Why over 1,000 people are competing to go to Mars – and not come back

Mars One, the Dutch nonprofit planning to put a human colony on Mars in 2025, has whittled its applicant pool to about 1,000 people hoping to give up their Earthling-status, for good. 

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Mars One, the Dutch nonprofit planning to put a human colony on Mars in 2025, announced on Monday that it has whittled its applicant pool to about 1,000 applicants to be among the first astronauts to trade in their Earth citizenship for a – permanent – Martian residence.

The 1,058 Martian hopefuls, selected from about 200,000 original applicants, will go through several more application rounds before Mars One will select just 24 people for what is to the applicants the ultimate prize but is for others a nightmare of cosmic proportions: the chance to go live on Mars, with absolutely no chance of ever coming home.

“For people who don’t want to go to Mars, it’s almost unimaginable to them why anyone would want to go to Mars,” says Bas Lansdorp, co-founder and CEO of Mars One.  “For people that do want to go to Mars, they can’t imagine that anyone wouldn’t be interested in going to Mars.”

“These people will never understand each other,” he says.

But Mr. Lansdorp is counting on the non-Mars-goers at least wanting to watch the Mars enthusiasts get to the Red Planet.

Mars One’s grand mission, which the nonprofit expects to cost about $6 billion, is expected to be financed in part from the sale of the broadcasting rights to air the foundation’s process: the future selection rounds, the hoped-for triumphant launch to Mars, and the probably dramatic saga of setting up home on the Red Planet. The idea is that Mars One’s venture, broadcast around the world, will be “everybody’s mission to Mars,” says Lansdorp.

At the moment, Mars One has offers from “two major TV studios” to buy those rights, he says, adding that the details of the coming selection rounds will be released after a contract is signed. Since it will take more than just television dollars to get the still sci-fi colony off the ground, Mars One is also in talks with a “major investment firm” and several corporations, Lansdorp says.

As Mars One’s funding scheme in large part depends on audiences and television ratings, its business model has often been called reality show-like in style. In the first application round over the summer, which drew 202,586 would-be Martians, some applicants had billed themselves as proverbial Adam and Eves, prepared to inaugurate a new human civilization, albeit in a thoroughly un-Eden-like world. Others, perhaps in the mocking gesture, or maybe in an attempt to appeal to reality show casting mentalities, made their pitches in nude videos.

But Mars One is less interested in reality show contestants than astronauts with the watchable-ness factor of Olympic athletes, says Lansdorp, who points to broadcasters’ revenue from televising the Olympic games as evidence for the feasibility of his business plan.

 “In the Olympic games, we see extraordinary people do extraordinarily difficult things,” says Lansdorp. “We’re looking for the same type of people. We’re looking for serious applicants who want nothing more than to go to Mars."

And Mars One’s applicants are serious.

“The people who think that going to Mars would be a nightmare obviously aren’t volunteering,” says David King, 25, a craftsman based in Brooklyn, NY, and a second round applicant. “But there are people who want to go, and I’m one of those people. There are people willing to put themselves out there for the greater cause.”

The biggest percentage of Mars One’s second-round applicants are Americans, with others coming from Canada, India, Russia, and China. The contestants are overwhelmingly young, with more than 70 percent under 35 years old (the minimum age is 18). Almost all are employed or in school.

Above all, Mars One was scouting for applicants that appear capable of handling the possible mental trauma of spending their entire lives in confined spaces with just a small group of people from whom it will be impossible to escape, the foundation says.

“It’s important to be with people you can actually talk to and who you generally don’t want to kill,” says Lauren Reeves, 30, a comedian based in New York City who is among the short-listed applicants.

Ms. Reeves says that though she would be “sad to leave” Earth, she is fully committed to getting to Mars: “I would hate myself for saying no to it, for not being bold enough to go.”

Lansdorp, who has a girlfriend and a three-month-old son, is not among the applicants.

“I’m certainly not qualified,” he says. “I’m not able to be in a small group in a small space for a long period of time, without things escalating.”

Plus, “my girlfriend is very fond of Earth,” he says.

Mars One plans to announce its selected six teams of four astronauts in 2015, two years later than it had originally said it would. The astronauts will spend 10 years in training before the first team leaves Earth – for good – in 2024. The next team will follow two years later, and so on. If all goes well, Mars One will cull for more applications.

The first humans on Mars will live in inflatable domes, called “habitats.” To shield the residents from radiation, these domes will topped with several meters of soil. These enormous dirt piles are not shown in mockups of the prospective Martian colony, though, since “it makes the drawing very boring,” says Lansdorp. “It would be just a sand dune.”

While Earth-bound audiences wait, and wait, to see inflatable domes on Mars, the foundation is offering another mission to watch. Earlier this month, the company signed contracts with aerospace companies Lockheed Martin Corp. and Surrey Satellites Technology to undertake concept studies for a 2018 mission to send an unmanned lander and orbiter to Mars.

The foundation has billed the 2018 mission, for which it is raising funds on Indiegogo, as a demonstration of capabilities to fulfill its bigger ambitions, a sort of proverbial stepping-stone in a great leap for prospective Martians.

“It’s very normal to be skeptical about a Dutch nonprofit that wants to get humans to Mars in 10 years,” says Lansdorp. “But we don’t see any hurdles that we believe cannot be overcome.”

“This is one of the great things that’s left to be done,” he says.

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