Mars One, a controversial startup with the singular goal of sending humans on a one-way trip to the red planet, is finally (and unsurprisingly) kaputt. Whether you believed Mars One was an expensive lark, an audacious endeavor, or an outright scam, it’s finally over.
A savvy Reddit user with a sharp eye noticed that a Basel court found the company bankrupt on January 15. At the time, it was still valued at nearly $100 million (which is somewhat inexplicable, but also sort of makes sense when you consider how the company managed to linger on for most of the decade without having made any tangible success in getting to Mars). The non-profit arm of the company, the Mars One Foundation, is still alive but is listed in the UK as dormant, with under $25,000 left in accounts. The company released a statement to say it is currently looking for a solution to its bankruptcy concerns on the commercial side, and it is “actively continuing its efforts to secure funding for mission next steps,” along with emphasizing that the non-profit remains intact. They teased at the intervention of a mystery investor, but have not released any details.
It’s entirely unclear who this investor is and what their motives are, whether they’re looking to continue Mars One’s work in full, restart the company, acquire its assets for a different project, or something else entirely. The company’s official line is that after clearing its debts, “Mars One will redirect its focus. For the execution of the actual voyage to Mars, the company will continue to seek strategic collaboration with renowned companies and organizations involved with the travel to Mars. Mars One itself will focus on the even more inspiring ‘being there’, the adventurous story of humans actually living on Mars, making The Red Planet their new home.” Whatever that means. We’ll know more after a press conference on March 6.
Mars One has hardly ever made sense. First announced in 2012, the company had a bonkers plan to launch a crew of four to the red planet in 2022, and have them reach the surface six months later. That timeline was pushed back to 2026, and then 2031—a small illustration of just how much the company grossly underestimated the scale of preparing for deep space travel. The idea was to first send infrastructure (like rovers and communications satellites), followed by a human crew living off of initial supplies, and then more crew and supplies later on as they established a working settlement. This would only be a one-way trip—the company was explicit that it would neither seek nor develop technologies that could allow humans to leave the planet and return to Earth
The company chose not to develop its own technologies, and instead focused on buying whatever they could from other parties, estimating a cost of $6 billion to send the initial crew of four to Mars, and then $4 billion for every subsequent mission. That’s an incredibly lean number (for instance, NASA spent about $2.5 billion dollars to get the Curiosity rover to Mars—a robot that doesn’t need life support, a habitat, or amenities).
The company faced constant accusations of presenting the public with misleading or false information about its finances, and about what people ought to realistically expect from the entire endeavor. Mars One’s founder and CEO, Bas Lansdorp, has never fully explained how the company was supposed to raise all the money needed for its missions, claiming at one point it would use a reality show about the entire project to fund everything.
Despite how many holes there were in Mars One’s story, there was no shortage of interest from people to join the project and be one of the first humans to set foot on the red planet. Most were ordinary citizens enamored with the notion of becoming an astronaut and living and working on Mars—in spite of the dangers and the inevitability of dying there—probably in the same way civilization’s earliest pioneers chose to leave their homes and venture out to new, uncharted lands.
If you’re still hoping to find your way to Mars and don’t expect to join NASA, there are other companies hoping to give it a shot—and the ones that understand what a massive undertaking the mission will be might actually stand a chance.