On July 21, 2011, the space shuttle Atlantis successfully touched down at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, bringing its mission, along with that of NASA’s manned spaceflight program, to a close. For nearly two years, U.S. astronauts have resorted to hitching rides on the Russian Soyuz rocket, while U.S. satellites and International Space Station components have been ferried to orbit by private companies like SpaceX. In NASA’s defense, its recent unmanned missions, like the bold landing of the Curiosity Mars rover or the ion-propelled Dawn asteroid probe, have pushed the envelope of science and engineering. Yet after Congress cut funding for the Constellation program, NASA’s planned successor to the shuttle program, in response to a tightening budget, the prospects of human space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit have seemed rather unlikely.
Astronaut hopefuls may yet have another ticket to the Red Planet in the Dutch non-profit organization Mars One. Its founder, Bas Lansdorp, recently gave a TED talk outlining his ambitious goal: the establishment of a permanent human settlement on Mars by 2023. In contrast with the scuttled Constellation program, Mars One plans to assemble its hardware from existing suppliers rather than develop its own, saving significant amounts in research and development costs. The greatest savings, however, come from the mission plan itself, which includes no possibility of return for the Martian settlers. Much of the expense of spaceflight comes from the fact that a rocket must not only carry enough fuel to put its payload into orbit, but also enough fuel to get that fuel into flight. For the Martian astronauts to return, an entire second rocket would have to be either sent into or assembled in space, safely landed on Mars, and have enough fuel to make the return trip. NASA has estimated the cost of a such journey at $100 billion; Mars One, in contrast, claims it can land its crew on the planet for a mere $6 billion.
The organization’s most revolutionary idea may be the way it plans to finance the endeavor: the creation of the most ambitious and important reality TV phenomenon in history. From crew selection and training through launch and landing, Mars One plans to televise, tweet, and post the entire course of the mission. The company has already leveraged the power of YouTube in its astronaut selection process; over 78,000 applicants have uploaded videos explaining why they should be selected for the 20 available crew slots (with an application fee of up to $73). If successful, this approach would monetize the most important intangible of space exploration, the sense of wonder inherent in the vast distances and unknown mysteries of space. Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk drew approximately 125 million viewers in the US, a 93 percent share of all TV viewers in the country; the cost of a 30 second ad for the most recent Super Bowl, with a market share of only 48 percent, was $4 million. Although some may consider it crass to advertise during the coverage of this great adventure, it seems a small price to pay to allow the mission to take place at all. Until it becomes possible to mine asteroids for platinum or other valuable metals (a possibility this blog will explore in a future post), the riches of media may prove the best way to fund the exploration of space.