Mars One and the law

In English “mars one” is usually described as a company non-profit company or sometimes as a foundation. This confusion is due to an attempt to (inadequately) translate Dutch legal terms into English.

Technically “mars one” is a stichting which is properly translated as foundation. Under Dutch law a stichting is a particular legal entity or legal person. As such a stichting can own assets and make contracts as if it were an ordinary “flesh and blood” person.

Under Dutch law a stichting has specific characteristics. First of all, a stichting has neither members nor shareholders and the only required organ is the board. Further a stichting is required to have a purpose and this purpose has to be a charitable one which has to be stated in its constitution (“de statuten”) and the distribution of profits to the founder or members of the board is not allowed.

However, what constitutes a “charitable purpose” is left open to those who create a foundation. And in practice many stichtingen are not charities, though most Dutch charities are organised in this fashion. In theory there is no reason why one could not create foundation with the purpose “to send people to Mars”.

But under Dutch law it is possible for the public prosecutor to request a judge to dissolve a stichting if he believes that a stichting has insufficient funds to achieve its purpose and if it is unlikely the stichting will raise sufficient funds in the future.

According to “mars one” they need only 6 billion USD to send four people to Mars, though experts believe 60 to 100 billion is a more likely estimate. Anyway “mars one” is far from either and I have serious doubts they will raise the money before 2026 when they intend to launch the first crew. Therefore, “mars one” could be dissolved by court order and I doubt whether Bas Lansdorp realizes this.

Now, since I have not seen the official constitution of “mars one”, I do not know for sure what the formal purpose of this organization is. If they are smart, they have chosen a vague and ambiguous purpose rather than something precise such as “sending people to Mars”.

Even if “mars one” has another (formal) purpose than “sending people to Mars”, “mars one” is not out of the woods yet. For the last two, three years “mars one” has sought publicity with their “Mars program” but if the legal purpose of “mars one” is something else than what they say, the board is guilty of violating their own constitution. And in that case the court could replace them with other people

It is important we are not talking about criminal charges yet. Instead we are just discussing matters of civil law.

Even though “mars one” does have a potential legal problem, I do not believe they will ever notice anything. As long as public prosecutors do not bother to investigate groups like “mars one” – and they have many other priorities – they will probably be save.

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