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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.