4 Reasons The Mars One Fiasco Was Actually Good For Humanity
Bad news, everybody. If you haven't done it yet, it might be time to pour a 40 for our fallen homie, the Mars One project. This was that one-way manned mission to Mars that was/is scheduled for 2026 -- the one that isn't supported by NASA or SpaceX or China but by a nonprofit company that wants to fund part of the expedition through a Big Brother-style reality show featuring the astronauts themselves.
What could go wrong?
Last week, one of the top 10 candidates for the Mars mission expressed his concerns about the endeavor to the press. And by "concerns" I mean horrific holes in what could be optimistically called a pipe dream but could also maybe be called a scam (though I wouldn't use that word -- we'll get to that). It turns out that potential astronauts were vetted with less rigor than goes into a Burger King interview, and they were ranked according to who donated the most money to the project. Which, by the way, is all but broke and nowhere near gaining access to technology that could put a colony of humans on Mars. These guys aren't even going to get a colony of corpses on Mars. They're probably not going anywhere. The whole project looks like a top-to-bottom disaster.
None of this is bad news, by the way. The public unraveling of Mars One is actually great news for anyone who is serious about the future of humanity. Its nonlaunch revealed one exciting detail about crowdfunded science and what it looks like when important milestones are handed over to the private sector:
The system works.
We Stopped Funding a Bad Idea
Hidden in the news about how hard Mars One is sucking right now were several fun hints that the program was never going to get off the ground. (GET IT?) Real astronauts like Buzz Aldrin and Chris Hadfield told us the plan wasn't viable. Within four years of Mars One's initial coming-out party in 2011, MIT students published an in-depth analysis essentially saying NOPE to the whole spiel. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson turned his disdain for Mars One into a standup routine.
In other words, no one with real authority or expertise thought the program would work. Which was probably why no one with real money or power funded it. And every single milestone on the path to Mars has been delayed due to lack of money. According to the original plans, the crew should be selected and training by now. There was supposed to be a robotic lander testing the Martian non-waters next year. Then the lander mission was pushed back to 2018. Then 2020. Which pushes back the first manned mission to 2026. Not that it matters, because as of February 2015, the guys working on Mars One's communication systems and lander projects said they haven't had their contracts renewed beyond concept studies and they've got nothing going on with these dudes.
Pictured: Lockheed Martin giving Mars One their lander.
At the end of the day, the free market has shut down a bad concept that will kill people. We should be proud of ourselves!
Scams Aren't the Same Thing as Failed Ideas
When astro-not Dr. Joseph Roche spilled the beans on Mars One's shortcomings, it was natural for many of us to yell, "SCAM!" in Mars' general direction at the top of our lungs. Especially since the nonprofit once asked the general public for money in their efforts to not go to Mars. And people like you and me donated over $300,000 toward the research for the first proof-of-concept designs. I have a question for those of you who gave a couple of bucks to the campaign:
Are you mad? Really?
We throw around the word "scam" like anyone who doesn't deliver on their product is a certified snake-oil salesman and we're their innocent victims. But by that definition, every single inventor, scientist, and innovator who ever lived could be called a scam artist at some point in their lives. Do you know someone who lost their business or went bankrupt? Would you call them a scam artist for defrauding creditors? Of course not, because you don't suck.
Or do you?
If we're lucky, history tells us the difference between the actual snake-oil salesmen and the people who were just in over their heads, but it's not always easy to distinguish one from the other in real time. The Mars One folks actually did everything right, according to the implicit contract between creators and the people who fund them. They said, "Here's our idea. Do you like it? Give us money if you do, and we'll start to make it happen." They didn't ask for the full $6 billion they estimated it would take to get to Mars, they asked for little bits at a time so they could prove themselves along the way.
And they couldn't.
P.S. We're Still Going to Mars
Here's the craziest thing I've said all day:
Mars One could have worked.
Let me back up. Among the many, many, many concerns that very smart people had with this project was the idea that funding a space mission through a death-guaranteed reality show was immoral. I'll say this as nicely as I know how:
Shut up, you smug emmer-effers.
Every year we pour billions and billions of dollars into men who are on a one-way trip to brain damage. They're called NFL players, and we're killing them for our entertainment. So let's not get on a high horse about the ethics of using cameras and broadcast rights to fund a program that is tasked with saving humanity itself when we entertain ourselves by watching people get concussions every Sunday. Yes, it's an apples-to-oranges comparison, but the Mars One people weren't stupid for saying that reality TV money could fuel science. Entire continents were once explored so rich people could have access to the stuff that's in your spice rack; let's not negate the insane amount of power that people with time to spare and money to spend can yield. Sending people to Mars based on the sheer presumption that people would pay to watch them live there is not a terrible concept.
THIS is who will fund the future, my friends.
And, by the way, crowdfunding this stupid thing isn't a terrible idea, either. Galileo figured out that the smartest way to get his ideas off the ground was to let the Renaissance powerhouse Medici family fund his research, and today WE'RE ALL MEDICI. If you gave $30 from your grocery money to a group that may or may not be moving us toward Mars, you're on the plus side of history, I promise. Because at the end of time, all we're going to care about is if the human race survives the Earth's eventual destruction. And the smartest people on the planet mostly agree that the human race will have to colonize something in space to not die out altogether.
Another thing. IF Mars One had captured dollars, they could have totally translated our enthusiasm to real-world technology. Elon Musk's private company SpaceX is delivering on their goals every damn day, and they've got the same end mission as Mars One -- to put a colony on Mars. Ultimately, this project was a blip in what will either be a successful or unsuccessful race to not die out when the Earth is over. Which brings me to my last point ...
Risky Ideas Are Crucial for Progress
I work in a world where we're required to cast a cynical eye on new technology that nobody seems to want. Google Glass, Oculus Rift, smart cars, smart sex toys, smart sex robots, and smart sex all appear on my screen for hilarious and wry one-liners every day, only because I can't possibly conceive of how these gadgets are going to prove themselves useful in my world. I and you, apparently, because these aren't technologies that are taking off in the public imagination.
But here's the thing: Every luxury in your home started in the same place. Everything from your electricity to your cellphone to your poo dough started with one person's terrible idea that everyone else laughed at. Yet look at you now, taking pictures of your poo dough with your cellphone while reveling under electric lights.
Who's laughing now, huh?
There's far more danger in dismissing stupid ideas than funding them. At the end of my life, I'd rather see 50 failed solar roadway projects and billions of dollars wasted on them than 1930s technology highways. Plus, don't think for one second that you're not already funding insane ideas through your tax dollars. Also, when we say "billions of dollars," we're talking about billions of made-up things that fuel our everyday life, not a natural resource that will actually keep the human race from going extinct. Dollars aren't air or water or Dr Pepper; they're a nebulous concept that the Federal Reserve plays with on the daily. True, I want more of those nebulous concepts in my checking account, but I also want my great-great-great-great-grandchildren to exist. And the smartest people on the planet think that future generations need space colonies to exist, so why not put a few dollars toward some research that may or may not pan out? It's freaking gas money for me. And I've got nowhere to go -- I live in Idaho.
For more from Kristin, check out 8 Election Myths You Probably Believe and 5 Ways Your Taste in Music is Scientifically Programmed.
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