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Red Planet or Bust? Private Mars One Mission Faces Earthly Challenges

Image: Mars lander

An artist's conception shows a lander that Mars One has said could be launched to the Red Planet's surface as early as 2018. Mars One

The Dutch-based Mars One venture is closing in on choosing its crews for one-way trips to the Red Planet, but will they be all dressed up in spacesuits with no place to go? Over the past week, there's been a string of reports that highlight the huge challenges facing Mars One.

Space News reports that the project's leaders haven't followed up on concept studies for robotic missions aimed at sending a lander and an orbiter to Mars in 2018. The Daily Mail says Mars One's deal with Endemol's global TV production team has fizzled out. Meanwhile, the Guardian quotes one of Mars One's initial supporters, astronomer Gerard 't Hooft, as saying the mission "will take quite a bit longer and be quite a bit more expensive" than advertised.

From the start, there have been questions about how the commercial venture could possibly cover the anticipated multibillion-dollar cost of sending citizen astronauts to Mars, even if they're on a one-way trip with no promise of return. Moreover, the current plan calls for those trips to start in 2024, which suggests a schedule more ambitious than the one that sent Americans to the moon in the superpower space race of the 1960s.

Mars One lays plans for Red Planet settlement 3:59

In an email exchange with NBC News, Bas Lansdorp, Mars One's chief executive and co-founder, insisted that the schedule was doable. He said the 2018 robotic missions were "still Mars One's top priority, and we're spending most of our efforts on them." The concept studies from Lockheed Martin and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. are being evaluated, along with the proposed scientific payloads, he said.

"We are still on the (tight) time line for our 2018 mission and will make an official announcement in case that changes," Lansdorp wrote.

Lansdorp acknowledged that Mars One ended its collaboration with Endemol "because we could not reach agreement on the details of the contract." But he said a TV documentary series was still in the works.

"We have contracted [with] a different production company that will produce the documentary series for us," Lansdorp said. "They have already produced the trailer on our YouTube channel, and progress is good."

Lansdorp said the name of the production company has not yet been released. He also emphasized that the TV project would be more along the lines of a behind-the-scenes documentary rather than a reality-TV competition to go to Mars.

"We've never planned a 'reality TV series,'" Lansdorp wrote in his email. "A documentary series has always been our plan."

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On its website, Mars One says it's received more than $750,000 in contributions so far from crowdfunding campaigns and sales of merchandise. However, it's counting on billions of dollars in future revenue from sponsorships and Olympic-style media deals.

Mars One has already stretched its mission plan further into the future, and if it becomes clear that the venture can't hit a schedule for launches beginning just three years from now, it's likely that another postponement will be announced. But some observers are wondering whether Mars One merits all the attention it's gotten.

"Why does the mainstream media only want to talk about Mars One?" the Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla complained in a tweet. "Why can't anyone be interested in actual Mars exploration?"