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Mars One Fizzles Into Bankruptcy After Promising A New Life In Space

Mars One, whose promise of one-way trips to Mars lured more than 202,000 people to apply to become an astronaut, has gone bankrupt. The company had hoped to shape a reality TV series around creating a colony on Mars.

Mars One had initially planned to land people on Mars in 2023, setting the monumental task of solving a litany of technical and practical challenges and raising an estimated $6 billion to pay for a mission to another planet.

Delays and setbacks forced the company to push its launch deadline back by nearly 10 years. Along the way, Mars One also fended off accusations that it was running a scam, getting people to pay nearly $40 for a remote chance to travel in space.

The company had recently whittled down its large application list of would-be Martians to 100 names, with plans to reduce it further before starting full-time training. The Mars One astronauts were to be "sequestered in a remote location," the company had said, where they could practice living in (and repairing) a habitat like one designed for life on Mars.

Now, instead of moving toward its goal of launching a Mars mission in 2031, the company "is in administration," according to its website. That means Mars One is at risk of liquidation, after an appeals court in the Swiss canton Basel-Stadt affirmed the firm's bankruptcy status earlier this month.

Mars One — which began in the Netherlands and now has ties to a Swiss financial services company — says it's been talking to investors and hopes to emerge from the bankruptcy process intact. It listed debts of approximately 1 million euros ($1.1 million).

The company says the bankruptcy court proceedings center on its Mars One Ventures. In the past, the company has said that arm of the business "holds the exclusive monetization rights around the mission," including merchandise, advertising and broadcasting rights, as well as intellectual property.

Mars One CEO Bas Lansdorp says the Dutch non-profit Mars One Foundation is not affected by the bankruptcy proceedings. But it's unclear what that entity might now be able to accomplish, as it was the Ventures unit that was supposed to produce money to pay for the space mission.

In 2013, the space venture attracted applications from 202,586 people in just five months, drawing interest from some 140 countries. The list was cut down to 1,058 finalists — who then went through several more rounds of reductions.

Describing its potential astronauts, Mars One said it was looking for people who are "intelligent, creative, psychologically stable and physically healthy." It also said applicants should have a sense of shared purpose and a "capacity for self-reflection."

The project also prompted anthropologist and author Barbara J. King to ask, "Are people eager to leave behind everyone they love — for the rest of their lives — good candidates to succeed at forging a tight-knit colony on Mars? A colony that surely will require great sociability, shared good feelings and cooperation to succeed?"

For applicants such as Heidi Beemer, a young U.S. Army officer who made it to one of Mars One's final rounds, the chance to live and die on Mars was the answer to a long-held quest.

"I actually decided and told my parents when I was 8 years old that I was going to be an astronaut and go to Mars," Beemer told NPR in 2014.

"The thought of being afraid or having the fear of the fact that I'm going to die on a different planet doesn't really bother me," she said, "because this is something that will help out humanity for years and years to come."

Even when she was passed over, Beemer said she was glad to have been part of the selection process. And she said she was still excited at the idea of getting to Mars someday — perhaps by applying for NASA's space program and joining one of its missions to Earth's neighbor.

The most recent Mars One announcement, although a possible fatal setback, nonetheless echoes the optimism that CEO Bas Lansdorp showed when the project started taking astronaut applications back in 2013, when he said the $6 billion price for the Mars effort "is actually a bargain" when compared to large undertakings such as the Summer Olympics.

Promising to redirect its focus if it emerges from administration, Mars One said it wants to tell "the adventurous story of humans actually living on Mars, making The Red Planet their new home."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.