Last week we stumbled across the incredible plans for Mars One.
In case you missed it, those ambitious plans called for a build a trip to Mars in 2023, with the money for the trip coming from a “global media spectacle” and the explorers chosen in a style that sure sounded a lot like reality TV.
Oh, and by the way, it’s a one way trip.
The plan was soon making waves on Reddit, with over 2,000 upvotes. The hivemind, as Reddit’s crowdsourced comments are sometimes referred to, began asking questions. Mars One founder, Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, answered a few. “Our mission will be one of exploration. It will truly be the next giant leap for mankind,” he said in one post.
Soon, however, the relationship with Reddit seemed to sour. Requests for a AMA (Ask Me Anything) were answered, but multiple questions were answered vaguely, if at all.
“KONY2012!” posted one user, in reference to the tragic viral video sensation that, at the time of writing, had gone nowhere. Others accused simply of being a hoax.
We reached out to Lansdorp to get his side of the story.
Bas Landorp’s big idea
“The problem with proving something is not a hoax is that people who are behind a hoax would answer in exactly the same way,” Landorp said via phone from the Netherlands.
“The problem with proving something is not a hoax is that people who are behind a hoax would answer in exactly the same way.”
“Of course, by making progress, we can prove, in the end, that its not a hoax. When we land on Mars, people will start believing that its not a hoax.”
Lansdorp says that his idea to go to Mars has been floating in his head for at least 15 years, when he was still in University (he studied mechanical engineering at the Universiteit Twente, and later began a phd at the Technische Universiteit Delft).
Five years ago, he revisited the idea and began making more serious calculations. “I knew this idea would be possible, but I just didn’t know how to finance it,” he says.
After Lansdorp gave a talk at TEDXAmsterdam in 2010, an unofficial TED spin-off event, he was challenged by an organiser about what he would be doing after his current venture, Ampyx Power, an experimental wind energy start up. Bas suggested the trips to Mars was his plan, and the organiser argued that now was the time to do it.
After some brainstorming, Lansdorp came up with a method of funding — sponsorship for a huge media spectacle. He turned to Paul Römer, the producer behind the internationally successful Big Brother reality TV series. After hearing the technical plans for the, Lansdorp says that Römer told him “funding should be no problem — if we create the biggest media event ever around it.”
By February 2011, Landsdorp had quit his job and began assembling a team. The first most of the public knew about the plan was last Thursday, May 31, when a promotional video appeared on YouTube.
Mission To Mars
While it may sound like to science fiction, the idea of a trip to Mars isn’t actually all that crazy. Just two years ago, Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies argued in a serious paper for the Journal of Cosmology for a one-way manned trip to Mars — much like the plan Bas envisions.The team have managed to get the endorsement of theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize Winner Prof. dr. Gerard ‘t Hooft, who proudly writes on his homepage “Manned spaceflight to Mars. It’s going to happen.” In a statement on his “ambassador page” for Mars One, Prof Hoof writes “Problems are there to be solved. What is being put forward here is achievable!”
One international group that seeks to support a journey to Mars is the Mars Society, a non-profit group based in Colorado that states at the top of its founding declaration “The time has come for a journey to Mars”.
The Mars Society was founded by Doctor Robert Zubrin, a former Lockheed Martin employee. Dr Zubrin is the driving force behind the plan “Mars Direct”, one of the most well known plans for a manned mission to Mars. Mars Direct has been reviewed by Stanford University and NASA, and forms the basis of a reference baseline study of a manned Mars trip for NASA.
Dr. Zubrin and the Mars Society are not formally connected to Mars One, though one member of the Mars One team, Arno Wielders, had created the Mars Society Nederlands in 1998. “If the rest of them are as good as him, they’ve got a solid team,” Dr. Zubrin told us via phone.
While he is not connected to the project, Dr. Zubrin was generally positive about its chances. “What they’re planning to do is extremely difficult, but not impossible. It’s possible, technically and financially, to get humans to Mars in about a decade and establish them there.”Dr. Zubrin pointed to the success of SpaceX, which recently launched the Falcon 9 for less than one tenth of the cost that would be expected in the Aerospace industry, and plan to develop the Falcon Heavy, in around 2 years, at a privately-raised cost of $50 million. If SpaceX’s plans are credible, and at this point we must assume they are, Dr. Zubrin added, it would cost around $100 million per person to get a person to Mars.
Making a “global media spectacle”
Lansdorp says that he estimates his plan will cost $6 billion. The idea, he says, is to create a huge media spectacle around which he can sell sponsorship and advertising. He points towards the Olympics as an example of a huge, worldwide event with large amounts of sponsorship (for reference, the 2008 Beijing and Turin games are thought to have generated around $866 million in sponsorship, Bloomberg reports).
Part of that media spectacle will be achieved by turning the event into something along the lines of a reality TV show (it no doubts helps that Paul Römer, co-creator of Big Brother, is now on-board as an “ambassador”).
However, Lansdorp balks at the label.
“It is not our goal to create reality TV show, our goal is to send people to Mars,”
“It is not our goal to create reality TV show, our goal is to send people to Mars.”
Lansdorp said when we asked him about the television aspect. “A reality TV show has a very negative ring to it. What we want to do is send people to Mars and share the experience of those people… They’ll be our eyes and ears”.
Quite how the “show” aspect of Mars One would work remains to be seen. “We don’t know yet if it will be something like the Idols”, Lansdorp told us, hinting that viewers may play a role in choosing those selected.
Lansdorp says that work has begun on reaching out to sponsors, and a few companies have expressed interest (“very preliminary, it’s not big multinationals yet”). However, whether he can get his plan off the ground within his time frame seems ambitious — applicants to go to Mars will have to be decided upon within the year, because next year those applicants should be training at a replica of the Mars settlement on an Earth.
scepticism and doubts
If Lansdorp hopes to create the biggest media event in the world, the AMA thread on Reddit isn’t a good start. We asked Lansdorp why he had not answered all the questions, and he replied “I couldn’t answer all the questions, because there were a lot.”
He did acknowledge he had seen one popular comment, posted in both the original thread about Mars One and the AMA. The questions, from the account elitezero, had a technical specificity no other questions contained, apparently due to the user’s expertise following a senior design project in aerospace engineering at UIUC. In particular question was how Mars-One would cope with radiation both on the journey to Mars and once there.Lansdorp never responded. “I figured that I wouldn’t get a response and if they did it would be mostly bullshit,” elitezero wrote to another user.
When he spoke to us, Lansdorp did say he had read the comment. “It’s kind of a fairytale that scientists know nothing about the radiation situation on Mars,” he said, adding that a recent European Space Agency (ESA) study concluded that the radiation on Mars is probably less than on the International Space Station, where many astronauts live for extended periods of time.
He did acknowledge that the radiation on the journey to Mars could be more harmful, especially during periods of increased solar activity. He said that the team were working with the idea of one area of the ship with thicker shielding against radiation, that ship members would move to when they hear an alarm — a sign of an upcoming solar event.
Overall, Lansdorp didn’t seem fazed by the radiation fears. “In general the radiation problem is something that is exaggerated by the people who are negative about sending humans to Mars,” he told us. “Of course, it’s an issue, don’t get me wrong, and we need to find solutions to it. But the solution is very simple — shielding.”
Regardless of the science behind it, the fact that Lansdorp had allowed scepticism and distrust of his project to grow on one of most influential sites on the world certainly seems like a bad omen.
There’s also the feasibility of sponsorship itself. Here, even Dr. Zubrin is sceptical.
“I don’t think the business plan closes it. We’re going to go to Mars, we need a billion dollars, and we’re going to make up the revenue with advertising and media rights and so on. You might be able to make up some of the money that way, but I don’t think that anyone who is interested in making money is going to invest on that basis — invest in this really risky proposition, and if you’re lucky you’ll break even? That doesn’t fly.”
“I don’t think that anyone who is interested in making money is going to invest on that basis — invest in this really risky proposition, and if you’re lucky you’ll break even? That doesn’t fly.”
Dr. Zubrin argued that a simpler non-profit model, made up largely of individual donations, could work, and Lansdorp says that he has already had offers from individuals already (he says he has refused them as he doesn’t want to take money from individuals until they have finished feasibility studies with contractors).
However, even for that, Dr. Zubrin argues that seed money of, say, $50 million would probably be necessary just to mount the publicity campaign. “On the other hand, if they are just scratching around with the personal resources of 6 or so middle class people, it could be quite tough,” Dr. Zubrin added.
According to Lansdorp, the latter is correct.
Hoax or hope?
Lansdorp is adamant that the event is no hoax.
“I left my previous, very successful company, more than a year ago, I’ve invested a lot of money in doing this. All the people involved are very passionate about space exploration, if we did it as a hoax we would jeopardize the future for people who really want to do it. All the people in our field would never forgive us about that.”
Lansdorp isn’t being dramatic here. For many of the people involved in plans for a manned mission to Mars, the plan isn’t one of exploration — it’s one of necessity.
“If you look at literature, and film, and you look at the way that the future is depicted, there’s basically two alternative views of the future,” Dr. Zubrin says. “There’s the Star Trek future, or there is the Soylent Green future.”Given recent reports about the state of the Earth, it’s not hard to see Dr. Zubrin’s point.
So why isn’t Lansdorp going on this one way mission to Mars himself? Lansdorp tells us that yes, when he first thought about the plan, he envisaged himself on Mars. The main problem now, he says, is that he simply doesn’t think he would make the grade.
“I don’t think I am one of those people who is very suitable,” he says. “My character is quite emotional.”
“The second problem is that I would like to bring my girlfriend — and she would never agree.”
Editor’s Note: Lansdorp is planning on doing another Reddit AMA this Saturday — he says he was unfamilar with how Reddit worked during the last AMA, and this time he will be more prepared.
Also, if anyone is interested in sponsoring Mars One, you can get in touch with them here,
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