Science

Goodnight, Mars

A gorgeous, tragic plan to colonize our galaxy comes to an end.

An animated concept of Mars One's future settlement on Mars.
An animated concept of Mars One’s future settlement on Mars.
Mars One

Mars One Ventures, the company behind an improbable plan to colonize the red planet via global reality show, confirmed last week that it is now in bankruptcy. News reports of this demise brought on a whipping storm of schadenfreude: The “Fyre Festival of Space”—as several outlets called it—had been canceled before liftoff. “It was terribly mismanaged, shortsighted and possibly even fraudulent,” said the New York Post. “The false promise is over,” added Forbes.

Forget the fact that Mars One failed; I mean, we all knew that it would fail. The mission, which aimed to send four amateur astronauts on a one-way trip as soon as 2023, never really had a chance. Its projected budget of $6 billion was always risible, and many of the technologies that its organizers intended to deploy simply don’t exist and may not for many decades yet. Still there’s something strange and sad, I think, about the glee with which this week’s news has been received, as if Mars One and its adherents had been dealt a necessary comeuppance. This was not a swindle based on sleight of hand. It was a gesture of prodigious and preposterous ambition—a beautifully stupid idea, really, that should be missed now that it’s gone.

The recent sneering comparisons of Mars One to the Fyre Festival fiasco—and by implication, of Mars One CEO Bas Lansdorp to federal prison inmate and convicted Fyre fraudster Billy McFarland—only help to illustrate this point. It’s true that both were wild whiffs ginned up by their founders as dreams that could be peddled on social media. Both Lansdorp and McFarland hoped that once they had enough publicity, the other obstacles they faced (insufficient money, impossible logistics) would disappear. But in every other way, and in all the most important ways, the two endeavors could not have been more different.

Fyre was a monument to status-seeking, greed, and Ponzi capitalism. Take the would-be participants, the suckers who signed up for McFarland’s boondoggle. The festival’s attendees were, by most accounts, well-heeled millennials seduced by viral clips of supermodels drinking on a sandy Caribbean island that was said to have belonged to Pablo Escobar. They got lured into buying tickets to this nonexistent luxury resort, and reserving rooms in imaginary houses, so they could party in paradise with some bands that weren’t really booked.

Mars One applicants, by contrast, were never soaked. Yes, there was a fee for entry into the process of astronaut-selection—between $5 and $75, depending on their place of birth. Beyond that, Mars One raised money from its fans via sales of (real) merchandise, or by asking them to donate to the cause. At one point the project managed to raise more than $300,000 from individuals on Indiegogo, to fund a satellite mission that was supposed to launch in 2018 but never took off. I guess you could label the project a scam solely on the basis of these facts. (Many have.) But as the website Inverse pointed out last year in an in-depth piece about the project, if Mars One really was a “money grab,” it did “a hell of a bad job” at generating booty.

An early sketch of Phase A of Mars One's mission design.
An early sketch of Phase A of Mars One’s mission design.
Mars One

Here’s another interpretation: The “Aspiring Martians” weren’t really dupes. Sure, they’d been pitched on something notional—a trip to Mars without a blueprint. But the sketchiness was well-established, not some hidden grift. Back in 2013, when Mars One still was pretty new, I spent some time with members of this group. As far as I could tell, not one imagined that they’d signed on for something fun or safe or even altogether reasonable. They knew the sand on Mars would be grim in its ubiquity; that the air would be unbreathable; that the solar radiation and the winter freezes would be treacherous; and that they may not ever get to face these circumstances, anyway. They didn’t care.

It didn’t seem to bother them too much that the mission of Mars One was so likely to miscarry. “Everyone who is a fan of space travel has learned to live with disappointment,” one applicant told me. “That doesn’t mean you don’t try.” Even if it never launched, the project was exciting—a bold attempt to change the conversation around a trip to Mars. The U.S. government has been making promises of such a mission, and breaking them, for years. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush promised that we’d soon establish a colony on the moon, “and then,” he said, “a journey into tomorrow, a journey to another planet, a manned mission to Mars.” Democrats shot down the plan without delay. Bush’s plan was a “daydream,” said Al Gore, then a senator from Tennessee—“a daydream about as splashy as a George Lucas movie, with about as much connection to reality.”

This history of failure has continued in the years since, as BuzzFeed’s Dan Vergano has chronicled. In 2004, President George W. Bush laid out another plan for getting astronauts to Mars. President Barack Obama had one, too. Shortly after taking office, President Donald Trump offered NASA “all the money you could ever need” to make the Mars trip happen while he was still in office. Told that this could never happen, Trump appears to have moved on.

Absent federal investment, any hopes of getting humans to the red planet has been passed off to millionaires and billionaires, Dennis Tito, and Elon Musk. If Mars One had a deeper purpose, it was to make this project democratic—to rescue Martian exploration from the crude arithmetic of politics, and the whims and vanities of wealth. It aimed to fuel the trip with grass-roots biodiesel, in the way TV-show superfans might try to force a canceled series back to life. This wasn’t just a mission; it was a movement.

As a movement, it succeeded. Even if their rocket never flew, Mars One volunteers had the chance to make connections with their peers. Some, like Boston-based selection-process finalists Yari and R. Daniel Golden-Castano, fell in love and got married. To me the sweetest, saddest thing about Mars One was its very premise: that we may sooner get ourselves to space through Facebook groups and meetups and enthusiasm than any government investment.

No one paused last week to mourn their poignant optimism. Instead the nation paid tribute to the robot rover Opportunity, now “dead” or dormant in the Martian soil. But our tears for Oppy should be wiped away. Studies of the planet via robot will continue in the years to come: A different, better rover has been on Mars since 2012, along with a burrowing mole-bot that landed last November. NASA plans to send yet another rover in 2020, along with a third from space authorities in Europe. The age of exploration via remote-control is still very much alive.

We will continue to study Mars. Perhaps one day we will even get there. But the real death this week was of any hope for near-term human settlement on another planet. Mars One may have been a pipe dream from the start, but at least it was a dream. For now, at least, that’s over.