THE FAIL ISSUE
The week of June 14, 2015
mars_one_after_the_fall

Dreams of a Red Planet

By Ramon Ramirez

I.

“Mars One has been my full-time job for almost four and a half years now,” says Bas Lansdorp, the company’s cofounder and CEO. His thick Dutch accent weighs on his learned English, traveling across the Internet via Google Voice from a hotel room in Rome. His accent yields succinct, tame sentences that sound like the rehearsed ultimatums of a villain’s monologue.

He’s been traveling, and from his whirlwind press tour, I know he casts a futuristic profile: His eyes are dark, like black beryl, and his high bone structure and receding buzz cut accentuate his cranium. I’ve seen him in interviews in scarves and blazers. He oozes tactical sophistication: You imagine Lansdorp with a cane, emerging from the side door of a Rolls-Royce.

On the phone, he quickly answers questions with grace and conviction. His plan is to raise billions of dollars through donations and application fees from would-be astronauts, then take a global cast of civilians to Mars sooner than NASA—a one-way trip to establish a permanent human settlement by 2026. Thousands have reportedly applied for a shot at landing on the Red Planet.

He can be convincing, despite the outlandishness of his plan; he points to his mechanical engineering pedigree (he has a master’s degree from Twente University) and waxes philosophical about the enormity and nobility of his project. For a while that worked; press attention followed the project’s initial announcements, some of it skeptical, much of it not.

Lansdorp believes his biggest obstacle is funding, but recently an MIT review cast doubt on the technical feasibility of his plans, as did the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The launch estimates given by Mars One are overly optimistic in terms of system logistics,” the MIT study determined. It also said any crops yielded on Mars using existing technology would have unsafe levels of oxygen that would kill the explorers.

“It’s not really feasible under the assumptions they’ve made,” MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems Olivier de Weck told MIT News.

A media and aerospace partner has since fled, fundraising plans have been kept intentionally vague, and Lansdorp routinely exaggerates how many people actually signed up for the trip in the first place.

So you might expect to hear some stress in his voice, or maybe a Nixonian acknowledgement that mistakes were made. Not so. When I reach him in Rome, he says he’s been traveling for 24 hours and just got in from New York. A few days earlier, he’d missed our interview, saying he’d passed out in a Swiss hotel room.

He waves away the press criticism. “The media pay attention to whatever,” he says blithely. “Before that there was positive press and they picked that up”—he’s not wrong there—“[any] expert journalist that really has paid attention to Mars One in general can see that we’re moving in the right direction. Of course, it’s a mission to Mars: There’s supposed to be ups and downs along the ride.”

Lansdorp is an outsized figure, the kind of monomaniacal character who seems to arrive fully formed around his own driving obsessions.

Like much of what Lansdorp says, that sounds reasonable at first take. NASA had some “ups and downs” on the way to the moon. The difference, of course, is NASA was a multibillion-dollar, government-funded project that employed thousands of America’s best and brightest. Mars One, right now, is considerably smaller. Lansdorp estimates it’ll cost $6 billion to put its first four people on Mars. NASA, by comparison, says at least $80 billion is required.

To save costs, technology development and production will be handled by manufacturers who’d presumably love to have their brands associated with such a world-changing mission. (Though maybe not ecstatic enough to be offering discounts.) As for actual funds, Mars One’s Indiegogo campaign topped out at $313,744 last year. The group maintains it’s raised $784,380 by way of donations.

Lansdorp says that before the New York business trip, he was in Los Angeles meeting with documentarians. Then Canada for a presentation, then on to Zurich for a sit-down with investors. In fact, Lansdorp says that in the face of recent of critical articles—about feasibility, about the lax selection process, about how the organization allegedly uses fundraising as a key evaluation profile within its candidates —Mars One has actually gained three brand partnerships: ANZ Bank in New Zealand, Texas-based catalog supplier Mouser Electronics, the third he can’t yet reveal.

“They say that all exposure is good exposure,” Lansdorp says lightheartedly, “and I never believed it until three weeks ago.”

II.

Lansdorp is an outsized figure, the kind of monomaniacal character who seems to arrive fully formed around his own driving obsessions. But of course, he has a history.

From 1995 to 2008, Lansdorp, now 38, lived in academia. After getting his master’s degree in mechanical engineering, he pursued a Ph.D. at the Delft University of Technology. He dropped that to help launch an experimental wind energy startup, Ampyx Power.

Today, Ampyx’s website boasts about a mission to “generate renewable power at cost levels far below fossil-fueled alternatives.” It manufactures tiny drones that generate cost-effective electricity and can theoretically rival more traditional wind turbines while minimizing carbon footprints. Ampyx says it raised €600,000 during a recent round of investments. To date these machines have not been built.

In early 2011, Lansdorp sold his Ampyx shares and began assembling a team. He told the Guardian that he’s been dreaming of Mars since livestreaming the 1997 NASA rover landing.

By May of that year, he had his first Mars One promotional video on YouTube. His cofounder and chief technical adviser was Arno Wielders. A Dutch physicist who works for the European Space Agency, Wielders is the mission’s credible specialist. He’d previously founded Space Horizon, a sort of think tank that conducts space exploration studies.

Since then, Wielders has all but disappeared from the project and has not spoken publicly on the matter since December. (Wielders could not be reached for comment.) I asked Lansdorp via email why Wielders was keeping a low public profile, and did so somewhat bluntly: Was he getting flak within his own community for participating in Mars One?

“I fully expect them to sort of look at me like a tinfoil hat-wearer.”

Lansdorp replied succinctly: “Arno still works four days per week at the European Space Agency, so [he] simply has much less time available than myself.”

There have been other concerning developments. The project’s previous media partner, for example, Dutch production company Endemol, withdrew from talks about a Mars One reality TV show in February, saying the two companies were “unable to reach an agreement on details.” Though Endemol produced series like Deal Or No Deal and Big Brother, after the talks fell through, Lansdorp told NBC that his plan was to have a documentary series all along—not the previously-reported American Idol-meets-Survivor reality competition. Yet less than a month later, in March 2015, Lansdorp confidently told NPR the Mars One reality TV series would generate “10 Olympic Games’ [worth] of media revenue, which is $45 billion.”

As a Mars One cofounder has gone dark, it’s made Lansdorp the venture’s ambassador and key focal point. To believe in the mission, you have to implicitly trust him—or ignore reality altogether.

III.

Sonia Van Meter is the Mars One finalist I’ve most gotten to know. The Northern Virginia political consultant is razor sharp on the phone. I profiled her previously; she seemed level-headed and fulfilled in her personal life. The whole cycle was a tall tale, she acknowledged then, but she conveyed personal transparency that I applied to the project at large.

So like many people writing about the subject, I accepted that the Mars One project was possible and asked why anyone would want to die on another planet.

I called her again to get an update on the project. “My experience with it has been absolutely fantastic,” she says via phone. It’s early May and she’s just attended the Humans to Mars summit in Washington, D.C.

“I fully expect them to sort of look at me like a tinfoil hat-wearer,” she says of the summit attendees, which included science-fiction writers, employees from NASA and SpaceX, and astronaut Buzz Aldrin. “I’m self-conscious about being part of this organization for several reasons. One of which is that there’s only 100 of us left at this point, and the spotlight is on all of us.” But she says summit goers appreciated the attention Mars One brought to their cause.

I want to talk to Van Meter about Elmo Keep, an Australian journalist and one of the critics Lansdorp dismisses. Last November she published a story in Matter called “All Dressed Up For Mars and Nowhere to Go,” in which she called the project a marketing campaign—which, to be fair, it largely is. After all, raising $6 billion means selling people on the mission.

But Keep also disputed the claim that Mars One had 200,000 applicants. Mars One later revealed the number to be just over 4,000, and Keep noted that each of those applicants had paid between $5 and $75. She leveled perhaps her harshest criticism at Lansdorp himself, saying that Mars One was all too eager to forge ahead, “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.”

I tell Van Meter that, following Keep’s articles—including a follow-up titled “Mars One Finalist Explains Exactly How It‘s Ripping Off Supporters”—and the MIT study, nobody in the press seems to believe in Mars One.

“It’s entirely possible that it will fall flat on its face. But Elmo Keep and others keep using the word ‘scam.’ And the word ‘scam’ implies deception—it suggests that Mars One is trying to pull something over on people,” Van Meter says.

Van Meter believes in the fundamental sincerity of the Mars One project.

Sometimes there’s a thin line between a scam and a marketing campaign for a longshot product that may never materialize (just ask Kickstarter). And it’s reasonable that committed volunteers like Van Meter would bristle at the suggestion that they’ve tricked out of their money. But Van Meter and Keep seem closer to agreement than the former admits. In the course of her 10,000-word story, Keep uses the word “scam” only once, in this sentence summing up her view of Mars One: “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.”

“At the end of the day, we can call this a longshot,” Van Meter says. Or “an amazingly hubristic fantasy,” as Keep would have it. There’s more than one way to pronounce “potato.”

Van Meter sees the fundraising efforts as ethical. “They’re not asking [for] money from the general public, they’re looking for investors,” she says.“I think it’s a bit myopic to call this a scam.” It’s unclear how she’s separating the general public (from which the paid applications were drawn) from “investors,” who are also capable of being scammed (see: Enron, Collapse of). Van Meter doesn’t think Mars One is exploiting its finalists.“Absolutely not, I paid $37 every application fee,” she says, later clarifying that was a one-time fee. “If you were paid to do interviews, [Mars One] has asked—not demanded—that we donate a portion to the organization. And I don’t imagine that many people are being paid for their appearances at this point… We’re talking about an organization that has to raise $6 billion—I don’t think that requesting donations of that sort is out of line for them.”

(Lansdorp clarifies via email that media has been willing to pay for interviews, rare for just about any non-gossip American publication: “We charge a fee for exclusivity-related requests and for requests for commercial documentaries, or interviews that take the candidates a lot of time. And yes, that has happened.” I ask for an example: “As you probably understand, I can’t give you info on which deals paid a fee.”)

Van Meter believes in the fundamental sincerity of the Mars One project. “None of this is being done because they want to pull something over us,” she says. “I look forward to seeing where they go next. It was never going to be a short process. We have 12 years and people wanting magical results overnight were bound to be disappointed.”

That sounds sensible and honest. But no one seems to expect overnight success. The MIT scientific review didn’t argue that Mars One had already failed because it hadn’t yet succeeded; it said that the current plans had a very low probability of working out. But it’s also not unfair to look at Mars One’s track record thus far in gauging how well it might execute its (highly improbable) 12-year plan.

Van Meter is in this for all of the right, humanist reasons. She talks about sparking imagination and feels that with Mars One raising awareness, the science community will catch up. Of the technical questions, she pleads ignorance.

“To be really, really honest. I don’t know,” Van Meter says. “What I will say is that I’ve spoken with several people who are in this field … what we lack is funding. Is public support.”

IV.

For all the fast-and-loose plans, Mars One has inspired thousands. Like a great science-fiction work rooted in superficial believability—Jurassic Park, War of the Worlds, Star Trek—it’s a catalyst for fan theories and dreamers.

Proof positive is the group Aspiring Martians, a leading forum for Red Planet news, podcasts, and the occasional book-pushing author. It boasts more than 13,000 international members managed by seven administrators.

One site admin, an ER doctor named Leila Zucker, says she spends about 10 hours a week managing the group. Via email, she writes that Mars One has “captured human imagination and touched our deepest core of curiosity with an audacious announcement about arriving on another planet in a decade. No one wants to hear that through a slow and steady progression we can eventually make it back to the moon, then the asteroids, and eventually maybe to Mars.”

For all the fast-and-loose plans, Mars One has inspired thousands.

Dr. Zucker is a mission finalist herself and has been profiled in the documentary series Life On Mars. She’s a connector—actively meeting fellow finalists and helping organize informal conferences. She got 60 Mars One applicants together for the Million Martian Meeting back in August 2013 at George Washington University.

She’s always dreamed of space but didn’t want to be a military pilot. By the time she became a doctor, the space shuttle program that took nonmilitary mission specialists into orbit was over.

“NASA and other space agencies are still talking about going to Mars sometime in 20, or 30, or 40 years—the target date never seems to move any closer,” she writes. “Suddenly, someone is suggesting we can go in a mere 10 years, to lead humanity to our destiny in the stars. How could anyone not be drawn to that?”

A 21-year-old University of Oxford graduate physicist named Ryan MacDonald is also a Mars One finalist. His recent micro-fame has led him to volunteer lectures at elementary school assemblies. He’s a guarded optimist.

“The idea of a colonisation mission in the near future is a truly enticing concept; seeing it being seriously discussed and actively pursued makes Mars One somewhat unique amongst existing space ventures,” he writes. “In short, if the money can be raised then yes, this mission could lead to a feasible path to Mars.” It’s a longshot. It’s a dream. It’s exciting. It all comes down to money.

In a video intended for the Mars One finalists (posted on YouTube but since removed from the MarsOneProject channel) Lansdorp takes a question about financial viability. He’s vague, but he cites dwindling resources as Mars One’s number one problem. (He says that’s a good thing, because at least it’s not the feasibility of his plan that’s the main problem.) But, he says, the operation will soon have enough capital to last another 18 months and that this round of investing will be “real big news when we release it.” He offers no more specifics: “Between you and me, I am confident that we will solve the financial difficulties that we’ve had in ramping up the investment.” He also admits he has no new partner for the proposed television series.

Life coach and speaker Julian Bolster also appears in the video to offer the Mars One finalists media training. He encourages contestants to never seem flustered; to give very short, deliberate answers; redirect; control the interview; and never hesitate to “leave with a graceful exit” should questions get uncomfortable.

“We want to change the narrative,” he says, and suggests that finalists ask to see reporters’ questions in advance. He tells them to evoke Christopher Columbus, the Wright Brothers, and the Apollo missions. And he shows them how to redirect a question back to the nobility and dedication of the project’s finalists.

Bolsters says via email that he’s an “unpaid advisor” who “joined the Mars One team earlier this year.” He says that the media training had nothing to do with damage control but that “some of the candidates have been caught off guard by questions that are quite personal in nature and would have nothing to do with the Mars One program.”

V.

Save for one defector, Dr. Joseph Roche, the other finalists remain. For the converted, personal stakes seem low, while the mission’s core purpose is vital.

The future always has room for more hopes and dreams. Finalist Ryan MacDonald remembers via email: “At the end of the 1960s we were promised holidays on the Moon, Mars in the 1980s and a future amongst the stars; alas, this did not materialise.” He thinks private enterprise is now picking up where governments let us down.

I ask MacDonald if he’s worried about being used. “Of course I’m still committed to the project!” he writes. He finds my suggestion that he’s being exploited bizarre; he sees only the opportunities he’s gained to tell the public about space exploration. “If my involvement in Mars One thus far has inspired even a single young person to pursue a career in science then the time is more than worthwhile for me.”

I admire the finalists. The three I’ve corresponded with are in many respects ideal ambassadors. They’re idealists who think critically about mankind’s future. They feel a legitimate sense of duty to advance humans by planting a flag on another rock. A love of science fiction may be driving the passion (just look at all of the DVDs in MacDonald’s Mars One-defending YouTube clip), but that doesn’t make it misplaced.

“Suddenly, someone is suggesting we can go in a mere 10 years, to lead humanity to our destiny in the stars. How could anyone not be drawn to that?”

I still remember watching Van Meter on the local NBC affiliate in Austin, Texas, more than a year ago. The news was absolute: This mission will happen in 2025 and this person was chosen above 200,000 others.

The media, myself included, bungled the original Mars One narrative. We made it a trending topic and reported poorly in stories that rewrote the talking points. We were eager to get philosophical about space and skipped the faulty blueprint.

When I ask Lansdorp about Elmo Keep’s story, the one that helped bring some much-needed skepticism to the press coverage, he goes on the attack: “It’s absolute lies. … I don’t even understand why her articles are picked up so much, because she has no track record beyond the stories that she wrote about Mars One, so it’s head-scratching for me.”

Keep couldn’t verify Lansdorp’s claim that more than 200,000 people applied to Mars One, so she pressed him for a list, which he finally agreed to show but with impossible conditions that demanded international travel and prior review of her article. (Another Mars One consultant, Tanja Masson-Zwaan of the International Institute of Air & Space Law, likewise asked me for prior review as a condition to an interview.)

Keep wrote about the discussion in her article, but today Lansdorp disputes that he imposed such restrictions. “I had given her the opportunity to access the list without any conditions except that she wasn’t allowed to take a recording device for privacy reasons, of course. I even offered her—because she’s in Australia and that’s very far away—I even offered her to find a Dutch journalist friend who could take a look at the list in her name,” he says. “To me it was a real offense that she didn’t accept that and especially that she lied about it afterwards.” Keep has provided me with screenshots of emails showing Lansdorp did, in fact, demand quote approval and prior review of her article.

Mars One has me convinced that voyaging to a desolate planet inhospitable to human life is a pursuit that requires more planning—and a more trustworthy leader. I emailed Dr. Zucker to say so. She concedes it’s improbable but remains hopeful.

“I draw the line at excess negativity and nitpicking that prevents people from attempting a project that is harming no one,” she writes. “Even Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is skeptical of the mission, has said, ‘I don’t like standing in the way of dreamers. These people, they’re thinking beyond where the rest of us are. Let ’em do so.’”

It should be noted: Tyson goes on to compare the Mars One project to another group of colonizers, the pilgrims. The difference, he points out, is that the pilgrims made their journey with proven technology (wooden boats) and arrived in a verdant land, where they received native assistance. They could also breathe the air. Tyson concludes that comparing Mars One to the pilgrims severely underestimates the technical challenges involved.

But Zucker thinks the longshot is worth pursuing. “I think most of us know exactly what we signed up for,” she writes. “So there is no dishonesty involved. Our overarching goal is to get the human race into space, to make us a multi-planet species before it’s too late.

“If Mars One can actually put boots on Mars, that would be fantastic. If Mars One simply sparks the discussion that leads another private or governmental organization to putting humans on Mars, that’s a win, too.”

Illustration by Max Fleishman