RIP Mars One: The Red Planet Colonization Startup Is Officially Bankrupt

The embattled colonizing startup Mars One has officially declared bankruptcy. With an ambitious goal of sending colonists on a one-way mission to Mars, the company’s vision seemed too good to be true. And it was: After trying to fund the company in countless ways, including putting it on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, asking candidates to donate speaker fees to the company, and even flirting with reality TV, the frenzied dream is finally over.

According to the commercial register of canton Basel-Stadt, Mars One Ventures, the British company that was bought in 2016 by a Swiss financial holdings company, is currently in liquidation. An English translation clarifies the situation:

By decision of 15 January 2019, the Civil Court of the City of Basel declared the company bankrupt with effect from 15 January 2019, 3.37 p.m., thus dissolving it.

Redditor S-Vineyard surfaced the court filing and spread it in a Reddit post on Sunday, and as the news spread on Monday morning, commenters on Reddit and Twitter remarked that it was a wonder the venture had taken this long to go under.

Problems had persisted for years, including repeated delays and fundamental questions about whether the whole thing was a scam.

Despite the fact that the company received years of free publicity in the form of relatively uncritical coverage from major news outlets, many people in the commercial space field and in the news media knew something was fishy from the early days of the Mars One venture, which began in 2011 with the goal of sending humans on a one-way trip to Mars by the 2020s. It’s never been totally clear, though, whether Mars One was a scam or just poorly thought out. As Inverse reported in March 2018, if Mars One seemed like a cynical money grab, it wasn’t a very effective one: It was losing a ton of money.

Outlets like The Independent, The Verge, and The Washington Post initially gave the Mars One plan little scrutiny. The outlet Matter, however, had serious doubts since at least 2014, when it reported that nothing seemed to add up about the project. For example, Mars One said over 200,000 had applied when the real number was 2,761, and the colonist selection process seemed to be primarily driven by money, as Matter reported:

“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% of your profit to Mars One.”

Mars One says it won't send humans to Mars before 2031.

These nickel-and-dime requests for funding a venture estimated to cost well over $1 billion raised a lot of red flags. Perhaps the strangest funding strategy was the late-in-the-game idea to turn the whole mission into reality TV, as Inverse reported in March 2018:

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?

Never fear, though, Mars-heads. If you really want to get the heck off of Earth and make your way on Mars, NASA and the commercial spaceflight company SpaceX seem to have the situation a little more under control. And while SpaceX’s Mars timeline will surely shift in coming years, it at least has proven capable of getting off the ground. That’s a lot more than can be said for Mars One.