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Crowdfunding the Way To Mars

The NGO launching its ambitious quest from New Zealand to avoid the politicisation of space.
Mars. Our new home? Image via Flickr. 

It's long been a fantasy of humankind to ditch this planet and move to another. In the period following the first manned moon landing in 1969, this looked like a distinct possibility. Mentally, we had all packed our bags and were ready to set up shop on Mars, where we would carry on in a very futuristic manner with jetpacks and so on. Since then, however, the fantasy has sort of fizzled out. The reality of space travel now is all about satellites, space suits, and official government business that we wouldn't understand; we have to make do with Star Wars.


Enter Charles Polk, an economist and ex-aerospace engineer, who is now the general manager of The Martian Trust. Pitched as a sort of intergalactic National Geographic Society, the trust aims to bring space exploration back to the people, initially sourcing the capital for its missions and research through crowdfunding before moving into co-branding exercises with commercial firms. Furthermore, the trust will be based in New Zealand. It all sounds very odd, yet strangely feasible. Polk believes that when humans head to Mars, they'll be going together, and they might be departing from New Zealand.

VICE: Hi Charles. What is The Martian Trust?
Charles Polk: It is an NGO with the goal of funding and organising Mars exploration, particularly exploration dealing with life; both life that may have evolved there, and whether or not humans may live there.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I grew up in Nevada during the Apollo era, the moon programme, and it definitely struck my fancy on several levels. I became an aerospace engineer. I was working on the shuttle programme back in the mid 80s and I became intensely aware of just how misdirected US and other space programmes were. It got me thinking about how you might put a more cost-effective and technologically effective pursuit of the goal together, and that's where The Martian Trust was born.

You've said that The Martian Trust is designed to be quite similar to the subscription and philanthropic-funded model of the National Geographic Society.
That's an entity that was created back in the 1880s to fund exploration and research through a media-driven revenue model, but you've got to advance it to the current era. In fact, it was the lack of an easy way to connect together 100 million space enthusiasts which had me put the idea in the freezer for a while. But fast-forward 20-something years and the idea of networking together 100 million people is, well, passé. I mean, it's easy. So the idea of The Martian Trust is to say: wait a minute! Let's step back a moment and ask what can a 100 million people do.


Where do you get that "100 million people" figure from?
Sales of science fiction, ticket sales for space-themed movies… if you look at something like the attendance at a Comic-Con. The 180,000 who attend are the sharp end of a wedge, and you can extrapolate and get back numbers that are in the 50-200 million range.

Why base the organisation in New Zealand?
If you were to domicile this in the US, the Chinese government and citizens, the Russians and so forth, might very well think that it's a shill for the US aerospace industry. The US would think the same thing if you domicile it in Russia or China; you cannot do this in any country that has a major aerospace industry. You must do it in a country that has the kind of stability that you can imagine for a long-lived private foundation. This is a multi-generational activity, okay? You cannot do that in a country that is politically unstable. You've got to do it in a country which has a good reputation; you don't want to do it in a country that half the world dislikes.

So you see New Zealand as a likeable country.
Yeah, I don't think anyone will dispute that. It's also a common-law country, it rates very well in the quality of governance, in the ease and fairness of doing business, and we have a very nice tax status through an interesting aspect of the Royal Society of New Zealand. It's also an excellent bridge nation between Europe, North America, and developing Asia.

Will you be creating jobs for New Zealanders?
We already employ several people as contractors down here, and I'm not counting the lawyers and accountants. Beyond that, there will be quite a few jobs.

The concept of leaving earth seems to be generally accepted. Why should we be given the opportunity to screw up another planet?
It's a natural expression of human activity. Firstly, let's take as given we've done a pretty good job of screwing up this planet. If Bangladesh is really under the risk of flooding out, all of the global turmoil that is going to be caused by this, people are going to start talking about geo-engineering. Do you really want earth to be the first planet we try to terraform? That's a severe case, and not one I particularly subscribe to, but particularly gung-ho space enthusiasts make that case. The other case is: we know that Mars was earthlike, and we know that it has gone through absolute hell in the last three billion years. It went from warm and wet, decent atmosphere, a lot of flowing water—a perfect environment for simple life to form—to a desiccated, very sparse atmosphere. Mars is the bad ending of a planet, and understanding how that story played out could be very valuable.

Wanna go to Mars? Or help someone else get there? Donate to The Martian Trust here.

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