Early on a Saturday morning, about 60 planetary malcontents gathered in a narrow auditorium on the campus of George Washington University. They’d come to hear about a plan to build a self-sustaining colony in space, and they hoped to be among its first settlers, leaving the rest of us to live and die on #Earth.
“How many of you would like to take a one-way mission to Mars?” asked the balding engineer on stage. His face was a peachy monochrome, with sharp, craggy features set like a mini moonscape, and he had slightly pointed ears. On his lapel, a sticker read: “GREETINGS! MY NAME IS: Bas.”
When nearly everybody raised their hands, Bas Lansdorp’s lips curled into a grin. These were his constituents, the folks who had pledged to serve as guinea pigs for a bold and strange experiment. Just the day before, he had been on CBS This Morning, patiently explaining his idea. “I just want to make sure I understand that correctly,” the dumbfounded host had said. “If you go on this mission, you are going and not coming back.” But here at the first-ever Million Martian Meeting, in August 2013, Lansdorp saw only believers. “Wow, this is a really easy crowd!” he beamed.
Most of the armchair aliens shared a demographic, the young-man Marsophile: guys with tattoos across their necks and arms, goatees and mustaches, variations on the Weird Al look. But there were also older women in the room, and kids too young to drive. What brought them together was an abiding belief in Lansdorp’s central message, that humans should be expanding onto other planets, and they should do so now. A few years ago, President Obama announced that the U.S. would put astronauts in orbit around Mars by the mid-2030s, but budget cuts and sequestration have slowed the project down, if not killed it outright. Even if NASA gets the mission back on track, the agency has said it will only send humans to Mars if it can also bring them back—a maddening bit of bureaucratic circumspection for the crowd assembled in Washington, D.C. “The technology to get you back from Mars simply doesn’t exist,” Lansdorp said, stirring up his audience, and it may not exist even 20 years from now. “We need to do this with the stuff that we have today, and the only way we can do that is by going there to stay.”
“The technology to get you back from Mars simply doesn’t exist. We need to do this with the stuff that we have today, and the only way we can do that is by going there to stay.”
Until three years ago, Lansdorp had little to do with Mars. Trained as a mechanical engineer, he co-owned a wind-energy startup that aims to generate power using tethered gliders. But in 2011, the Dutch entrepreneur sold some of his stake in the business and started working on a grand idea: If governments are too stingy for a trip to Mars, or too risk-averse, then private business should take over. “I realized that if it’s going to happen, I’d have to do it myself,” he said to the crowd. Along with his Mars One co-founder, Arno Wielders, Lansdorp devised a plan to fund the trip primarily by selling it as entertainment. In studying the Olympics, Lansdorp found that the broadcast rights yield upward of a billion dollars. A reality television show about the first extraplanetary town in history, he figures, could be worth much more—at least the $6 or 7 billion necessary to build and launch the payloads.
The show would need a cast, of course, and that’s where the meeting’s would-be Martians sought to do their part. Since April 2013, Lansdorp’s team has been screening résumés sent in from around the world by anyone who cares to pay a modest application fee (the amount varied by country). The first phase of this stunt ended last December, when they narrowed down the pool to 1,058. These hopefuls will be interviewed and the group further whittled down this year. In the end, just four will be selected for the first mission—two men and two women, each from a different continent on Earth. Their trip to Mars is scheduled to land in 2025.
The people in the auditorium knew they faced long odds of being chosen, and that even if they were selected, the project might not make it off the ground. Still, Mars One has given hope to hordes of folks who have so far harbored their peculiar dreams in private. During the casting process, some 200,000 people checked in at the Mars One website, and a related interest group on Facebook accumulated 10,000 members. One tattooed young man in D.C. wore a T-shirt with a message that summed up the spirit of those assembled: “Bas is sending me to Mars,” it said across the front; on the back it read, “Thanks, Bas, you’re a good dude.”
For someone who doesn’t share the dream—an Earth-bound journalist, perhaps—that spirit seems quixotic at best and suicidal at worst. If Lansdorp sends four people to their living ends on a harsh and empty world, what will have been the point? Is Bas a good dude, or a dangerous megalomaniac? Lansdorp has a ready answer for any doubters: “People can’t imagine that there are people who would like to do this,” he said, as he wrapped up his presentation. “They say we’re going to Mars to die. But of course we’re not going to Mars to die. We’re going to Mars to live.”
In January, NASA scientists announced they’d found a jelly doughnut on Mars. Or at least, a rock that looked a little like a pastry, with white around its edges and a strawberry-colored center. That such a find should have been the subject of global news reports says less about its own significance—it was just a rock, after all—than it does about the barren world on which it settled.
It’s been 10 years since Spirit and Opportunity, the twin rovers, landed on the Red Planet. In that time they’ve rolled around for almost 30 miles, taking stock of a terrain that reaches out in all directions as a pock-marked plain of dusty, murky brown. They’ve weathered temperatures that range from 70° in the summertime to -225° in Martian winter, frequent and ferocious dust storms, an unbreathable atmosphere consisting mainly of carbon dioxide, and enough radiation from cosmic rays and solar flares to riddle a person’s DNA with cancerous mutations. Who would choose to spend a life in such a nasty, brutish place?
At the conference lunch, I put this question to a young man named Max Fagin. Forget your likely death on the mission, I said. Pretend that there will be no computer glitch or landing failure, and that your ship won’t end up inside a giant fireball. Imagine that you won’t get sick or break a limb and have no doctor to help you. Let’s say that technically it all goes right. What, then, about the stuff that you’ll have left behind forever? What about the feel of falling snow, the gentle breeze, or swimming on a scorching day?
“I would feel incredibly sad about missing all those things,” said Fagin, a master’s student in aerospace engineering at Purdue University. “But the whole point of going to Mars is that you’d have better substitutes. Any human being can visit the ocean. Anyone can visit the forest. These are beautiful things, but they are commonplace. I will get the chance to experience a sunrise on Mars. I will get the chance to stand at the foot of Olympus Mons, one of the tallest mountains in the solar system. I will get the chance to see two moons in the sky. I just can’t imagine being nostalgic for a life that 6 or 7 billion people are experiencing right now.”
“Any human being can visit the ocean. Anyone can visit the forest. These are beautiful things, but they are commonplace. I will get the chance to experience a sunrise on Mars. I will get the chance to stand at the foot of Olympus Mons.”
There were a few more Martians at the table with us; we were eating sandwiches and sushi, foods an astronaut could only dream of. I asked Fagin, Won’t the novelty wear thin? What happens when you’ve seen that sun rise and set a hundred times, and when you’ve walked around Olympus Mons? What happens when you’re in your cramped habitat with nothing much to do except the grim work of staving off an early death? And what about the food? I jabbed my chopstick at a Whole Foods tuna maki. What happens when you’re forced to live on undressed mini lettuce from your agri-pod?
Fagin waited for me to finish my speech, his face a quiet picture of condescension. “You’re seeing things from a narrow point of view,” he said. “It only seems weird to you because of when and where you live. I mean, would you ask an Inuit how he can stand the boredom of all the snow and rock?”
I stuttered for a second and fell silent. Why indeed should I take my pampered life on Earth as a baseline? Maybe life on Mars wouldn’t be so different from the lives that humans led for thousands of generations. Later on I’ll find rebuttals to his argument: The Arctic teems with wild animals and plants, hardly like the lifeless wasteland one would find on Mars. And, as it happens, the Inuit do suffer dire rates of suicide and depression. But I’m sure these facts wouldn’t matter much to Fagin. In 2010, he spent two weeks crammed into a tiny research station in the empty Utah desert, where students tried to simulate a stay on Mars and put on space suits every time they went out for a walk. “I didn’t have as much time there as I wanted,” he told me.
But what about your family? I sounded desperate now, as if I needed to make him see that Mars One would only lead to misery and death. Yet Max Fagin would not be swayed. The colonists will be more in touch with home than soldiers were in Vietnam, he said, and certainly more so than the migrants who came to America before the first transatlantic cable. The first settlers on Mars will trade video-mail with their families. “My parents have been comfortable with the notion for quite a while now,” Fagin said. “They know that they’re going to lose me eventually, because the planet is going to lose me.”
Late in the afternoon, once the presentations had wrapped up and the Martians were gathering for a postconference trip to the National Air and Space Museum, I found Lansdorp near the stage. He had just finished an interview and the camera crew was packing up. He seemed wearied by his publicity tour; his grins appeared forced when replying to questions that he had been asked again and again since the project was announced. “Saving humanity is not anywhere on my list of reasons to do this,” he told a small ring of reporters. “I started this because I wanted to go myself.”
Though he calls himself a lifelong Mars enthusiast, Lansdorp didn’t have the expertise to plan the mission alone. As a graduate student at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, he designed systems for a hypothetical space station, and that’s how he connected with Wielders, a payload study manager at the European Space Agency. “He knows about space, and I don’t,” Lansdorp said. Wielders told him that a one-way mission would be feasible, if they could raise a lot of money. That’s when the pair devised their plan to sell the broadcast rights and show the journey on TV.
Their concept has some flaws. Big-event programs make a lot of money, but they’re often brief and action-packed. (Lansdorp’s model, the Olympics, is a good example.) Mars One wants to run a show for decades, with most of the airtime in the next 10 years dedicated to the arduous process of crew training. What happens if networks aren’t interested in a multiyear commitment? What if no one likes the show? Or what if everything is going well, and then the colonists decide they want some privacy, and turn off the cameras?
“Saving humanity is not anywhere on my list of reasons to do this. I started this because I wanted to go myself.”
To work out the details, Lansdorp recruited the help of one of the biggest names in European reality TV: Paul Römer, the co-creator of the Netherlands’Big Brother. He emailed the producer blind, and heard back right away. (“What are the odds?” Lansdorp says. “You contact some media expert and he turns out to be a science-fiction fan!”) In June, Mars One signed a contract with Darlow Smithson Productions, a subsidiary to a company where Römer once served as chief creative officer. The show will document the candidate-selection process and could potentially air in early 2015.
As for the space technology, Mars One says nothing will be built in-house; Lansdorp wants to purchase all equipment off the shelf or develop it with private vendors. He expects to use an upgraded version of the Falcon 9 rocketproduced by SpaceX, and a landing capsule from SpaceX or Lockheed Martin. He’ll need a pair of rovers, too, not built for science like the NASA bots, but for moving Martian soil and laying sheets of thin-film solar panels, in preparation for the settlers’ arrival.
The Mars One timeline is ambitious—perhaps too ambitious. It’s not clear that Lansdorp’s contractors will be able to tweak their technologies (for rovers, life-support units, space suits, and so on) to fit the needs of the mission at the necessary pace. And given the expense of recent, much more modest missions to the Red Planet—Mars Science Laboratory, which involved landing only the Curiosity rover, cost $2.5 billion—Lansdorp’s projected price tag seems rather low. While Mars One won’t say how much money it has in the bank, the company does not appear to have raised more than a tiny fraction of what it needs. “At this moment, the weakest link is really the fund-raising,” Lansdorp said at the meeting. “If we had the $6 billion in the bank right now, I’m very convinced that we could pull this off. But to convince the people who have to give the money upfront to finance the hardware—that’s our biggest challenge.”
Even the attendees in D.C. had some doubts about Mars One. “We know this could fail. We know it’s a long shot,” one told me. But that’s not really the point. Lansdorp has shown that their path to Mars need not be blocked by budget-cutting bureaucrats. They don’t need to wait for guys like Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, or Dennis Tito, the millionaire who plans to mount a Mars flyby in 2021. Earlier this year, more than 8,000 people pledged $300,000 to Mars One on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. A few years ago, all these dreamers would have been alone in their frustration. Now they’re meeting up online and organizing conferences. The Martians have a movement, and it’s growing.
When I describe Mars One to friends, many seem to take it personally; they call the Martians lunatics or worse. They’re not unusual. On the Aspiring Martians Facebook group, knee-jerk hostility has been the subject of many long discussions. As one user wrote in January, “I’m sure I’m not the first one to have noticed that anywhere anything Mars One–related is posted, we’re told (in the comments) that we are crazy, wannabes, psychologically deviant, on a suicide mission, in for a rude awakening, the mission is a hoax, technology needed doesn’t exist, and, in some cases, that we deserve to die for participating.”
Lansdorp sees this too. There are some people who want to go to Mars, he said during the conference, and lots who don’t. “These people will never really understand each other.” But a simple lack of understanding does not explain the anger that emerges when the Martians share their dream in public. It’s not just that their trip seems difficult or crazy. It’s that they seem to be running from Earth. What’s wrong with our planet?, we want to ask. Life here isn’t good enough for you? Or perhaps it’s something personal: I’m not good enough for you?
“It has nothing to do with anything rational,” Lansdorp told me, when explaining why anyone would want to go to Mars. “It’s almost the same as love. You want it for some reason you cannot really explain, and sometimes one love is more powerful than other loves that you have.” Lansdorp began his project because he wanted to go to Mars himself, but now that he and his girlfriend are expecting a child, he says he has given up the idea of going first. He doesn’t want to miss seeing his child grow up. “But I do understand there are people who would do that,” he said.
The desire to go to Mars is “almost the same as love. You want it for some reason you cannot really explain.”
I wouldn’t leave my girlfriend, either. When I look into the sky, I feel only wonder—a movement of the mind, not of the heart. But as we spoke, I thought back to a Q&A I’d once attended with the astronaut Michael J. Massimino. Someone asked him what it’s like to take a spacewalk and see the Earth from far away. He said it was the most amazing sight he’d ever seen, but that it also made him deeply sad. Why? Because he knew that he’d never have the chance to share the vision with the people he loved the most.
In that light, a one-way trip to Mars made a peculiar sort of sense. An astronaut doesn’t abandon his family, and choose another, greater love to take its place. Instead he ventures into outer space on their behalf, on behalf of everyone he leaves behind, no matter the physical or emotional cost. The would-be Martians talk of sleeping under double-moon-lit skies, but they also know that they’ll be as alone as any human beings in the history of time. And that’s precisely why their journey matters, for us as well as them: They’ll live on Mars, so the rest of us don’t have to.
Just before I left the conference, I met another Martian, Leila Zucker. She’s a physician in her 40s, happily married, yet inclined to set it all aside. “I can work to make things better on Earth while I’m here,” she told me, “but I could work to make things better on Earth while I’m on Mars. The idea that I’m running away or something . . . no, I’m not. People who think that are small-minded and scared. The whole idea is to expand the human race.”
Earlier she’d spoken on a panel, taking questions from the crowd. “None of us are planning to die, but all of us recognize that we could,” she said at one point. “You don’t get my life for nothing, but I will give it up because this is my dream.” Then, as the session drew to a close, she abruptly began to sing: “I wanted to go to the Red Planet Mars/but I didn’t get picked by Bas/I wanted to go to the Red Planet Mars/now I gaze longingly at the stars/But I don’t care I wasn’t picked for space/I’m cheering for the future of the human race/Someday we’ll all go to the Red Planet Mars/’Cause Mars One leads the way to the stars!”
When she sang the last two lines a second time, all the other Martians joined in.
This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Popular Science under the title “Bas Lansdorp Has A Posse.”