Mars One Candidates by the Numbers, for the Numbers

Who among the 663 Mars One candidates will be first to go here? A detail of the chaos region in Valles Marinaris taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.  Credit:    NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona 

Who among the 663 Mars One candidates will be first to go here? A detail of the chaos region in Valles Marinaris taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona 

Mars One is offering the world's media exclusive access to the video interviews with its Round 2 candidates. The press release included a spreadsheet of candidates' nationalities and countries of residence. Here's my quick pass at the numbers and what they might mean for the candidates.

The 663 remaining candidates represent 96 nationalities. Almost two thirds come from just 10 nations with a long tail of 40 nations that have a single candidate. 

Top 10 Nationalities
CountryNo.% of All
United States19128.1%
Great Britain223.2%
South Africa192.8%

Among the traditional space nations, the US, Russia, Canada, and Esa-member nations are well represented. Germany falls just off the list with 15 candidates while Italy and Japan tie for 16th with 7 candidates each. 

Among emerging space nations India has an exceptionally strong presence as does South Africa and Zimbabwe. 

Latin America doesn't appear in the top 10, but Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina are in the top 20 and most Latin American nations have at least one candidate.

Among Middle Eastern nations, Israel is in the top 20 as are Egypt and Iran. The Mars One document doesn't provide any hint of religious affiliation, of course, but most of the Muslim world is represented despite the fatwa against taking unreasonable risks.

The Chinese government also discouraged its citizens from applying which explains why only 12 Chinese candidates appear on the list. Among other eastern Asian countries, the Philippines have as many candidates as Japan but the remaining countries are in the low single digits.

What does this say about ratings?

Mars One compares its business model to the Olympics. Mars One plans to raise a significant amount of the cost of going to Mars by selling broadcast rights much like the Olympics sells broadcast rights to the Summer and Winter Games.  The International Olympics Committee earned $3.8 billion in broadcast fees during the 2010-2012 cycle - about half of its total marketing revenue. Of that, half comes from the US and Canada, a fifth from Europe (including Russia), a seventh from Asia, and the rest of the world picks up the remainder.

If Mars One is counting on broadcast fees to cover half of its $6 billion budget, and half of that must come from the North America, then somehow the Mars One Show will have to generate $1.5 billion in the United States alone. That's a similar scale to US broadcaster NBC's investment in the Olympics.

Mars One engaged Darlow Smithson Productions, a studio that specializes in science documentaries, to film the candidate training program as a reality-documentary hybrid. Documentaries aren't huge ratings-drivers.  The hugely successful PBS documentary The Roosevelts averaged 9 million viewers. While the Neil deGrasse Tyson version of Cosmos premiered with 8.5 million viewers, subsequent episodes attracted less than half of that. By comparison, NBC attracted 21 million viewers a night during the Sochi Olympics. 

Where in that spectrum will the Mars One Show land?

That's a question TV executives will be asking as Mars One starts pitching their series. NBC can spend billions on the Olympics because the return is predictable. For a brief period millions of people tune in to the drama of competition - and companies pay good money to advertise during the broadcast. Mars One's hybrid approach doesn't fit into the neat categories executives like.

Mars One can't engage in the artificial drama and conflict of a typical reality TV show - at least not if it wants to run a true astronaut training program. That means the tension must come out of the training program itself. We haven't heard much from Mars One about what the training will involve, but it's easy to imagine how the candidates could be put to the test: zero-g flights, stratospheric skydiving, survival training... and lots of insects to eat. If Mars One can build enough of that tension into the training program without compromising its integrity, then it might have a successful TV show. 

But I don't think Mars One can rely on the American market to the same extent as the Olympics. Contrary to most space enthusiasts beliefs, the American public isn't that interested in space beyond brief bursts around the exciting bits.

That means the candidate selections can't mirror the national distribution seen among the current candidates. The selections process has to be as much about casting as it is about aptitude for Mars settlement. 

Mars One must cast a wide net to bring in revenue from as many markets as possible. Even though the candidate pool from China and Japan is small, they must be represented in the training program in order to get the broadcast fees. Likewise Brazil and Mexico and Nigeria and Indonesia and the Philippines and... and... and.... 

And that will mean fewer slots for candidates from North America and Europe, increasing the pressure on Mars One to choose the right candidates from those countries. Someone who flakes out - or decides maybe family is more important after all - could send ratings into free fall, placing the revenue from major media markets at risk.

So my advice to the Mars One candidates is to remember that this is about more than the training program - its about landing a spot on a TV show. Do more than demonstrate technical competence. You need to show charisma and character that will come across to the TV-watching public. Watch your original application video as well as footage from your public appearances and ask whether you would want to watch you on TV. Or would you turn the channel?