The space tourism startup Mars One has been called many things over the years, some more flattering than others. Though it’s had the opportunity to fold many times, and in spite of claims it’s scamming its own customers, the project with the stated goal of sending people to Mars has come up with bewildering new techniques to keep its charade afloat.
Over the last three months, Inverse spoke to Joshua Richards, a current applicant with Mars One, two executives at Mars One, three former applicants, representatives from SpaceX and Lockheed Martin, and a former head NASA scientist on human research. These conversations, in concert with Mars One financial data obtained by Inverse, suggest without a modicum of doubt that the company’s chief officers appear to be recklessly piloting a company in serious financial and strategic crisis. At best, they are willfully ignorant about the company’s rapidly depleting resources, which are filled by astronaut hopefuls, donations, and a pool of investors. At worst, the project’s leaders are intentionally disregarding the chaos of their organization and taking participants along for a wild ride — but not one that’s going to Mars.
“To those of us in the space business, Mars One has been viewed with skepticism from day one,” Scott Kelly, the NASA astronaut who spent 520 days in space, tells Inverse. “With a tiny fraction of the budget required, limited expertise, and a vague schedule you have to question their seriousness. On one hand, I appreciate Mars One championing the cause of flight to Mars, but on the other I feel bad for the Mars One candidates whose dreams are being capitalized upon.”
With little infrastructure and no plans for spacecraft, it’s easy to assume Mars One was never actually supposed to take off; that the entire project is a scheme so its wealthy co-founders can take money from dreamers who want to leave Earth.
“The whole thing is money-grab all the way,” says Lauren Reeves, a comedian who joined Mars One as a goof back in 2012 and left after making it through the second selection round. “I don’t know where they’re gonna get that money from. It would blow my mind if they actually get there.
“I mean, I would trust NASA or SpaceX, but Mars One just seems like such a joke,” she tells Inverse.
When I first tried to contact Mars One founder Bas Lansdorp back in January, I found a contact through the Jodi Solomon Speakers Bureau, a service hub for high-profile guest speakers. I said I wanted Landsorp to come to our office in New York City to talk to space enthusiasts or do a presentation via Skype. I was told his fee is $30,000, which “includes his travel” from the Netherlands, and that “additional expenses are hotel, meals and ground transportation.”
“We need $10 million dollars this year,” he says. “Funding is just one of the many, many issues that we’re dealing with.”
Lansdorp is right when he tells me there’s “no such thing as an easy mission to Mars.” But it seems he might have the potential to alleviate some of those financial restrictions pretty quickly.
In 2012, Josh Richards was not a soldier, or a miner, or a Mars One hopeful. He was Keith, the Anger Management Koala.
The bit was exactly what it sounds like — Richards, who describes himself as a “short, obnoxious, ginger Australian” would dress up as his country’s most notorious marsupial and swear at a live audience. Richards, a former soldier-turned-traveling comic, says being Keith was oddly therapeutic.
“It was a way of sharing stories I had never been able to talk about,” Richards tells Inverse, referring to his time in the Royal Marine Commandos. “I was able to talk about things that happened when I was with [other soldiers], where friends of mine had nearly died, and I had never told anyone about it.”
Donning a furry suit and playing ukulele for a crowd allowed him to process his most disheartening memories, the ones he couldn’t show as Josh, the outwardly charismatic comedian. On-stage, he was Keith Richards, an angry koala.
“I was lost, very lost,” Richards says, pausing. “I had spent most of my life thinking I was going to be a soldier…and then I poured myself into comedy, because I thought that was one of the only things I was good at. But then I started to get jaded with standup.”
It was still a better option than his last job, working as a blast specialist in a Western Australian mine. Through all this, Richards could feel the spark slowly drain from his body. Logging long, brutal hours, Richards had become an unrecognizable, unsatisfied, wholly unfulfilled version of himself.
For Richards, an angry koala roaming between various Edinburgh Starbucks, began to wonder if he could leave life on Earth for something else and never return. The idea wasn’t just a lark, but a shot at salvation.
Amid all this, Richards was putting the finishing touches on a one-koala show he’d written about a trip to Mars. Spinning stories about interplanetary escape was easier than living in the stalemate of reality. A one-way ticket seemed like a good option, even if it was only a pipe dream; something to occupy his mind, day after monotonous day.
Until it wasn’t.
In almost a freakish stroke of fate, Richards stumbled across an online post for Mars One, a private venture aiming to send humans to Mars by the 2020s. It sounded ambitious, but he was happy to volunteer and pay the sensible $40 application fee. A bargain, all things considered. This was the pitch:
It is Mars One’s goal to establish a human settlement on Mars. Human settlement of Mars is the next giant leap for humankind. Exploring the solar system as a united humanity will bring us all closer together … As with the Apollo Moon landings, a human mission to Mars will inspire generations to believe that all things are possible, anything can be achieved.
For a frustrated comic in a koala suit — or anyone, really — it sounded like a pretty sweet opportunity.
Six years later, Richards is a member of the “Mars 100,” a crop of candidates the company has selected to start a new civilization on Mars. At some point in the future, project leaders say they will whittle the pool down to 40 people, which means Richards could make the cut and one day visit Mars — or not.
For so many reasons, it simply doesn’t matter.
On Facebook, the Mars One page has nearly 183,000 followers. On Twitter, it has nearly 92,000 followers and often shares updates — mostly articles in the press. The banner art for its Facebook page declares in big red letters, “COME WITH US.” It’s an irresistible call to action, but people who’ve paid the $40 application fee to be among the first on this trip to Mars say it’s just a smoke screen.
And Mars One might be getting rich off the enterprise. The $40 upfront application fee multiplied by 200,000 — a dubious claim made by Mars One, it should be noted — comes to $8 million, a figure nowhere close to achieving its $6 billion goal but still, a lot of money.
Getting Humans to Mars — or Not
Lansdorp, a Dutch entrepreneur, started Mars One seven years ago after selling his shares from a wind energy company called Ampyx Power that he co-founded in 2008. Lansdorp poured the money into building Mars One, which billed itself as a “stepping stone” for humanity to become an interplanetary species, a private company dedicated to bringing civilization to the red planet.
“I started Mars One in 2011, together with my co-founder [CTO] Arno Wielders, with the goal of sending humans to Mars on permanent settlement missions,” Lansdorp tells Inverse over the phone. “[The plan was for] one-way trips with the goal of using as much existing technology as possible.”
At first, media buzz around Mars One seemed promising for the fledgling startup.
In June 2012, Forbes published a short article about the company’s ambitions with the headline, “Mars One — Get Your Ticket To The Red Planet.”
Two months later, Space.com described the company’s initial investors, which included Dutch law firms and consulting companies.
“This Incredible Plan For A Mission To Mars In 2023 Is No Hoax” reads a Business Insider headline about the project from June 2012.
Despite initial media clamor, Mars One had an unfathomable amount of work ahead, especially for a startup. Lansdorp is uncharacteristically candid with me about the fact that he’s never billed Mars One as a transportation company. For one thing, the company plans to outsource all its aerospace needs. He explains the project has been in talks with defense contractor Lockheed Martin and SpaceX for their potential services.
It feels almost feasible.
“Everything we need will be built by aerospace suppliers,” Lansdorp says. “We’ve had a contract with Lockheed Martin, and they have investigated if the design of the NASA Phoenix mission could be used for our first unmanned mission, our demo mission that’s currently scheduled for 2022 … If [we] fly this mission in 2022, it would be built by Lockheed Martin and operated by Lockheed Martin too since they have the track record; they can do the mission in such a limited amount of time.”
Outsourcing aerospace labor isn’t in and of itself a bad idea, though it could shift Mars One’s timeline of sending an uncrewed mission to Mars in 2022, and by extension, a crewed mission in the years to follow. But what’s most concerning about Lansdorp’s claim is that Lockheed Martin says they have no contract with Mars One.
“In 2013, Mars One contracted with Lockheed Martin to develop a mission concept study for their uncrewed 2018 Mars lander spacecraft,” Gary Napier, communications manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, tells Inverse. “The lander concept was based on a flight-proven, affordable spacecraft design we created for the successful NASA Phoenix Mars Lander mission. We have not been asked to study any more of the Mars One architecture beyond the uncrewed lander.”
He continues: “We have concluded the initial contract with Mars One in which we performed mission formulation studies and developed payload interface specifications to support the selection of a payload suite for the uncrewed robotic lander. Currently, Lockheed Martin is not under contract to Mars One.”
Lansdorp says Mars One is playing the field: He says the company has been in contact with SpaceX and is considering its technology for future launches. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has been adamant about using his company’s yet-to-be-developed BFR to launch humans on a journey to the red planet, starting as soon as 2024. From a purely speculative standpoint, bordering on bad science fiction, the partnership would make sense, at least looking at each company’s ethos.
“I’ve been [to SpaceX’s headquarters] a couple of times and someone from SpaceX has been to our office,” Lansdorp explains. “We’ve also talked to [Jeff Bezos’s aerospace company] Blue Origin. But it’s too early for us to have a contract with any launch supplier because we first need the actual finalized designs of the systems before we can determine which launch vehicle is suitable to put those systems on top of.”
Despite the fact that it’s listed under Mars One’s “Suppliers” tab on its website, SpaceX clarified to Inverse it is not currently in negotiations with Mars One.
The Next Phase
Mars One’s stint as a media darling back in 2012 has since fizzled, but the project has continued. As the selection process continued over at least two years without launch or lander contracts to show, candidates began to question what was going on with the mission they’d considered leaving Earth for.
Trey Carriveaux, a former Mars One contestant who advanced past the first round of selection, says he left after cracks in the company’s overall structure became obvious.
“Our initial impression was that [Lansdorp] was working pretty extensively at SpaceX at the beginning, but then it came out that they didn’t really have any connection at all,” Carriveaux tells Inverse. “I think that drove other candidates to look at the mission with skepticism, and ultimately, to leave.”
Carriveaux, a long-time sci-fi fan, says he joined the U.S. Navy 20 years ago to work with submarines because he couldn’t fly an X-wing Starfighter from Star Wars. In some capacity, Mars One kept that childhood dream alive until it became painfully obvious it could not.
“I’m a nuclear reactor operator for the Navy,” Carriveaux explains. “Power distribution is central to my thoughts, and [Mars One’s] idea of using solar [for a supply unit] didn’t make much sense because you’d have to have an extensive power storage facility, and they didn’t discuss that.
“A lot of their technology for [finding] water was just like, ‘Yeah, you scoop up some water with sand and get the water from that.’ Okay, how? There was no detail.”
Brent Bos, a senior research physicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, left the Mars One program after the second round of candidate selection; he felt he could no longer forgive the program’s missteps. With little funding and a constantly shifting timeline for crewed and uncrewed missions, he became disillusioned.
“They acted like they had a rigorous process in place, and it’s been how many years, and they haven’t done anything,” says Bos, who has undergone NASA astronaut and Mars training programs in the Arctic. “They keep acting like it’s real, but it’s still sort of a crazy idea. They don’t have any people who know what they’re doing.”
Mark Shelhamer, former chief scientist at NASA’s human research program, has similarly felt concerns about what the mission hopes to achieve — and how it plans on achieving it.
“I’ve been listening to Alex Jones on the radio since long before anybody knew who Alex Jones was … you know who Alex Jones is,” he tells me over the phone. “Now he’s turned dangerous, and before he was just an amusing buffoon. But after a while, listening to any of these things makes you step back and say, of course, this person is nuts, but what does that person … Does this person really believe this? It’s possible.
“It’s possible that the Mars One people really believe that this is viable; that this is feasible. I don’t know, I would think that there would be easier ways to make money than by scamming people to make money … On the other hand, maybe not.”
“They keep acting like it’s real, but it’s still sort of a crazy idea. They don’t have any people who know what they’re doing.”
— Brent Bos
The Bottom Line
With little infrastructure and no plans for spacecraft, it’s easy to assume Mars One was never actually supposed to take off; that the entire project is a charade so its wealthy co-founders can take money from people who really just wanted to go to Mars.
If Mars One is nothing more than a scheme to make a few rich people richer, it’s doing a hell of a bad job. Years’ worth of financial documents obtained by Inverse from the Dutch Chamber of Commerce, where the not-for-profit portion of the Mars One project is registered, reveal the company has been in serious debt for years. It attempted to salvage itself back in 2016 by undergoing a reverse merger with a Swiss financial holdings company called InFin Innovative Finance AG so that Mars One’s for-profit side — Mars One Ventures — could be listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. This was a questionable, potentially desperate move since InFin was already regarded as a defunct mobile payment company.
“According to a management report released on June 30, 2016, the company’s “Cashcloud” e-wallet mobile payment system has not gained significant traction,” Ars Technica’s Eric Berger reported at the time. “During the preceding six months, the report states, the number of registered users only slightly increased to 189,000, from 186,000. The report also notes the competitive market with other companies like Apple, Samsung, and Google all entering the mobile payment market. At the time the company reported a total equity and liabilities value of a little more than $300,000.”
Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t appear the move paid off for Mars One Ventures AG — the publicly traded part of Mars One — or InFin. Lansdorp confirmed the Mars One share is not trading at the Frankfurt Stock exchange at the moment.
The Race to $6 billion
While dates, spacecraft suppliers, and astronaut candidates are all subject to change according to Mars One’s timeline, one number has remained constant: $6 billion. This is the amount Lansdorp says the project needs to fully carry out its mission — and it’s nowhere close.
“It’s 133 percent of the revenue of the International Olympic Committee around the games of just London,” he explains. “We need to raise that amount of money spread over the next 10 years. I don’t have it in my bank account, but it’s only $600 million per year.”
The claim by Mars One is that the 200,000 people who applied has been disputed, which could have contributed to an initial shortage in funds.
Norbert Kraft, the chief medical officer, told The Guardian he had seen 80,000 applications, which is significantly less than the 200,000 Lansdorp has repeatedly told me over the phone. In 2013, NBC counted the number of video applications on the Mars One website, as entrants were required to upload them along with their initial application fee. The final number was 2,782. All of which is to say that 200,000 is only a number that Lansdorp gives, offering no proof. Still, Mars One has other ways of making its money: through investors, merchandise, contracts, and donations from its supporters.
For years, there have been whispers that the company takes advantage of its candidates’ goodwill, advancing participants who’ve bought more Mars One products like hats and totes. Lansdorp emphatically denies the claim and says neither he nor Mars One’s chief medical officer, Dr. Norbert Kraft, is able to see how much money each contestant has spent on Mars One merchandise.
But without a steady flow of cash coming in and rumors swirling, it seems strange that no one in the Mars One leadership knows about the company’s debt.
“How much debt is Mars One in? That’s a good question,” Lansdorp says. “I think there’s not a lot of debt; it’s just that we’re waiting for the investments to come take the exciting bits of progress that we want to make.”
Kraft is more blunt.
“I have no clue what the finances at all are,” says the company’s CMO, who has just laid out to me over the phone an elaborate plan to hire a medical staff and train civilians to become NASA-caliber astronauts. “I’m not even touching that.”
Mars One has tried its hand at a reality show in the hopes that selling it to TV networks would fund a large portion of mission costs. It previously had a deal with Endemol, a Dutch production company, but broke it off in 2015 under questionable circumstances.
“The term ‘reality show’ has a really negative ring because of shows like Jersey Shore and other things that don’t really have a lot to do with reality, so we prefer to call it a ‘documentary series,’” Lansdorp tells me over the phone, almost offended at the idea. “We didn’t want to make a Big Brother on Mars, and this company did have that intention.”
But really, what did Mars One think the production company behind Big Brother — one of the biggest reality franchises in the world — was going to do with unfettered access to people in close quarters on Mars?
Ticket to Ride
Eventually, I ask Lansdorp if his company is a scam.
“I think if people say that it’s a tough mission and Mars One might fail, I think that’s really reasonable,” he tells me. “I mean, there are so many things that can go wrong. I believe we have a good chance. I think if you say that this is a high-risk endeavor, I would agree. I think anyone who says that we’re a scam is just not paying attention.”
There are certainly people in aerospace and media paying attention, though. Keep’s story, published on the then Medium-owned publication Matter, adroitly explores the fractured hierarchy of Mars One, and who loses as a result.
“I’m still irritated the media gave them so much attention in the first place, which let a whole lot of people get taken for a ride,” Keep tells me. “For example, I would not call them ‘contestants’; no program ever existed.”
Though Reeves, the comedian, admits her audition video for the program was a joke as she continued to advance in the selection process, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something about the competition was wrong. At a meetup for contestants years ago, Reeves said she was the “odd one out” among serious candidates.
“I would not call them ‘contestants’; no program ever existed.”
“I think a lot of people looked at it as their one way out of here,” she says. “A lot of people I felt like were depressed, or sad, or had problems with interacting with humans on Earth. So they were like, ‘Oh yes, I belong on Mars. This is my ticket out of here; I’ve found a way.’ And, it kinda made me sad for them, because it felt like they really thought it was real.”
Bos, the NASA physicist, also recalls a time when, during the selection process, he met a young nursing student at a Washington, D.C. Mars One meetup, who he said seemed ready to change her life for the project.
“She was in her early 20s, and she’d just finished nursing school,” Bos recalls. “She was so excited about [Mars One] and was ready to drop her whole life to focus on it. And a bunch of us were telling her she needed to stick with her plan because this probably wasn’t going to happen.”
“I think a lot of people looked at it as their one way out of here. A lot of people, I felt like were depressed, or sad, or had problems with interacting with humans on Earth. So they were like, ‘Oh yes, I belong on Mars. This is my ticket out of here; I’ve found a way.’ And, it kinda made me sad for them, because it felt like they really thought it was real.”
“I would hate to see someone change their lives to pursue this pipe dream, because it’s looking more and more likely it’s not going to be with Mars One,” Bos says. “I think if anyone’s going up to Mars, it’s going to be Elon and his company — even before NASA. The political world doesn’t seem to be available in this country to support NASA.”
I ask Shelhamer if he thinks Mars One will pull it off in 10 years, 20, or ever.
“No,” he says flatly. “There’s layers of my reason for saying no. The simplest one is the kind of unrealistic … What certainly seems to be an unrealistic business proposition — let’s say on the part of Mars One — that they don’t have any infrastructure, or from what I’ve seen, any way to get one. And that’s the level of this kind of cavalier attitude that they have.”
We may never know the permutations of reasons Mars One, a company with no money, no media support, and no real, scientifically sound plan would continue a facade pushing seven years. It might be time to call it a day.
“Instead of just saying, ‘Ok we can’t do it,’ they faked it.” Bos says. “And that’s what they’re doing going forward.”
Are you a Mars One contender who wants to share your story? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
March 30: This report has been updated present more timely information earlier in the story