was mars one the fyre festival of space startups?

Mars One was an impossible dream. No, literally. As in not possible and could never happen. Now the company is bankrupt and its mission plans abandoned, which is really for the best.

surviving mars
Illustration from Surviving Mars

In a coup of search engine optimization genius, an editor at Popular Science compared the now bankrupt and defunct Mars One project to the Fyre Festival in the headline. And there’s certainly some truth to the comparison, because the quest to crowdfund a reality TV show that would also build a human colony on Mars wasn’t going to happen, and stern questions were raised about the feasibility of the project as soon as it started accepting applications from would-be Martians and hitting them up for more and more money until they started calling foul. Now, after years of radio silence, the company and its non-profit sibling shut down, their fate only known because a Reddit user spotted them in a listing of bankruptcy cases in Switzerland.

While the reviews for Mars One were still glowing, numerous critics tore into the concept, asking why anyone would think this was a good idea. But that’s probably not the right question because it’s quite understandable why so many people wanted to leave the tedium of Earth and find a life of adventure on a new, different world, and if anything, we should encourage them and benefit from the results. And a TV show documenting their trip would’ve probably received amazing ratings and done phenomenally well financially. The problem is that Mars One did not have the technology or ability to get anyone off Earth and wasn’t going to get it.

It was going to rely on the prowess of SpaceX and other aerospace startups to do the heavy lifting, the plan it unveiled for the habitat meant to serve as humanity’s new home on the red planet was infeasible, and their cost estimates for actually pulling all this off were ridiculously low. As in several orders of magnitude too low to even be taken seriously. And even with such pitifully insufficient estimates, they didn’t have the money to pull off what they wanted, much less invest in the technology they’d need to ensure they could get their chosen crew to Mars safely. Their biggest accomplishment is getting a lot of media attention.

There are so many things to think about when taking a random group of people into space and make sure they can survive an illness or injury on their way to another planet. There are serious questions about their mental health on such a long trip, because even if they’re the most upbeat and optimistic humans you can find, a year of cabin fever can absolutely change that. How will they cope with radiation from deep space? Could they perform surgery on each other if need be? Are there proper emergency procedures in place for every possible situation? We could go on and on, asking question after question about Mars One’s mission plan and hear silence, just like the experts who bombarded them with their concerns.

In short, Mars One promised to build something it couldn’t, with money it didn’t have, and plans that couldn’t work, so yes editors at Pop Sci, Mars One would’ve absolutely and without a doubt been the Fyre Festival of space if it was allowed to continue. Only instead of angry tourists stuck in disaster relief tents tweeting pictures of bad toast and limp cheese slices in takeout boxes, we would’ve had a front row seat to people slowly and gruesomely dying on an alien planet with no means of getting back or being rescued. Thankfully the bar to starting your own space program is still a lot higher than renting an undeveloped lot on Great Exuma.

# space // mars / mars one / space exploration


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