Mars One, the private venture with the audacious goal of sending humans to Mars—permanently—as early as 2023 made a splash earlier this week when it announced that more than 78,000 people had applied for its “astronaut selection program” just two weeks after starting to accept applications. The application process, revealed by the company on April 22, includes paying a registration fee that varies by nation ($38 in the US) as well as providing, as Mars One explained, “personal information about the applicant, a motivational letter, answers to a fixed questionnaire, a resume and an one minute video in which the applicant explains why he or she should be among the first humans on Mars.”
Given the requirement to provide that much information, as well as pay a fee, many were extremely impressed that Mars One had attracted that many applications so quickly. The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, noted that Mars One could have raised several million dollars based on application fees alone, and they’re not the only ones doing that fiscal math. However, those estimates, and that overall application number, require something of an asterisk.
The same day that Mars One made the announcement, I spoke with Bas Lansdorp, the co-founder and CEO of Mars One, at the Humans 2 Mars Summit, a conference in Washington organized by the space advocacy group Explore Mars. I asked him about the 78,000 figure and whether that means that all of these people have completed the application process, including paying the application fee. “I don’t know exactly what the distribution is,” he said. “People register, they pay, they start filling out their information, they have the movie to make, the movie to upload,” he said, which is then reviewed and made public if the applicant chooses to do so. “I think we have something like 700 movies online or so.” (A check of the Mars One application web site appeared to show, as of Thursday evening, about 570 videos available, based on the pagination of the videos on the site: 57 pages of 10 per page.)
So what does the 78,000 figure in the announcement represent? “It’s people who have at least done the first step,” he said. That appears to be to go to this page, which asks for only a few pieces of information: an email address, password, birth date, and country of residence. After completing the form, you’re prompted to check your email for a confirmation message; clicking on the link in that message takes you to a page asking you to pay the registration fee before proceeding with the rest of the application.
It wouldn’t be surprising, then, that there’s a sharp dropoff between those who simply complete the initial registration form and those who actually do pay (anywhere from $5 to $73, depending on the per capita GDP of the applicant’s nation). The fee serves a useful purpose by screening out those who aren’t that serious about applying, as well as providing revenue to cover the costs of the application review process. But if, as Lansdorp said, the 78,000 covers only those who completed that initial (and free) registration step, it’s a little misleading to say that 78,000 have applied, since that implies that they have all completed the registration process. Lansdorp said on Tuesday he didn’t know the breakdown of the numbers in the steps between the 78,000 who registered and the several hundred who had uploaded videos.
Lansdorp is, though, very pleased with the public response to the campagn, the first step in a long process to select the first four-person crew that Mars One plans to launch in 2022. “We were expecting half a million at the end,” he said, referring to the August 31 deadline for submitting an application. “To have already now a very good portion of that is actually quite surprising to me.”