The Dutch-based Mars One venture says more than 165,000 people around the world have voiced interest in a one-way trip to the Red Planet — and there's still more than a week left for more would-be astronauts to join in.
"The response to the first round of the astronaut selection program has been tremendous," Norbert Kraft, Mars One's chief medical officer, said in a news release updating the tally on Thursday. "We now have a large group of applicants from where we can start our search."
After the Aug. 31 deadline passes, Mars One will review the applications to decide who goes on to the next round of the selection process.
"We'll select the good ones for Round 2 — this will be the job interview round," Bas Lansdorp, the venture's co-founder and CEO, told NBC News in an email. "There is no fixed upper limit. ... We expect to announce who passes to Round 2 within two or three months, depending on how many people apply in these last 10 days."
Those who go on to the second round will be asked to provide medical data and undergo interviews by local selection committees. Mars One says the third round would involve regional-level, reality-TV contests, in which 20 to 40 applicants will participate in the sorts of challenges they might face during a mission to Mars. Think of these televised contests as "American Idol" auditions, but for spaceflight rather than singing. In each region, the audience could select one of the finalists, and Mars One experts would choose the others.
Round 4 would bring the regional finalists together for preliminary training at a Mars-style habitat on Earth — a facility like the simulated Mars settlements in Utah, Hawaii and the Canadian Arctic. Then there'd be a global reality-TV extravaganza, resulting in the selection of six four-person crews.
Those crews would begin full-time training in 2015 for launches scheduled to begin in 2022. Meanwhile, Mars One would use robots to build up infrastructure and communication links on Mars. The organizer would continue to call for more applicants to "replenish the training pool regularly."
You can't go 'home' again
The concept behind Mars One doesn't include bringing crews back from Mars. Instead, they'd make their home on the Red Planet and blaze a trail for permanent settlement. Mars One's organizers say it'd be logistically unworkable to guarantee a return trip to Earth.
In Thursday's status report, Kraft emphasized that the crew selection process wasn't limited to pilots and engineers. "Don't disqualify yourself too easily," he said. "If you wish to be a Mars pioneer despite of the risks and challenges that come with this job, you are already more qualified than most people on this planet. It is most important that you are healthy and have the right mindset."
All this costs money, of course. Lansdorp and his colleagues intend to raise billions of dollars through TV deals, sponsorships and donations — as well as application fees. The fees are set on a nation-by-nation sliding scale, ranging from $5 (for Somalians) to $73 (for Qataris). Americans are supposed to pay a $38 fee.
Lansdorp said no additional fees would be sought from those advancing from the first to the second round.
Americans in the lead
Mars One said Thursday that Americans made up the largest group of applicants — 37,852, or 23 percent. The fees from that many Americans would amount to $1.4 million, but it's not clear whether all of them have paid up and completed their applications. The second-largest contingent is the Chinese, followed by the Brazilians, Indians and Russians. Signups have come from 140 countries, Mars One said.
Not all of the applicants really have their heart set on making Mars their future home. Science-fiction author David Brin, for example, sent in his money but doesn't expect to be selected for a Mars One contest. He'd be more interested in going on the 501-day Red Planet flyby that a different private venture called Inspiration Mars is planning for 2018. But in Brin's view, the most important thing is to support efforts that get America back into a forward-looking, frontier-settling mindset.
"My agenda is to see if we can goose our nation out of the awful funk it's in," Brin told NBC News. "The Mars missions symbolize the possibility that perhaps we might find our guts again."
Update for 8:30 p.m. ET Aug. 22: Aerospace analyst Jeff Foust points out that it's possible to register for an application on the Mars One website, but not go through with paying the fee and completing the application. I'm seeking clarification from the Mars One team on their tally, but in the meantime I've backed away from saying that all 165,000 have paid the application fee.