For centuries, man has gazed upon the stars and dreamed about traveling out to the great beyond, to film a reality TV show. In 2011, a company called Mars One made a bold attempt to fulfill it. The idea was to set up a human colony on Mars, partially funded by selling merchandise and shooting a reality show about the trip. The company would launch groups of people on a one-way journey to Mars, all carefully selected from a pool of elite candidates who filled out a form on their website.
Now, the dream is dead. In mid-January 2019, Mars One filed for bankruptcy. The paperwork was first publicly uncovered in a February Reddit post, around the same time that Mars One disclosed in a press release that the company was “in administration.”. At some point, the company’s Wikipedia page was edited into the past tense. Its assets will be liquidated as part of the bankruptcy, though in its press release, Mars One claimed that after it’s in the financial clear it will “redirect its focus” onto “the even more inspiring ‘being there’,” which strongly suggests that Mars One is pivoting to “Uh, let’s pitch a reality show about living on Mars to Elon Musk.”
It isn’t exactly surprising to those with just a cursory understanding of the costs and complexities of space travel, or really anyone who’s ever just thrown a paper airplane. Mars One had only four employees, and little-to-no aerospace expertise. The one-way trip was called a scam and a suicide mission. In 2013, they ran an Indiegogo campaign attempting to raise funds to send an unmanned lander on the Red Planet in 2018. It came about $90,000 short of its flexible goal of $400,000, and the mission never happened.
“Going to Mars is very difficult,” Mars One CEO Bas Lansdorp said in a Q&A defending the company. “For example NASA has been talking about going to Mars in 20 years for more than 45 years now. Of course, NASA needs a return mission which is much more complex than our one way mission but it shows how difficult Mars exploration is.”
The impending demise of Mars One is a true loss for humanity. Not because it’s a setback in our manifest space-destiny, but rather, because their website’s massive collection of amaetur videos, uploaded by aspiring Reality Space Cadets, will soon vaporize, and not even the Wayback Machine will help save us. It’s not unlike when Yahoo destroyed GeoCities, or the clumsy engineers at MySpace accidentally deleted 50 million songs from their archives, a good portion of which only lived on MySpace. Though significantly smaller by comparison, it’s no less important. Soon yet another weird, amateurish corner of the internet will be gone.
The Mars One project was intended to be completed in a series of stages, starting with robotic exploratory landers, then supply ships, and then finally, in 2031, a spaceshift loaded with four astronauts. They would be the first group of a total of 24, selected from a pool of 100 (aka The Mars 100, possibly a reference to Kim Stanley Robinson’s great Mars Trilogy). The Mars 100 were chosen from an initial pool of between 2,700 and 200,000 eligible applicants, depending who you ask.
To be eligible, they were required to pay a registration fee ($5 to $75, on a sliding scale according to the wealth of the applicant’s country), and submit a Real World-style audition tape to the Mars One community website. All videos had to be public. Any internet rando, including you, can watch them.
The audition videos, filmed around 2013, are incredibly entertaining, at least for anyone with a morbid fascination with cringey web content. It’s sort of like the first part of an American Idol season, except all the contestants are volunteering to be shot into space on a rocket by a marketing company.
The absurd nature of the project and its dim chance at success yielded a self-selected a pool of applicants that were, to say the least, eccentric. One doesn’t have to sift for very long to discover oddities. Some highlights:
Someone going by the handle Luddythebuddy (38, Germany), who lists the New World Order as one of his interests. His submission includes a video of a screen in a dark room displaying the European Union flag as “Ode To Joy” plays out of a cheap speaker.
Joanna (30, Poland) filmed herself pretending to be on Mars, digging a hole, and shielding herself from radiation with an umbrella.
Andrea (48, United States), messed up her video upload, so that her footage appears smushed. Perhaps she’s just compensating for the weaker gravity on Mars?
Kristin (36, California) recorded herself meditating, playing soccer, and chopping wood, so presumably she’d be a great choice for felling all of those stately Martian trees.
Ljubinka (55, Serbia) has a video that begins with a bizarre photoshopped image of her leaping from Earth to Mars. Then she stands in traffic while flipping through signs (a la Bob Dylan in his video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues”) reading things like “AMAZED!” and “SCARED.”
Robert (31, Germany) wrote a song about using Cyanobacteria to create oxygen on Mars. Pretty catchy.
Robert had competition for the title of Bard of Mars, though. Another candidate named Derrick (33, United States) — who wasn’t selected to be in The Mars 100 — wrote a fast-paced acapella number that sounds like the “Major-General’s Song” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.
Tyler (26, Canada) — also, somehow, not selected — made a fun space helmet out of cardboard, the structural integrity of which is unquestionable.
Ultimately, none of the chosen candidates appear to have any of the skills that would remotely qualify them to be astronauts. This seems important, since they’d be arriving without any additional support crews to help them survive. Most of them are fans of science fiction, so although they might not how to grow food or terraform a dusty planet, they’d at least have something to talk about.
Watch enough of the videos consecutively and it gets kind of depressing. They’re all so earnest about a clearly impossible dream. It’s like watching an acquaintance from high school get lured into a pyramid scheme. They’re willing to leave all of their loved ones behind for a doomed space mission. Some even prematurely upended their lives to prepare for a journey that will never happen.
Sifting through all of this content, I also couldn’t help but wonder, totally hypothetically, what the proposed reality show might have actually looked like, with this cast of characters. It would be the bleakest, most expensive show ever filmed.
Imagine: America watches CBS, primetime, as the untrained crew’s poorly-made ship crashes into the surface of Mars...
Or: They all collapse in their beds, one-by-one succumbing to radiation sickness.
Or: One of them goes insane from the stress of living in a dark underground bunker and eating only mealworms for sustenance, grabs a big knife, and starts crawling around the air vents, preparing to recreate the bloody third act of every sci-fi horror movie ever made.
Or: The ratings of the show gradually drop off as the general public loses interest in watching a bunch of people talking in a bunker, until it is unceremoniously cancelled, replaced with reruns of Mike and Molly. Resupply ships are cancelled, all their communication screens turn to static.
Or: The show’s a hit and all the contestants return to Earth after four months to become Instagram influencers.
It’s probably for the best that Mars One failed. In the end, it wasn’t a total loss. We can still click through the videos on its website and marvel at the reckless ambitions of its dream, and all those who signed on to be a part of it. Theirs was a passion that knew no shame or self-consciousness. They simply wanted to set foot on another planet and then probably die there. We should respect that, viewing their delusion with a twinge of admiration. At least, for a little longer, until all their contributions to culture go dark.