April 22, 2013 at 6:23 PM ET
Organizers of the Dutch-based Mars One project opened up their website on Monday to take applications for a one-way trip to Mars in 2022.
That's right: These astronauts won't be coming back. The idea is to jump-start a permanent settlement on Mars, with more supplies and settlers arriving every couple of years.
The organizers say the $6 billion cost for the first landing would be covered through reality-TV deals and merchandising, but they skirted pointed questions about the plan's financial feasibility.
Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp compared the non-profit venture to the London Olympics, which reportedly brought in $3.8 billion in revenue for last summer's 17-day spectacle. "If you can make $1 billion per week just by having a large audience in the entire world, then suddenly $6 billion doesn't sound like so much anymore," he said.
He declined to provide a detailed breakdown of the costs during Monday's news conference in New York, largely because he didn't want to give away any competitive information about the talks being conducted with potential suppliers. "It would be very stupid for us to give the prices that have been quoted per component," he told reporters.
He acknowledged that the mission's financial aspects posed the greatest challenge. However, he said the drama surrounding Mars One's plan to send four-person crews to Mars, with no promise of return, was "exactly the greatness that makes it possible to finance this."
"It's easier to finance a mission to Mars than to finance a mission to the moon," he said.
Thousands register interest
There has certainly been lots of enthusiasm for the mission: Lansdorp said Mars One has received more than 10,000 emails from more than 100 countries around the world, voicing willingness to sign up for a one-way ticket to the Red Planet. Starting Monday, anyone 18 or older can formally apply — provided that they pay an application fee. Lansdorp said the fee ranges from $5 to $75, depending on the standard of living for the country of residence. U.S. residents, for example, will be charged $38.
Each applicant will have to submit a one-minute video explaining why he or she should be among the first humans on Mars. Applicants will be screened for physical and mental fitness, and will have to speak English. They should also be "mature and interesting," Mars One says. But chief medical director Norbert Kraft said there are no formal academic or professional prerequisites. "We will give the training," he said.
Mars One's business plan calls for the latter stages of the selection process to be broadcast on TV and the Internet. Twenty-four to 40 finalists would be chosen to go through years of training. At the end of the process, Mars One expects at least six crews to be ready for flight. Each crew would consist of two women and two men. Having six crews available would ensure against the possibility that someone gets sick — or gets "cold feet" — when it's time to fly to Mars, Kraft said.
The venture's time line calls for the first in a series of preparatory robotic missions to lift off in 2016. An exploratory rover would be sent to Mars in 2018, and another rover would head out in 2020 to get the chosen target site ready for human habitation. Eight robotic missions would be sent before the human crew sets out in 2022 on a seven-month cruise, Lansdorp said. The landing is currently scheduled for April 2023, "exactly 10 years from today," he said.
Organizers say the $6 billion raised through broadcast and marketing rights would cover costs through the first landing in 2023. Billions more would be required to keep the colony going and growing beyond that.
Lansdorp said the project would be presented to international broadcasters at the Mipcom conference in Cannes, France, this October. He acknowledged that the time line might be delayed due to technical difficulties. "This will not be easy," he said. "There is lots of engineering and testing to be done before the first humans land." But he said the Mars One group is already in discussions with spaceflight companies including SpaceX and Paragon Space Development Corp. about the launch plans.
Grant Anderson, Paragon's senior vice president of operations, said his company was working on a concept design study that would be delivered to Mars One this summer. "The Mars One program is doing this right," Anderson said.
One of the potential scenarios would employ expanded SpaceX Dragon capsules for the missions, Lansdorp said. SpaceX's billionaire founder, Elon Musk, has repeatedly said it's technically possible to put humans on Mars in 10 years. There's already a "Red Dragon" plan for Mars landings, with an estimated price tag of $400 million or less per mission.
Veteran rocket engineer Robert Zubrin, who is president of the non-profit Mars Society, agrees that Mars One's plan is technically feasible — but adds that it's incredibly challenging. "They have set a very high bar for themselves, and I'm not sure they have the resources," he told NBC News.
Former NASA mission planner Scott Hubbard, who is now a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University, said landing on Mars safely ranked among the biggest challenges. "Anyone familiar with the 'seven minutes of terror' knows that getting anything substantial [to the Martian surface] is not a trivial issue," Hubbard said. Other challenges include weathering the radiation exposure and health effects of long-term weightlessness on the way to Mars; and truly being able to have astronauts live off the land once they get to Mars, with no possibility of heading back to Earth.
"It's certainly a bold concept, something that I don't know a government would ever contemplate," Hubbard said. He said the project could end up costing much more than the currently projected $6 billion.
The one-way nature of the Mars One trips didn't bother Zubrin: "There's nothing fantastical about that," he said. "We're all on a one-way trip to somewhere."
But Zubrin said another attention-getting trip, the Inspiration Mars plan to send a husband-and-wife crew on a flyby past the Red Planet in 2018, would be far less demanding. The price tag for that trip is thought to be on the order of $1 billion, and it already has the backing of millionaire space tourist Dennis Tito. A successful flyby in 2018 could conceivably generate interest in more ambitious missions, Zubrin said.
"If Inspiration Mars can do that, they will have significant credibility to raise large amounts of money to take humans to the Martian surface," Zubrin said.
When it comes to reality TV, money and the willingness to take on risks are the keys to success, said Hollywood producer David Krieff. He should know: Ten years ago, Krieff helped put pop singer Lance Bass through Russian cosmonaut training for a reality-TV project that would have sent him to the International Space Station. The project fizzled out when TV executives, potential sponsors and insurers got cold feet.
Krieff had some words of advice for Mars One's organizers: "I wish them luck, but I would say have the money in the bank — and most of all, have all the liabilities taken care of," he said. "The risks and the insurance and the money is a lot of work. These things are always more expensive than you expect."
More about missions to Mars:
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.