Sun, Sep 02, 2012 - Page 14 News List

Dutch reality show to offer one-way tickets to Mars

Although many are skeptical about sending a group of humans to spend their remaining days on the inhospitable Red Planet, the show’s idea is causing an interplanetary buzz

By Nicolas Delaunay  /  AFP, THE HAGUE, The Netherlands

A handout photo obtained on June 21 from Mars One shows an artist’s rendition of a settlement on Mars.

Photo: AFP / MARS ONE

As the world marvels at the latest US Mars landing, a Dutch start-up is aiming to beat NASA at its own game by sending the first humans to the red planet — and film it all as a reality show.

The big hitch: It is a one-way trip.

Fact, fiction or publicity stunt from the land that launched reality TV? The start-up, called Mars One, says it is dead serious about landing four astronauts on Mars by 2023, seven years ahead of the US space agency’s target, and plans to start the search for volunteers next year.

Experts are skeptical, but Mars One has won backing from none other than Dutch Nobel laureate Gerard ’t Hooft, who won the 1999 prize for physics.

“My first reaction was: ‘This will never work.’ But a closer look at the project convinced me. I really think this is possible,” ’t Hooft said.

No one has yet tried to put humans on Mars and scientists question whether radiation exposure would even allow people to survive the trip. As for space agencies’ attempts since 1960 to land unmanned craft, only about half have succeeded, with the US in the clear lead. And although there have been a number of successful missions — including NASA’s Curiosity rover, which landed on Aug. 5 to hunt for signs of past life and prepare for a possible human mission — scientists have no way, yet, to get spacecraft back.

Sound discouraging? Not to the man behind Mars One, mechanical engineer Bas Lansdorp, 35. He estimates its pricetag at a hefty US$6 billion, more than twice the US$2.5 billion for Curiosity, and said the idea for financing came after talks with Paul Romer, one of the Dutch creators of Big Brother, the first reality show in 1999 that was a smash hit and spawned versions, and big profits, worldwide.

“Funding will be made possible through the media spectacle built around the adventure,” he said.

For Lansdorp, “the conquest of the red planet is the most important step in the history of mankind,” even if he concedes that many aspects of Mars One are still uncertain.

Among these are the ethics and legality of asking people to finish their lives in outer space, under TV scrutiny.

Other critics say Mars One seems more focused on the funding side — rather than the feasibility — of the project.

Under Lansdorp’s plan, choosing and training the astronauts, their months-long space journey and their lives on Mars would all be televised — along the lines of Big Brother, where a small group is isolated in a house and constantly filmed by TV cameras.

The Dutch engineer, who previously worked in the field of wind power, has teamed up with a physicist, an industrial designer and a communications specialist. They would run the operation, he said, and technical aspects such as building a space ship and living quarters on Mars would be outsourced to the companies that were “most qualified.”

He has even drawn up a schedule. Selection and training of astronauts is set to start next year, then modules for the space station, food and robotic vehicles would be sent between 2016 and 2022.

A first group of four men and women would set foot on Mars in April 2023, Lansdorp said, with others to follow until there was a colony of 20 people a decade later. They would mainly conduct scientific experiments, notably looking for signs of life, like Curiosity. On a planet with an average temperature of minus 55°C, whose atmosphere is mainly composed of carbon dioxide, Lansdorp said oxygen would be produced from water found below Mars’ surface.

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