Tens of thousands apply for one-way ticket to Mars

Anyone can apply to colonize Mars — but will the mission actually blast off?

"When we come back, the final group of astronaut candidates who will blast off in a rocket ship to make a new home for humanity on Mars will be announced. … But first: a word from our sponsors ..."

So may read an episode of "Mars One," a project helmed by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp and pitched as part reality-TV show, part pioneering space mission. This week, Lansdorp officially opened the project's application process. Now any adult from any country can apply to have their lives broadcast to the world as they compete to be one of four people to take off on a mission to colonize Mars in 2023 and never return.

In the first 24 hours after opening the application process, Lansdorp said some 15,000 people signed up to become a Mars One astronaut. The requirements are only that applicants be at least 18 years old and comfortable with spending the rest of their lives on Mars. Potential candidates also are asked to pay a fee and to film a short video explaining to viewers why they should be picked. The videos, which are so far dominated by male candidates, range from Samuel Griffiths Osborn of Bard College, who touts his skills as a "mountaineer and adventurer" to Andrea from Romania, who says she wants to "be part of humanity's history and future."

The remaining schedule for the mission includes launching the first of several unmanned spacecraft meant to begin construction of a Mars colony by 2016 and then landing a robotic rover on the planet in 2018 before launching the astronauts in 2023 and sending additional astronauts there every two years.

Lansdorp tells MSN News that the journey will be "the most exciting thing that ever happens on this planet." But behind his bluster, some scientists have raised skepticism about whether the mission will ever get off the ground.

Extreme reality

Reality-TV shows have boasted actual danger for contestants and life-changing stakes for the outcome before. But nothing on television likely would compare to an international selection process that would send four men and women to live and die on a foreign planet. Asked to describe the "perfect candidate" for becoming a Mars One astronaut, Lansdorp said there is none, but rather a perfect group. Furthermore, winning a seat on the spacecraft will take not only smarts and cooperative abilities, but old-fashioned charm, as the winners will be decided by votes from the TV audience, in the same way that winners are chosen on "American Idol" or "X Factor."

"People will still know who these astronauts are in a thousand years, so we think there should be a democratic connection to them," Lansdorp said. "The perfect group will have all the skills we teach them, and no matter what they will remain a well-functioning group."

Skeptics remain

Lansdorp estimates that the mission will cost $6 billion. Raising that kind of cash won't be easy, but he insists it's possible. He points to the London Olympics, which reportedly brought in $4 billion in broadcasting revenue for NBC, as a model for raising the kind of money needed to put people on Mars. "Everyone in the world will be watching," he said. "Advertisers will want to be involved."

Others, such as physicist Ian O'Neill, the founder of the blog AstroEngine and producer for Discovery News, say that Lansdorp's plan is riddled with open questions and could actually hinder other exploratory efforts to Mars.

"On the one hand it's a very bold suggestion — going to Mars would be a phenomenal achievement," O'Neill tells MSN News. "But Mars One doesn't really have a business plan. There are a lot of assumptions that the world will embrace a mission to Mars, and I hope it will, but there is no evidence that it will be that popular. They keep using the Apollo missions as an example, but they had to cancel the Apollo missions in the '70s because it had lost the public's interest."

O'Neill points to Elon Musk, the founder of space-exploration company SpaceX as an example of a better way to approach private space travel. Musk "took baby steps," O'Neill said, before he launched the first private successful mission to the International Space Station. Lansdorp, on the other hand, is "making all these promises" of getting to Mars, but he has no solid plan to do so, O'Neill said. "He's set a 10-year deadline. They won't put people on Mars in 10 years, and ultimately it pisses me off that this will hinder real efforts to get to Mars."

Other scientists are more optimistic. Emily Lakdawalla, the senior editor and "planetary evangelist" for The Planetary Society, moderated a question-and-answer panel that the Mars One team participated in this week. She tells MSN News that the crew has already stepped ahead of other researchers.

"The way we will get to Mars in the first place is to acknowledge that we can't bring the people back," she tells MSN News. "The technology for the mission already exists, and if you can throw enough money at it you can solve the problem ... Whether or not Mars One succeeds, I suspect that the first mission to Mars will look a lot like the one being proposed."

More from MSN News:
Mars One seeks a few daring souls for one-way ticket to red planet
Mars colonization project accepting applications


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