Mission to Mars
One of the most prominent of the new space entrepreneurs is Bas Lansdorp, the co-founder and CEO of Mars One, the Dutch nonprofit. He is a media magnet because of his outrageous plan: start sending humans to Mars in 2025. On a one-way trip. Financed by selling the media rights as a kind of interplanetary reality show.
Mars One’s initial call for crew reportedly received 200,000 responses; the company is evaluating 705 semifinalists. That response echoes the call by Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, for a million Mars homesteaders.
Based on the scope of Mars One’s plans, I was braced for a conversation full of ego and swagger. Instead I found Lansdorp thoughtful and logical, if predictably cagey regarding some details. His Mars One strategy begins not with shooting astronauts off into the unknown, but with the 2018 launch of an unmanned lander.
The probe will use the same proven structure as NASA’s recent Mars Phoenix and upcoming Mars InSight probes, as well as the same contractor, Lockheed Martin. Lansdorp points out that NASA has an 87.5 percent track record overall on the Red Planet. But he quickly jumps in when I describe the lander as a low-risk prelude to a crewed mission to Mars.
“A private-landed mission on Mars would already be a grand thing, even if there are no humans on board. Just the unmanned mission will be a gigantic step for commercial spaceflight,” he says. The financing is at least as big a challenge as the equipment at this first, crewless stage. Lansdorp has not revealed a budget for the 2018 lander, but the equivalent NASA missions cost about $400 million each.
Mars One produces essentially no revenue at this stage, so it is operating almost entirely on investments, sponsorships and donations. The lander has two spots for commercial payloads, priced at about $10 million per kilogram, and Mars One is open to corporate ads.
“We have keen interest from some very large organizations,” Lansdorp says cautiously. “We’ve always had the funding that we need to keep on the timeline.” The 2018 lander is the essential first step. It will establish if Mars One really has the money and know-how to operate a mission to the Red Planet. Once it arrives, the lander will test some of the key tech that Lansdorp’s engineers deem crucial for a human colony — most notably thin-film solar panels for electricity and an extraction experiment designed to draw drinkable water from the Martian soil.