The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

That one-way flight to Mars is losing its sheen

An illustration shows a proposed colony on Mars done for the nonprofit Mars One, a mission to send astronauts to the planet by allowing anyone to apply to go. (Mars One)

Since it was first announced four years ago, Mars One has dazzled earthly audiences with its sweeping ambitions and seductive, Kennedy-esque promise: By 2024, the Dutch-run nonprofit aims to launch a four-person crew on the first human trip t0 Mars, where it will establish a self-sustaining human settlement on the chilly, barren red planet. Sourcing all its spacecraft from private manufacturers and operating with money raised through sponsorships, advertising and a prime-time reality show about the expedition, chief executive Bas Lansdorp thinks he can get people to Mars faster and more cheaply than government-run space agencies like NASA in part because those who go are never coming back

“This is what humans are made to do,” Lansdorp told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “Genetically, we are explorers. … We go into the unknown and develop the technology to survive.”

It’s heady stuff.

But as the 2024 launch date inches closer, the project may be losing some of its sheen. Last fall, a team of MIT scientists found the proposed Martian settlement relied on a lot of assumptions — dangerously inaccurate ones — about the way life support and habitat technology would work in space. Three weeks ago, one of the project’s most illustrious supporters, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Gerard’t Hooft, told the Guardian he thought the budget and timeline for the mission were unrealistic.

“It will take quite a bit longer and be quite a bit more expensive. When they first asked me to be involved I told them, ‘You have to put a zero after everything,’ ” he said, meaning a launch date 100 years rather than 10 years from now and a budget of $60 billion rather than just $6 billion.

[On one hand, they could be the first humans to set foot on another planet. On the other, they’ll die there.]

Already, the mission’s timeline has been pushed back by a year. “My co-founder said, ‘Great, our first delay. We’re starting to look like a real space mission,’ ” Lansdorp told the Guardian.

And this week, one of the 100 finalists selected to undergo training for the prospective mission – an astrophysicist at Trinity College Dublin named Joseph Roche – said that the project will “inevitably fall on its face.”

In an interview with Medium, Roche outlined his growing misgivings with the project: that the selection process wasn’t rigorous enough, that some leading contenders may have paid their way into that position. He said he has never had an in-person meeting with anyone from Mars One and hasn’t undergone any kind of physical or psychological testing.

“All the info they have on me is a crap video I made, an application form I filled out with mostly one-word answers … and then a 10-minute Skype interview,” Roche said. “That is just not enough info to make a judgment on someone about anything.”

Roche said applicants are evaluated based on a point system, and that points can be redeemed by purchasing Mars One merchandise or donating to the project. He added that a handout given to the 100 finalists, which offered “tips and tricks” for dealing with the media, included the request: “If you are offered a payment for an interview then feel free to accept it. We do kindly ask for you to donate 75 percent of your profit to Mars One.”

[Here’s what a successful application for a one-way trip to Mars looks like]

He discussed similar concerns in an essay published in the Guardian on Wednesday.

“The time might have come for Mars One to acknowledge the implausibility of this particular venture,” he wrote. “They could then perhaps turn their efforts towards supporting other exciting and more viable space missions.”

In an interview with The Post, Lansdorp acknowledged the points system and the suggestion that three-quarters of interview fees be donated to the project. But he denied fundraising has anything to do with applicants’ success in the selection process.

Lansdorp added that most of the funds for equipment and training will come from investments, not fundraising by participants, though he declined to disclose how much the project has raised so far.

A rebuttal posted by another Mars 100 finalist on Medium also pointed out that candidates were interviewed by Norbert Kraft, a doctor who previously served on crew selection committees for NASA and specializes in mitigating the physical and psychological effects of long-term space flight – and that the process of whittling 100 finalists down to 24 crew-members will involve intense training and a number of psychological and physical tests.

But Roche isn’t the only person expressing skepticism about the project. Speaking at the Montreal headquarters of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) on Wednesday, former Canadian astronaut Julie Payette said “nobody is going anywhere in 10 years.”

“We don’t have the technology to go to Mars, with everything we know today, so I don’t think that a marketing company and a TV-type of selection is sending anybody anywhere,” she said in a speech that opened a three-day aerospace conference organized by the ICAO and the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs, according to Canada’s National Post.

That doesn’t mean that commercial space travel isn’t a realistic and imminent possibility. It just needs to happen “in a safe, careful, efficient and intelligent manner,” she said.

John Logsdon, a space policy specialist at George Washington University, took a similar stance in an interview with NPR this week.

“I just don’t find [Mars One] a credible proposition,” he said.

He has more faith in NASA’s plan to send astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. Unlike Mars One, NASA’s mission is two-way, making it a more expensive endeavor. But the space agency has already built the spacecraft that will make the journey: a lampshade-shaped capsule called Orion that made a successful first test flight last December.

Maintaining support for missions like NASA’s is what makes Roche so concerned about the possibility that Mars One will fail, he said.

“If people lose faith in NASA and possibly even in scientists, then that’s the polar opposite of what I’m about,” he told Medium. “If I was somehow linked to something that could do damage to the public perception of science, that is my nightmare scenario.”

Lansdorp argues that the opposite is true.

“Mars is really on the radar again” because of Mars One, he told The Post.

“It’s a hugely ambitious project and there are so many things that can go wrong,” he acknowledged. “But we are doing our best to make something happen that nobody else is doing. Even if we don’t make it, I’m sure we will inspire other people who can.”