The Martians

Unfinished business with some dreamers of the red planet dream

The Annual Mars Society Convention at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC is maybe the only place in the world where it isn’t weird to say that human beings will be living on Mars twelve years from now. Where it isn’t weird to say that you wouldn’t mind never seeing anyone you care about ever again if it meant getting a seat on a one-way mission to its frozen, barren surface because you already mainly communicate with people over the internet, so being alone forever in space would be no big stretch. Where it isn’t weird to say, “This is going to happen soon,” when all available literature says that that is not the case. A successful manned mission to Mars is, by NASA’s most optimistic estimates, coming no sooner than 2050, if even then. A recent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel report expressed very deep scepticism that the agency is meaningfully prepared to meet even that lofty goal with its current levels of R&D investment.

With each blade of grass on the tree-lined campus grounds minutely manicured and unseasonably pleasant and mild August weather in the Capitol, this was the bucolic backdrop against which various people presented talks about recycling their own urine and eating nothing but insects for the rest of their lives, and somehow 3D-printing habitats made of fiberglass mined from the Martian surface. About super-intelligent robots yet to exist and exoskeletons that astronauts will wear on the radiation-rich surface and how drones are “the next big thing for Mars.”

The air is thick with the camaraderie of people who have traveled vast distances to commune with their fellows who share—and more importantly, understand—their dream of getting people to Mars. It almost feels like summer camp, with snippets of excitable conversations heavy with technical jargon overheard at every huddle in the hallways and around the merchandise tables where people mill between the four days’ worth of panel events.

I’d traveled to DC to cover a public debate between MIT researchers Andrew Owens and Sydney Do and Mars One’s CEO Bas Lansdorp, over the Dutch not-for-profit attempting to get people to Mars by 2025, despite mountains of evidence suggesting the impossibility of the task. All of it I’d reported in a series of stories for Matter. This coverage, which had, among other things, exposed Mars One’s lack of funding, expertise, personnel or anything else required to launch the first successful manned deep space mission, had drawn a fair amount of attention and made me a very unpopular presence at a conference populated almost solely with diehard space travel enthusiasts, specifically a sizeable global contingent of Mars One’s supporters, who had come on their own dime to spread their enthusiasms.

The debate was more a demolition than a discourse, the MIT team calmly presenting an iron-clad case which patiently and clearly demonstrated the fatal flaws of Mars One’s plans. Mars One has long claimed the wildly implausible price tag of six billion dollars for their mission, stating that it would be so many hundreds of billions of dollars cheaper than NASA’s estimates because the journey would only be one-way; so much cost saving when you don’t have to bring people back! The company was also claiming to pay for this through advertising garnered by a reality television show broadcasting, somehow, 24/7 from the surface of Mars, something it now denies was ever its intention despite hundreds of reports reiterating that exact press release. MIT proved that a one-way mission is in fact endlessly expensive, with no budget cap: if people who had successfully been piloted to Mars were actually living there, they would have to be resupplied for the rest of their lives just to keep them alive, something requiring dozens of successful launches of resupply missions, each to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.

Lansdorp did not engage with any of the criticisms MIT presented, answering none of their specific queries, rather giving vague, inspirational platitudes, invoking JFK as an appropriate comparison to himself and blithely admitting in an audience Q&A after the panel that Mars One is out of money.

Later that evening I compared notes with a small group of fellow science reporters, one of whom incisively resented being sent to cover the debate at all, when it was not, in fact, a rigorous interrogation of ideas as presented by equals, but a stagey presentation to bring attention to the conference. Mars One should not be sharing a stage with aerospace researchers from MIT; it was a charade that should not be entertained.


Mars One’s story is really one about the contemporary media—the contemporary tech media on the internet in particular. It was so easy for them to run what is, at base, a publicity campaign for a non-existent space mission because there is so little scrutiny of incredible-sounding claims when churn is your constant deadline. Mars One knew that if they came up with a sexy enough slogan—“200,000 people volunteer to go one-way to Mars!”—it would quickly gain viral traction. And it did. For almost two years that outright lie was re-reported at hundreds of outlets (the program received closer to four thousand applicants), and occasionally continues to be, even after having been thoroughly debunked. For the writer I was speaking to, it was further proof of the problem that her publication sent her at all.

Later I spoke with an editor at a different publication who proposed the clearest explanation I’ve heard for why there is so much sloppy and bad science reporting, which is that, broadly, most journalists have a liberal arts background, not one in the sciences (including ourselves in this designation). As a result there can be a largely unchecked reverence for claims coming out of a field that reporters aren’t expert in, and the more complex the claims coming from what appear to be sources of authority, the less likely they are to be rigorously questioned. When you take away the option of time for meaningfully investigating the claims in a ceaseless publication cycle, the fertile fields of bullshit from which something as preposterous as Mars One can spring have been sown.

I’d met up with Owens and Do for lunch in the campus cafeteria where their frustrations at having not been met by the opposing side with the same rigor they employed in their debate presentation were obvious, but their professional demeanors so practiced they would not let anything slip. For Do, the international press attention on the paper has been so intense that responding to it all delayed his graduation. Owens said they never anticipated anywhere near the level of attention and undertook the study just as they would any other experiment as part of their PhD completion: to add to the public literature on the viability of Mars missions. Both were clearly offended by the pervasive hatred for NASA that permeated much of the conference and the insinuation that they twiddle their thumbs, “too scared of risk” while we could be living, right now, on Mars under some terraformed dome eating 3D-printed meat, if only there was the wherewithal to make it actually happen.

“That’s offensive to us,” Do said. “Anyone working in space exploration today is standing on the shoulders of giants.”

There was a strong support for disruption of the space industry among many of the other attendees, where the same Silicon Valley logic is at work to try and make things happen faster, cheaper, and sooner, no matter how great the risks or the cost to anyone’s livelihood. There was also a strong hatred of perceived elites that was palpable. A lot of the support for Mars One seems to be driven by these impulses: why it is only all these people with PhDs and decades of fighter pilot experience and extraordinarily high IQs who get to go to space? Why can’t it happen now? Why is everything taking so long? Why can’t it be me?

After that lunch I was cornered by half a dozen Mars One candidates and supporters—an even mix of women and men—who wanted to talk to me about my coverage of their passion project (“Wow, I thought you would be so mean,” is a compliment I take with relief). We find a quiet place in a corridor of the glass-walled building overlooking the chessboard grass. After a time Bas Lansdorp walks by, tall and lanky and pale and thin, saying to his charges, “Hi guys!” to which the candidates all reply, “Hi Bas!” as if in the presence of a rock star. He takes a seat at the far end of the corridor while his documentary crew sets up to interview him.

Sitting on armchairs and in a circle on the carpet, the candidates and I quickly come to heated disagreement over our differing viewpoints. They seem to very much want to get me, and every journalist, onside because they firmly believe that only positive media coverage will ever get the public to support a Mars mission. Any time I press them for details on where they will be trained, or where the money will come from, or where the rockets are that are going to safely get them there, the conversation devolves into comparisons between colonizing the old world, and arguments for there being no harm in what they are doing. Sometimes they will admit that Mars One’s previous attempts to skew the truth have not helped them, have in fact been a PR disaster, but that they were necessary to get people’s attention. In some particularly lucid moments they admit that the timeframe is woefully unrealistic, that nowhere near enough technical details exist yet—it’s only a plan! Subject to change!—and that Mars One could very likely not be the entity to land a human on Mars; but at other times are confident their people will be there in twelve years from now.

The candidates—who are all extremely friendly, polite, inquisitive by nature and uniformly very, very bright—reiterate that what they care about most in the whole thing is for people to be passionate about science. For kids to dream of colonizing space. For people to just realize how important that is, and to understand that they are volunteering for the program and are fully aware of everything that goes with that. No one is getting hurt, it’s their choice to put so much of their energies into Mars One, that they volunteer their own money and their own time because it’s what they want to do and for no other reason.

These are all reasons I’ve heard many times before, and many of them come straight out of Mars One’s candidate media training video which had been leaked to me by a source. But none of this answers for me the question that sits at the heart of this whole foolhardy endeavor, which is why? Why is this so important to so many people, to get to Mars? If the planet were even marginally further away from Earth than it is, the feverish dream of putting people there would not figure anywhere in popular imagination because it would be impossible to reach it. There is nothing about Mars that makes it a plausible alternative to life on Earth, it will never meaningfully sustain a population of human beings whose biology has evolved over millennia to live only on Earth. And yet despite these clear examples of what is likely impossible, it inspires devotion in people like few other things. In what is now years of following this story, I’m no closer to being able to answer this question than when I began. Mars is like Everest, people want to conquer it because it is there. It’s an endeavor that to me seems to always come back to the same two impulses; one is for glory and the other is for escape.

“If you want to write about space exploration,” one Mars One supporter says to me, looking me square in the eye, “you have to agree that what we’re trying to do is a good thing.” In the end, we all as amiably as possible shake hands and say goodbye and wish each other luck, and in my case, I really mean it.

Driving back to New York from DC through some of the most brutalizing traffic I can recall, more than seven hours on the clogged roads take me through outer DC, Baltimore and Delaware, past some of the most severely depressed and poverty-stricken parts of the country. I’m trying to parse the heavy psychic pall the last two days have cast over me. I think of Lansdorp saying from the stage that all it would take to get a handful of people to Mars would be for everyone in the world to give a few dollars. And it is this, I realize, that is what enervates; getting people into deep space is just not a priority for most people on Earth who have far more pressing survival concerns than for it to ever even cross their minds once in their lifetime.

Slowly passing rows of boarded up houses, fenced in by semi-trailers spewing exhaust, rolling into ever deepening potholes, it’s pretty clear how badly we have screwed up down here. The most often repeated reason for why we need to go to Mars that I heard and read over the last two days is that we need a back-up planet. This is said with no hint of irony but with a truly urgent fear.

“We do things not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” Lansdorp had quoted JFK from the stage in an attempt to paint his vanity project with gravitas. As hard as getting some billionaire to brand a planet with their corporate takings would be, what would truly be hard, and what no one in these circles seems meaningfully interested in addressing, would be giving up everything that has brought us to here. The hardest thing in the world would be to remake this one, not to leave it behind.


All Dressed Up For Mars and Nowhere to Go

Elmo’s original reporting on Mars One for Matter (since then bought be Medium) caused quite a stir. It’s a wild and detailed read, meticulously documenting the challenges inherent in any Martian adventure.

Elmo Keep also writes in this issue on CRISPR technology and transhumanism.

One day we will leave this planet behind, and perhaps there’s no harm in dreaming about that. As Elmo argues, though, the challenge of saving it is greater and more exciting. Our legacy on this planet should be more than just dust and ruins. The Mars One story was easy fodder for a content-hungry, pop-science-loving media, but as with all of her writing, Elmo’s argument here is to put the science first, not to be led up seductive paths by those with a great tale to spin — AR

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