200,000 brave and/or insane people have supposedly signed up for a one-way mission to Mars. But the truth about Mars One, the company behind the effort, is much weirder (and far more worrying) than anyone has previously reported.
By Elmo Keep
Illustrations by Josh Cochran
Photographs by Daniel Boud
When Josh was 10 years old, he sat cross-legged on the floor in his parent’s neat, suburban home in Australia, enraptured. It was May 1996 and Andy Thomas had just stepped out of the space shuttle Endeavour and onto the tarmac of Runway 33 of the Kennedy Space Center. In his flight suit, bright orange against the blue of the sky, he talked in his clipped and measured British-sounding tones about seeing his hometown of Adelaide from the God-like vantage of space. These TV images would stick in Josh’s mind like gum to a boot sole.
Andy Thomas was just like Josh, Josh reckoned. He was an Australian. An Australian who’d made it all the way to NASA. Who’d been to space and back. And everyone in the world, it seemed, wanted to talk to him about it. If Andy Thomas had done it, then Josh could do it, too. That could be Josh someday, speaking before the world’s media, beaming out of everyone’s television, one of just over 500 people to ever leave the orbit of this planet. In that moment Josh wanted only one thing out of life: to be an astronaut.
Josh is now 29. He has been a member of the Royal Marine Commandos. An engineer. A physicist. A blast specialist, a mining technician, and, briefly, a scuba instructor. He’s worked for one of the most famous artists alive. He was also a stand-up comedian—he plays Keith the Anger Management Koala, a foul-mouthed, sociopathic character in a furry suit, who provides Josh a remove from himself to exorcise a few of the demons he’s been carrying around. It’s a pretty weird show.
One day in 2012, Josh was sitting in an Edinburgh Starbucks, feeling down, when he came across a call for volunteers for a fledgling space program; the application process would be open soon. There was just one catch. The mission was one way.
This was his shot. This was big. This was it. All these years, fostering that childhood dream. Finally, his life was going to change forever.
When the time came, Josh filled out the form. Could he describe a time when he had been scared? A different time when he had been stressed? Why was it important that the mission be one way?
He paid the registration fee, uploaded a video explaining why he should be chosen for the mission, and hit send.
Then he waited.
Mars One, a private, not-for-profit company, registered in the Netherlands, might have come to your attention when it announced via press release that it had received over 200,000 applications for the chance to be the first human being on the surface of Mars.
Despite not being a space-faring agency, it claims that by 2025 it will send four colonists to the planet. Ultimately, it says, there will be at least six groups of four, a mix of men and women, who will train on Earth for 10 years until they are ready to be shot into space strapped to a rocket, never to return.
It estimates the mission will cost only about $6 billion, tens if not hundreds of billions less than any manned Mars mission so far proposed by NASA. Mars One openly admits that it is “not an aerospace company and will not manufacture mission hardware. All equipment will be developed by third-party suppliers and integrated in established facilities.” That’s how it will keep costs down, by outsourcing everything to private enterprise.
It is, essentially, a marketing campaign with two goals: first, to raise enough interest among the global community in a manned Mars mission so that crowd-funding and advertising revenues will be generated to the tune of billions of dollars; and, second, to use this money — largely to be raised through a reality television series documenting the training process and journey to Mars from Earth — to pay for the mission itself.
The mission is open to anyone in the world who wants to volunteer. These people don’t have to have any special qualifications whatsoever; they need only be in robust physical and mental health and willing to undertake the mission at their own risk. As the proposed program progresses, they will have to prove themselves adept and nimble learners, able to amass an enormous amount of new practical knowledge, not only in the high-pressure intricacies of spaceflight, but in learning how to perform rudimentary surgery and dentistry, how to recycle resources, how to take commands, and maintain a harmonious team dynamic for the rest of their natural lives.
Two hundred thousand applicants would seem to suggest that the plan has solid legs — a staggering number of people willing to sacrifice their lives on Earth to take part in an open-source, crowd-powered, corporately sponsored mission into deep space. A huge amount of interest in this endeavor clearly demonstrated right off the bat.
If only any of it were true.
There have been 43 unmanned missions to Mars so far. Twenty one have failed.
Mars is freezing, minus 62 degrees Celsius on average, although on a hot midday, at the equator, during summer, it can get up to 20 degrees Celsius.
It is barren, free of geological features other than its frozen ice caps, vast deserts, and enormous mountain peaks.
Mars is not close.
Mars has almost no atmosphere, burned off over billions of years by solar winds, leaving the surface exposed to deadly amounts of radiation. Roughly every five years, the planet is blanketed in a dust storm that blocks the sun for months at a time.
For the Mars One colonists this would be home, with no way back. Forever.
Josh lives on the other side of Australia from me. The flight to Perth is almost as far as from New York to Los Angeles. As the hours pass, the plane crosses over the great expanse of the Nullarbor Plain, which forms part of the huge and arid desert taking up most of the country’s interior. Inland are the monoliths of the ancient Petermann Orogeny, Uluru and Kata Tjuta; the Great Sandy Desert; the Pilbara and its billions-year-old rock formations; the Wolfe Creek meteorite crater; the lands and 150 languages of the world’s oldest native people, Aboriginal Australians. Finally, Western Australia: The continental shelf it sits on has barely shifted in the past four billion years, making it a portal through which scientists can peer at the earliest incarnations of the Earth.
Josh’s parents’ property, on the outskirts of Perth, is on a long narrow road and looks directly over a large lake, glinting silver in the distance under the midday sun. Josh let me in, made me a coffee, and left me to wander the patio while he took some phone calls. Josh is prone to self-deprecating remarks, and punctuates his sentences with a hard, cackling laugh. He’s wearing an ensemble favored by many Australian men, even in the middle of winter: shorts, sneakers, and a hoodie. His hair and beard are both shorn short against his skull, and right away his internet handle I’ve been seeing in all our correspondence going back six months makes sense: The Mighty Ginge, local slang for redhead. He seems like a tightly curled power cord.
When Mars One announced that it had received 200,000 applications from around the world, Josh’s heart sank. That list was sure to include a ton of fighter pilots, ex-space agency engineers, private space company employees, scientists, geologists, people with Ph.D.s and genius IQs, even Nobel laureates — literally thousands of candidates far more qualified than Josh was. So when he found himself on the shortlist of people who were ready to live out their days on the lonely surface of Mars, he was shocked, to put it mildly.
Before he’d applied for Mars One, Josh had met a girl at the Redhead Days festival in the Netherlands. Eli did not have red hair, but was brunette; Josh was drawn to her easygoing demeanor, her effortless good moods, and they fell very much in love. But a shot at Mars would be a serious, life-changing turn of events, and Josh knew that he would have to fully commit if he was ever going to make it to the final selection. He didn’t even wait for the application deadline to break it off.
“I couldn’t maintain a long-term relationship knowing how much I needed to commit to this,” he says. “I’d be a pretty shit boyfriend if I was stopping her from meeting other people. I had to make a decision that I had to give up relationships generally in order to be able to do this. I had to choose Mars over her.”
“I don’t think it would be fair if I told him no,” Eli says now. “And then he’d have to choose and it would be a lose-lose situation. Either he would pick me and resent me at some point maybe, because of the choice he had to make. Or if he picked Mars One without me being on board with it, it would also be lose-lose. So now as it is, it’s a bit shitty, to be honest. It’s not a perfect situation.” For Eli, they are always tied together, Josh and Mars.