How Mars One is Like a Björn Borg Clothing Line

[This post has been updated with some really brilliant insight from the author.]
Mars One, the pseudo-pyramid scheme that pretends to be sending astronauts to Mars in the next decade, has inspired a fashion show.

Björn Borg, who I assume is very important in the fashion world, showed off a collection of what is said to be sportswear the serves as “a tribute to the courage and the faith that these people show by going out to the unknown for the evolution of mankind.”

That’s all fine. The idea of human beings risking everything for the longshot chance to live out their days on another planet is, in fact, deeply inspiring. The problem, readers of this blog will already know, is that Mars One is, at best, just shy of a scam. Far too many of its core claims have been shown to be either outright false or gross exaggerations, its stated aims have been declared utterly implausible by even the most optimistic experts, and former would-be candidates for the big trip have revealed the shoddy and ethically dubious process for choosing candidates.

But the idea in abstract? Totally compelling. That, with a heaping dose of laziness, must be why outlets like Space.com and others still repeat the press releases of the Mars One company, complete with references to the alleged 200,000 applicants, which is complete bullshit.

And how perfect a metaphor is this kind of high-end fashion show for the Mars One concept? The Borg collection of clothing is lofty and future-looking, but also entirely impractical and more than a little absurd. The clothes are aspirational, but of course will never be worn by anyone.

It is Mars One.

Forget the boondoggle. How does the Björn Borg “Training for Mars” sportswear look?

I know nothing about the fashion world, so I’ll leave you to be the judge of that. The show was held about a week ago in Stockholm, with Mars One candidates in attendance. Here’s the official promo video from after the fact:

This is clearly not the kind of merchandising Mars One needs to fund their adventure. They need to find some product to be “the official nacho cheese sauce of Mars One” or something.

As a side note, Engadget is going to begin a video series profiling five of the Mars One candidates, and I hope they are going to approach the project with an appropriately skeptical eye. I will be watching with interest. The trailer alone with the wide-eyed, hopeful candidates, and with the parents pained at the idea of their kids disappearing into space, thinking it could actually happen, only makes me more irritated at the scheme.

Here are my previous posts on Mars One:

Mavericky Mars One

Image source.

Before getting into this, you might want to catch up with some of my previous writing on Mars One:

Okay, onward.

In an unfortunately puffy piece at The Guardian on the Mars One project, we do learn a couple of new pieces of information, which include the fact that a company called Paragon Space Development is under contract to build space suits for Mars One, and that Elon Musk has at one point expressed his willingness to sell his rockets to Mars One, but has no agreement with them (which Mars One used to imply), and Musk expresses only skepticism for the plan.

The rest of the piece more or less characterizes Mars One as a mavericky, ballsy adventure that, shucks, just might work. And it does give a sense of how the criticism of the project in recent months has only served to harden the resolve of its would-be astronauts. If any part of the Mars One scheme irritates me, it’s how it’s already tearing a rent in families and relationships over a voyage that almost certainly will never happen. And if any aspect of it disturbs me, it’s the cultification of the voyage that you can witness in the interviews with its true believers.

We also learn that the project has been almost entirely funded so far by angel investors (“30-odd rich individuals and three or four companies that don’t demand a return on their investment”), except of course for the money they squeeze from the Mars One candidates. (One bought a t-shirt!) The next round of funding, says the author, comes from the kind of folks who will expect a profit under a predetermined schedule. “The point at which Mars One can announce backing from these guys is the point at which we have no choice but to take it seriously,” the author writes, as though it’s a fact. “And that point, [CEO Bas] Lansdorp says, is close.”

Lansdorp says. He says a lot of things.

Lansdorp is still talking about “200,000” applicants, when that number has been revealed to be bogus, he’s still talking about technical limitations that “would be solved in time” with no explanation.

But look, I get it. When I first heard about Mars One, I very much wanted it to be legitimate. And who knows, maybe it will turn out to be, and I’ll eat my metaphorical hat. Or crow. Or my heart out. Whatever. And I agree with the author’s sentiment (never mind the association that does not exist between Lansdorp and Musk):

What Lansdorp, Musk and others have done is reopen a conversation that had died. Somewhere on Earth, right now, the first human to set foot on Mars is probably among us.

Now that excites me.

Here Come the Apologetics from “Some” Mars One Candidates

The true believers of Mars One have begun to respond to the criticism the program is facing, most specifically from the excellent investigative work of Elmo Keep, whose pieces I have now cited twice on this blog. Yesterday, I wrote about how Keep’s reporting reveals that Mars One is beginning to look less like a noble scientific enterprise, and more like a profit-seeking rapture cult.
Today, I am directed to a rebuttal piece that is part group-response from Mars One candidates, and part personal response from candidate Oscar Mathews Correa. I’ll get into a few of its specifics in a bit, but it’s more or less what you’d expect, an attempt to correct or put in context the problems that Keep’s reporting has raised.

Now, to be entirely clear, I should say that the first part of the article is allegedly by a group of Mars One candidates, as no names are given. Rather, it is attributed to, literally, “Some Mars100 Facebook Candidates.” So right off the bat we’re in sketchy territory, as no specific person is willing to put their name to it (other than Correa, I assume).

The very first problem with this piece is that it calls Keep’s criticisms a “conspiracy theory” right in the title, when in fact it’s the opposite. Keep implies no conspiracy, there are no wheels-within-wheels nor powerful, shadowy entities pulling any strings. If there were, the program would be more successful. But one could certainly infer (as I do) a scam. It is more accurate to say that the rebuttal’s authors are perceiving a conspiracy against them, when of course none exists.

Let’s cover some of the points made by “Some Mars100 Facebook Candidates” in the first part of the article. This will by no means be exhaustive, but touch on some of the points that stood out to me. In Keep’s latest article, former candidate Joseph Roche says that Mars One’s training and expertise requirements fall well below those required of NASA astronauts. To which the “Some” respond:

The Mars One project is very different to a typical NASA mission, and therefore has very different requirements for its astronaut candidates. The Mars One candidates would be primarily colonists, not pilots. It is likely that course corrections and landing procedures will be automated — for uncrewed as well as crewed spacecraft.

There will be 10 years of training between selection and launch, which absolutely does compare to NASA’s level and depth of training. This training might cover emergency manual control of spacecraft if applicable.

“It is likely that…” and “This training might cover…” – why don’t they know? A program designed to send colonists to Mars for the rest of their lives doesn’t know what it will train them for? Or is it that the “Some” haven’t been told? Why not?

Keep reports that the alleged primary source of funding (which would have to be enormous since we’re talking about colonists on freaking Mars), supposedly a TV production company, bailed on the program. The “Some” say all is well, because:

The primary source of finance is to be an investment firm in the first stages of the mission (leading up to and including the first manned mission). The documentary and live broadcast aspects of the project are expected to bring in revenue at later stages of the project. Mars One is in talks with both an investment firm and a new production company to take over the documentary aspect of the project. Collaboration with Endemol [the original production company] was reportedly ended as they were unable to reach an agreement over the terms of the contract.

Which investment firm? What firm on Earth is willing to be the primary source of billions of dollars for this vague project? And it is vague, even in how the “Some” describe it. Funds are always “expected,” and Mars One is always “in talks” (remember the “meetings” from my Underpants Gnomes post). It’s all a lot of promised milestones, none of which have been reached, and by their own admission, at least one has fallen through. Why is this all so murky?

That’s my overall impression of the rebuttal from the “Some”: It’s airy and hangs its assertions on “talks” and expectations, with little to nothing that is solid, decided, or in place.

Moving on to the second half of the piece, we have Correa’s personal response (which is itself apparently an extract from another article somewhere else). Like the “Some” response, it doesn’t begin well either:

That rascally Elmo Keep is at it again.

“Rascally”? Yeah, I’m really ready to take this person seriously. Note, too, that Correa refers to Elmo Keep as “Elmo” and not by her surname, as through they’re buddies.

Correa, overall, seems to believe that the bad impression now being given by Mars One is the result of some “missteps in public relations,” not to any problems with the facts of the program.

He plays a cheap emotional trick early in his response by putting a lot of emphasis on the early medical screenings undergone by candidates, as though this made up for the thin application and paltry interview process, and drops in that the medical screenings “surprisingly revealed some candidates with cancer, potentially saving their lives.” You see? Mars One is already saving lives! Just with its application process! Only a monster could object to saving people’s lives from cancer.

Correa seems to me to be fixated on the supposed agendas of various parties rather than the legitimate criticisms of the program. He writes:

For example, in one televised interview done in the Miami broadcast area (en Español), a NASA engineer attempted to refute some MarsOne mission plan elements by saying we would never get to Mars until we could land 40 metric tons on the surface. This is not true. Yet he receives airtime because he works at NASA, and of course they have their nascent “Mars missions begin on the ISS” agenda to promote.

Ah ha! You see! It’s a conspiracy by NASA who want to stop the Mars One mission from succeeding, because what they really want to make sure humans get to Mars the NASA way.

And yes, he receives airtime because he works at NASA. Because he actually has a chance of knowing what he’s talking about. He might actually bring facts, expertise, and experience to the discussion.

Unlike, well, “Some.”

I wonder if we’ll see more of this. This particular article isn’t egregious, but it smacks of defensiveness, released to fill the dead air coming from the Mars One organization, and its lack of substance only increases my already-deep skepticism of the project. More worrying is how it reads like religious apologetics. They believe it will all work out, because it’s been promised. And the promised land itself, Mars, beckons so strongly, and feels to them to be so close.

I hope too many people don’t get screwed too badly.

Mars One is Amway-Meets-Heaven’s Gate

In November I wrote about an investigative piece by Elmo Keep on the Mars One initiative, which is supposed to be screening candidates for a one-way mission to Mars in the next decade. Go read that post to get caught up. (And read all of Keep’s original article, which is amazing.)
In my post, I compared Mars One to the Underpants Gnomes of South Park:

So to sum that up in Underpants Gnome terms:

  1. Hold meetings.
  2. Get feedback from meetings.
  3. ???
  4. Send humans to Mars.

In other words, Keep’s reporting showed that at best, Mars One is a well-intentioned idea, as I put it, built like a house of cards. At worst, it’s a weird and cynical scam, the goal of which is unclear.

Alas, I think the needle may be tilting strongly toward the latter.

Keep is back with a follow-up piece, in which she profiles Mars One candidate (and top-100 “finalist”) Dr. Joseph Roche. What he reveals is that Mars One is less of an Underpants Gnome project, and more of a for-profit cult. From Keep’s piece:

“When you join the ‘Mars One Community,’ which happens automatically if you applied as a candidate, they start giving you points,” Roche explained to me in an email. “You get points for getting through each round of the selection process (but just an arbitrary number of points, not anything to do with ranking), and then the only way to get more points is to buy merchandise from Mars One or to donate money to them.”

“Community members” can redeem points by purchasing merchandise like T-shirts, hoodies, and posters, as well as through gifts and donations: The group also solicits larger investment from its supporters. Others have been encouraged to help the group make financial gains on flurries of media interest. In February, finalists received a list of “tips and tricks” for dealing with press requests, which included this: “If you are offered payment for an interview then feel free to accept it. We do kindly ask for you to donate 75% of your profit to Mars One.”

It’s disgusting, isn’t it? Get people to sign up to be “chosen” for a mythology-worthy (and mythical) voyage to martyr themselves for science and the human race and whatnot, and thereby pressure them to pay into draping themselves in the brand, and funneling their own money back to the project. The candidates, one presumes, really want to be chosen for the mission, to be seen as enthusiastic, committed, and worthy, so they buy into the “points” system as a way to show their devotion. It sounds like Amway meets Heaven’s Gate, or a short-term Scientology. It’s a snake oil rapture story dressed up as noble science.

And as Keep points out, the mainstream media coverage of Mars One has been almost entirely uncritical. How can it be that there’s been only one journalist who’s bothered to do more than be awestruck by the project’s audacity?

Religion often promises immortality and, at its worst, preys upon people’s need to feel a part of something greater than themselves, all for the enrichment and empowerment of those pulling the strings. Mars One thinks it found a way to do that without the need for a deity, without an invisible heaven. Instead, it just pinpointed Paradise as the dusty red planet 140,000,000 miles away, and held out its collection plate.

Mars One: Interplanetary Travel on Underpants Gnome Principles

Project_Deimos_-_Mars_Surface_Base

There are two new fascinating articles about the Mars One mission, in which a small number of people train for ten years to be sent on a one-way trip to Mars to begin the long process of colonization. Run by a private non-profit corporation, it plans to contract all of its technical needs from private industry (such as Lockheed Martin and SpaceX), and comb through its flood of applicants who want to be the first human beings to set foot on another planet and never come home. And I tell you, there could not be two more different articles on a single subject.

The first, by Daniel Engber at Popular Science, colors the project as a daring feat with a dash of underdog spunk. Mars One CEO Bas Lansdorp is profiled as a kind of unlikely visionary, the included photo of him is Steve-Jobs-scratching-his-beard in intensity. The applicants are wide-eyed dreamers, undeterred by the grueling existence of drudgery and isolation for which they’ve signed themselves up, fulfilling a monumental destiny for themselves and the species. Said one applicant to Engber, “It only seems weird to you because of when and where you live. I mean, would you ask an Inuit how he can stand the boredom of all the snow and rock?”

While the piece is not un-skeptical, I think the takeaway message is best summed up by CEO Lansdorp himself.

People can’t imagine that there are people who would like to do this. They say we’re going to Mars to die. But of course we’re not going to Mars to die. We’re going to Mars to live.

Whoa, right? Come on, guys. Even Elon Musk wants us to go to Mars! LET’S GO TO MARS.

But then one reads Elmo Keep’s more investigative piece at Matter, and the shine quickly fades.

The soul of the piece is Keep’s profile of one of the applicants, a brilliant polymath who despite his smarts and skills is utterly lost in his life, and who has glommed on to the Mars One mission with a near-religious fervor. Clearly, it’s less about the mission, and more to save himself. And Keep, through her investigation, finds that like all religions, the foundation is lacking in substance.

The first thing you might ask it, how are they going to pay for this mission? This:

A reality television series is the lynchpin of Mars One’s plan. It is through this that it intends to raise the necessary capital to actually fund the mission via advertising revenue and broadcast rights. … There is currently no network buyer for the show.

For the rights to advertise and screen this Survivor in space, Mars One estimates revenues of upwards of $8 billion, basing its estimates on the most recent Olympic Games cycle’s revenues. With this money, Mars One will then be able to purchase the spacefaring technologies that, in 10 years’ time, companies like SpaceX will have perfected, ready to send the Mars One astronauts on their journey.

So they’re presuming that a show that no one has green-lighted will make as much money as the Olympics, which will then allow them to buy technology that doesn’t yet exist. If this doesn’t sound sufficiently flimsy, it gets worse. SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, which is touted as one of the providers of that technology, has signed no contracts with Mars One, and has no plans with them, but only tells Keep that they are “open” to relationships with “all interested parties.” So what is the technology they’re going to use?

The details of Mars One’s mission remain vague. … [Chief Technical Officer] Arno Wielders, who rebuffs requests for an interview, [replies] through the press office that he is too busy. Instead, I am directed to the website. On a page titled “The Technology,” it states very optimistically: “No new technology developments are required to establish a human settlement on Mars. Mars One has visited major aerospace companies around the world to discuss the requirements, budget, and timelines with their engineers and business developers. The current mission plan was composed on the basis of feedback received in these meetings.”

So to sum that up in Underpants Gnome terms:

  1. Hold meetings.
  2. Get feedback from meetings.
  3. ???
  4. Send humans to Mars.

We also learn that the 200,000 “applicants” is a dubious number that includes anyone who happened upon the website and began clicking through.

Look, you really have to read all of Keep’s piece, it’s excellent and deeply troubling, and you won’t be able to hear the words “Mars One” again without also thinking of something like Herbalife or Amway.

I am also a little heartbroken by this. Of course, I always held deep skepticism about Mars One’s ability to pull off its aims, but I didn’t doubt anyone’s sincerity, but all signs from Keep’s article indicate that it’s not being taken seriously by the corporation. If that’s not the case, then it sounds as though they are deeply incompetent.

So I can only imagine how those who are devoting their lives to this mission might feel upon learning what a house of cards the whole operation appears to be. (This is presuming Keep’s reporting accurately represents the state of the mission.) Regardless of what personal holes one is trying to fill by signing up, I assume the connection many of these people now feel to Mars, to the mission, to the corporation must be quite deep. Discovering that it is less than what it claims to be could be devastating.

I could never even consider volunteering for something like this, but I too am drawn by the romance of the idea. Though I’d never be directly involved, I feel a yearning from some place deep within for my species to making bold, daring moves to expand its reach across the depths of space. As Elon Musk has said, and I’ve noted on this blog, “I think we have a duty to maintain the light of consciousness, to make sure it continues into the future.”

Mars One, I fear, will not be maintaining the light. Perhaps the best thing that can be said of it, though, is that it has millions of people excited at the idea that someday we will. Maybe that’s enough.

Image from Project Deimos, a 1964 Mars mission concept.

Mars, Musk, and a Meditation

Ross Andersen’s interview with Elon Musk at Aeon, on Musk’s ambitions for Mars colonization, is a gem. “Interview” doesn’t do it justice; it’s part interview, part examination of the motivations (Musk’s and civilization’s) for a Mars migration, as well as a meditation on the humanity of such an endeavor.

A big takeaway is how Musk sees a Mars trip not simply as a lofty goal of humanistic enrichment, but as a last and only best hope for a species tied to the unpredictable fortunes of a single planet and its fragile ecosphere. If we’re to go on as a species, we have to leave, sooner than later.

But you know, it’s not even about our species, per se. It’s about what we carry within us: consciousness.

Musk has been pushing this line – Mars colonisation as extinction insurance – for more than a decade now, but not without pushback. ‘It’s funny,’ he told me. ‘Not everyone loves humanity. Either explicitly or implicitly, some people seem to think that humans are a blight on the Earth’s surface. They say things like, “Nature is so wonderful; things are always better in the countryside where there are no people around.” They imply that humanity and civilisation are less good than their absence. But I’m not in that school,’ he said. ‘I think we have a duty to maintain the light of consciousness, to make sure it continues into the future.’

And about those humans. Leave Musk for a moment, and read Andersen’s musing on the hypothetical trip to Mars by the future colonists:

It would be fascinating to experience a deep space mission, to see the Earth receding behind you, to feel that you were afloat between worlds, to walk a strange desert under an alien sky. But one of the stars in that sky would be Earth, and one night, you might look up at it, through a telescope. At first, it might look like a blurry sapphire sphere, but as your eyes adjusted, you might be able to make out its oceans and continents. You might begin to long for its mountains and rivers, its flowers and trees, the astonishing array of life forms that roam its rainforests and seas. You might see a network of light sparkling on its dark side, and realise that its nodes were cities, where millions of lives are coming into collision. You might think of your family and friends, and the billions of other people you left behind, any one of which you could one day come to love.

Do you, or do you not, feel the anxiety of being adrift? Do you not picture that blurry sapphire sphere receding from view as you realize how utterly surrounded and engulfed you are by blackness, pushed with direction and intention, but somehow still lost? My heart is beating faster.

And somehow, it all puts me in mind of Ernie from Sesame Street. I think it’s safe to say that as adventurous as the lad is, he would not be among the passengers on Musk’s one-way trip to Mars.

And a bit of trivia to tie it all up: Somewhere there exists, perhaps with my dad, or maybe only with my grandmother, a well-produced recording of a 5-year-old me singing this song, accompanied by my dad on guitar. I didn’t really get it then, but I do now.