Mars One, the private company with a fantastical plan to set up a permanent colony on Mars by 2025 on a $US6 billion budget, hasn’t exactly been transparent about the selection process for its would-be colonizers.
Last month, Mars One announced the “Mars 100” — the top 100 candidates that would be vying for a chance to be the first group of Mars settlers. Joseph Roche, a former NASA researcher and now assistant professor at Trinity College, is one of those finalists. He revealed the huge problems he was seeing in the application and finalist selection process to journalist Elmo Keep, who wrote about Roche’s claims in the online magazine Matter.
Right from the get-go, the process seemed sketchy.
According to Roche, as soon as you apply, you become part of the “Mars One Community” where you can earn points for things like buying Mars One merchandise or flat out donating money. The top 10 shortlisted candidates that were announced in February are simply the 10 finalists who have raked in the most money for the company.
“You get points for getting through each round of the selection process (but just an arbitrary number of points, not anything to do with ranking), and then the only way to get more points is to buy merchandise from Mars One or to donate money to them,” Roche wrote in an email to Keep.
However, co-founder and CEO of Mars One Bas Lansdorp said the points have nothing to do with the selection process.
“There are plenty of people in the top 100 that have never donated anything,” Lansdorp told Business Insider. “And people have dropped out who have donated more than $US3,000.”
Lansdorp said they put the point system in place because Mars One supporters asked for it, and a company spokesperson told Keep that the “top candidates” were indeed those with the most points — but that, confusingly, there was no relationship between those standings and who would actually be picked for the trip.
Roche also said that in February, the candidates also got an email list of “tips and tricks” for dealing with the media. Those tips and tricks included this nugget:
“If you are offered payment for an interview then feel free to accept it. We do kindly ask for you to donate 75% of your profit to Mars One.”
That guideline, Lansdorp told Business Insider, is just a suggestion.
Still, it’s no secret that Mars One is broke. The company has raised around 0.01% of its $US6 billion budget.
Even if the company somehow manages to raise all that money, there are much deeper problems with the company’s candidate selection process.
A one-way trip to Mars would require at least six months of travel time where a colonizer would be confined to a small spaceship. After landing on the hostile alien planet, almost all of his or her time would be dedicated to maintaining equipment and performing tasks that fulfil basic survival needs.
This kind of undertaking will require serious training and incredible physical and psychological stamina. So evaluating candidates is a critical step in any plan to colonize Mars.
Yet Roche told Keep that he has yet to meet anyone from Mars One in person. His evaluation as a candidate so far has hinged on his original video application, a physical from a doctor not affiliated with the company, and a brief Skype interview with Mars One’s chief medical officer Norbert Kraft.
“That means all the info they have collected on me is a crap video I made, an application form that I filled out with mostly one-word answers… and then a 10-minute Skype interview,” Roche wrote to Keep. “That is just not enough info to make a judgment on someone about anything.”
That seems very far from NASA’s screening and training approach for new astronauts. For example, Keep explains, NASA hopefuls are required to log at least 1,000 hours of flight before they are even considered to start training as an astronaut.
Lansdorp said the company will begin extensive psychological screening of candidates after the summer, and start forming the finalists into teams of four so they can begin training. (The company’s stated plan is to send colonizers to Mars in groups of four starting in 2025).
Kraft, who spent years evaluating astronauts for NASA, is expected to lead that process. Lansdorp pointed out that selecting candidates for a permanent space colony has never been done before, so there’s not a lot they can borrow from NASA.
Shouldn’t the selection process for permanent colonizers be more rigorous than that of NASA astronauts who only spend up to one consecutive year in space?
It seems unrealistic to believe that 24 (the number that Mars One hopes will become its astronaut corps) of those 100 people are completely serious about the trip and are capable of completing the years of training and studying required for this kind of voyage.
And this is just scratching the surface of the problems with Mars One.
Initially, the company reported it received over 200,000 applications. Then rumours began swirling when the company refused to provide a record of this crazy number of people who were willing to leave all their friends and family behind for an alien world and ultimately die there. The Guardian reported 80,000. Then, Keep wrote in an earlier Mars One investigation, NBC News actually tallied the number of applications on the Mars One website and found that the number was just 2,761.
Lansdorp has said the disparity might come from the number of people who initially registered online compared to those who actually completed the entire application.
Furthermore, contracts with companies like SpaceX and Paragon for the rocket, spaceship, and life support equipment are still nonexistent. Lansdorp told us he was on his way to Paragon to review the life support designs, though nothing has been finalised yet and no construction has started. The company wants to start training its finalists this year, and Lansdorp said that negotiations for a training facility are still on track and will likely be announced soon.
Mars One is planning on financing the mission through a reality TV show starring the colonizers. However, the rumoured partnership with the TV production company Endemol fell through, according to a spokesperson from the company.
Roche told Keep that from the start he never took the Mars One application very seriously. He just wanted to show his support for space science. Now it seems like things are headed downhill.
In his conversation with Business Insider, Lansdorp remained upbeat about his company’s plans. But Keep’s story in Matter ends on an ominous note, suggesting that the whole enterprise is worse than just silly:
“My nightmare about it is that people continue to support [Mars One] and give it money and attention, and it then gets to the point where it inevitably falls on its face,” said Roche. If, as a result, “people lose faith in NASA and possibly even in scientists, then that’s the polar opposite of what I’m about. If I was somehow linked to something that could do damage to the public perception of science, that is my nightmare scenario.”
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