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Space – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly [Mars One Update]

There’s been a mountain of recent updates on Mars One over the last few months, so I figured it’d be a a great opportunity to kick off the regular “Space” posts with a full-spectrum round-up of the good, bad and ugly of all that’s happened.

The Good

After a huge amount of initial support and media coverage Mars One has had a really hard time transitioning from a small space startup with an incredible idea into a functioning space company with revenue stable enough to take that incredible idea further. After limping along with a small team trying to make ends meet while encouraging top-end investors to finance a significant proportion of the whole project, the merchandise store and private investment have generated a steady baseline stream of income over the last 3 years and provided the financial evidence of the business plan smaller investors needed.

By splitting Mars One into the not-for-profit “Mars One Foundation” (which will carry out the mission to Mars itself)  and the for-profit “Mars One Ventures”, it’s now far easier for investors to both see the income being generated and to make the decision to invest to as long as they like, regardless of their personal interest or support for a mission to Mars. By making Mars One Ventures more attractive to investors who may not care if the mission succeeds or not (but want a clear and immediate return on investment) and sharing a percentage of the profits made with the not-for-profit Mars One Foundation, they’ve significantly improved the chances of us successfully colonising Mars!

Those chances have only been improved further by an €87 million takeover deal with Innovative Finance AG (aka InFin), where the two companies merged and InFin’s board and shareholders voted to renamed the company as “Mars One Ventures AG” to become Mars One’s for-profit arm. The biggest benefit of the InFin deal is that Mars One is now listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, significantly improving opportunities for international investment as they try to raise €10 million for initial funding. And it’s immediately started to pay off: Mars One just secured a €6 million investment from World Stock & Bond Trade Limited based in Hong Kong!

At the same time Mars One’s continued to research and further develop the technologies that we’ll need to live permanently on Mars. After a massive hold-up waiting for confirmation of ITAR compliance, the design study into Mars One’s surface suits from Paragon Space Development Corporation was finally released! The “Mars One Surface Exploration Suit (SES) Conceptual Design Assessment” is precisely what Mars One needed, but a 40 page of engineering design study isn’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea. Luckily Oscar, Ryan and I were given access to the report before it was published publicly so we could put together an easy-to-read abstract with all the important details.

Among all of this we’ve also seen some really promising research on growing food in Martian soil from a team at Wageningen University, as well as Elon Musk’s huge announcement about the Interplanetary Transport System at the 2016 International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara – which I could watch in person thanks to everyone’s amazing generosity!

So all in all a pretty incredible year for Mars One and space exploration generally, right?

The Bad

To make that transition from a space startup into a functioning space business – securing the InFin deal, the stock exchange listing, the €6 million investment, ect – Mars One had to really look at both their finances and the existing business model, and at what would make them more attractive to mid-level investors (rather than just overly generous billionaires). One of the biggest concerns potential investors had was how aggressive & unforgiving the timeline was to get the first launched to Mars by 2026 – just 10 years to launch a demonstration mission, 2 rovers, 2 surface habitats & 6 additional landing capsules, a transit habitat, and train 24 people to live the rest of their lives on Mars.

All of the candidates got news of the delay confidentially months before, but at the start of December Mars One publicly announced that we’ve delayed the timeline by 5 years with the first crew now launching in 2031. Back in 2012 when Mars One had first said they’d put people on Mars by 2021 I thought it was ludicrous, but also knew that while it probably wasn’t reasonable there was no reason why it wasn’t possible, and wanting to live on Mars is a ludicrous goal in the first place. So I was relieved when the first crew’s launch date was pushed back to 2026 – it meant Mars One was flexible while still making real & measurable progress as time went on.

I’m a physicist and engineer so I can see the technical challenges Mars One will face but also possible solutions – what I couldn’t clearly understand was how we’d pay for it. Being so early in the technology development phase I knew mean’t times and costs would change, but besides the TV revenue and technology licensing it wasn’t exactly really clear to me how we could raise the money to continue with selection, move on to training, or pay the contractors to develop the engineering solutions we needed. So while the delay is technically BAD news, I was genuinely overjoyed when I got news that the first crew launch had been pushed back again to 2031 because the news came bundled with Mars One’s revised business plan. It was the first time that the finance side of things truly made sense to me – the first time I could see a clear and reliably laid-out path forward.

The other “bad” news is that we are definitely not alone in the race to Mars – the Interplanetary Transport System Elon Musk presented at the 2016 IAC laid out a very clear and detailed plan for putting humans on Mars (optimistically) by 2024… even if Elon is giving them all a return ticket. There’s little doubt SpaceX is better financed than Mars One, that they are well and truly already in the rocket-building business, that Musk has a proven track-record of doing “the impossible” and he has repeatedly stated that SpaceX was started for the purpose of making humanity a dual-planet species.

Personally I’ve never cared about being first – like Musk my desire is to make our species a dual-planet one, and the best way I can support that is by putting my hand up to go. So SpaceX’s goal of the first humans on Mars by 2024 doesn’t bother me because I just want SOMEONE to go – I can follow later if the opportunity is there. What’s really interesting to me about SpaceX and the ITS announcement though is that Musk has also said that they would not be training crews internally.

What a heap of folks don’t realise is that SpaceX want to build the trains and the tracks (the rocket that will take people to Mars) as well as the train stations (the Methalox refueling depots on Mars or beyond). But what they’re not going to be doing is training people up to be the conductors (the crew) – that would all be handled by a commercial crew provider… maybe say an organisation that’s planning to select and start training people in 2017 to live permanently on Mars?

The (very) Ugly

Which brings me to the last bit of news I find myself sharing a lot lately: YES! I’m still in the running and still talking about Mars One all the time! After spending most of 2016 overseas touring Cosmic Nomad, I’ve returned to Australia to find no shortage of people asking if I’m “still going to Mars”. And since the US Presidential election a LOT more asking if they can come with me…

With Mars One securing the €6 million investment, I’m really excited to say that the next selection phase is going ahead in 2017! We’re not sure exactly when in 2017 (my suspicions are September), but the next phase will start with the 100 remaining candidates getting together in one place forgroup testing. After a brutal 5 days of assessment to reduce the group down to around 40, the remaining candidates will work together in teams to face isolation challenges, followed by an individually grueling “Mars Settler Suitability Interview”. After the interviews just 18 to 36 of us will be offered full-time contracts Mars One, starting over a decade of training to prepare for life on Mars.

And for those of you who didn’t apply back in 2013 but also want to start a new life on a different planet to Donald Drumpf, there is hope for you too: Mars One will be reopening for applications in early 2017!

It’s been a weird a wonderful ride so far, and whatever happens is sure to be life changing – I can’t wait to see what adventures Mars One brings in 2017!