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Announced on the Google homepage and Youtube as well as by Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, the Virgle Project would prove one of humanity's greatest steps and one nearly missed. For a short period, the project was an elaborate hoax including actual NASA imaging, calculations on survival in a hostile environment, and even practical means of terraforming. People would be allowed to "apply" for the project by going to the Virgle website , filling out a form, and submitting videos.
Most persuasive of the hoax was the fake press release in which Branson outlined his ideals of "Virgle [as] an 'interplanetary Noah's Ark.'" Google co-founder Larry Page commented, “Virgle is the ultimate application of a principle we’ve always believed at Google: that you can do well by doing good." They envisioned Mars as a true "open-source" project: thousands, perhaps millions, of people working together for a common good without monetary reward. Projects such as Linux and Wikipedia revolutionized computing and information, so why not colonization?
Like many others, they held a dream of colonizing Mars, but ultimately held it impractical, admitting on a fake 404 page , that "It isn't real. There. Are you happy? Does it please you to drag us out of our lovely little fantasy world, to crush all our hopes and dreams? Is that really what you need to hear? Fine, you've heard it. Virgle isn't real."
As the days passed, however, more and more public support cheered on the idea of Virgle. Branson, Page, and Brin had opened a Pandora's box of public interest. Lesser men may have settled the applause with admissions of the joke and going on with their daily lives, but the three stepped up to be named among the greatest leaders of the twenty-first, or any, century. Setting aside the comforts of terrestrial business, Branson continued his entrepreneurial experiments with the Galactic White Knight and space-tourism, busily creating advanced chemical-burn rockets and horizontal launches that could effectively jet necessary cargo into Earth orbit. Working alongside NASA, Roskosmos, and other international space institutions, the International Space Station served as a central ground for the interplanetary launch craft.
Meanwhile, Page and Brin used their software expertise to sort incoming capital for the project. While donations were welcome, the true breakthrough came as Virgle became a joint-stock company, the same kind that had colonized North America and other parts of the world hundreds of years before. With crashing housing markets and banks looking for bailouts, Virgle as a long-term investment took Wall Street by surprise, becoming an investment as welcome as bonds of First World nations. While a good deal of capital was required for setup, little pay was required for the Virgle volunteers, who gladly gave up their earthly savings to live a dream of exploration. Even without offering a salary and sorting out the phony applicants, Virgle took in so many skilled volunteers that Branson would be kept busy for decades ferrying them to their new world.
While the initial schedule of a manned mission to Mars of 2009 was delayed by three years, Richard Branson became the first human to set foot on the Red Planet after a months-long voyage. Virgle Base was established as planned on the Lunae Planum, "the transition between the high Tharsis rise, a giant volcanic bulge, and the northern lowland plains" as mentioned in the initial press release, now housed in the Electronic Wing of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Drilling discovered ice, which made the first settlement inhabitable, but the pioneering process was difficult with required protective gear and cavern housing. A number of times looked like the end for the Virgle Project with accidents or lack of funds, but the unnerved leadership by Branson, Page, and Brin allowed the pioneers to press on.
Virgle City, a connected series of tubes underground, was formally proclaimed towards the end of 2013 as per the initial schedule. Real estate sales, low-gravity refining of native raw materials, and cheap storage for data served as the primary economy of the young Mars until the discovery of a rich gold deposit approximately midway between Virgle City and Olympus Mons. The Martian Gold Rush began, and by January 2014, the alien population surged well beyond the hypothesized 100,000 to over nine million. Settlers continued to flow, skyrocketing the value of old Virgle stock and supplying the capital necessary for the Martian Artificial Magnetic Field, a key component to terraforming. Long-term interplanetary gas-harvesting built up an atmosphere rich in greenhouse gases to stabilize warmth so that, by the sesquicentennial in 2169, a human Martian will run barefoot through an idyllic meadow safer and more comfortable than any on Earth.