Friday, March 27, 2015

Against a stupid meme, the gods themselves contend in vain

One of the most discouraging things about following the coverage of Mars One (and of science and technology reporting in general) is seeing how little important revelations are allowed to interfere with a good ongoing story.

Take the popular journalistic sub-genre, the Mars One "how does it feel to be going to Mars?" interview. It is, largely by design, an almost perfect human interest story. It was also an extremely easy and inexpensive segment to produce.

The weak point of the sub-genre has always been the premise. The dramatic impact depended on treating the project as credible. Keeping that premise believable while maintaining journalistic standards has always been a challenge, but over the past few months, it has become almost impossible.

A quick recap of recent Mars One developments:

The interview process has been revealed as a sham;

The company that was to produce their show has left;

Their contracts with actual aerospace companies are on hold;

Their Nobel Prize winning supporter has admitted that their budget and schedule were overly optimistic by a factor of ten;

A study by MIT PhD candidates has shown that the proposed habitat would probably kill all of the colonists in a matter of weeks.

This should effectively kill off the sub-genre but it hasn't. The trouble is that, other than the whole not being true part, this is still a great story. So we get articles like this one from Steve Annear of the Boston Globe, which slips in just enough inconvenient facts to maintain a pretense.
A Stoneham man is one small step closer to being picked for an ambitious one-way mission to colonize Mars.

Peter Degen-Portnoy was selected as a semifinalist for the “Mars One” project, a nonprofit venture aiming to populate the distant planet within the next 12 years — a plan some say is far-fetched and unachievable.


“The whole thing is a dream come true,” Degen-Portnoy, 51, said. “I can totally see myself . . . in that habitat, working with my team and working every day to make sure our systems are functioning and our resources are sufficient.”

Two years ago, Mars One put out a call for submissions from people interested in volunteering their efforts to bring life to the Red Planet. The Dutch organization says it received more than 200,000 inquiries [There's also a bit of a story behind that 200K claim -- MP] before whittling the list down to 100 applicants last month. Degen-Portnoy made the cut. Known as “The Hundred,” the group consists of 50 men and 50 women from around the world.

If all goes well, the husband and father of five could make it to the last round of the process, and join 24 finalists for what Mars One says will be an intense training regimen to prepare for takeoff. Groups of four will then tentatively be launched into space every two years beginning in 2026, with the first landing planned for 2027, according to the Mars One timetable, an aggressive goal that has been challenged by researchers and the public.
Degen-Portnoy remains optimistic about the journey to the planet, despite skepticism about the feasibility of the mission. A recent independent study conducted by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pointed out how difficult it would be for Mars One to ship enough supplies to sustain a new civilization. One of “The Hundred” also came forward in a recent interview and called the selection process, financial stability, and goals of the mission into question.

Last week, Bas Lansdorp, chief executive and cofounder of Mars One, tried to put some of those concerns to rest, and invited criticism.

“At Mars One we really value good criticism because it helps us to improve our mission,” he said in a statement.

Even if nothing comes of the actual mission, Degen-Portnoy said the experience and his involvement so far have been worth it. “I have met some incredible people, and we spend a lot of time chatting in our social group, exchanging ideas, and also boosting and supporting one another,” he said.
The list of concerns is both incomplete (check out our last few posts) and comically understated. Lansdorp's claim of welcoming criticism is also good for a laugh. Still, it could be worse. Here's the opening to a recent report from a local NBC station in Philadelphia:
Sara Director has a bright future ahead of her here on earth, but the 26-year-old — originally from the Philadelphia suburbs — is competing for an opportunity to leave that all behind for a one-way ticket to Mars. Upon discovering she made it to the third round of candidates in the Mars One mission, there’s a 25% percent chance that Director will spend the rest of her life on the Red Planet, leaving family and friends behind.

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