200,000 applicants. 100 finalists. Four lucky winners. Such figures could describe any number of tiresome reality TV shows over the past decade. This time, however, the winners may be participating in something far grander—the colonization of Mars.
Colonization of other worlds, for so long the domain of science fiction, could be about to become a reality. The brainchild of Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, not-for-profit company Mars One aims to establish a permanent human colony on the red planet. Not only that, Lansdorp aims to turn the whole enterprise into a Big Brother-style reality TV show. “It will be as if Marco Polo had a camera on his journeys of exploration,” Lansdorp enthuses. “Every human being with access to the internet or television will be watching.” Hoping to launch the first of six four-man missions in 2024, Lansdorp has approached a number of private companies to try and raise the $6 billion needed to make his dream a reality.
The mission will be one-way—the chosen crew will die on Mars, assuming they survive the trip. Why would anyone volunteer for such a mission? Three of the hopefuls gave interviews to The Guardian, and their responses were revealing. The first, Oxford physicist Ryan MacDonald, longs to leave a lasting legacy. “Many people,” he says, “leave their legacy through having children. Mine will be through helping to found a civilization on another world.”
Next up is American-Iraqi, Dina. Speaking of her youth in her home country, she recalls how she felt completely objectified, forced to cover her hair, hands and the rest of her body so as not to lead men astray. Leaving Earth for Mars would be like leaving Iraq for America, she says. She also says she has no need of family or friends.
Finally, Jeramias of Mozambique: “I think this world is not a good place to live any more,” he says, with a touch of sadness. “We have so many diseases, we have so many army complaints . . . We have so many problems that I don't believe it's possible to solve. I would like to see a better world . . . To solve these problems [you have to] start from the beginning.”
So, there we have it. An eccentric entrepreneur, big business, a reality TV show in space, and a bunch of alienated people trying to escape the world’s problems. What’s not to love?
Privatizing the space race
The first saddening thing about this whole affair is the way the drive to push back the frontiers of human exploration has been so thoroughly commercialized. As we explained in a previous article, The Role of the State in the Space Race, the Cold War pushed both the US and the Soviet Union to staggering feats of scientific and technological brilliance as they sought to outdo each other in the space race. The Soviet Union launched the first satellite, and the first man, into space. A decade later, the US could boast that they had landed the first man on the moon. Films such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 took it for granted that the end of the century would bring permanent colonization of the Moon and manned exploration of the solar system.
But that future never came. Now, in this period of the senile decay of capitalism, even the space shuttle program has been scrapped, and space flight has been effectively privatized, forced to rely on accident-prone private flights using refurbished rockets from the 1970s. In order to make the enterprise commercially viable, the whole Mars mission will be filmed and presented as some gaudy reality TV show; no doubt viewing ratings will shoot up if one of the astronauts dies or “goes postal.” This is all strangely reminiscent of the dying days of the Roman Empire, where baying crowds were treated to gladiator fights or lion-feeding sessions.
The project runs into trouble
Both the Soviet Union and NASA achieved incredible feats, in an age before modern telecommunications, the internet, or even microprocessors; yet despite the supposed superiority of the free market to all that nasty state planning, Mars One has already run into trouble. An analysis by a team at MIT suggests that the program’s proposal to replenish the oxygen supply using photosynthesis in plants will produce spikes in oxygen levels that could present a dangerous hazard; what’s more, the constant demand for spare parts from Earth will cause the cost of the mission to mushroom dramatically. To add to the project’s problems, Gerard ’t Hooft, Dutch Nobel laureate and supporter of Mars One, has said that the organizers should “add a zero” to all of their figures—in other words, we should expect the mission to take place in 100 years, not 10! The fact that Mars One appear not to have collaborated with the MIT team, or indeed commissioned any serious research of their own, suggests their founder’s eagerness to impress investors may have pushed him to sell a product that does not exist. (Now where have we heard that before?)
According to reports, Mars One currently has no contracts with aerospace suppliers to build any hardware, or indeed training facilities for its astronauts, making it more reminiscent of something from the “dot com” bubble than an organization that could actually launch a space mission. And the selection process is not what it might be either. Writing in The Guardian, finalist and astrophysicist Joseph Roche had this to say:
After completing the interview stage I felt that the selection process was not rigorous enough to reach the requisite standard of more traditional astronaut selection programs. I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with several astronauts and if you spend any time with an astronaut you will soon see that they are as close to being superhuman as a person can be. To select such a person requires a comprehensive and exhaustive procedure.
Last month a list appeared with “the top 10 candidates”” for the Mars One mission. This list was put together after “the organizers ranked the candidates by points.” These points are “Mars One supporter points”” which “represent the degree of your support to Mars One’s mission.” These points serve only to show how much each supporter has donated to Mars One.
In other words, an exercise in speculation with nothing behind it, which judges its candidates by how much money they donate. To cap it all, TV company Endemol recently pulled out of the project, leaving Mars One scrabbling around for TV revenue to keep it alive, or at least on life-support.
Space travel and colonization in science fiction
But even if, by some miracle, Mars One were to make it off the launchpad, what sort of society would we be taking to the Red Planet? Most instructive are some of the reasons for wanting to leave, especially those of Dina and Jeramias, who seem to see the project as an opportunity to leave a crisis-ridden civilization behind and start afresh.
Colonization of space has long been the topic of science fiction. Long-running franchise Star Trek depicted a utopian future where money had been abolished and humans worked for the betterment of themselves and society as a whole (a philosophy suspiciously similar to socialism). To the enlightened Federation, space-travel and colonization served to spread Earth’s utopian society into the stars. However, many other works in the genre painted rather more dystopian futures. Asimov’s Robot novels, for instance, painted a chronically overpopulated world, with humanity huddled underground in its enormous “caves of steel,” packed in like sardines, yet now terrified to go outside. Centuries ago, the Spacers had left Earth for a better life, establishing colonies on uninhabited worlds where they could enjoy living space impossible on Earth.
Ursula le Guin’s brilliant novel, The Dispossessed, depicted an anarchist colony on Anarres, the moon of the distant planet Urras. Banished there after a failed revolutionary uprising, the anarchists set about building the best society they could under the harsh conditions. As they became more isolated from the ultracapitalist home planet, tales of its evil became ever more lurid, though they carried within them a germ of truth. What’s more, frequent crises such as famines forced them to sacrifice some of their freedom and autonomy, and defer, temporarily, to officials appointed to oversee the limited supply of food. As Trotsky once explained, where there is plenty of bread, anyone can go to the shop and take what they like. However, where there is a shortage, there must be a queue, and where there is a queue, there may arise the need for a policeman to supervise the queue; now, will the policeman perhaps ensure he takes an extra loaf of bread for his family? Le Guin’s “temporary” officials, granted power to manage a crisis, didn’t necessarily give it all back . . . Given the harsh conditions the colonists will doubtless encounter on Mars, what sort of utopia will they build? Le Guin’s hero, the brilliant physicist Shevek, returns to Urras and participates in a workers’ uprising there, convinced now of the need to unite moon and planet in revolution. To hide on the moon is no longer enough.
Among the last two contestants interviewed there seemed to be a profound pessimism—decidedly more Caves of Steel than Star Trek—about the future of life on Earth. (Tellingly, Asimov’s Robot novels conclude in Robots and Empire with humanity being forced to leave Earth in order to evolve.) Such pessimism is understandable in an age where one billion people live on less than a dollar a day, and many more lack the basic necessities for a dignified life. Yet the wealthy few have increased their wealth massively throughout this crisis. To some, the answer is to leave Earth for a better life in the stars. To us, the answer is to build a utopia on this world—to fight for the worldwide socialist transformation of society here on Earth. Then we will really have something worth taking to the stars.
Postscript: doctors or bankers?
One final thought: one wonders what sort of people are likely to be selected for these missions, if they ever go ahead. Scientists, certainly. Engineers, without a doubt. Doctors, most likely. Possibly even horticulturalists. But what about bankers? Lawyers? Businessmen? Such people, considered so essential to the running of the capitalist system, will be of no use out there. What does that tell us about the system that deems them so essential?