Mars One and the legacy of Neil Armstrong

Maybe you are like me, and in 2013 you watched the live webcast of the press conference that launched Mars One, a private not-for-profit initiative that intends to create a human settlement on Mars. But probably not. Because not many people did. The video recording of the press conference is still on the internet, and the first few seconds illustrate why the public had not tuned in. The room was almost empty. Very few journalists bothered to show up. For Mars One to succeed, they need the freely-given support of millions, if not billions, of people. Not many currently know about the project, and few take it seriously. How does that make SF fans feel? Is it sad that the human race lacks the interest or optimism to rally behind this mission? Or should we be glad that most people can distinguish science fact from science fiction?

The first press conference for Mars One - not a typical launch for a multi-billion dollar project
The first press conference for Mars One – not a typical launch for a multi-billion dollar project.

The media does cover Mars One occasionally, though not in a serious way. At best they try to turn Mars One into a human interest story, focusing on the private lives and family of the would-be ‘Marstronauts’. (Previously we might have said these articles are suited to women’s magazines, but that description is probably considered sexist these days.) The marketing strategy of Mars One makes a lot of sense, given that the bulk of the money for the project would seemingly be generated by broadcasting the colonization exploits as a reality TV show.

Mars One reputedly had a deal with Endemol, Dutch producers of the global hit Big Brother show, but that fell through. The date of the first manned mission has already been pushed back from 2023 to 2026, and it appears the project is stalling whilst it tries to find credible sources of income. Now they have launched a series of videos that are clearly designed to reignite media interest. 20,000 original applicants for the mission (many of whom were joking or obviously unsuitable) were whittled down to a hundred likely candidates, and five of them have now been profiled in a series of videos called Citizen Mars. You can watch these webisodes here, and there is bonus content here.

Being a serious person, I realize that whether I personally like an individual should not be a factor in determining their aptitude to be an astronaut. However, Mars One seems to be as much about projecting the personalities of its wannabe Martians, as it is about science, technology, or the first ever colonization of a planet. As a consequence, it seems appropriate to comment on their personalities. In short, they annoy me. I really dislike them.

The Mars One team argues it can generate the money it needs because the Marstronauts will attract as large an audience as the Olympics. Maybe they are right about human beings in general, but I was gritting my teeth and struggling to make it through videos that were less than 10 minutes long. We hear from one candidate about what it was like when his parents died. Another explains how she escaped domestic violence after an arranged marriage. We hear about a drug-induced ‘near death experience’ and some cod philosophy supposedly derived from native Americans. Then they talk about whether they would have sex whilst on Mars, and troubles with existing relationships caused by wanting to leave the planet forever. All of these people may have very fine qualities, but I was appalled. It seemed to me that Mars One was choosing the prospective first inhabitants of Mars not because they would be good at space travel, engineering and colonization, but because they might stimulate the right emotional reactions from a popcorn-chumping low-attention-span YouTube-watching audience.

That was bad enough, but it got worse. The production of the main videos was very slick, combining stirring music and images with bland Twitter-like aphorisms from the Marstronauts in order to solicit empathy from viewers. However, the bonus videos slap together the answers given by Marstronauts to a lot of really trivial questions. They suggested that these people have little idea what they are supposedly committed to doing. For example, when asked if they would return to Earth if the chance arose after years spent living on Mars, these were some of the answers:

…by that point I don’t know if my body’s adjusted to the lower gravity and it would feel like I was lifting thousands of pounds of weight coming back into Earth.

That is one way of looking at it. A more mature analysis would conclude the return would probably kill you, which is even more serious than lifting thousands of pounds of weight.

I’ve always made an effort to visit my friends and family when they’ve moved abroad, so when engine propulsion technology increases to the extent that the trip to Mars becomes shorter, I do hope people will come and visit me.

One difficulty is that she will be dead by then. And did this woman appreciate that Mars One is predicated on slashing costs because there are no return trips, meaning that anybody ‘visiting’ a Marstronaut would also be taking a one-way trip?

Then they were asked what food would be like.

I just love food… I’m not even sure if we’re going to be eating three squares a day… as long as it has potatoes in it, I’m cool… I’m not really sure if we can fry stuff on Mars.

…eventually some fish from the aquarium.

I think it highly unlikely that the Marstronauts will be tucking into fish ‘n’ chips every Friday night.

"I want to go to Mars with a Japanese astronaut because I love Japan and Japanese food" said Mido, one of the top 100 Mars One candidates, a man who loves food so much that he guards the family crockery on a 24/7 basis
“I want to go to Mars with somebody Japanese because I love Japan and Japanese food” said Mido, one of the top candidates for Mars One. Mido loves food so much that he guards the family crockery on a 24/7 basis, and refused to record his interview in a more suitable location.

The most ironic answer came from an Egyptian who discussed why a colony of “twelve guys and twelve girls” would inevitably enjoy some romance. He presumably had not seen the other videos where some of the Marstronauts talk about their gay partners. With that in mind, it seems possible that the first Mars colony could end up like Jean-Paul Satre’s In Camera, a place where “Hell is other people”. That might make for some very interesting television, of a voyeuristic kind. However, the simplistic neo-hippy Californian outlook being touted by these videos is unlikely to gain approval across every culture. Endemol modifies Big Brother to suit different national tastes. Mars One will not be able to tailor its output to different audiences. They will be confronted with the truth that stereotypical Californian values will not be as universally popular as stereotypical Californians think they should be.

Neil Armstrong was the first person to step upon the Moon. The contrast between Armstrong and these Marstronauts could not be more profound. Armstrong was a professional. He did a job, and he did it without fuss. Neither he, nor his family, hankered for the spotlight. After his job was done, he did not strive to remain in the public eye, and he refused many interviews. Whilst Buzz Aldrin pops up everywhere, Armstrong rarely sought or exploited public affection. To my mind, that means Armstrong personifies the type of person who should colonize Mars.

If the travelers reached their destination, those few new Martians would be a long way from the rest of humanity. Even if we were watching, the colonists would hardly be in a position to interact with their audience. These Martians would need to get on with their job, which would involve plenty of arduous toil for the rest of their shortened lives. They will have neither time nor energy to think about cameras. Whatever their motivation, fame should not be one of them, because even if they achieve fame, they will never feel it.

Just as importantly, I want the first Martian colonists to be selfless. They will be sacrificing themselves. The risks are extreme, and even the best possible outcome would lead them to die prematurely, compared to the lifespan they would enjoy on Earth. I do not want the first people on Mars to be attention-seeking egotists, who will use the mission as an excuse to advocate any and every inane belief they hold, whether it relates to religion, love, or what makes us human. Let them be like Neil Armstrong: they go, they do the job, and when the time comes, they die. Let them recognize that, as individuals, they are only one small step in the journey of mankind. That might not be so good for ratings, but if ratings determine the mission parameters, then the mission should remain a fantasy.