Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Mars One: still a story too good to let facts get in the way

I honestly thought we've seen the last of this. Between the irrefutable critiques of every aspect of the plan and the long string of deadlines missed and promises broken, I believed that serious people and major publications were finally ready to let the story die, or at least transition into a "look at how gullible people used to be" narrative.

Apparently though, respectable news outlets like the Boston Globe still can't give up on Mars One and the nearly perfect human interest angle of a group of ordinary people who have agreed to take a one-way trip into space and spend the rest of their lives on another planet. The press is too much in love with these simplistic, melodramatic narratives (when Tom Wolfe and company brought literary storytelling techniques into the field, they were trying to elevate journalism to the level of literature. Now we've lowered it to the standards of a Harlequin romance).

Not only do journalists have a weakness for these stories, they have also gotten very good at finding excuses to justify them. One of the favorites, on display here, is the premise story. Just to review, this is employed when a reporter has a story he or she wants to tell, but it is predicated on assumptions that are obviously very likely untrue. The approved approach in these situations is to quickly get out of the way a bare minimum of caveats, then basically ignore them.

It is worth noting that the caveats in Mars One articles have steadily gotten stronger with time as the against the proposition has grown undeniable, but the writer still pulls back well before an honest picture is painted. Such a picture would fundamentally change the story. Instead of a bittersweet but inspiring account of human aspiration, we would get a depressing story of people suckered into believing an obvious scam (in no small part because of gross journalistic credulity and negligence) and in some cases paying a steep price for the delusion.

As the other world turns: How a trip to Mars thwarted and ignited love
Billy Baker - Reporter

When the initial tingle had passed and the idea had been given time to marinate and settle, Peter Degen-Portnoy said his family split into camps regarding his decision to commit to a one-way trip to Mars.

His sons think it’s cool.

His two oldest daughters stopped speaking with him.

And his wife left him.


Then time passed. Then the questions came. “Daddy, why do you want to leave us?’” he recalled. “Then it all came out. ‘Hey, you decided to leave us, and even if you change your mind, you can’t undo that decision. You made that decision.’ ”

He said his older daughters, who are 20 and 18 — he also has an 11-year-old daughter — viewed it as a breaking of the marriage vows he made to their mother. Till death do us part.

Degen-Portnoy views it another way. When he was a young boy, obsessed with outer space, he promised himself if he ever had the chance to go live on another planet, he would take it.

“So I was in a position where either I broke a promise to myself, or I broke a promise to my wife.”


Back in the coffee shop near his office, Degen-Portnoy is firm in his belief that it will all happen. That the extraordinary technical challenges will be solved. That the billions in funding will be raised. That he will be chosen for the mission. That he will die on Mars.

In the meantime, he is optimistic that he can repair his relationships here on Earth.

“I won’t get to Mars until I’m 70 at the earliest,” he said. “I’ve got time to reconcile. It should never go without saying that I love my children very much and would miss them.”

And if he gets to Mars, he already knows what his first feeling will be.

“I’ll look around at the landscape of Mars, take it all in, and I’ll wish my children could be there to see it.”

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