The Biggest Flaw in Mars One's Business Plan

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Press conferences often reveal flaws in projects during the last few minutes devoted to questions from reporters. And in the case of the Mars One press conference on Monday, it was the Q&A session that not only revealed flaws, it may have extinguished the entire business plan that would theoretically fund the interplanetary operation.

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Mars One, founded by Dutch entrepreneur and engineer Bas Lansdorp, is a non-profit company with the sole intention of starting a Mars colony by the year 2023. At face value, the business model that will fund the enterprise sounds intriguing. Through television rights and sponsorship deals, Mars One will generate a huge revenue stream that will not only fund the launch of four people to Mars, it will also found the basis of a colony on Mars.

Be under no illusions, building a base on Mars will be hard, but the entire planet will be glued to their screens watching the interplanetary drama unfold as Mars One makes history. We will witness all the grit and drama of the first humans on another planet. There may even be tragedies, possibly some humor. Or so the Mars One plan would have us believe.

During the conference in New York — which announced the opening of a fee-driven Mars astronaut selection program — Lansdorp pointed out that by 2023, four billion people on the planet will have an Internet connection. This will be the biggest audience for a live event; “everyone” will want to watch the Mars One crew touch down on Mars and make their first steps. This will be history, an occasion bigger than the Olympic Games.

An event of this size, according to Lansdorp, will generate a gargantuan rush for TV rights. The Olympics, a 2-week event, generates around $4 billion in revenue using this model. Mars One, a mission that will begin with a historic landing and continue with a grand reality TV schedule, will no doubt fare far better. We will be personally attached to the heroic four astronauts on Mars; we won’t be able to look away. Countless billions stand to be made from intense global interest.

It will be an interplanetary Big Brother. In fact, even Big Brother co-creator Paul Römer has advised Lansdorp on the project — he gave it a big thumbs-up, needless to say.

The tailing-off of public interest in the Apollo Program in 1970′s, ultimately leading to the premature cancellation of the project in 1972 was different, according to Lansdorp. Mars One will maintain a high level of interest for the entire one-way mission to Mars, he says. This is the key assumption that forms the foundation of Mars One.

The fickle nature of television audiences aside, Lansdorp said that Mars One’s cash flow will be supplemented by the inevitable spin-off technology that will come from developing and supporting a Mars colony. Again, another assumption.

Sadly, the assumptions made by Mars One are backed up by few facts. Even by Lansdorp’s own admission, the television companies on Earth will unlikely have any control over the Mars colony.

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When discussing the colonists’ need for privacy (despite the fact they’d be signing up for a reality TV show), Lansdorp dropped a bombshell: “Mars One would not allow 24/7 coverage … the people of Mars wouldn’t allow it. If they don’t like a particular camera, they’d put a piece of duct tape over it and there’s nothing we can do about it. They are in charge.” Rather, he trusts that the colonists would be “proud” to show off their lives to the world. And there it is, the biggest flaw in using a reality TV model to fund a mission to Mars.

The admission that the colony will be “in charge” would likely stop any TV executive in their tracks. Dolling out billions of dollars for exclusive rights to a live Mars video feed that may or may not be switched on is the epitome of “risky.” Sure, the “one small step” episode would likely attract billions, but what of the rest of the mission?

The topic of autonomy was even questioned by Mars One ambassador and Nobel prize laureate Gerard ‘t Hooft. When Lansdorp became excited about the possibility that the Mars colony would eventually declare independence, making it a “proud day” for mankind, ‘t Hooft quickly interjected, saying, “They can’t be totally independent.”

If the business model seems unreliable, Mars One’s budgeting is receiving a huge amount of scrutiny too. Or, it would receive scrutiny if the executives didn’t keep it secret.

In response to space analyst Jeff Foust, who asked via Twitter for a run-down of Mars One’s projected costs, Lansdorp replied with:

“Actually, we don’t want to (give any details). I can tell you that we have discussed the budget per component with our potential suppliers, but for competition reasons it would be very stupid for us to give the prices that have been quoted to us per component, because that would make it very easy for competition to go under it, but not too much under it, so the exact prices that we are expecting to pay per component we will keep confidential.”

Whether he was referring to competition in a hypothetical future “Mars rush” or competition between suppliers, it’s hard to tell. Therefore, the projected cost of sending a team to Mars and setting up the first colony cannot be verified. Although one could argue that the technology is feasible, and launch costs are being driven down by the burgeoning private space industry, many space experts are looking at the projected $6 billion price tag with extreme skepticism.

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These doubts may not be a problem if Mars One was aiming to get humans on Mars in the next 20-30 years, but they have an extremely tight schedule. The first Mars One launch will be a robotic “proof of concept” mission that will land on the Martian surface using solely retro rockets. This first launch is scheduled for 2016.

2016.

Mars One is not an aerospace company, as frequently highlighted by Lansdorp, but will instead hire contractors to build the mission’s components. Mars One has cited a SpaceX Dragon-esque capsule as their means of getting cargo and crew to the surface of Mars. But the landing system being suggested (rocket power only, no parachutes) is under development — three years leaves little time for the technology to mature.

But the impending technological problems will be of little concern — the sheer amount of money required from television deals, sponsorship and astronaut application fees will be a near-impossible task to raise before any component reaches the launch pad.

As much as I want to see a Mars colony in my lifetime, Mars One — using the current business plan and unrealistic timeframe — won’t be it.

Image: Artist’s impression of the Mars One concept. Credit: Mars One

The views expressed here do not represent the official views of Discovery Communications.

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