Sometimes, the underdog really does win against the odds. Sometimes, a small, plucky band of visionaries, armed only with a dream, really can rise to dizzying heights and reshape the world into something better. Sometimes, the success is so profound and transformative that later generations think it was inevitable all along.
Mars One was not one of those times.
Between 2012 and 2015, Bas Lansdorp’s startup Mars One rose to sudden prominence, armed with guts, entrepreneurial spirit, and a bold plan to land colonists on Mars by 2024. It was a media sensation. Thousands volunteered to be astronauts, and the company raised (possibly) millions in revenue, with more expected as operations ramped up. For a fleeting moment it seemed that this newborn company was about to shape the future… and then everything fell apart. Mars One faded into obscurity, its timeline continually pushed back to ever-more-remote years, until in 2019 it died with a whimper in a Swiss bankruptcy court. Today, we will explore what went wrong.
Mars One existed in a particular moment. For the first time, private spaceflight was emerging as a serious competitor to the stodgy, stagnant government sector, and the sky was the limit as entrepreneurs promised ever-more-ambitious schemes. SpaceX had already sent an unmanned Dragon capsule to the ISS; further afield, the company Space Adventures tried to sell tickets for a Moon flyby, the Golden Spike Company was working on a lunar lander, and Elon Musk vehemently advocated for Mars, though at that point BFR/ITS/Starship was well in the future. People were looking to private space to do what NASA couldn’t.
Enter a Dutch businessman, Bas Lansdorp. In 2003 he graduated from the University of Twente with a master’s degree in engineering, and for the next five years he worked on his PhD, until he dropped out to found the successful wind energy startup Ampyx Power. This venture made him moderately wealthy, enough to start Mars One in 2011. He had dreamt of space since his youth, and his big idea was to cut out one of the expenses that had so far stymied previous Mars proposals: bringing the astronauts back. This was to be pie-in-the-sky colonization scheme, intended to kickstart a multiplanetary existence decades ahead of any reasonable schedule. It would rely on the untapped potential of crowdfunding and modern multimedia to get off the ground. So with his small team, mostly marketers and IT specialists, he put together a plan, made promotional materials, and prepared to unveil his grand scheme in the summer of 2012…
The project sparked considerable discussion the moment it went live. Plenty of laypeople, accustomed to NASA’s flags-and-footprints approach, could not fathom why someone would actually stay on another planet. Who could possibly give up family, good food, and walks on the beach? What about the risk of a deadly crash? More valid1 criticism emerged from within the technical fields, where plenty of engineers and researchers were skeptical of the timeline, technology, and fundraising scheme.
Mars One’s proposal was centered around the establishment of an ever-growing colony somewhere on the Martian surface. Details on its location are sparse, as are most other aspects of the design. But Lansdorp did successfully create a roadmap for the conquest of the Red Planet. Unlike other space programs, his would outsource all of the technical work, relying on various spaceflight companies to produce hardware. This was supposed to keep costs down, but it also meant there was little technical expertise within the organization.
2016 would see the first launches: a communications satellite bound for Mars orbit, and a lander based on the successful Phoenix probe2. In 2018, they would send a rover to scout out the final colony site. Another rover, optimized for construction tasks, would go up in the 2020 launch window, alongside the six lander modules that would make up the initial base. By 2021 everything would be ready for the first crew of four to undertake the dangerous trip out to Mars, and settle into their new home.
The astronauts themselves were to be chosen by a long, elaborate, and widely televised program of selection and training. Anybody could sign up, between April 22, 2013 to August 31 of that same year. A whopping 4,227 submitted the full application within the window; there was then a winnowing process, comprising a medical screening and a brief interview, and on February 16, 2015, the company proudly announced the names of the Mars 100, fifty men and fifty women who would go on to train at a mockup outpost. Since Mars One never completed any hardware, or even technical studies, this was actually its greatest achievement before fading into obscurity.
But let’s step back into fantasy land for a minute. The four colonists on the first flight were only supposed to be the tip of the iceberg. Four more would go to Mars during the next launch window, and four more after that, with one mission every two years pretty much indefinitely. Supply launches would also ramp up, as a growing base would require exponentially more provisions. At some point this was supposed to result in a self-sufficient city on the Martian surface.
Now, there is a salient question here: what on Earth was the price tag for all this? Bas Lansdorp fixed the cost of the mission at six billion dollars, at least through the first manned flight. His plan to raise this amount was, astoundingly, reliant on reality television, using the model of the Olympic Games3 to create a worldwide media event of unprecedented proportions. It was a dubious business model, for sure. But there were even worse red flags…
Mars One’s tragic nemesis (besides reality itself) turned out to be some graduate students from MIT. Towards the end of 2014 they published a feasibility study, operating off the scarce details provided in press releases and concept art. The results were not encouraging. For starters, Mars One had drastically underestimated the necessary supply mass, so setting up the outpost for the first crew alone would take fifteen Falcon Heavy rockets instead of six. Launch costs accordingly ballooned to $4.5 billion, three quarters of the entire budget. Issues compounded once the hypothetical colonists landed on the surface; while the plan called for them to grow food in situ, the outpost design didn’t have anywhere near enough surface area, and the crops would produce dangerous amounts of oxygen in such an enclosed space.
Then there was the debate, held in August 2015, between two Mars One representatives—including Lansdorp—and two of the MIT researchers. Robert Zubrin4 moderated. The researchers attacked without mercy, criticizing the technical feasibility, the cost estimates, and especially the lack of any sort of plan, and Lansdorp’s response was just to concede most of their points. By his own admission, Mars One was waiting on a contractor to develop the actual outline of the mission. His proposal featuring the construction rover and Dragon capsules was more of a rough concept, really. The price tag really would be much higher than $6 billion. What was important, though, was the dream—and they would figure that out, somehow. Altogether, the debate was an unmitigated disaster. While Mars One had never been taken very seriously, this destroyed any residual credibility it might have had within the spaceflight community.
Accusations of fraud also proliferated. These were common as early as 2012, and became ubiquitous after the design flaws became clear to everyone. Was Lansdorp just trying to swindle credulous space enthusiasts? It didn’t help when stories got out of astronaut candidates being encouraged to buy merchandise to improve their chances. By the end of 2015, Mars One was no longer an idealistic underdog, but a possible scam—when it was mentioned at all.
2016 and onward saw a long, ignominious decline. Investors stayed away, and there was little media coverage, cutting off Mars One’s already fickle income stream. With no money even to fund the precursor probes, its schedule slipped. The date of the astronauts’ departure retreated faster than the years were passing. As of the last update, in 2018, humans would set foot on Mars around 2032—not far ahead of NASA’s target.
Mars One’s final news release was on May 28, 2018. Bas Lansdorp last posted to Twitter on November 1. In the content of the posts themselves, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Just celebrations of minor accomplishments, such as a Mars 100 contestant appearing in a commercial, or a presentation delivered to thirty people at a Dutch innovation expo. It was a company trying to show a smiling face on its slide to oblivion. By January, bankruptcy negotiations had begun, and the court soon dissolved Mars One in its entirety, leaving behind about a million dollars in unpaid debt.
Lansdorp has kept a low profile ever since. I can’t find a trace of his whereabouts anywhere. Strangely, the Mars One website remains online and mostly functional, bedecked with artwork dating back to 2012, featuring articles that refer ever-optimistically to probes, landers, and colonists yet to fly. It’s like a mausoleum, a digital ghost of one man’s monumental vision.
Cynics write him off as a scammer, who never had any intention of going to Mars in the first place. I’ll admit that that’s possible. But there was never a smoking gun, nor can anybody read another’s mind. My own inclination is to give Lansdorp the benefit of the doubt, and imagine him as an idealistic visionary, a dreamer of other worlds, who got in over his head and underestimated the vast challenges standing in the way.
It’s not just an academic matter to me. For a time, I too believed in Mars One—I was a freshman in high school, a spaceflight fanatic desperate to see human feet tread the sands of another planet, and I hoped against hope that this wild new venture would succeed, even if my gut told me it was beyond far-fetched. I made donations with my limited allowance money; I bought a beautifully illustrated concept sketch poster, which hung on my wall for many years. The drawings I’d create in my school planner showed a vision of the heroic future: spacesuit-clad pioneers building and mining and exploring, outposts cropping up all across the endless red desert, the frontiers of the human mind soaring ever-outwards on the winds of destiny.
It may still happen. All this time, I have failed to discuss the elephant in the room, which is Elon Musk, SpaceX, and a far more sensible plan to settle humans off-world. We will see how that turns out; it’s certainly worth multiple blog posts. But even if SpaceX succeeds, and Musk has his million people on the Red Planet, Mars One will remain a valuable cautionary tale—illustrating the cost of letting your dreams so massively outpace reality. It is a good and noble thing to soar towards the Sun, but sometimes we must accept the risk that our wings will melt and we will plunge into the sea below.
Thank you for joining me this week, friends. Until next week.
- I jest here, but only partially. Criticisms of Mars One on ethical grounds tended to come from a place of excess caution, perhaps cowardice, with many commentators severely undervaluing such virtues as ambition, curiosity, courage, and sacrifice. Not everyone wants a cushy life. Some crave adventure, and want to expand humanity’s horizons into the great unknown. I, for one, probably would drop everything and embark on a dangerous trip to another planet, if I had the chance—though I am not remotely healthy, skilled, or fit enough for space travel.
- While Mars One’s lander never got beyond an abortive contract with Lockheed Martin, the general design of Phoenix really did fly again, in the form of the successful and still-operating InSight lander (also intended for launch in 2016, but pushed back to 2018). Note that InSight cost NASA a whopping $830 million, almost a sixth of Mars One’s budget.
- What Lansdorp didn’t realize was that people are dumb, preferring to watch a bunch of randos whack things with sticks rather than witness an epochal moment in the conquest of space. Your average young person would show interest in the Mars mission for about ten seconds, maybe twenty, and then return to TikTok or emojis or whatever nonsense kids are up to these days.
- He was actually on Mars One’s board of advisers, which surprised me. He’s a famous name in the spaceflight community and his endorsements are no small matter.
- As reported by The National News in the UAE.