The Early Failure of Mars One and Why it Matters

Just about a year ago, a little project called Mars One announced plans for what would be one of the most momentous events in human history. Its founders proclaimed that, in 2023, the organization would land four human settlers in humanity’s first ever colony on the surface of Mars. The first human landing would follow a series of robotic exploratory and pre-supply missions undertaken throughout the 2010s aimed at establishing a viable Martian base complete with living modules, food and water supplies, and solar panels. This would create a livable environment, prepped and ready for its first human occupants. These initial colonists would be joined by successive crews of settlers in subsequent missions, arriving every two years.

Project officials estimate that the entire undertaking will cost around $6 billion. So how is such an ambitious venture to be funded? The money, as befits a project of 2012, will come from reality television! More specifically, Mars One plans on turning the first human mission to Mars into the largest media event in history. As co-founder Gerard ‘t Hooft said, “This is going to be a media spectacle; ‘Big Brother’ will pale in comparison. The whole world will be watching and experience this journey.”

Audiences viewing the show will be able to elect potential candidates for the missions and interact with colonists at all stages of the project. Most importantly, and most strikingly, Mars One is financing a one-way trip. The first Martian settlers will be there to stay, meaning that the largest reality show in history will be left open with no end in sight. According to the organization’s master plan, the biggest issue going forth will be convincing potential investors and broadcasters of the technical feasibility of the venture. Beyond that, it’s all just a matter of advertising.

Fast forward to today, and the first stage of the project is coming to a close. The application period for Mars One is ending, and the potential names of Mar’s future permanent residences are in. The downside? Mars One fell short of its expected total applicant goal… by a lot. When the sign-up page opened in April of this year, the organization projected that at least 1,000,000 people would apply. In reality, that number was more like 165,000.

Group officials downplayed the problem, pointing out that 165,000 is still quite a large number of applicants. They remain confident in their timeline, standing by 2023 is the date for the first landing. Still, this under performance could throw off Mars One’s plans, as much of the project’s funding was expected to come from application fees. Organization press releases will doubtlessly remain positive, but it seems that an underlying problem with the group’s business model isn’t really being addressed. This has to do with both the nature of reality television and the public perception of space exploration as a whole. To illustrate this however, one must first take a look back to what many consider to be the pinnacle of the space age.

The moon landing of 1969 is regularly hailed as one of the greatest achievements in human history, and rightly so. The success of that mission showed how far humanity had come, as well as how many opportunities it had in store. Many observers today, noting the sorry state of human space flight, will often remark, “if NASA could only have the public support it enjoyed in the 1960s, we would have reached Mars and beyond long ago.” This image of national euphoria over the Apollo program remembers a public much more dedicated to the values of science and exploration. This image is also, as it turns out, patently false.

Throughout the 1960s, the Apollo Program was plagued by dissenters. Many derided the cost of the project, claiming that the billions spent on going to the moon could have been better spent fixing problems back home on Earth. Even after Apollo 11 returned home, polls showed that only 53% of Americans believed that the undertaking had been worthwhile.

Still, this shouldn’t be a problem for a private organization like Mars One, right? They’re not a government agency whose budget is held accountable to the people. No one who donated money to the project is going to be complaining when it’s a success, right? Well, that would be the case if Mars One was being funded by donations alone. The problem is that this venture is almost wholly dependent on public interest. By planning for an income based on advertising and exclusive broadcasting rights, Mars One really will have to create “the largest media event in history.” Unfortunately, this plan seems largely unaware of just how public interest works when it comes to space flight. In fact, this issue is exemplified quite well by the Apollo Program.

There’s no doubt that 1968 and 1969, the years of the first lunar orbit and lunar landing respectively, witnessed a surge of public interest in the space program. Everything from Neil Armstrong’s famous first words to Buzz Aldrin’s dance across the lunar surface was instantly ingrained in the public psyche. No doubt these are the kind of moments that Mars One hopes to achieve in its own time. However, what happened after the astronauts returned home is more telling than anything that happened while they were on the moon.

Almost as soon as they were back home, public interest in the program began to wane. Despite the momentousness of such a feet, it appeared that people could only get behind it once. Many forget that there were two moon landings in 1969. Apollo 12 followed the first just four months later, and even sent back the first color video from the lunar surface. News coverage was surprisingly apathetic, while total viewership had declined considerably. Successive Apollo missions continued to send back increasingly breathtaking video, and eventually the antics of the lunar rover as well. Somewhat disconcertingly, the only mission which succeeded in slowing the rapid decline in public interest was Apollo 13.

So what does this say about Mars One? It shows that a reality television show of the magnitude group officials speak of is not likely to succeed. This is not because of a lack of support for space exploration. No doubt there will be great public support for the project if it does move forward, and no doubt the first landing on the surface of Mars will be one of the most widely viewed events in history. The Apollo 11 moon landing boasted an audience of over a half-billion viewers, the largest ever up to that point. The problem is, this just isn’t going to cut it. The launch and landing of the first mission will certainly attract a wide range of viewers, but what about the decade leading up to that point? What about the nearly nine month-long trip between Earth and Mars? What about the indefinite time span following the landings? All of this runs up against the most fundamental problem of popularizing space.

Space travel is boring.

Now, this isn’t to say that space can’t be engaging. Far from it. The images of men walking on the moon or the view of Earth as a small, pale, blue dot from the camera of Voyager 1 are rightfully some of the most celebrated and universally recognized icons of human achievement in existence. Most people are enthralled by the idea of expanding human civilization into space. But that’s just it. The public is in love with the idea. It’s in love with the concept of interplanetary trade and off-world colonies. The fact that space travel is one of the most tedious and technical undertakings that science has ever attempted is something that most people just don’t think about.

The issue that can’t be avoided is that not much is actually happening during space exploration outside of the launch and landing. There is of course plenty of science, but this doesn’t exactly make for riveting television. After the first moon landing, the idea was realized, the moon had been reached. Beyond that, the other Apollo missions seemed to be less and less about astounding accomplishment and more and more about complex technical terms and baffling science that most viewers found wholly irrelevant. When NASA launched the Curiosity Rover towards Mars, they succeeded in capturing the imagination of the public with the famous “Seven Minutes of Terror” campaign, emphasizing the harrowing decent onto the Martian surface. After the landing however, public relations for the project failed to follow through, and all but the most dedicated space geeks lost interest.

Mars One expects to raise its funds simply by attracting an audience large enough. Based on history though, this plan is quite unlikely to succeed, no matter how slick the execution or inclusive the public participation. Officials for the project often point to the billions made in marketing revenue as a result of the 2012 Olympics. This may seem compelling, but it remains a false comparison. The Olympic broadcast was a three week-long program in which a wide variety of action is happening constantly. With Mars One, beyond the likely fanfare surrounding the initial launch and landing, most of the show will concern the comparatively mundane activities of pre-launch training and post-landing base operations. As the Apollo program showed, the fact that the action is taking place on another planet might not save it from falling out of general interest.

More importantly, the reason that people are so interested in the idea of colonizing space is the direct effect it would have on them individually. Most people don’t want to watch other people fly to Mars. They want to be able to fly back and forth at their leisure. They don’t want to hear about the technicalities of asteroid mining, they want to see shuttle-loads of minerals entering the market from off-world enterprises. When the public thinks about human spaceflight, they think ideally, not practically. This isn’t to underestimate people. It’s just in the nature of people to be more interested in tangible results than technical processes. This is why landings are popular, but not much else is. The first successful touch-down is the most tangible accomplishment of the entire trip.

So, in the light of Mars One’s underwhelming application turnout, what does this say about the future of space travel? The most important lesson to take away from this is that successful private ventures aren’t going to succeed because of public opinion. They’re going to succeed because of concrete economic success. This could be the prospect of resource recovery and commercial exploitation to the promise of space tourism. SpaceX will succeed because its cornering the market for private access to low-Earth orbit. Planetary Resources will succeed because it’s tapping into the near-limitless resources of asteroids. Reaction Engines Ltd. will succeed because it’s revolutionizing the way spacecraft themselves work.

What all of these companies have in common is a business model based on returning concrete products and services to its investors. While popular, they aren’t going to succeed on public interest alone. If Mars One were to embrace this, it might have a better chance. Perhaps it could advertise the abundant mineral resources recoverable from the Martian surface. Perhaps it could focus on eventually opening Mars to civilian colonization.

These things are what the public will be tuning in for, not for the long journey it takes to get there. Mars One isn’t going to succeed unless it recognizes that the excitement of space doesn’t come from the accomplishment, but from making it tangible for the average person. Though it may sound cynical, as much as people want humanity to get to Mars, it isn’t going to be enough to get there. They may not realize it, but it’s not Mars that they want, it’s what they can do with Mars. The Star Trek-esque dream of easy, well-practiced space travel won’t come about for its own sake. If groups like Mars one were to recognize that it isn’t the process that people want, but the result, the day that the dream becomes reality may be much closer than ever imagined.