Mars One can pivot to success without going to Mars

Mars One's vision of humanity's second home may not happen, but that doesn't make it a scam. Source: Mars One

Mars One’s critics have gotten louder over the past week, pointing out the technological hurdles that will require ten times more money than a TV show can raise. The critics are probably right - space is a lot harder than enthusiasts want to believe - but that doesn’t mean Mars One is a scam. Borrowing a page from Silicon Valley startups would let Mars One become the world’s 3rd largest astronaut program and change the face of space exploration. 

Nasa's artists can make pretty pictures, but the space agency's plans for exploring Mars will take decades and half a trillion dollars to achieve. Credit: Nasa

Mars One’s critics - haters or realists?

The vague assurances and lack of specifics in Mars One’s claims leave it open to criticism from experts in both the space industry and the entertainment industry. Its critics attack along two fronts: one technological, and the other financial. The astronauts, engineers, and scientists who explore space for a living rattle off long lists of unsolved technological challenges including: 

  • Moving humans across the Solar System
  • Landing humans safely on Mars
  • Reliable and repairable life support systems
  • High capacity solar or nuclear power systems
  • Countering the effects of low gravity on humans and technology
  • Countering the effects of radiation on humans and technology
  • Countering the effects of caustic Martian dust on humans and technology

While technology exists on Earth that can do many of these things, either in commercial use or demonstrated in laboratories, nobody has proven that these technologies will work in the Mars environment. Nasa's plans to explore Mars will take decades and by most estimates will cost $100-$500 billion to achieve. Space industry experts point out that Mars One will need much more than its planned $6 billion budget to develop these technologies to the point they can risk astronauts’ lives. Even Mars One’s own ambassador, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Gerard ’t Hooft, believes it will take ten times as much money to land on Mars.

That leads to the second prong of critics’ attacks. While Mars One expects Olympic-scale media and advertising revenue to generate the billions it needs, media experts don’t believe it. Dr. Christopher Riley, a British science documentary producer, told the Mail Online

The only funding source they are proposing at the moment is through TV rights - which will fall short by several orders of magnitude.

Mars One CEO Bas Lansdorp tells the press that most of the Internet-connected world will watch a Mars landing. While true, Mars One needs to spend billions before that money comes in. 

What if Lansdorp is wrong? If the technology costs more to develop and if the broadcast revenue isn’t large enough or come in fast enough, does that make Mars One a failure?

The Mars One Show could be must-see TV

Not necessarily. Keep in mind that the “reality TV” show (let’s call it the Mars One Show) won’t be a Big Brother-style last-one-standing contest where deliberate conflict among d-list celebrities and wannabe media personalities drives the action. 

Buzz Aldrin, the 2nd man on the Moon, got a second shot at zero gravity. Tourists and scientists - and maybe soon Mars One candidates - can ride Zero G's version of the Vomit Comet Nasa uses to train its astronauts. Source: Zero G Corporation

The Mars One Show will document a training program modeled on Nasa’s Astronaut Candidate Program (Here’s Nasa’s PDF fact sheet). The candidates will go through intense physical and mental training. They will take microgravity flights to train in zero-g. They will go through desert and arctic survival training. They will train to handle Apollo 13-style emergencies. Throughout that time the candidates will be separated from friends and family, assigned to small, culturally diverse groups, and confined to the limited quarters of Mars One’s simulation outpost.

This is a high stress, pressure-cooker environment that will generate tension and conflict naturally - the Mars One Show’s producers won’t need to resort to cheap theatrics. With professional standards and a “cast” of candidates that people can relate to, the Mars One Show would have as good a shot at success as any TV concept. There are no guarantees in the entertainment business, but even a mildly successful Mars One Show could bring in tens of millions of dollars worldwide. 

Pivoting to Success

Since that won’t get anyone to the red planet, Mars One must apply concepts from Silicon Valley startup culture. Rather than create the world’s greatest product, modern startups launch a simple, no-frills “minimum viable product” they can market to early adopters. That triggers a rapidly-iterating cycle of customer feedback and product changes which optimizes the product or fails quickly. If the product fails, the startup “pivots” and applies its talent and intellectual property to create a different product.

Mars One believes its product is the settlement of Mars. Its true minimum viable product, however, is the Mars One Show itself. The broadcasting revenue won’t support a Mars program, but it can sustain the Mars One training program for several years… just as the space industry changes dramatically: 

Nasa astronauts will ride into space in a new generation of space capsules from Boeing and SpaceX Source: Nasa

Planned right, Mars One could pivot into this new space industry with 24 trained astronauts - more than any space agency other than Nasa and Roscosmos. That would let Mars One offer astronaut services to private businesses, universities and governments. Moreover, the multinational nature of its astronaut program would let Mars One avoid the geopolitical and export control issues that national space agencies face. 

Is a pivot the future for Mars One? Right now it’s just one blogger’s speculation. But unless Mars One has outsmarted all of the astronauts, rocket scientists, and media experts in the critics’ chorus, changing course may be the only option for success. Pivoting to provide astronaut services in Earth orbit would give Mars One a bigger revenue stream for its long-term vision and give the organization more credibility within the space industry.

Mars One’s candidates may not live on Mars, but they won’t cry about working in outer space… and coming back.

The future of low Earth orbit will belong to private space stations like this concept from Bigelow Aerospace. Just one of its inflatable BA330 modules has three times more living space than Nasa's Destiny module on the International Space Station. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace