Private space venture company Mars One announced earlier this month that it intends to send people on a one-way colonisation mission to Mars in 2023, largely funded by sales of the mission’s media rights.
The entire mission will be filmed and broadcast back to Earth in what the Mars One website calls “the biggest media event ever.”
“The entire world will be able to watch and help with decisions as the teams of settlers are selected, follow their extensive training and preparation for the mission and of course observe their settling on Mars once arrived.”
The plan is to land four people on Mars in 2023, and follow this initial landing with an additional four people every two years after that. The astronauts won’t be coming back – they will live and die (sooner or later) on Mars. It’s cheaper that way.
Is this a hoax? Some media outlets have treated the press release as a joke, but it definitely isn’t.
Mars One was jointly founded by Bas Lansdorp and Arno Wielders. Lansdorp is a Dutch wind-power engineer with a background in space design. Wielders is a physicist with a driving passion for Mars and space experience. He works with the European Space Agency on projects such as the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) probe and he also co-founded the Netherlands Mars Society.
The technology they propose to use – SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launcher and a modified Dragon capsule (which recently remote-docked with the International Space Station) – was also treated as a joke by the media when it was announced a few years ago.
But SpaceX’s vehicles are now the most technologically advanced spacecraft on the market. And you can buy an orbital launch on one of them, if you’ve got a lazy US$54 to US$128 million sitting around.
As mentioned, the largest part of the Mars One US$6 billion funding will come from sales of TV or web broadcast rights to the preparation, launch, trip, landing, and ongoing adventures of the first four colonists on Mars – a Martian version of Big Brother, if you like. In fact, the project is being backed by Paul Römer, co-founder and executive producer of Big Brother.
And this is where the questions start. Will people watch it? More importantly, will media organisations pay to screen it? It had better be stunning TV to justify broadcast rights that could cost as much as an Olympics broadcast – more than US$1 billion in the case of NBC and the London Olympics.
The trouble with the funding plan is, it’s not just the US$6 billion for the first humans on Mars that’s needed. Mars One is relying on further income from public subscriptions and broadcast rights to send the next crew two years later, and the next crew two years after that. Where will the money come from once the public loses interest?
Finding volunteers for a one-way trip to Mars shouldn’t be a problem. At the last few Mars science conferences I have attended I asked: “If you could go to Mars, knowing it would be a one-way trip, how many of you would go?” In each case, more than two-thirds of the audience – all scientists and engineers with a few trainee NASA astronauts – raised their hands.
Their ages ranged from 20-ish to the retired, men and women. All had that gleam in their eye you get when you think about fulfilling childhood dreams. These are the people you will need as part of your initial Mars One team and follow-up teams. These people know Mars.
But these are not the people who would normally appear on prime-time TV shows. These are dedicated, hard-working, brilliant, and sometimes quirky scientists. They do science and engineering, and they do it damn well.
But watching a scientist at work can be a lot like watching paint dry. We are methodical, follow routines and often repeat tasks hundreds of times every day for weeks in order to perform the analyses we need to do.
Results don’t come quickly – it’s not like CSI or NCIS where you put data into a computer and within the 20 minutes required before Act III, the machine spits out the necessary results to solve the problem. It can take weeks or months to do our work, and sometimes years before we truly understand what it all means.
Very few scientists are able to excite the public about what they do. Notable exceptions are Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Phil Plait, David Suzuki and the late Carl Sagan. How many of them have you seen on prime-time TV recently? And these are the science media stars!
The closest TV program to what Mars One is proposing would be Time Team – a show in which scientists have three days to do an archaeological dig. But even on Time Team, those three days are summarised into 45 minutes of TV by the time the show is screened. Imagine having to watch for the whole three days?!
Will you really want to switch on and watch a group of middle-aged scientists walking around their Martian living quarters in their underwear? Or would you really want to watch as the mission’s scientists repeat the same experiments over and over, for days at a time?
Because this is what you will largely be getting, along with the chance to virtually be there if one of them falls over outside, cracks their helmet, and dies … live on TV.
If the mission lands, grabs good science and creates great media, many will say it was the best way of getting to Mars … and it may just spur the superpowers into following suit.
But will they still say that it was the right way to go if the first crew is abandoned as the funds run dry? Or when there are no follow-up missions due to a lack of public interest? Or when the video relay orbiters fail, and we no longer see the faces of Mars?
Have we become such a world of uncaring ghouls that we need to send people on a one-way trip to Mars and watch them die for our entertainment? We need to fully fund our exploration of the solar system and use better models.
Perhaps, for example, one of the larger governments could cut back on their air conditioning a bit and fund space exploration properly. That way we might be able to watch the first steps of human Mars exploration and welcome the living explorers back to Earth with ticker-tape parades.
That, I would pay to see.