I'm Sending Four People to Mars for the Rest of Their Lives
Nov 23 2012
Space travel has always been tainted with a few big, unavoidable problems for me. The first is that I spent all three years of my university career occasionally learning what Foucault thinks about reality television, rather than anything vaguely scientific that would teach me how to launch myself through earth's atmosphere without dying immediately. The second is that everything is just so staggeringly, unfathomably far away. The half hour commute to work is bad enough; three days to get to a pretty nondescript floating hunk of rock just seems pointless and like a massive waste of time that could be spent not crowded up in a little shuttle hurtling through the sky.
Although, I suppose if there was an exciting prospect at the end of the journey I wouldn't mind so much. Like a new, ready-made home for me to spend the rest of my years, for example. Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp is going to be furnishing those exact dreams with his Mars One project, which aims to build a liveable settlement on Mars, before sending four humans to live there for the rest of their lives in 2023, followed by more batches of people as the years go on, living there for the REST of their lives.
Besides that minor detail, his project is remarkable in that it aims to raise the majority of its funding through creating the biggest media spectacle the world has ever known – covering every stage of the project and allowing viewers to vote on who gets to take the trip – rather than relying on governments and having to deal with any kind of political interference. I met Bas for a drink to talk about his plans.
VICE: So tell me what sparked this whole idea of sending people to live the rest of their lives on Mars.
Bas Lansdorp: I was originally inspired around 15 years ago when the first rover landed on Mars. I basically thought it'd be much cooler if humans were walking up on Mars, rather than the machine. I always wanted to go myself and knew I didn't stand a chance if I went through the normal NASA or European Space Agency (ESA) procedures, but I kind of forgot about the idea when I started studying mechanical engineering. Then, a few years later, someone told me that the Americans were planning a one-way trip to Mars – which is so much more feasible than a return mission – so I decided to drop everything and go for it.
What were you doing at the time?
I was working at a company, but I sold half my shares to get things going. Then John de Mol, the inventor of Big Brother, told me I could finance the project through the media, so I thought 'I really have to take this chance now.' I mean, it's extremely complex, but I have to take the risk and do it.
Yeah, it's interesting that you're planning on funding the whole project with media money.
Well, we have other revenue ideas, of course, but yeah – we need to finance a lot of things before we can send any humans out to Mars and creating a media spectacle is a good way to do that. I'll just add that it's not my main goal to create a media spectacle, though. There are much easier ways of doing that than sending humans on a one-way mission to Mars.
Ha, yeah I assume there probably are. How much is it going to cost?
It's going to be £3.8 billion to set it up, then another £630 million for each one of the four astronauts. I initially thought that number was unrealistically high, but the International Olympic Committee had a revenue of one or two billion pounds for one three-week-long event, so that's half a billion a week, which makes our numbers not look too bad.
Literally everybody who has access to internet or TV will watch it and, by that time, nearly four billion people will have the internet, so imagine being the brand that sponsors an event like that. You'll immediately have the biggest name on the planet. It's a lot of money, but I'm very entrepreneurial and also very down to earth, so I wouldn't do it if I didn't believe it was possible.
Cool. So what's the process? What's being sent up first?
We've got a demonstration mission in 2016 to show the technology that we've purchased, which is where we'll send a communications satellite to Mars, then, in 2018, we'll send a rover up to find the best location for the settlement.
What factors determine a good place for a settlement?
It's got to be north enough to have a good amount of water crystals in the soil and south enough for the solar panels to be effective. It's gonna be on the northern hemisphere because the seasons are less extreme there. But it's also got to be as low as possible in altitude, because Mars has a very thin atmosphere and the lower down you go, the more time you'll have to slow down and land safely.
And everything is going to be ready built for the humans' arrival, right?
Yeah, everything will land in big pre-built components that will be assembled by the rovers. There'll be two capsules for the life support system, two capsules for the living units and two capsules with supplies.
Nice. Is it right that the astronauts are being picked with a lottery system?
No, that was just something some news show said. The way we're doing it is to have our experts determine who's suitable from those who apply, then we'll ask the audience who they want to send to Mars. The people picked will be the world's first ambassadors to Mars, so it's important that the general public have their say.
What would be your perfect candidate?
Well, when I started, I thought we'd need doctors and engineers, but the most important thing is actually the person's personality. You need someone who's capable of sitting in a very small vehicle for the seven month journey, then able to cope mentally with leaving earth behind. The medical and engineering aspects are obviously very important, too, but we'll train them in those for the eight years before they leave, so it's the personality that's the most crucial thing.
An artist's impression of the rovers building the capsules.
What happens if two of the astronauts have a baby, or something?
Well, that's not the goal. We're putting people up there, but they'll be largely responsible for their own actions. Because of the time difference between Earth and Mars, it's not like we'll be able to say, "Pick up that rock" or guide them through stuff in realtime, so they'll have to be responsible.
And any responsible person knows that Mars – with only three other people for company – probably isn't the ideal place to have a baby. The means to get a baby into the world will be there, though, and the long-term goal is create an outpost where that could happen – maybe when there's 20 or 30 people there.
So you eventually want to start a whole new Martian society?
Yeah, that should be the goal. We want to establish a small self-supporting society on Mars that doesn’t need the Earth anymore. Although, it's such long-term planning that it's not really something you can keep under control, so we'll have to see.
Do you want to go and live on Mars eventually?
I wanted to. I talked to our medical director, Norbert Craft, though, and he said I don't have the patience or the calmness to cope. I'm the architect and the entrepreneur, not the right person to actually go on the mission, but I will be extremely, extremely jealous when the first four people leave.
An artist's impression of what the settlement will look like in 2023.
One of my friends put his name down for it. He's always wanted to live in the remote Scottish wilderness, so I suppose Mars would be an even better alternative.
Oh, cool. We just got a bid from an investor, so we're getting really close to signing contracts with our suppliers. When that happens, we think we'll be far enough along to start selecting astronauts.
Nice, I'll let him know. Lastly, what's your personal mission with this? Scientific discovery? Moving the human race forward? Or just leaving your mark on the universe?
Somewhere in the middle, I suppose. I’m interested in the science – I mean, imagine if we found life on Mars. We don't know how much life there is in the universe, let alone on our neighbouring planet. And who knows – it could even bring us closer to understanding the history of the solar system and where we all come from. Of course, the prospect of putting humanity on a different planet is also just breathtaking. It seemed incomprehensible to me before, so my biggest motivation at the moment is to achieve sending the first ever people to Mars.