Red or dead? Mars One boss Bas Lansdorp

Despite sceptical media, a lack of cash and no spacecraft, Mars One boss Bas Lansdorp remains convinced he can pull off a plan to send a team of Earthlings on a one-way trip to the Red Planet
Red or dead? Mars One boss Bas Lansdorp
By Sarah Townsend
Fri 24 Apr 2015 02:00 PM

One imagines the proponent of a privately funded one-way trip to Mars to be outlandish, bullish — even cocky. Yet Bas Lansdorp seems curiously vulnerable. During our meeting the slight, 38-year-old Dutchman perches stiffly on his chair with the nervous expression of somebody expecting to, but hoping he won’t, be attacked.

His countenance is less surprising when you consider the grilling he has received from sceptical media. For example, two months ago, the UK’s Daily Mail pulled to shreds his plan to create the first human settlement on Mars, and jokingly questioned whether Lansdorp himself was a Martian.

“Getting a straight answer from Bas Lansdorp is at times like interviewing a Martian — you wonder what planet he’s from and whether he’s really understood what you’ve asked him,” the scathing reporter wrote.

Despite his apparent timidity, Lansdorp is disarmingly resolute in his responses to the long list of questions I put to him. He dismisses all criticism of and perceived flaws in his plan, and says he remains convinced it will go ahead.

There are glimmers of insight — for example, when he admits that his girlfriend has taken a fair amount of persuasion to get on board with the idea. “She thought like everyone when I first started the project that it seemed almost impossible.

“Now it seems [to others] that it might just be possible, and she is going through the same process as everyone.” Fortunately, he adds, “it is my job to convince the public, not hers.”

However, he takes that job so seriously it often feels as though you are speaking with a media-trained automaton. His well-prepared answers, designed to reassure the public he understands the risks involved in such a venture while also dispelling claims that it is utterly impossible, make for a somewhat rigid conversation — until he cracks at the end and glibly tells me, “I’m going to kick you out now,” for asking too many questions.

Lansdorp co-founded his company, Mars One, with Dutch physicist Arno Wielders in 2011. They announced plans to establish a human colony on Mars, and, in 2013, launched a search for volunteer astronauts to undertake the seven-month trip to the Red Planet and be the first humans to settle there for the rest of their lives — Mars One does not intend to bring these volunteers back to Earth after they arrive.

Earlier this year, the company selected its first candidates for full-time training ahead of the proposed voyage in 2024. One hundred people from across the globe were selected from 202,586 first-round applications; by mid-2016 if all goes to plan the number will be whittled down to 24 and split into small groups that will spend the following eight years preparing for the mission. Just four will make the first trip to Mars, with plans to send four more every two years.

Lansdorp says extensive research and development is taking place in the meantime, to place a satellite into Martian orbit by 2018; complete an unmanned mission to identify a settlement location by 2020; conduct the tests to ascertain what life support the astronauts will need to survive on Mars, and build the actual rocket that will blast them on their way.

However, scarcely any research has been completed in the four years since Mars One unveiled its plans. A lack of funding, no spacecraft and no formal support from NASA have been cited by critics as reasons why the voyage is unlikely to go ahead as planned — and the reassurances Lansdorp gives are vague.

Firstly, space engineers Paragon Space Development Corporation was scheduled to publish a study on behalf of Mars One into the life support requirements of humans on Mars last month. Lansdorp says he has read the report and it is being prepared for publication, but at the time of going to press it had yet to materialise. He will give no hint as to its contents other than saying that “systems have been identified for human life support in Mars”.

In the meantime, Mars One came under fire from PhD students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who published a report in February concluding that the voyagers would perish within 68 days “if they did not use local resources [such as water, nitrogen, soil and so on]”. But Lansdorp appears unperturbed. “Of course you would use local resources,” he says, adding: “I don’t need to counter a report by PhD students. Our own report, by expert engineers, has come up with very good solutions for all the issues identified by MIT. There are always solutions, and better solutions.”

Secondly, first-round investment was secured in 2013 for a contract with aerospace giant Lockheed Martin to develop an initial concept study for the unmanned probe, but further work is needed and Mars One has yet to secure the funding to commission a second contract. A spokesperson for Lockheed Martin told Arabian Business: “Currently, we are not under contract to Mars One. We are waiting to hear from them for the initiation of a follow-on contract to continue the formulation of the un-crewed lander mission.”

Lansdorp says funding is the reason for the delay. He has been quoted in the past saying the entire mission will cost $6bn. It was widely reported that he funded much of the first stage himself — publicity, branding and initial contracts. However, he says now that the first investment round between 2012 and 2013 attracted several private individuals “seeking a romantic return on investment” from such a bold vision.

Mars One closed a second investment round in November, he says, “but it is taking time to complete the paperwork needed to get the money in the bank”. When pressed, he reveals that there are only two second-round investors — one asset management firm and an investment bank. He will not disclose how much money has been raised but says he is “negotiating with a number of other parties that want to join the current deal, because as long as the money has not yet been transferred it is possible for them to do this.” I put it to him that he does not in fact have sufficient funding to continue with the project unless others come in, but he denies this is the case. He also insists it is becoming easier to get investors on board as time goes on, despite there being no concrete progress to demonstrate. “Our business case is clear: investors will get an ROI from the extremely valuable media exposure — and Google hits — of a never-been-done-before human mission to Mars. This is one of the most ambitious projects of all time and when we explain our plan to potential investors they are really impressed.”

However, the original 2018 date of the unmanned probe has been pushed back to 2020 as a result of the funding delay. “For Lockheed to stick to the original timeframe we should have got them back to work by the start of this year. Now the possibility has eroded.”

He says the unmanned mission remains “top priority” for Mars One. But another crucial source of funding was intended to be a multimillion-dollar deal with Endemol, the Dutch TV production company behind Big Brother, which was to produce a documentary series about the Mars One selection process and even film the astronauts as they journeyed into space and began their life on Mars. But the deal fell apart last year.

Lansdorp says Mars One is in advanced talks with another production company but he cannot disclose the details until a secondary deal with a broadcaster setting out format and transmission terms is in place. “I can tell you they’re not Dutch,” is all he will say, riled as he is by negative press reports describing the mission as ‘Big Brother on Mars’.

Was filming the potentially tragic story of humans being wiped out within months of arriving on Mars too distasteful even for the company that introduced low-budget reality TV on to our screens 15 years ago? “No!” he cries, becoming animated. “When you think about the Apollo moon mission the most important thing that came out of it was the story. The story of humans taking a huge risk, leaving Earth, walking on a different heavenly body and coming back safely; the recorded footage, with the words of Neil Armstrong and images of the moon buggy hopping over the surface. That’s the real value and what we want to achieve with our Mars mission. Not Big Brother.”

It is presumably the same motivation for the huge number of people who put themselves forward for the mission. Among the shortlisted candidates were five from the Middle East, including two from Dubai. Lansdorp says a fatwa imposed in 2014 banning Muslims from applying because it would contravene to a verse in the Quran that says, “do not throw (yourselves) with your (own) hands into destruction”, has been quietly lifted — “possibly because of current planning and publicity for the UAE Mars probe,” he says.

One of the Dubai-based candidates, 38-year-old Mikolaj Zielinski from Poland, is present while the interview takes place, hovering in the background in a T-shirt emblazoned with Mars One branding. He is shy and smiley, and just laughs when I ask if he is excited by the prospect of going to live on Mars for the rest of his life. He laughs again when I ask if he is also “a bit terrified” — the answers evidently go without saying.

Mars One’s voyage seems all the more risky because it has no formal support from NASA (one of Lansdorp’s colleagues once worked there but that’s it). A NASA spokesperson says: “We have no involvement or insight into the Mars One activity. NASA is focused on our own journey to Mars — one that began more than four decades ago when our robotic explorers were the first to study the Red Planet.

“We continue to make important scientific discoveries that will one day pave the way for our astronauts.”

NASA is backed by the government and its Mars-focused Orion project has an annual budget of roughly $1.1bn. So what makes Lansdorp so convinced he can do it before them? “It’s not a comparable scenario,” he says. “Although our timeframe is more ambitious than theirs, we don’t want to go back. The one-way trip is already very difficult but the return mission is mind-boggling.

“Think about it: you send a rocket to Mars, it has to go through the vibrations of launch — 5-10 percent of rocket launches on earth go wrong for some reason, they explode, or their satellites are sent to the wrong orbit — and then it has to travel through space for seven months, go through all of the rigours of landing on Mars, wait there for years while a tiny team build a new ‘Cape Canaveral’ on Mars and launch it again with no support crew. A return is practically impossible! In the current risk-averse climate can you imagine NASA doing a one-way mission? Ours is in an order of magnitude less complex because we eliminate all of those steps.”

It is a huge responsibility to ship people to another planet that we know precious little about and potentially let them die there. How does Lansdorp feel about that? “First of all, it does still seem very far away. But recently there was an event where I was forced to think about it and [be] conscious of the responsibilities, and that was when the Virgin Galactic shuttle crashed in 2014. It was a similar project. A relatively small team trying to do something very difficult and someone dies. And that’s tragic. So I would feel the same if something on Mars One goes wrong.

“The only thing is to do everything in our power to make this mission as safe as possible, to limit the risks so if something goes wrong you know you have done your best. Beyond that, you just have to deal with it.”

Why isn’t Lansdorp going himself? “I’m a real entrepreneur. I’m impatient and stubborn and those are definitely the wrong qualities to be in the first team. I get annoyed by people much too easily. I also have an 18-month-old kid so would certainly not go at this moment. But if I were the right person I would go in a heartbeat. I wouldn’t doubt it at all because this is building the next steps for humanity.”

It could be difficult to find sociable, team players who are also prepared to leave their family and friends to live forever on the Red Planet, and Lansdorp will continue to face challenges in convincing people of the merit and logic of his scheme. “If this guy said he was organising a trip to Majorca on EasyJet I wouldn’t believe him,” said one commentator in response to the Daily Mail article. What can Lansdorp say to his sceptics? “It’s not ‘pie in the sky’, it’s ‘pie-oneering’! So far NASA has been the only entity to have successfully landed an object on Mars. If Mars One can be the first private company to do it that would be such a huge step.”

Finally, has he always been interested in outer space? “Yes, space technology, space Legos, that kind of thing.” But he insists he will not try to instill that passion in his child. “I think passion is immersed automatically and if you try to push it, you will achieve the opposite.

“Right, I’m kicking you out now.”

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