- By Elizabeth F. RalphElizabeth Ralph is a researcher at Foreign Policy.
The past month has brought a flood of heady news for Mars enthusiasts. First, multimillionaire space tourist Dennis Tito launched his project to send two civilians on a 500-day fly-by mission to Mars in 2018. Since then, we’ve seen headlines about ancient Mars potentially supporting primitive life, robot lizards one day roaming the planet, and India and the United States collaborating on future Mars missions. "Even if it costs maybe a few million dollars a person to launch to Mars, a colony could be feasible," space entrepreneur Eric Anderson told James Fallows in the most recent issue of the Atlantic. "To me the question is, does it happen in the next 30 years, or does it happen in the next 60 to 70 years?"
Bas Lansdorp is betting big on something closer to 30 years — or even less. Lansdorp is the founder of Mars One, a Dutch company established two years ago with the aim of permanently settling humans on Mars beginning in 2023. And while his venture has gotten less attention than Tito’s, it’s no less ambitious: Mars One’s initial group of pioneers will be joined by new astronauts every two years until the settlement becomes a self-sustaining, self-propagating colony. It’s a one-way mission; the settlers who move to the frigid, arid planet will plan to live and die there.
Let’s just get this out there: Mars One is for real. Its list of advisors and "ambassadors" includes a Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist, an expert on international space law, and several current and former NASA researchers. And the wheels on the project have already begun spinning. Mars One recently contracted their first supplier, Arizona-based Paragon Space Development Corporation, to develop the space suits and life support systems that the settlers will use on Mars.
The meaning of "foreign policy," in other words, could soon get a whole lot broader in scope.
Lansdorp, a mechanical engineer by training, told Foreign Policy that he doesn’t have any political motivation for setting up a colony on Mars; it’s simply his dream to put humans on the planet (he himself won’t make the trip). But he says that there are as many motivations for exploring Mars as there are people on Earth.
So far, Mars One has received 15,000 emails of support from over 100 different countries. One man told Lansdorp that Mars One had inspired him to lose weight so that he could live long enough to watch the project unfold. An entire class of 11- and 12-year-olds at a school in Thailand submitted applications to be the first astronauts. "It was just for fun, but they were really thoughtful letters," says Lansdorp.
The company has also received more than 8,000 emails from people asking to be considered for one of the settler slots. Lansdorp expects the number of applications to exceed one million once the formal application process begins sometime in the first half of 2013.
Once Mars One has narrowed the applicant pool to suitable astronauts only (those who work well in groups and have qualities such as resiliency, adaptability, and creativity, while meeting certain age, medical, and physical requirements), the company plans to broadcast the selection process in 2014 through a series of reality television programs in which viewers around the world will select settlers to represent their countries (Lansdorp has not launched negotiations with networks yet). Ultimately, roughly 10 groups of four will engage in years of rigorous, full-time training — and only one of those groups will be selected to embark on the 2023 colonization.
If all goes to plan, the media spectacle won’t end on Earth — Lansdorp envisions live feeds from Mars of the astronauts venturing outside in their protective suits and working inside their habitat. But the settlers will still have a say in how much footage shows up in your living room. "We can try to document the experience," says Lansdorp. "But if the people on Mars don’t like it, they can just cover up the cameras."
The international scope of the project raises interesting questions about the legal system that will be enforced on the Mars colony. Since most of Mars One’s technology will be American-made (the United States is at the forefront of the world’s missions to Mars), Lansdorp reasons, the astronauts could be said to be living on "American soil," and U.S. law should govern.
But in practice, Lansdorp adds, governance will look more like it does on the International Space Station and at research stations in the Arctic, where a mission commander decides what flies and what doesn’t. In the event of a disagreement with the mission commander, "ground control" will moderate, he notes.
When there are just four people on the planet — all of whom have been training together for years — that system might work. But later on, as more people colonize the planet, will it hold? "We are on earth and they are [on] Mars," says Lansdorp. "And there’s millions of kilometers between us. So, at some point, the people on Mars are going to say, ‘We don’t care what you say; we’re going to do it our way.’ When this will happen we don’t know. It could happen when there are just 12 people; it could happen when there are 20 people; it could happen when there are 50 people. But at some point, they’re going to declare their independence." And, Lansdorp makes sure to point out, "I think that will be awesome."
According to the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs, Mars is open for exploration but not appropriation. "You can’t just fence off a big property and say ‘this is mine,’" says Lansdorp. But presumably, if the population on Mars continues to grow, someone will one day decide to fence off his territory. As Rousseau famously wrote in his Discourse on Inequality, "The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society."
Right now, Lansdorp is focusing less on what the Martian judicial system will look like and more on putting those first four people on the planet, which the company estimates will cost $6 billion. The primary challenge, he maintains, isn’t technological but financial. So far, Mars One has received small-scale donations from supporters in 50 countries; it has sponsors in Australia, Britain, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States. And it has two major investors — one from South Africa and one from the Netherlands.
believes he’ll get the necessary support. "We need to inspire people to believe that more is possible than we currently do," he says. "This will be the most exciting story ever to unfold. Nobody will remember who was the president of which country in 1,000 years. But in 1,000 years, people will still remember who were the first four people to walk on Mars."