THE HAGUE (AFP) - As the world marvels at the latest US Mars landing, a Dutch start-up is aiming to beat NASA at its own game by sending the first humans to the red planet - and film all as a reality show.

The big hitch: it’s a one-way trip. Fact, fiction or publicity stunt from the land that launched reality TV?

The start-up, called “Mars One”, says it is dead serious about landing four astronauts on Mars by 2023, seven years ahead of the US space agency’s target, and plans to start the search for volunteers next year.

Experts are sceptical, but “Mars One” has won backing from none other than Dutch Nobel laureate Gerard ‘t Hooft, who won the 1999 prize for physics.

“My first reaction was: ‘this will never work’. But a closer look at the project convinced me. I really think this is possible,” ‘t Hooft told AFP.

No one has yet tried to put man on Mars and scientists question whether radiation exposure would even allow humans to survive the trip.

As for space agencies’ attempts since 1960 to land unmanned craft, only about half have succeeded, with the US in the clear lead.

And though six missions did make it to Mars - including NASA’s Curiosity rover that set down Aug 5 to hunt for signs of past life and prepare for a possible human mission - scientists have no way, yet, to get spacecraft back. Sound discouraging? Not to the man behind “Mars One”, mechanical engineer Bas Lansdorp, 35.

He estimates its pricetag at a hefty $6 billion, more than twice the $2.5 billion for Curiosity, NASA’s biggest mission yet, and said the idea for financing came after talks with Paul Romer, one of the Dutch creators of “Big Brother”, the first reality show in 1999 that was a smash hit and spawned versions, and big profits, worldwide.

“Funding will be made possible through the media spectacle built around the adventure,” he told AFP.

For Lansdorp, “the conquest of the red planet is the most important step in the history of mankind,” even if he concedes that many aspects of “Mars One” are still uncertain.

Among these are the ethics and legality of asking people to finish their lives in outer space, under TV scrutiny.

Other critics say “Mars One” seems more focussed on the monetisation - rather than the feasibility - of the project.

Under Lansdorp’s plan, choosing and training the astronauts, their months-long space journey and their lives on Mars would all be televised - along the lines of “Big Brother” where a small group was isolated in a house and constantly filmed by TV cameras.