Tech Transformers

Like Elon Musk, this entrepreneur is betting on Mars but his business model is more like Disney than SpaceX

In this handout illustration provided by NASA/JPL, an artist's conception of the Phoenix Mars Lander on the Red Planet. NASA/JPL | Getty Images

"Mars is simply the next continent humans will settle," mused Bas Lansdorp, chief executive of Mars One, in an interview with CNBC on Monday.

Lansdorp is one of a growing number of entrepreneurs aiming to send humans to Mars and create a human settlement on the red planet in the next few years but his company is very different from Elon Musk's SpaceX.

Mars One is split into two companies; the not-for-profit Mars One Foundation and the Frankfurt Stock Exchange-listed Mars One Ventures, which you can buy shares in. It is not building its own rockets or equipment but instead contracting other companies like Lockheed Martin to make the technology needed. Lansdorp even said the firm has had talks with SpaceX about buying one of its rockets.

If space travel is going to take off, then it seems suppliers like Airbus and Boeing might be better investments for investors. But Lansdorp said investors wanting a piece of Mars One are buying into a content company, not a technology firm.

One way trip to Mars planned for 2032: Mars One CEO

"Buying into Mars One, is buying into content, while buying into Boeing or Airbus is buying into technology. I think that throughout last 30 years, we see that content has become more valuable. High impact content like the Olympics, Formula 1 and big blockbuster movies are going up in value. That is exactly what Mars One is," Lansdorp said.

"Content is one of the highest value commodities around at the moment."

He is not wrong. Netflix said it planned to spend $6 billion on content this year, an increase from the year before.

In a separate TV interview with CNBC on Monday, Lansdorp compared the content that Mars One will produce as being as successful as major films like Disney's "Frozen". The idea is to create shows that Mars One can sell. Firstly, Mars One will produce content around the selection of the four astronauts that will go to Mars in 2032 – the current scheduled year for the first manned mission. Lansdorp described this as "super interesting content" but admitted that the first programs are more about raising awareness around the brand and mission rather than making money.

Will it take off?

However, Mars One has had many critics since it was founded in 2011. Joseph Roche, an applicant to become an astronaut for the company, said the company had far fewer applications than the 200,000 it claimed. In 2015, he spoke out against the selection process and accused the company of selecting its top 10 candidates based on how much money they donated to the company. In a statement at the time, Lansdorp said the allegations were "not true" and maintained that there were 200,000 candidates.

"This was really a nonsense story about Mars One, and anyone can check it. On our community platform you can find people who dropped out in the first round while they made significant contributions to Mars One. You can also find that 60 person of our current round 3 candidates have never contributed a single dollar to Mars One beyond the small application fee they paid. And that is fine: we select our candidates for their quality, not based on what they contribute," Lansdorp told CNBC in a follow-up email.

Another setback came that same year when Mars One couldn't reach an agreement with Endemol, a production company behind reality TV show "Big Brother", to create a program around the astronaut selection and training process.

And in 2014, a research paper by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology questioned the feasibility of Mars One's mission, suggesting that the first settlers would die within a few months. The research also cast doubt over the mission's $6 billion budget and said there would need to be significant improvements to landing technology.

An outside view of conceptual Mars One habitats
Bryan Versteeg | Mars One

Lansdorp said that the mission can be done in that budget because there is no return trip to earth which would have added significant costs. It has so far raised about 6 million euros via its stock exchange listing. The CEO also admitted that landing technology does need to be "scaled up" to account for the Mars atmosphere, but current technologies being tested by the likes of SpaceX could be used. Lansdorp did say there were big challenges in developing new space suits to survive Mars however.

The mission is also reliant on people leaving earth and never coming back. But Lansdorp compared it to previous human exploration endeavors.

"It's comparable to the exploration of the earth, be it Europeans migrating to the U.S. on a one way boat ticket or maybe a better comparison is people in west of Africa settling across the world on all continents in 40,000 years," Lansdorp told CNBC.

'Change the world'

The criticism has not stopped the entrepreneur's determination and believes that when people see how hard it is to live on Mars, which is the second most habitable place in our solar system, it will spur them to take care of earth more and hopefully inspire people into education.

"It will change the world more than we can imagine right now. It will bring people on earth closer together, it will inspire people to pursue more education to start a new company, inspire kids to become astronauts again," Lansdorp said.

"The most important thing is that by going to Mars, which is the second best place for humans to live in the solar system, by going to Mars and showing Earth how bad the second best planet is, will change the way humans look after this planet."

Clarification: This article has been updated since first published following clarification from Mars One.

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