When Dutch engineer Bas Lansdorp was a student, he saw an image of the surface of Mars sent back by NASA's Sojourner rover in 1997. That was a defining moment for Lansdorp, who knew immediately his life's ambition: to help send a human to the red planet one day. Sixteen years later, that dream is nearing reality, with more than 165,000 applicants from over 140 countries applying to join his Mars One venture to send the first humans to Mars.
The hard deadline to apply for the first mission is August 31, meaning those who have already paid the organization's application fee -- ranging from $5 to $73 depending on geographical location -- have until Saturday to finish up. From there, the team must narrow down the pool through three additional selection rounds.
The expedition, backed by Lansdorp's not-for-profit organization of the same name co-founded with Arno Wielders of the European Space Agency (ESA), hopes to pull off the one-way flight and establish a settlement on Mars by 2023. All for an estimated cost of $6 billion. The goal is to bring along a rover and a team of engineering and medical professionals to set up a permanent colony, starting with four people and expanding by four more every two years.
While the thought of spending one's last days an average of 140 million miles away from Earth's civilization seems daunting, the prospect of making history and pushing the limits of science and exploration has appealed to tens of thousands around the globe.
"We expect to let people know by the end of 2013," Lansdorp said in an interview. "The amount of people that will pass to round two will be mostly deemed by the quality," but he stressed that there is no set threshold for each round. The company hopes to eventually have six teams of four individuals each to begin training, but will continue to run its selection program continuously after that.
The most important factor, Lansdorp said, is not having an academic background in engineering or physics or medical practice. Rather, the most coveted skill in Mars One's eyes is a simple trait: team building.
"The groups that are going to Mars will rely on each other with their lives," he said. "These groups need to be selected in such a way that whatever happens, the group work remains intact." Of course, good health and strong intellect will be highly valued, but paramount will be an ability to keep one's cool and see the bigger picture.
The Mars One group will spend seven years training the first batch of roughly 24 astronauts, more than enough time in Lansdorp's eyes to instill the necessary engineering and medical expertise that will piggyback off the selected applicants' core teamwork skills. "You can get a Ph.D. in that time," he said.
Mars One is already in talks with suppliers for the mechanical and technical components required to reach the red planet with humans healthy. "No new inventions are required to colonize Mars," the company claims in its official FAQ.
The organization also is in talks with Elon Musk's SpaceX for its Falcon Heavy rocket, the world's most powerful aerial launch vehicle designed specifically to take humans to space.
As for systems for life support and the sustaining ecological life in extreme environments, Mars One is in discussions with Paragon Space Development, which has supplied equipment for more than 70 flights including some to the International Space Station (ISS).
"For each component, we are talking to at least one supplier," Lansdorp said. On the topic of cooperating with existing space agencies to facilitate this process, the organization is optimistic, though it does not have any concrete partnerships.
"Many of our advisers hold or have held important positions at space agencies. Future cooperation could include sharing of hardware resources, collaborating in answering scientific questions, or taking a payload of one of the space agencies on one of our missions," reads Mars One's official position on working with NASA, the ESA, and the ISS.
So far, the Mars One team has been shocked at the scope of interest, harboring regret only for not making the application process more accessible to potential candidates who do not speak English. "We should have prepared a more international Web site," Lansdorp said, stressing that future programs through Mars One will focus on increasing international exposure.
"Our oldest applicant is now 80 years old; the youngest is 18. So it's a very, very wide spread of people," he added. While it's unlikely someone 80 years old would make it through the process and then the seven years of training healthy enough to qualify for the mission, it's indicative of the world's desire to continue exploring beyond what are perceived as present limitations, Lansdorp explained.
For now, at least, Lansdorp, who left his job at airborne wind energy startup Ampyx Power and sold his stock to found Mars One, is not holding out for a personal seat on the one-way flight.
"I am definitely not one of them," he said. "I'm really impatient, which is a good quality for an entrepreneur, but it's not a really good quality if you're in a small space station with three other people for seven months flying to Mars."