LAST month, the Mars One project briefly captured the imagination of the Filipino people when it was revealed that two of their compatriots, Minerva Rañeses from Pasig City, and US resident Jaymee Orillosa del Rosario, had made the shortlist of 100 candidates vying for a chance to be among the first human colonists on Mars.
This month’s revelation is that the neither of the two ambitious Filipinas, nor for that matter anyone else, is going to Mars – not before the end of this century, possibly not ever, and definitely not as part of the Mars One project.
When it was first announced in 2012, the Mars One project sounded like a great idea. Mars One, a Netherlands-based group comprising a businessman, an engineer, and a psychologist, proposed a so-crazy-it-might-work plan: to send 24 adventurers on a one-way trip to the red planet using technology developed by the private sector, with funding for the project – an initial price tag of $6 billion was suggested – to be generated from the revenues of a reality TV show that would follow the drama of the prospective colonists’ training and eventual journey to Mars.
As of this month, however, the dream seems to have all but died.
Although Mars One received serious criticism early on – popular science guru Neil de Grasse Tyson practically developed a stand-up comedy routine about it, and the project was dismissed as unrealistic by such luminaries of space exploration as Buzz Aldrin, John Young, and Chris Hadfield – it did generate some public conversation, and earned the cautiously hopeful support of a number of scientists and engineers, among them theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Gerard Hooft, who signed on as a scientific advisor.
Beginning with a discouraging research study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the 65th International Astronautical Congress in Toronto at the end of September – a study which essentially concluded that the best-case scenario would see the erstwhile colonists suffocating to death about 68 days after landing – the initiative has unraveled. Endemol, the production company responsible for Big Brother, has dissociated itself from the project after having failed to find a network buyer for the proposed Mars One reality show. Rumors are rife that the Mars One group is on the verge of bankruptcy, and while the group naturally denies this, it is obvious that funding has proven difficult to find; a crowdfunding campaign to raise $400,000 last year was quietly ended after it stalled about $90,000 short of its goal.
The final nail in the coffin might be the public statements of one of the “finalists,” astrophysicist Joseph Roche, who is a professor at Trinity College and former NASA researcher. Roche has described a “selection process” for the 100 final candidates in which his only personal interaction with the mission’s medical chief was a 10-minute Skype call, and bluntly writes the whole thing off as a scam; the finalists, he says, are those who have donated the most money to the project.
While even ardent supporters of the Mars One quest acknowledge that the mission, contrary to its initial claims, will not be possible without the invention of some new technologies, the whiff of scandal will probably chase away any remaining interest in the project. As the MIT study explained, some fundamental parts of the plan – such as the design of the heavy-lift rocket needed to haul the tons of equipment and supplies the colony will require – are largely imaginary. The 68-day lifespan estimate made by the study comes from the non-existence of another critical bit of technology, a system to safely remove excess oxygen (produced by the colony’s plants and toxins in high concentrations) from the colony’s atmosphere.
With the loss of the project’s primary source of funding, other investors will undoubtedly regard Mars One as a losing bet. Writing for Medium last November, Elmo Keep elegantly summed up Mars One’s dilemma:
“There is the small problem of not having the money until you have the show and not having the show until you have the technology and not having the technology until you have the money and possibly not having the technology in time, or ever, which is why, Mars One says on its website, the schedule is flexible.”
Technically, never describes a point on a schedule, too.
Despite being an embarrassing flop – the whole thing seems more like a really poorly conceived idea than a scam – Mars One is not completely without value. Naïve as it was in detail, the general plan is not beyond imagination. Nobel laureate Hooft, who has since parted company with the project, says it might be realized in 100 years, not 10, but like almost all the rest of the scientific community, also expresses conviction that not only will it eventually be realized in some fashion, it should be.
And while the number of applicants was nowhere near the 200,000 claimed by Mars One (an MSNBC investigation determined the number was closer to 2,800), the project still attracted an encouragingly large number of skilled aspirants, such as the aforementioned Dr. Roche.
Even the funding concept – a reality show – while utterly distasteful to many in the scientific community, is actually not a bad idea; the reason Mars One’s pitch did not attract a buyer, it has been suggested, was simply the enormous uncertainty about whether the mission would ever get off the ground, and not any misgivings about whether or not people would watch it.
What Mars One really accomplished was to demonstrate that, in some circumstances, the private enterprise model for space exploration and other forms of highly advanced applied technology actually does work. The free market knows a bad investment when it sees one; Mars One, being that bad investment, exposed all the traps and pitfalls the next ‘Mars One’ will need to avoid.