When Nasa’s first rover set down on the surface of Mars in 1997, its streamed colour images caused an early internet sensation. After centuries of dreaming, here we were, at eye level to our closest potentially habitable neighbour, and the sight was as bleakly majestic as we could have imagined: a rocky, red desertscape on a scale entirely alien to Earth. One mountain, Olympus Mons, was the largest in our solar system (three times the height of Everest, with a footprint the size of Sweden); dune-seas swept its northern hemisphere while 7km-deep canyons veined the south.
Watching on a clunky desktop computer in the Dutch university town of Twente, 20-year-old Bas Lansdorp’s first thought was one of wonder; his second of longing (“I want to go there!”), then the melancholy realisation that, being Dutch, he could never fly with Nasa. So he’d have to do it himself.
What kind of a person thinks such outlandish thoughts, then tries to make them real? Eighteen years later, Lansdorp and I are on a train en route to Heathrow, discussing Mars One, a real company with real investors and a fledgling astronaut training programme, while our fellow passengers fall silent and pretend not to earwig. Lansdorp has a brusque, crystal-eyed positivity; a boyish charm you see in many entrepreneurs that, combined with his Dutch accent, makes him seem sincere and persuasive. All the same, the woman next to me has been staring at the same smartphone screen for the past 10 minutes, and her thought bubble reads: “This man is talking about going to Mars. Soon. Like he means it. Am I dreaming?”
Lansdorp began by thinking about Mars as an intellectual exercise, a hobby: how might a privately funded Mars mission actually work? He knew that when George Bush Sr ordered Nasa to cost the trip in the early 90s, they came back with a figure of 0bn, after which human travel to Mars became the mad uncle in the shed of space. One Nasa engineer I spoke to identified a “giggle factor” attending its very mention at the agency.
Gradually, though, Lansdorp came to believe there was a way to slash costs by accepting a simple truth: that the hardest part of a Mars trip was not going, but coming back. Nix the return and your tech troubles fell away, to the extent that no new technology would be required. For a public body like Nasa, such a leap would be politically unthinkable. But for a privately funded one – why not? Suddenly, Lansdorp was talking about an enterprise no one else dared even moot: a Mars settlement mission, for bn, small change to governments and a growing cadre of individuals.
Lansdorp finished his postgraduate degree in mechanical engineering and founded a renewable energy company, Ampyx Power, which promised gliding wind-power generators and proved popular with speculative investors (the machines haven’t yet been built). He also fell in love and began to think about a family. Then, in 2010, a friend sent him a paper by the British physicist Paul Davies, floating the idea of a one-way Mars mission. “Look, they’ve stolen your idea,” the friend joked.
It was now or never. Lansdorp began to consider a funding model based on broadcast rights and advertising. If the Premier League, Olympics and reality TV shows were worth billions, what price a Mars mission and guaranteed audience of… everyone on Earth? Eight billion pairs of eyeballs would buy a few rockets, wouldn’t they?
Lansdorp is a hard man to pin down. I suspect this is partly due to ambivalence towards a media that is increasingly suspicious of him (and how can you not be suspicious of a bloke who has no rockets or spacesuits but says he’s off to Mars soon); and partly due to a punishing search for further investment. When we meet, the past week has seen him shuttling between the US, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands and London.
Where his first-round funders were mostly angel investors, 30-odd rich individuals and three or four companies that don’t demand a return on their investment, second-round funding traditionally involves hardened pros who expect profit within an agreed timeframe. The point at which Mars One can announce backing from these guys is the point at which we have no choice but to take it seriously. And that point, Lansdorp says, is close.
His plan is this: first, to send eight uncrewed rockets, filled with equipment, materials and robots to assemble a base, 2,000 sq ft of living and work space, built of rocket capsules and tough inflatables. The rockets would most likely come from a range developed by Elon Musk at SpaceX; from 2027, they would start to carry settlers, sent in teams of four every two years. Lansdorp called for volunteers in 2013, and in February announced his first batch of successful candidates – the Mars 100. Next spring, the 100 will meet for team exercises, and 24 full-time trainees will emerge.
Lansdorp’s critics believe this is all too good to be true. Late last year, a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) claimed that Mars One’s crew would die 68 days after landing: the equipment needed to balance their oxygen levels just doesn’t exist. (Mars One responded that the potential problem would be solved in time.) It emerged that a deal could not be reached with the TV production company chosen to turn the mission into a show, a UK division of Big Brother producers Endemol. (Lansdorp says another production company has been in place since November, but that the details are commercially sensitive.) Another contract, with US aerospace firm Lockheed Martin, has also fallen through, forcing a two-year delay in the projected launch, to 2027. (Lansdorp says he has a contract with the Paragon Space Development Corporation in Arizona, which has designed Mars One’s life-support systems, and is now working on space suits. Paragon confirms this.)
More damagingly, a young Dublin academic with a PhD in physics and astrophysics, Joseph Roche, said in March that he was leaving the 100: not only was the selection process laughably inadequate, done via online forms and Skype, but Lansdorp was hitting candidates for “processing fees” and rewarding those who bought merchandise (posters, stickers, T-shirts). It began to look as if a fatwa, warning Muslims that participation in Mars One amounted to suicide and a sin, was the least of Lansdorp’s problems.
But he insists his motives are genuine. “One of the great things Mars One can achieve,” he says, “is that, like when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, if humans go to Mars, children will want to be astronauts and scientists and engineers again, instead of pop stars. Because that’s going to be the cool thing to be. Right now, it’s not.”
So he’d trump the X Factor with the Mars Factor? “It would be more than that,” he says. “If it results in 10% more scientists or engineers, it increases the chance of drawing in the brilliant minds we need to tackle things like climate change and feeding the world. Nothing brings people together like a common project.”
To buy the freedom to work full-time on Mars, Lansdorp sold his shares in Ampyx. I tell him I’d like to have been a fly on the wall the night he told his girlfriend, now mother of his son, about that. He laughs. “Well, before this, I was doing airborne wind energy, remember. And when I quit my PhD to start my first company, I remember how devastated my mum was. My girlfriend knows I come up with ambitious things and try to realise them. And now we’ve been paying salaries for two years, for a team of 10. Nobody at Mars One is in it for the money, but it’s real.”
There is an ingenious rival plan to get to Mars, detailed by the aerospace engineer and Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin in his 1996 book The Case For Mars. He proposes a series of return missions to different locations on the red planet, in a programme he costs at bn-30bn. Wouldn’t it be smarter to spend the money on Zubrin’s more politically saleable (because it includes a return trip) alternative? Lansdorp says not. First, he reminds me that launching rockets on Earth is difficult and dangerous, and requires hundreds of experts – so imagine the problems of trying to do so with a few crew on Mars, after the machine has travelled 50m miles and been thrown around during launch and landing. He also doubts Zubrin’s cost estimate: “Because of the new technology his plan would require, it’s a longer timeline, so I wouldn’t know how to finance it. Our investors are already on the edge with the 10-year timeline we have.”
Lansdorp points out that we don’t yet know how to land 10-tonne payloads in the red planet’s thin atmosphere, let alone a 100-tonne return launch system (to understand the depth of this challenge, go to Nasa’s website and watch the video “Curiosity’s Seven Minutes Of Terror”, which animates the hair-raising machinations of a system necessary just to land the Mini-sized rover). Which could mean that Nasa, with its vague pedestrian plan to orbit Mars in the 2030s and maybe land in the 2040s, is right: we’re simply not technologically or politically there yet, and the new Mars rush is all a lot of hot air.
Lansdorp insists that, even if a return trip were practical, he wouldn’t go for it. “It’s such a waste of money and effort! There’s a whole world to be built – there’s work for centuries on Mars. Why send people who want to go for a holiday, when there are 200,000 applicants who don’t need to go back? You can send 10 settlement missions for the cost of one return. If you go for that option, the first mission will always be 20 years away, as it’s been since the 1960s.”
Who signs up for a one-way ticket to Mars? Clare Weedon is a whip-smart 27-year-old IT systems expert, curious and empathic, with opal-blue eyes and a pierced lip. We meet in a cafe in London, where she speaks excitedly about a forthcoming holiday chasing tornados in the American midwest. Becoming an astronaut was never part of her plan: when her brother sent her a link to Lansdorp’s call for astronauts, her first thought was, “Is this for real?” But she applied anyway. It was only at round two, a form that took most of a day to complete, that she started to take the prospect seriously. Asked to describe an experience of cultural awkwardness and how it was resolved, she recalled the time she (a pescetarian) and a vegetarian friend had lodged with an elderly, non-English-speaking Spanish couple who cooked them wonderful meaty meals; they managed a difficult situation with enough aplomb to be invited back. Prompted for a frightening incident, Weedon remembered being stuck on an icy motorway for six hours.
Overseen by Mars One medical director Norbert Kraft, a veteran of the US, Russian and Japanese space programmes, the process aimed to slough off those who lacked the necessary application, intellect or self-awareness. From an initial 202,000, the candidates were reduced to 1,058; a routine medical, conducted by their own GPs, brought the numbers to a global 660. And then, 100. Mars One intends to repeat this selection process on an annual basis, delivering six fresh teams of four every year, leading to a pool of 100 by first flight.
Weedon was at her DJ boyfriend’s flat when she received an email headed “Congratulations!”, which she opened with heart in mouth, palms sweating. “It was such a surreal feeling,” she says. “I was totally stunned – just so excited! I bounded off the sofa and ran upstairs, screaming.”
Her boyfriend was less thrilled. What do her family and friends think about her desire to leave the planet? Her eyes flick to the floor. “Yeah, it’s difficult. I mean, my boyfriend and I have been together six years and we’ve not spoken about it since I got through to the last 100. We’ve had a row about it, but not spoken. I don’t know what to say.”
Does she understand how he feels? “Yeah. I mean, it’s not worth ruining our relationship if nothing’s going to come of it. But I also understand the turmoil of feeling that someone might just fuck off and leave you – and that’s horrible! I mean, I’m laughing, but if I think about my situation…”
Does she share any of Roche’s reservations about Mars One? “I agree with some, but I totally disagree with others. I didn’t earn any points until last week, when I bought a T-shirt, so that part was bullshit. The points system means bugger all.”
Like everyone else, Weedon paid a £20 registration fee and thinks this fair. (“If you’re serious, what’s 20 quid?”) As far as her suitability for a trip to Mars goes, she acknowledges that the process can at best have scratched the surface; but she contradicts Roche’s claim that applicants had been promised face-to-face interviews – and with a round-two cadre of 660 scattered across the globe, it’s hard to see how these interviews could have been conducted differently.
Weedon’s brother didn’t make it to the 100 and, until she did, no one else in the family knew they were applying. How did they react? “They’ve been great, really. They can see the passion in my eyes and that there’s no holding me back, so they might as well support me.”
What awaits Weedon and her fellow pioneers, should Lansdorp raise the money? Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun, the last rocky “terrestrial” world before the ethereal planets, the gas giants, take over. The distance between us varies with each opposition, but 2003 saw Mars pull within 55m km of Earth, the closest it had been or would be again for 60,000 years, during which it was the largest object in our sky – a ruby light you felt you could reach up and pluck from the night, then release again, like a firefly. All the same, where the moon takes two days to reach, Mars is six months away, with a return journey becoming available after only six months there: a long time to spend floating in a tin can.
The planet could scarcely be less appealing to a human. Freezing cold and arid, Mars is a uniform rusty red, coloured by the oxidised iron in its soil. The Martian day is 37 minutes longer than that of Earth, which will appear as a pinprick of light in a sky that contains two moons. Weedon won’t be going outside without a spacesuit, because the atmosphere is 95% carbon dioxide, and planet-swallowing dust storms can last for months. On the plus side, gravity is a third of Earth’s and water is far more plentiful than once thought, meaning that everything necessary for life, from air to water to metals and plastics, can be manufactured there. Yet life will be monotonous and hard.
The space geologist Peter Grindrod, a professor at Birkbeck College, London, is part of a Europe-wide panel tasked with choosing a landing site for the European Space Agency’s UK-built ExoMars rover, which is scheduled to land and drill two metres below the surface in 2018. In his Bloomsbury HQ, Grindrod shows me photographs of sweeping Martian landscapes that make me ache to go. Like most scientists I consult, Grindrod is a Mars One sceptic. “Who would you want to spend the rest of your life with?” he asks. “Somebody who’s decided to give up everything and die on another planet? I saw one guy interviewed who had a wife and three children, and a reporter asked him, ‘What will you say when your daughter asks you, Daddy, why aren’t you going to come back? Would you change your mind?’ And he said, ‘Well, she’d be upset, but no, I’d still go.’”
Alison Rigby’s reaction to making the round two group of 1,058 was “ecstatic”, tempered by the fact that her partner didn’t get through. In a south London pub near her home, the 35-year-old lab technician and avowed science geek recalls the moment. “I said, ‘Should I continue?’ and he said, ‘Yes, yes, yes – look what you’ve done already! Keep going, I’ll apply next time.’”
Then came the news she’d made the final 100. “I was shaking. I could not do anything. I was, like, ‘They chose me? Me?’ I’m a pragmatist, and obviously the odds were against me, so I’d been convincing myself that I wouldn’t be selected and working out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Since then, they’ve explained the criteria and I was like, ‘Oh, OK! I was a shoo-in!’”
At the Skype interview stage, everyone was asked the same thing: three knowledge-based questions, to see if candidates had learned the material they’d been sent, and five interconnected general ones. Perhaps the trickiest of these came last and sounded innocuous: “If, after three years on Mars, you had the chance to come home, would you?” I would have fallen at this hurdle – who knows how they would feel about anything after three years on Mars – but the correct answer is no, because not only would you be abandoning your team, but your physiology would have adapted, with radical bone and muscle loss making a return to Earth inadvisable.
How have Rigby’s family taken the news? “Well, we’re still very close,” she says, “but this has become an issue for them. I mean, it was a big step for me to move down to London from Blackpool. My dad’s very proud of me, but sad to think of the implications. My mum’s more against it: I’m her only daughter and she wants me nearby. I think she’d say, ‘It’s more important to think about your family than yourself.’ And I’d go, ‘I’d love to, Mum, but I can’t.’”
How does she reconcile that? “By saying that what I’ll be doing is more important to more people than just my family. And while my family is really important, this is important for the whole world.”
She points to rocket designer Wernher von Braun’s words about the first moon landing being humanity’s biggest moment “since life crawled out of the slime”. “Surely the Mars mission will be an equally big step,” Rigby says. “This won’t just be flags and photographs, this is a settlement mission and people will be able to look up and see there are actually humans on Mars. Which makes the world seem so much smaller.”
Standing on a dusty red desert plain, gazing up at a speck of light, knowing it’s Earth and that there is no hope of returning, strikes me as the loneliest and most desolate feeling. But both Rigby and Weedon are uncowed by it. No one has left Earth’s orbit since 1972 and no one has ever ploughed beyond the moon into deep space, let alone for good. There’s also the question of why?
“Yeah. Somebody tweeted me, ‘Why do you want to go to Mars when we have so many problems here on Earth? Shouldn’t you stay and fix them?’”
What, you personally? “Ha! Exactly! I said, ‘Shall we change mankind and then go to Mars, or shall we be bold and change mankind by going to Mars?’ The way I see it, we need a new vision, a new purpose. Even if Mars One doesn’t make it, it has definitely stoked the fires of exploration again. And if they do, or if Nasa does, if they choose an international crew and make it humanity’s mission to Mars, it will have a very big coalescing effect. It might break us out of the ennui that has descended, where we feel powerless.”
People predicted the same thing when the Apollo lunar missions brought back the first whole Earth photos, but Rigby thinks the psychology of a Mars mission will be different. “You’ll leave, then you’ll get to where you’re supposed to be, a planet – but it’s a different planet this time.”
We talk about the defection of Roche (who declined my interview requests). It turns out his criticisms had a curious effect on the rest of the 100, drawing them together as they formulated a response that Mars One management seemed unable to provide. “We left it for a day and thought, ‘Well, let’s see what Mars One has to say about this.’ Because we were expecting the hammer to fall.”
When the hammer didn’t fall, 76 members of the Mars 100 community group, a secure online forum, stepped up to post very effective retorts on YouTube (Ryan MacDonald’s 10 Reasons Mars One Is NOT A Scam demolishes the arguments one by one). A closeness began to form. Rigby asked a couple of European candidates to stay with her and meet fellow travellers. “It’s a wonderful resource,” she says of the forum, “a place where we can express our feelings without worrying about them slipping out or anything. The only slight worry is it’s taking us away from the public forums like the Facebook groups, so our presence there isn’t as strong as it was. But the issues we have to discuss are quite pressing.”
In this sense, the candidates are already pulling away from their lives on Earth. Clare Weedon pointed out that standing on the surface of the Moon was like being in space, because there is no atmosphere, whereas Mars will feel distinct, like a planet; home. If so, someone will have to get there before we’ll know whether that feels liberating, or crushingly claustrophobic.
With so many problems here on Earth, can there be any justification for spending billions of dollars on Mars? Some people think so and, significantly, one of them is the PayPal/SpaceX impresario Elon Musk. When I visited him at SpaceX’s factory in Los Angeles in 2013, he made no bones about the motivation behind SpaceX: it is to colonise Mars.
“Fundamentally, there are two reasons to go to Mars,” he explained. “One is defensive, as a form of life insurance, of preserving life, which we know can be wiped out by catastrophic events [such as comet strikes and supervolcano eruptions]. And the other is that it will be the greatest adventure ever. I am motivated more by the second, that it would be a fantastic adventure, even for those who don’t want to go. Just as with the moon, it was only a handful of people who went, but in a sense all of humanity went there with them. And I’m hopeful we can do it with better life expectancy than the original English colonists in America!”
Musk wants to go himself, he told me, but expects to have the option of coming back. Of Mars One, he has been dismissive, telling MIT students last October, “Well, the plan I’ve seen has them buying a bunch of Dragon capsules and Falcon 9 rockets to go to Mars. That’s cool, if they want to buy our rockets, I’ll certainly sell them – though I don’t think they’ve got anywhere near the funding to buy even one. But trying to go to Mars in a Dragon… that’s a long time to spend in something with the interior volume of an SUV.”
Later this year, Musk hopes to unveil designs for his own Mars Colonial Transporter, a craft capable of taking large numbers of people there. Whether through him or Lansdorp, it looks increasingly likely someone will go in my lifetime, a proposition that, even three years ago, looked laughable.
Lansdorp remains convinced that a whimsical tech billionaire will appear in time to get training and hardware off the ground – and he may be right. The sudden return of interest in human space exploration is in part a symptom of the displacement of state by corporate power: Elon Musk, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Microsoft’s Paul Allen and computer game designer John Carmack have all poured personal riches into space companies.
Are Mars One’s investors being naive in buying Lansdorp’s untried business plan? “It’s interesting as a thought experiment,” the Mars Society’s Robert Zubrin tells me. “I mean, Lansdorp doesn’t have bn, but Nasa does and in terms of going only one way – hey, we’re all on a one-way trip to somewhere! But I think it’s utterly fantastical that you’ll fund a Mars mission with a reality TV show.”
A Nasa insider who asks not to be named is more specific: “Look, I support any initiative that’s trying to get to Mars, and I wish them nothing but the best. Their business plan – selling it as a reality TV show is clever, but I don’t think it’s going to be sustainable. Why? What makes a good reality TV show? Tension, conflict, difficulty – all the things you’re wanting to avoid. And you don’t want to be sending four kooky divas to Mars! Then, even if you do, the one thing we know about reality TV ratings is they go down over time, so as broadcasters lose interest, who’s going to keep those people alive? The technology won’t be ready for them to be self-sustainable for quite some time, so what if the show’s cancelled? Is someone going to cough up bn to save four people? Really? And what if the astronauts decide to turn off the cameras?”
Born 29 years ago to British parents in South Africa, Mars One candidate Alexandra Doyle put herself through law school by moonlighting as an orthodontic nurse and now lives in the Midlands, where she works on the tills at Tesco, as a receptionist/sales consultant at a gym and as a film and TV extra. Last weekend she came to London to meet with other candidates, including Rigby’s guests from Spain and Denmark, and found the experience inspiring; she is thinking about applying for a degree in Space Exploration Systems at Leicester, if she doesn’t end up in full-time training.
Doyle’s enthusiasm for the Mars One experience thus far, which she describes as “probably the best and strangest of my life”, is hard to gainsay. To my desolation at the thought of leaving Earth, she counters, “I don’t know if it means I’m incredibly strange, but that moment where you’ve worked hard and you’re moving away from Earth and you’re never coming back… It sounds horrible, but to me that’s just amazing. And a lot of people have said, ‘Don’t you appreciate Earth? Are you not happy here? What are you trying to get away from?’ Fair enough, but it couldn’t be farther from the truth. There’s so much about the Earth that I love, but that doesn’t mean there’s not something else out there. A whole new way of life, a whole new existence. It’s a huge thing to get your head around, but as soon as you hear about it, I think your gut reaction tells you whether this is something you find awe-inspiring or that makes you feel sick. It’s built into our DNA, to imagine what else might be there and keep pushing the boundaries.”
For all her pragmatism, however, there is a point in the conversation when the emotion wells up. “Yeah. It’s funny, isn’t it?” Doyle says. “On paper I can be quite analytical, but whenever I chat to somebody about this, have a proper conversation, I get really emotional. It’s such a huge thing to contemplate.”
How many of this initial Mars 100 will make it there in 2027, if Mars One succeeds? Lansdorp reveals that he and medical director Kraft disagree on what to expect from the first group. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see all of their first group drop out along the way,” he admits. “No one has ever selected for a Mars mission that lasts a lifetime, so it’s not only the risk that people will get ill or change their minds, it’s also the risk that the groups we choose won’t be good enough. The first crew is really about keeping the team together and overcoming the challenges they will find – together.”
His intention is to have between three and five teams ready for each launch, choosing which one to send at the last moment. “Because I wouldn’t be surprised if the team we’ve selected climbs the tower to the rocket and at that moment one of them decides to drop out.”
What about him – is he still desperate to go? “Absolutely,” he says, and pauses. “I have a son who is 18 months old and for me this changed my life completely. I would never leave him while he is young. But before I had my son, I wouldn’t have hesitated a second to go, if I had the idea that I was the right guy for the job.”
Wait a minute. He doesn’t think he’s the right guy? “No! Psychologically, I am absolutely the wrong person to be in such a small team for such a long time.”
How so? “I am stubborn, impatient, unwilling to take no for an answer. These are great qualities for an entrepreneur, but terrible for an astronaut working in a small team. I am absolutely the wrong person to be in the first wave of settlers.”
Will Mars One make it? The attrition rate among startup companies is huge; for those with ambitions to colonise space, we don’t even have a measure. But what Lansdorp, Musk and others have done is reopen a conversation that had died. Somewhere on Earth, right now, the first human to set foot on Mars is probably among us.
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