Is The Media Event The Best Way To Fund Mars?

Image credit: Bryan Versteeg

While watching the live streaming for the recent Mars Society convention, I managed to relay a question to Mars One founder Bas Lansdorp: “What would you say to the people who claim that you’re going to put [television] ratings over picking the best team to go to Mars?” This has been my chief concern with the idea of using media events to fund something like a one-way trip to Mars. This is something that is actually going to affect people’s lives a lot more than becoming the latest reality show champion. The American Idol winners maybe get a record deal out of it, but aren’t talking about spending the rest of their lives on a virgin planet that is 225 million miles from home. I think a lot of the people kind of tune out when I mention the media thing because they’re thinking it will be Big Brother on Mars. Are they really going to tune in to a show called Mars One if they can’t get the reality show villain and all the drama of people who are always just about ready to pull one another’s hair out?

I’m almost sure that Bas Lansdorp tried to dodge the question. He talked about how you want to send four interesting people to Mars because these are people that successful candidates are going to be spending the rest of their lives with. I figure having interesting crewmates is fine as far as that goes, but I don’t want it to get to the point where I’m shoving somebody out of the airlock because they tried to create more drama when we already have problems. I’d rather have the boring crewmates if it means they can settle down and help me figure out why this alarm is going off.

At the convention, one person asked what might happen if there is a fire on the launchpad. Bas actually did a good job of fielding that question, even seeming open to the idea of having a backup team in case something happens to the prime crew.Hazards like a potential Apollo 1 style launchpad fire is exactly the reason that I don’t want the people who are only in it for their fifteen minutes of fame to hang around any longer than it takes to eliminate them in Rounds 2 and 3 of the selection process. It’s probable that most of that type were dumped in the Round 1 eliminations or dropped out once they had a chance for second thoughts, but there still may be one or two. They haven’t thought about the fact that they’re actually volunteering to put their lives on the line. The media aspect is like hanging up lights for your outdoor party so you can see after the sun goes down. Those lights are going to attract mosquitoes and now you have to put up some kind of repellent to keep the bugs away. We might die in a pad fire without ever making it to Mars and I’d rather it not be because some idiot who applied so he can be on TV dropped a cigarette butt in the wrong place.

For all that, the media events represent one of the few ways that a private organization can feasibly pull off a one-way trip to Mars without begging for tax dollars. Mars One is currently in negotiations with a private investment group to pay for the first unmanned mission that will send a lander to Mars in 2018. This is the lander that will carry a few scientific missions to Mars, including at least one that is going to be the result of a university competition. As Alexandre Dumas once noted, “Nothing succeeds like success.” A successful 2018 mission will show all those people who doubt that Mars One can and will pull it off that we’re really serious about this. Besides bringing in more viewers, this may also interest potential sponsors who might have hesitated because no private organization has ever successfully executed such a complex high-stakes space project before.

Should Mars One rely on donations and merchandise sales to operate? Well, it’s been proven that you can’t fund space by relying on voluntary contributions from anyone. Self-made billionaires did not make their money by being stupid with it, so they won’t contribute unless they feel like they’re getting something out of it. During the 1960s, somebody in Zambia expressed interest in joining the Space Age but couldn’t convince UNESCO to contribute enough money to even afford any decent equipment for training his astronauts, partly because he came off as a slightly delusional science teacher and partly because UNESCO probably had enough to think about at the time. Now that it’s the 21st century and we have the Internet, it may be a little more feasible to raise the funds even if the media events can’t even get a decent time slot on any TV station. Youtube and independent video logs (similar to blogs only they’re videos) are options. House of Cards is a fairly popular Netflix exclusive series. Private donations will probably give us that extra boost we need to get to Mars, but won’t cover the entire $6 billion cost of sending the first four people alone.

Merchandise sales probably won’t do much better without the media being involved unless Mars One can start selling some high-end collectibles like maybe complex Lego sets based on the concept art created by Bryan Versteeg. When Lego can sell expensive sets like Metalbeard’s Sea Cow, which is obviously based on the fictional characters that Lego itself creates, surely it can sell licensed Mars One sets once kids start seeing the candidates in action. This is something that the Mars One chiefs really need to be thinking about so we can start moving away from relying so much on money from the media deal. However, I’m not going to see a lot of kids playing with those Lego sets or even running around in Mars One-themed shirts until we can start getting the viewers.

While giving his speech at the Mars Society convention, Bas Lansdorp made a joke about how, if a billionaire named Carlos Slim donated the funds it would take to send the first manned mission for a 2025 landing, the first settlement on Mars could be called Slim City. This was a good point. If the wealthiest 1% were to donate just ten percent of their fortunes to fund a Martian colony, we probably wouldn’t even be talking about anything that even remotely resembles a reality show. It’s an imperfect idea, but this is probably going to be the best that a private organization can do without a lot of involvement from federal governments or the very wealthy.

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