Can the Dutch do reality TV in space?

By Anna Holligan
BBC News, The Hague

image captionCould this be the Big Brother house of the future?

A Dutch entrepreneur is on a mission to send a bold gang of explorers - aka reality show contestants - to Mars.

It's either one of the biggest hoaxes in history conjured up by a group of richly deluded young fantasists or a brave attempt to challenge the boundaries of space travel and beat Nasa and co at their own game.

The Mars One online statement explains that by using the $6bn (4.7bn euros; £3.8bn) generated through the biggest-ever television spectacle, the team will have enough knowledge and resources to set up a permanent colony on Mars.

Basically this means turning the whole recruitment process into a reality TV show, following the contestants on their seven-month journey into space and finally capturing their Red Planet experiences on camera and beaming them back to audiences on Earth.

Mars One has already generated more than 8,000 "likes" on Facebook and the introductory YouTube video has been viewed more than 800,000 times.

'Not a hoax'

Bas Lansdorp, 35, made his fortune selling shares in his wind-harnessing energy company.

image captionCritics say the Mars One team does not have a full understanding of the problems involved

So far all the Mars One endeavours - including a quick trip over to get some advice from Nasa - have been self-funded.

"If you look at the team involved in Mars One, none of us would do this as a hoax," says Mr Lansdorp.

"If a Mars mission was to happen we'd want to be part of it and if we did a scam now and it didn't work no-one would ever include us in the real thing."

If this all sounds familiar, that may be because back in 2009 the Russians launched a 17-month Mars experiment.

The simulated flight conducted by the European Space Agency was designed to test the physiological and psychological impact of a journey to Mars.

But at the time, Christer Fuglesang from the Science & Application division of the ESA admitted it was no real comparison to the lack of oxygen or gravity levels.

The truth is it's hard to test what life would be like on Mars while you're still on Earth.

The fact that Mars One has recruited one of the original founders of the Big Brother reality TV takeover has simply given the detractors more ammunition.

But, Bas Lansdorp claims, "reality TV is an added component just to make it possible".

Science v fantasy

image captionThe successful return of SpaceX's Dragon cargo capsule has put private space exploration in the spotlight

We're chatting over glasses of steaming mint tea at a road side cafe in The Hague.

As Bas shares his childhood passion for space travel, I wonder what the grown-ups make of it.

"My girlfriend thinks I'm crazy," he says.

BBC science correspondent Jonathan Amos foresees major challenges ahead: "Even a small group of astronauts would have to take a huge load of supplies with them.

"Even if they plan to use resources locally on Mars, it will take them time to find those resources and begin to exploit them."

Too hot to handle?

The main criticism voiced on various online discussion forums - and by our science correspondent - accuses the Mars One mission of failing to recognise the dangers of radiation.

On Earth we're protected from the Sun's dangerous particles by a magnetic field.

The crew travelling to Mars will be without that magnetic force field. They will also be subject to attack by high-energy solar rays.

"They will be exposed to a huge rate of ionising radiation," says Jonathan Amos. "Without a hardened habitat on Mars, cancer would kill them within a year."

Bas Lansdorp believes he's found a solution: "What you have to do is shielding, that means putting objects between the astronauts and the radiation.

"So we will make sure there's enough shielding on the spaceship. And on Mars we'll protect them by putting a large layer of soil on the surface of the planet."

Money first?

The recent historic first mission to the International Space Station (ISS) by a privately operated vehicle - SpaceX's Dragon cargo capsule - has put the issue of private space exploration firmly in the spotlight.

The authenticity of the Mars One project is enhanced by support from Nobel prize-winning Dutch physicist Dr Gerard 'T Hooft.

"This is an extraordinary project with vision and imagination. My first reaction was like anyone - 'this will never happen'. But now look and listen more closely, this is really something that can be achieved."

But not all experts are convinced.

Dr Chris Welch, director of Masters Programs at the International Space University in France, says: "Mars One is certainly a bold endeavour with an innovative approach.

"However, at the moment, the focus appears to be more on the monetisation of the concept in an expectation that the income will assure the solution of the problems by others.

"Even ignoring the potential mismatch between the project income and its costs and questions about its longer-term viability, the Mars One proposal does not demonstrate a sufficiently deep understanding of the problems to give real confidence that the project would be able to meet its very ambitious schedule."

Death on Mars

The schedule is to establish a human settlement on Mars by 2023.

They have already lined up the potential suppliers but they have yet to secure sponsors. They aim to recruit the contestants by 2013, then subject them to a decade's worth of rigorous simulation training to prepare them for life on Mars.

Nasa is hoping to send a team to Mars by 2030. So how does a Dutch entrepreneur think he's going to beat the experts by approximately seven years?

"Well it's simple. We're not going to bring them back. This is a one-way ticket. They will spend the rest of their lives on Mars."

Mars One is expecting millions of applicants.

It might sound like a super space scam but Bas is adamant he wouldn't risk his career on a fantasy that might never be realised.

"I'm a real entrepreneur. If it wasn't possible, I wouldn't spend my time on it. I truly believe it will happen."

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