points his webcam around the walls of his office to show me his framed Star Trek posters and faked UFO photographs on his mantle.
Willson’s currently at work on the Icebreaker 2020 Mars Lander mission, which is seeking funding to send an unmanned craft to explore the planet’s northern pole, where it will drill down into the ice in further search of proof of life. “It’s a chicken-or-egg proposition. What Mars One is trying to do is to be the egg that attracts chickens,” he tells me. “If they create a market for the development of this technology, then private companies will be racing to get the costs down to fulfill the demands of the market.”
But the technical challenges of getting people out of low Earth orbit and into deep space remain vexing. Then there’s the problem of what happens after they arrive on Mars.
“They’re going to be living like moles,” Willson says. “I don’t think that the people who volunteered really appreciate that they’re going to spend the rest of their lives living in a submarine.”
The first colonists would likely spend most of their time repairing the equipment that is keeping them alive. “Replacing parts and replacing a toothbrush, having toilet paper — there are some things that modern society expects and does and there would be significant degrading of your lifestyle on Mars,” says Willson.
“You would probably end up living like we did in the 18th century. With much simpler equipment, much simpler kitchen tools, much simpler things in all respects. It might be a lot like going back in time.”
“Storing food is very important to survival, obviously, and people used big containers before and filled them up with vinegar, like with eggs. You would have been able to store half a year’s food in these primitive ways without a freezer. You could have a freezer on Mars, that’s not the problem; it’s that you would have to be able to repair it, and if you can’t, you’re dead.”
“Just the landing on Mars, if it hasn’t been done before, is going to be a big, big, big thing. But if you’re going there forever to establish a base, that’s just one tiny step on the longer journey.”
“And each step is going to be breaking new ground. Every day. First to bury a base. First to grow food on Mars. Do we really know that food can be grown on Mars using its available resources? We don’t.”
“Another hurdle is dust, which is quite fine on Mars, and it would not be good if that got into your lungs. There are also chlorates, about half a percent in the dust, and chlorates shut down your thyroid gland. Then there’s the radiation environment, which if they stay underground can be dealt with.”
“We don’t know what else will happen. We don’t know what your medical condition will be after five years. You might not be able to return to Earth after five years.”
“You might have to undergo body acclimatization in a rotating space station for several years before you could come back to Earth. We don’t know. It’s a question. We don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know.”
Imagine never to feel fresh air again on your face, never to be warmed by sun’s life-giving rays, never to hear an orchestra play, never to feel whiskey sink warm into your chest. No more walking on grass in bare feet, inhaling the scent of the air after a storm, watching kids play elaborate games in their secret worlds. No leisure time. No loved ones. No hope of release. No freedom to roam. No variation in a practically tasteless diet. No sex with the person you deeply love. Cramped quarters. Limited showers. An unrelenting work schedule. Darkness. Isolation. An ineffective sleep schedule. Constant fear, chronic stress, and hyper-vigilance. The ever-present threat of death.
It occurred as I walked on the beach with Josh and asked him what his last meal on Earth would be (“Bacon and eggs! I would miss that, actually”), that the truest analogy for a one-way trip to Mars is not a simulation in the Arctic or on an isolated Hawaiian island; it’s not 500 days in a frozen desert underground or at the bottom of the sea, knowing that eventually you’ll be back on terra firma with the people you love. What it would really be like is being sentenced to death row.
One night I have a nightmare so vivid I still feel panicked to recall it all these months later. In the dream I’d gone to meet Josh at a huge hangar where the Mars One craft resided, and he was very excited to give me a tour of the ship. I followed him dutifully onboard and took vague notice of three other people in space suits. Hours seemed to pass in involved conversation until eventually I looked out the tiny round window and horrifyingly saw we were in the depths of black space. “Oh, yeah,” Josh said. “I meant to tell you that takeoff was today! Sorry. So you’re here with us now.” Panic crushed against my windpipe and I felt an object of incredible heft pressing down on my chest.
I woke up gulping a lungful of air. For months, a tiny bird with a skull no bigger than a walnut had taken up residence directly outside the window, and every day it filled the early morning with its unfathomably loud song. Sometimes I could hear the bird three rooms away while music played in the house. It refused entreaties of birdseed to lure it further down the garden. It was incredibly irritating, but at that moment it was the sweetest sound I might have ever heard. I threw open the window and inhaled the cold morning air and the scent of the honeydew flowers and looked at the endless blue of sky where the crescent moon was faintly visible and just to be certain, reached out and touched the rough bark of the tree’s sturdy trunk.
I am in no way made of the right stuff.
Eventually I am able to speak with the public face of Mars One, co-founder and CEO Bas Lansdorp. We connect as he is waiting to catch a plane back to the Netherlands. “I’ll try to keep my voice down a bit,” he says.
Lansdorp’s background is in wind energy, but he now bills his professional areas of expertise as “entrepreneurship, public speaking, start-ups.” I ask why for him Mars One’s mission is something so important to achieve, even though he has said many times that he personally would not want to ever go to the planet himself.
“For the world at the moment a mission to Mars is exactly what we need. I think it can give us a common goal, something to aspire to together, something to work on together, something to unite us. Getting young kids excited about space exploration, having astronauts as heroes instead of pop stars. But I think the bigger picture of having a common goal, a dot on the horizon, that’s the most important thing.”
Global unity is the goal? I ask.
“To be honest, for me it’s not an important part of the program. For me it’s just about the goal of getting this done,” he says, confusingly. “For me personally it’s really about building the next base for humans to go to. For me it’s more the technology challenge and the building challenge than the actual big picture.”
I ask how he sees Mars One being able to get a mission to launch for such a comparatively small budget compared with NASA’s proposals for a manned return mission.
“That’s a question I get a lot, as you can imagine. There’s a few different factors. First, Mars One is a private organization. We have no political obligations, which means we can just find the best supplier for the best price. In NASA they have a problem where if they do a mission like the Curiosity Rover, each component has to come from different states because each state contributes to NASA and they want their money back, basically. Mars One doesn’t have that problem.”
(NASA’s David Willson said, “No, I don’t think this is correct. Choosing vendors is a very serious business, and NASA—and the U.S. government—does not want to be seen favoring anyone. Competitive selection is based on many factors as well as cost.”)
“Another reason is that the space agencies have become too much risk-averse, which is extremely expensive. It’s not at all allowed for anything to go wrong, which takes a lot of paperwork to ensure. While we think having a little bit higher risk with the mission is very acceptable and is something that will reduce costs significantly.”
This makes Mars One sound like some kind of intergalactic Uber. If checks and balances are too expensive, just do away with them in private enterprise. If people might die in the course of your mission, just have them sign a waiver. Neither NASA nor the European Space Agency nor the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency nor any government body can deliberately allow its citizens to die in space, and they certainly can’t send them one-way with no way to retrieve them.
Mars One lists SpaceX on its suppliers page, but SpaceX has no current contracts with Mars One and said as much over email, adding that the company is always open to future contracts from all interested parties. The contracts Mars One does have are with Lockheed Martin, which is undertaking a feasibility study for an unmanned craft which is based on their 2008 unmanned Phoenix Lander mission, but which can’t be completed until it receives the payload specifications from Mars One — specifications that Mars One recently put out a call to universities to provide. Lockheed Martin confirmed that this contract is under way and that it is waiting to receive the payload specs. The lander is slated to fly, according to Mars One, in 2018. There is also a suit concept study under way—the first step in developing an eventual prototype for what the colonists would spend their time outside wearing—with Paragon Space Development Corporation. A representative of Paragon responded to queries over email, “We appreciate the challenging work Mars One have contracted Paragon to perform, and we look forward to a long and growing working relationship as the cadence of their program advances.”
Another contract Mars One has in place is with a company owned by Endemol, which produced Big Brother. The two companies announced the deal in a joint press release, but when asked for comment Endemol wouldn’t confirm if or not the production is for a pilot or for a fully commissioned series, their PR director writing, “Things are at a very early stage and we’re not yet in a position to add anything further to what was detailed in the press release.”
A reality television series is the lynchpin of Mars One’s plan. It is through this that it intends to raise the necessary capital to actually fund the mission via advertising revenue and broadcast rights. The proposal is to film the final candidates 24/7 for the duration of their 10-year training mission on Earth, from the selection process to liftoff, and then to continue to broadcast the mission itself, live, beamed in perpetuity back from Mars to viewers on Earth.
There is currently no network buyer for the show.
For the rights to advertise and screen this Survivor in space, Mars One estimates revenues of upwards of $8 billion, basing its estimates on the most recent Olympic Games cycle’s revenues. With this money, Mars One will then be able to purchase the spacefaring technologies that, in 10 years’ time, companies like SpaceX will have perfected, ready to send the Mars One astronauts on their journey. There is the small problem of not having the money until you have the show and not having the show until you have the technology and not having the technology until you have the money and possibly not having the technology in time, or ever, which is why, Mars One says on its website, the schedule is flexible.
Corporate space missions have appeared before in fiction and film many times. They have also appeared in a version suspiciously close to what Mars One is proposing in The Journal of Cosmology, a controversial online journal edited by Rhawn Joseph. Joseph is probably best known for filing a lawsuit against NASA, for allegedly failing to adequately investigate an object on the surface of Mars discovered by the Curiosity rover. He contended that the object could have been a living organism. It turned out to be a rock. (He also writes a great deal about human sexuality, but you probably missed his paper “Sexual Consciousness: The Evolution of Breasts, Buttocks and the Big Brain.”)
In 2010, Joseph wrote “Marketing Mars: Financing the Human Mission to Mars and the Colonization of the Red Planet.” The biggest revenue stream in his plan is a reality TV series that would film every minute of the training and mission and send it out to the world. A combination of the Super Bowl, the Olympic Games, the NBA, Star Wars, Big Brother, American Idol, and Survivor, mixed with a little Running Man. Reading his plan, I began to wonder if viewers would place bets on the lives of the astronauts: Will they survive entry to the surface? Who will suffer a psychotic break and turn on their fellows? They have run out of food, how many days will they last? The oxygen recycle system is broken, can they repair it before they asphyxiate?
Joseph claims that the company stole his Mars financing plan, and says his intellectual property is being used to fleece vulnerable people out of their money, “By charging ‘suckers’ $40.00 to apply for the chance to be part of a one way mission to Mars when in fact Mars One is nothing more than a website,” he writes. Lansdorp denies that Mars One took the idea from Joseph, and says that Mary Roach’s 2010 book Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void was their actual inspiration.
Joseph resisted requests to interview him in person in California, but emailed, “Fraudsters like Mars One emerge from beneath rocks all the time. That’s just the way it is. And you can quote me.”
Commander Chris Hadfield is known to you, depending on your level of obsession with astronauts, either as the guy on the International Space Station who went viral singing David Bowie, or as the guy who heroically survived going blind on a space walk on the station when tiny drops of chemicals from a puncture in his suit lining made their way into both his eyes. “There’s a great, I don’t know, self-defeating optimism in the way that this project has been set up,” he says, over the phone. He speaks in the manner of someone breezily adept at explaining complex ideas and who is clearly delighted to be doing so. “I fear that it’s going to be a little disillusioning for people, because it’s presented as if for sure it’s going to happen. They’re choosing crews. And so all those people are therefore rightfully excited.”
“Going to Mars is hard,” Hadfield adds. “As John Young, one of the most accomplished astronauts in history, said, ‘Mars is a lot further away than almost everybody thinks. Both physically and in time.’”
Hadfield says that Mars One fails at even the most basic starting point of any manned space mission: If there are no specifications for the craft that will carry the crew, if you don’t know the very dimensions of the capsule they will be traveling in, you can’t begin to select the people who will be living and working inside of it.
“I really counsel every single one of the people who is interested in Mars One, whenever they ask me about it, to start asking the hard questions now. I want to see the technical specifications of the vehicle that is orbiting Earth. I want to know: How does a space suit on Mars work? Show me how it is pressurized, and how it is cooled. What’s the glove design? None of that stuff can be bought off the rack. It does not exist. You can’t just go to SpaceMart and buy those things.”
Hadfield vividly remembers being nine years old and watching the television with his parents as Neil Armstrong stepped off the Apollo lander and from then on fine-tuning every aspect of his life to maximize his chances of one day going into space—which he achieved after 26 years of work and training. He is not someone in the habit of crushing people’s dreams.
“Thirteen years ago we started living on the space station, so when we left Earth, we basically started colonizing space as a planet. And then the next steps out were the moon, asteroids, and then eventually Mars. We absolutely need to do it on the moon for a few generations, learn how to do all of those things — how do you completely recycle your water? How do you completely recycle your oxygen system? How do you protect yourselves from radiation? How do you not go crazy? How do you set up the politics of the place and the command structure, so that when we get it wrong we won’t all die? How do we figure all that out?
“It’s not a race, it’s not an entertainment event. We didn’t explore the world to entertain other people. We did it as a natural extension of human curiosity and matching capability. And that’s what will continue to drive us.”
His professional skepticism was proven well founded when, at the 65th International Astronautical Congress in Toronto this fall, four MIT strategic engineering grad students presented a 35-page paper to independently assess the technical feasibility of Mars One’s current plan. The students concluded that (among many, many other concerns) the oxygen required to grow crops would quickly rise to deadly levels producing almost 100% humidity, requiring venting via as yet non-existent technology that would separate nitrogen and oxygen; the habitat would soon become a serious fire hazard and the colonists would likely asphyxiate as a result.
The first fatality would occur 68 days after landing.
CEO Bas Lansdorp is vague on the details of the company’s financial status.
On its site, Mars One sells merchandise and lists a page of Silver Sponsors, which include a small science blog, a Dutch film production company, a scanning service making CD-ROMS, a translation agency, a webhost called Byte (listed twice, and for which its communications director used to work), a series of speculative fiction novels about colonizing Mars, a consumer electronics retailer, and an open-source 3-D printing software provider. On contacting one of these, I learned that the cost of becoming a Silver Sponsor was less than $10,000, but that the sponsor would not say exactly how much was pledged and wanted to remain anonymous. Mars One was also casting around for designers willing to work gratis in return for some Mars One merchandise (including a mug) to help get its message out, via banner ads. Mars One lists a tally of where its donations are up to, split into countries, all the way down to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s $1 pledge. The total is currently $633,440 (about half of which may have come from an IndieGoGo campaign, which was intended to raise $400,000 but with just over 8,000 backers stalled at $313,744). That’s just over 0.01% of the $6 billion mission price tag.
“Right now Mars One is receiving funding from investors, from donations from all over the world, and from small corporate sponsors that are helping us. We’re in negotiation with a few very large brands, if they’re interested in partnering with Mars One,” says Lansdorp. But he won’t talk specifics about which brands or what their investment would be. He says the company currently has the funds available for the unmanned lander feasibility study and the suit study, which are both under way.
Then there’s the company’s claim that 200,000 people applied for a one-way ticket. This incredible piece of information issued by Mars One’s press office was picked up with credulous haste by news outlets around the world. Even religious leaders made their opinions known, with the UAE-based General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment strictly forbidding Muslims from applying, as to leave the sanctity of Earth was an affront to Allah.
But Norbert Kraft, the chief medical officer, has told The Guardian he was sorting through 80,000 applicants, not 200,000. NBC News tallied the number of video applicants on the Mars One website and came to 2,782, each of whom paid an application fee of between $5 and $75. I ask Lansdorp if in the course of fact-checking this story he will allow me to see the list to verify the number. I ask where the 200,000 people registered their interest and if it was ever made public. His answer was…complicated.
“I don’t know if that was ever made public, but they have registered on our website for applying for our program,” he says. “Then there was a number of steps where people had the opportunity to drop out as that was exactly the point. The application process was kind of a self-selection that avoided us having to review all of them. The first step was paying the application fee. A number of people already dropped out there. Then there was a video that you had to make and questions that you had to answer. And that’s also where a lot of people dropped out, that they’re not lying in their motivation.”
I ask again if sharing the list would be possible to verify the figure.
“Of course we cannot share the details of the applicants with you because that’s confidential, private information that we cannot share.”
I offer that the names can be redacted in maintaining the privacy of the applicants before viewing the list.
“Ah, no. I’m not interested in sharing that information with you.”
He emails later, with an invitation to come at my own expense to Mars One’s office in the Netherlands and see the list in person, though cameras will not be allowed. “I will need to read your article before publication and reserve the right to deny you access to the list if I don’t like what you wrote.”
I tell him that of course that won’t be possible.
I’ve been working on this story for more than a year, and when I began, I wanted to understand the most obvious question of all: Why? Why do human beings need to colonize the surface of Mars? What could possibly drive someone to leave the Earth behind forever to die on a barren rock in the frozen depths of space? What tangible good would come to us in spending tens — even hundreds — of billions of dollars on sending a tiny group of people to live 18th-century lives there? Could we not find more effective ways to spend that money here if the ultimate goal is protecting the future of the human race?
I’ve been told by Bas Lansdorp that society has lost its way and that the young people of the world should idolize explorers, not pop stars. I’ve listened to David Willson explain that if we were able to prove that life exists on Mars, however primitively, we would have to profoundly reassess what it meant to think we were the only living things in the universe. I’ve read Elon Musk’s half-joking assertion of “Fuck Earth! Who cares about Earth?” I’ve interviewed people at government space agencies who are literal geniuses. I’ve come away from this in complete awe of the NASA people’s minds (not so the minds behind Mars One), and with an appreciation of why space exploration is so damn expensive: because it is incredibly difficult and incredibly dangerous.
As Lansdorp told me, for Mars One it’s “just about getting this done”—damn the consequences, both the real life-or-death consequences space flight presents, and the equally real personal consequences for anyone pinning their Mars-bound hopes on someone else’s ego-driven, responsibility-free project. Ethically and morally this is an unacceptable proposition.
Here is what I also think: What really drives this enterprise is the ancient, unbearable anxiety of death. Building a colonial outpost on Mars is a quest for immortality—to live on in human history for those who succeed, to stave off the inevitable death of our species, at least for those who believe we can upload human consciousness to a frequency sent out into space, or just recreate our unlikely habitat on another planet which happens to be next to us.
Walking on the beach that day with Josh, I thought of something I once read online, at first idly, postulating a Timeline of the Far Future, a collection of speculative theories about life and the universe beyond our comprehension of time. By the time I got through to the end I suffered a panic attack of such intensity the walls of the room appeared distended in my vision, and I momentarily lost the ability to hear. Then I lay on the floor of my office and cried for a very long time.
If you are ever standing in the very narrow path of the shadow of a total solar eclipse, when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun in a configuration known as syzygy, you will see the stunning effect of the corona of the sun flaring from behind the moon in broad daylight, as the circumference of the moon fits precisely inside the circumference of the sun from our terrestrial perspective.
This happens only because the sun’s distance from Earth is roughly 400 times the moon’s distance, and the sun’s diameter is likewise 400 times the diameter of the moon: an almost exact ratio.
The odds of this configuration occurring anywhere in the universe, least of all at a place and time in which intelligent, self-aware life is present to observe it, are so minuscule as to be incalculable.
Six hundred million years from now, Earth’s tides will have pushed the moon too far away from the planet for total solar eclipses to any longer be possible.
If all human life were to disappear from the Earth tomorrow, it would take the planet only 100 million years to completely reclaim the surface, leaving no single trace of proof that intelligent beings ever existed here. All the satellites orbiting the planet will, untended, fall, many coming to rest at the bottom of the sea.
The last manmade structures standing will be the Pyramids and Mount Rushmore; its granite resists erosion at an elevation that exposes it to little wind, leaving it recognizable 10,000 years from now. In five million years it will be gone.
In 7.6 million years’ time, Mars’s moon Phobos will have come close enough to the planet’s surface to be destroyed by gravity and torn into a ring that will then orbit the planet for three million years, after which the debris will smash into the face of our best hope for repopulating the solar system.
Five billion years from now our sun will enter its red giant phase and expand to at least 200 times its current size, enveloping Mercury, Venus, and quite possibly Earth in the process.
One hundred trillion years from now all the hydrogen of the universe will be exhausted, and so all remaining stars will die. In one hundred vigintillion years quantum tunneling will turn all matter left in the universe into liquid.
In 10^10^120 years (zeros are now added in septillions, numbers too big for our minds to grasp) our universe will experience its heat death, encountering maximum entropy when there is no longer enough thermodynamic free energy to sustain processes that consume energy—like life.
By this point, time itself will have ceased to exist.
You can right now, if you like, float gently and lovingly over the Earth and take in the view from the International Space Station. Any of us with an internet connection can get a lo-fi insight into what astronauts call the Overview Effect, the feeling of seeing the majesty of Earth from space and trying to take in the enormity of it and the tiny, unlikeliness of yourself.
You may find it pleasantly reassuring.
I know that I will have to tell Josh about all this.
I will have to tell him that from everything I can find, Mars One doesn’t appear to be in any way qualified to carry off the biggest, most complex, most audacious, and most dangerous exploration mission in all of human history. That they don’t have the money to do it. That 200,000 people didn’t actually apply. That, with all the good faith one can muster, I wouldn’t classify it exactly as a scam—but that it seems to be, at best, an amazingly hubristic fantasy: an absolute faith in the free market, in technology, in the media, in money, to be able to somehow, magically, do what thousands of highly qualified people in government agencies have so far not yet been able to do over decades of diligently trying, making slow headway through individually hard-won breakthroughs, working in relative anonymity pursuing their life’s work. That he shouldn’t look continually and fantastically to a theoretical future while his chance to be actually present in the privilege of human life passes him by. That he shouldn’t give up on the hard work of making a life with the rest of us here on this horrendously messy, imperfect, unimaginably fragile, and steadily warming Earth.
How I am going to start this conversation takes up pretty much the entirety of my mental space for the duration of the flight across the country.
Late in the day Josh and I are sitting across from each other sunk in very deep sofas, making us both look small, as the sun sets and the room darkens around us. I ask Josh how he would feel if in the end Mars One didn’t happen. If he made it all the way through to selection, but the mission just wasn’t ever going to be real.
“Disappointed,” he says quietly after a long moment. “Disappointed. But in the grand scheme of things it’s already done.” Josh is quiet and reflective and drained, different from how he’s been every other time we’ve spoken.
For someone like Josh, it is a quest for true purpose, for belonging; a burning wish to be exceptional. “It’s given me direction. It’s given thousands of other people direction. I suppose why I have latched onto this so hard is that I once looked at the military as the be-all and end-all of things. Maybe we can move past the idea of having to defend ourselves from ourselves and be driven to explore.”
As we keep talking and some of the most insurmountable problems with the mission come up — the lack of money, the fact that the selection panel isn’t being made public, that there are no contracts with SpaceX — the more rational parts of Josh’s thinking emerge. He is not a stupid person, by any stretch. When I say that Chris Hadfield has serious reservations about Mars One, Josh says that he isn’t surprised and that other astronauts have expressed their skepticism, that he knows about it. Especially that one astronaut in particular who he has always looked up to shares the same outlook: Andy Thomas.
“He hates it,” Josh says. “Absolutely hates it.”
Josh knows, on some level, that what Mars One is proposing is unlikely to come off. At least not in the time frame it has set and not for the amount of money it says. But it’s even that most minute, most remote chance it could actually work that keeps Josh holding on to hope, the hope that brought him home from Europe and away from a girl he really loved, to dedicate all his energies completely to Mars One. To keep trying to make it real.
“It’s Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces type of thing,” he says, leaning forward to put his elbows on his knees. “Except you stay in the hall of heroes, you don’t return with the boon. You are sending it back, you’re sharing it with the old world. But you’re staying out there on the adventure calling others to come.
“That’s why I’m willing to sign up to go one way.”
This story was written by Elmo Keep. It was edited by Mark Lotto, fact-checked by Eric Wuestewald, and copy-edited by Lawrence Levi. Illustrations by Josh Cochran, photographs by Daniel Boud for Matter, title lettering by Jennifer Heuer.