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How the Mars One fiasco is damaging the space race

The next step in mankind’s obsession with exploring the Universe is to send a human being to Mars. While we may never return to the same level of investment and drive that characterised the 1960s Space Race between the US and the USSR, the modern day space race between private companies is intensifying.

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The likes of Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are pumping vast sums of money into space travel, but as can be the case with private ventures, transparency is hard to come by. Mars One, perhaps the most high-profile organisation attempting to send us to the Red Planet, has recently faced criticism over its funding methods and ability to complete the mission.

The Mars One project aims to send four individuals on a one-way trip to the planet in the hope that they can establish a human colony there by 2027. Aside from the ethical implications of sending the participants to a planet from which they have no hope of returning, there have been a number of other concerns raised about the project.

Last week, one of the Mars One finalists Joseph Roche shed light on some of the scheme’s dubious practices.

“When you join the ‘Mars One Community,’ which happens automatically if you applied as a candidate, they start giving you points,” Roche explained to Medium’s Elmo Keep. “You get points for getting through each round of the selection process (but just an arbitrary number of points, not anything to do with ranking), and then the only way to get more points is to buy merchandise from Mars One or to donate money to them.”

“Community members can redeem points by purchasing merchandise like T-shirts, hoodies, and posters, as well as through gifts and donations: The group also solicits larger investment from its supporters. Others have been encouraged to help the group make financial gains on flurries of media interest. In February, finalists received a list of ‘tips and tricks’ for dealing with press requests, which included this: ‘If you are offered payment for an interview then feel free to accept it. We do kindly ask for you to donate 75 per cent of your profit to Mars One.’”

Roche, who formerly worked as a researcher for NASA and is now an assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin, explained that it isn’t just Mars One’s fundraising that is lacking in transparency. He revealed that there were less than 3,000 applicants, not the 200,000 claimed by the organisation, and has never actually met anyone from Mars One in person.

However, Roche’s account is far from the first difficulty that Mars One has run into. The project had previously secured a contract with Endemol, the production company behind Big Brother, to create a reality TV programme centred on the finalists. With this falling through last month, the project now has a funding gap of $6 billion to fill.

Talks are reportedly ongoing with another company, but is a reality TV show appropriate for what could be one of the most historically significant events in human history? Mars One has stressed that this will be a dignified, documentary-style affair, but the concept of “reality TV” conjures up more images of petty celebrity squabbles than it does pioneering feats of discovery.

As the potential for something to go wrong on the Mars One mission is high, if an accident did occur, the voyeurism associated with reality TV is likely to make for uncomfortable viewing. While it may seem somewhat defeatist to suggest that disaster will strike Mars One, the reality is that space travel is extremely complex and any number of things could fail.

To highlight the differences between the Mars One programme and NASA’s attempts at spaceflight, the latter requires mission commanders to have experienced 1,000 jet aircraft flight hours prior to space training. By contrast, Roche, who has made the 100-man shortlist, has completed a questionnaire, uploaded a video, taken a short medical exam and experienced a 10-minute Skype interview. It’s no surprise that many are dismissing the project’s proposed launch data of 2024 as bewilderingly optimistic.

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As Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson said following his company’s in-flight disaster last year, “Space is hard, but worth it.” To see it cheapened by the negligence, deliberate or otherwise, of the Mars One project is disappointing not just for potential applicants but for anyone who believes that pioneering space travel holds the key to humanity’s future.

Barclay has been writing about technology for a decade, starting out as a freelancer with IT Pro Portal covering everything from London’s start-up scene to comparisons of the best cloud storage services.  After that, he spent some time as the managing editor of an online outlet focusing on cloud computing, furthering his interest in virtualization, Big Data, and the Internet of Things.