Ultimate Reality TV: A Crazy Plan for a Mars Colony

By Manfred Dworschak

Photo Gallery: A Mission to the Unknown Photos
Mars One

It might become the mother of all reality shows. Fully 704 candidates are soon to begin competing for a trip to Mars to establish a colony there. Broadcasting rights are to fund the mission, but a return ticket is not part of the deal.

If his greatest wish is fulfilled, then Stephan GŁnther will one day die on Mars. He's already thought about the eventuality. He would like his companions to pack his remains in an airtight coffin before depositing him outside the colony among the rocks.

"Perhaps there are unknown forms of life on Mars," 45-year-old GŁnther says. "We can't just intervene."

It is a sentiment which displays the enlightenment of today's conquerors. They want to take ownership of a planet, but they are concerned that their own remains could contaminate native bacterial cultures in its dusty, rocky ecosystem.

Mars, to be sure, remains a deserted wasteland today, its ecology intact. But it could be that GŁnther might bounce his way through rough craters beaming pictures back to Earth. Currently a flight trainer in Magdeburg, Germany, GŁnther has applied to take part in a unique voyage to our neighboring planet. A return trip is not part of the deal.

Conceiving the journey as one-way makes it vastly more feasible and less expensive. A Dutch foundation, led by businessman Bas Lansdorp, is behind the idea. "We want to send the first four settlers to Mars in 2024," he says, adding that "additional teams will follow."

Some 704 candidates say they are prepared to leave Earth forever. A competition will decide which of them will be sent to be humanity's permanent representatives on Mars. Lansdorp's foundation, Mars One, plans to train those chosen for eight years as preparation for a radically new life.

Mars is not a destination that sounds particularly attractive. It is bitterly cold and dust storms sometimes envelope the entire planet for weeks at a time. Its sights are also limited to gorges that are several kilometers deep and enormous volcanoes, the biggest of which is the size of Poland and stretches 26 kilometers (16 miles) into the Martian sky.

Flying to the Stars

For settlers there, though, the Earth would be but a tiny point in the heavens and if something happened, there would be no help available. The flight takes at least six months -- and the two planets are close enough to each other for such a trip only once every two years.

None of that bothers GŁnther. He has always wanted to fly to the stars, even going so far as to build himself a space capsule out of cardboard boxes as a child. Inside, he carefully drew an instrument panel, cut holes so he could see out and tipped a chair onto its back for the pilot's seat. Then, he would fly into space. "Even when the weather was good," GŁnther says. "The other boys would be playing football outside, but I would be flying in my capsule."

Now, he has hopes that he might fly at least 50 million kilometers into space in a real spaceship. First designs for a vehicle that could make it to Mars have already been completed. The US-based company SpaceX, for example, presented their model Dragon V2 in May. The capsule has enough room for seven passengers and it is hoped that it will begin flying astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) as early as 2016. Mars One hopes that it will later ferry the first settlers to our neighboring planet.

Mars One hopes to begin a series of unmanned cargo flights to Mars in 2018 to establish the necessary infrastructure. In 2025, when the first four -- of a planned total of 24 settlers -- touch down, they will find a "reliable living environment," as the website describes it. There will be a living unit for each along with inflatable greenhouses for lettuce, tomatoes and zucchini. Water will be provided by melting ice from the Martian soil and some of it will be broken down to provide oxygen. Solar cells will generate electricity.

There is little doubt that such a mission is technically feasible. But beyond that, it is viewed with significant skepticism. The biggest hurdle is the price tag. Mars One hopes that $6 billion will be enough to finance the project up to the first landing, but experts believe it is almost impossible to calculate what it might ultimately end up costing. The plan calls for most of the money to be generated by the sale of broadcasting rights. Landsdorp notes that major television channels already spend around $4 billion for the privilege of televising the Olympic Games. Wouldn't a settlement on Mars be more thrilling than that? "The audience will be excited like they haven't been since the moon landing," he says.

The Ultimate Reality Show

The show is to start on Earth, with cameras documenting the competition between the teams of potential candidates. Simulated catastrophes, of the kind that would constantly threaten the Mars colony, would provide plenty of story lines. What, for example, would the settlers do if the toilets stopped working? Or if the oxygen flow was interrupted? Or if a meteorite crashed through the roof? The plan is for team members to practice extensively in facsimile capsules, repeatedly isolated from the outside world for weeks at a time. "It will be the toughest training ever," says GŁnther, not without some pride.

A subsidiary of the Dutch television production firm Endemol (which created "Big Brother") has already snapped up the broadcasting rights for the candidate selection process. Initially, they will film the interviews that Mars One will use to narrow down the candidate pool. The plan calls for 25 teams of four to then battle it out, with the six best set to begin survival training next year.

The mission will ultimately depend on its heroes. It needs strong, colorful characters that will be able to entertain viewers from around the world over the course of several years. But they also need abstemious, even-tempered types who won't go crazy in the dusty solitude of Mars.

Lansdorp claims that the requirements aren't mutually exclusive. "Those who can win over the viewing public also have what it takes to become colonists," he says. "Would you want to live on Mars with bores?"

Early on, it looked as though the candidate pool would be inexhaustible. Some 200,000 people sent their applications in to Mars One, most of them via the Internet. Then Lansdorp and his team began sorting through them, eliminating the jokesters and the doleful types hoping for a bit of attention. In the end, just 704 candidates remained.

But it is still a colorful mixture. Daniel, from Kleve, Germany, is one example. A 26-year-old social worker, he loves hiking for weeks at a time through empty countryside. He says the thing that makes him most nervous about the Mars mission is that there would be three other people with him. By contrast, there is Leila, the lively, 46-year-old doctor from Washington who looks forward to the close quarters and bustle the colony would offer. Web designer Khalid, a 22-year-old from Dubai, suffered a brief setback when his mullah ruled that the Mars mission was akin to suicide and thus not allowed for devout Muslims. But Khalid wants to go nonetheless.

The phrase "life's dream" is one that is often heard in the application videos the candidates sent in. Establishing a settlement in space is the most amazing thing possible, they believe.

Audience of Billions?

It is the kind of mission that is irresistible to those yearning for those yearning for uniqueness. Space travelers stand out, achieving a kind of renown that not even extreme mountain climbers can hope to attain. After each new peak, climbers must come down to resume life among the hoi polloi. These Mars travelers, though, would leave the Earth behind forever, destined to become living monuments -- and may have an audience of billions.

But is it acceptable to seduce people to such a potentially deadly project? And if so, who do you choose? Who has the stuff to withstand such a mission? And, if things go wrong, when do you turn off the cameras?

Many applicants dream of establishing a new, utopian society without laws and borders. Mars offers the perfect vacuum for their fantasies. But GŁnther believes there's no place on the Red Planet for idealists like that. Life there will be much more difficult than it is on Earth, not easier. Lansdorp agrees. "We aren't sending anyone up there who doesn't like the Earth," he says. "Because in such cases, it's not the Earth that is the problem. We need people who have a lot to lose, but want to go anyway."

People like Stephan GŁnther. He would be leaving his three children behind along with his wife Beate, who has gotten over the initial shock she felt upon learning of his dream. She has come to believe that her husband simply has a need to travel into space, not unlike a salmon that returns to its birthplace to spawn. She comforts herself with the knowledge that they still have 10 years together.

GŁnther, though, doesn't forget his plans for a second. He has lost 20 kilograms (44 pounds) and goes running regularly, even in the heat of Spain where he often spends his summers. His wife owns a bungalow tucked away among the hotels not far from the beach in Benidorm, on Spain's Mediterranean coast. Here, far away from the flight school, GŁnther can program in peace. Programming is his second occupation and he develops simulators for space enthusiasts -- a space shuttle, for example, that users can fly through outer space, or an Apollo Mission for gamers.

When he wants to get away from the hotel high-rises, he flies over the arid Spanish coastline in a friend's gyrocopter. From above, the region looks not dissimilar to the planet he hopes one day to call his home.

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