2 US Servicemembers Make the 1st Cut for a Trip to Mars

Mars. NASA photo
Mars. NASA photo

RAF MILDENHALL, England — Company seeks intergalactic adventurers for one-way trip. Spartan living conditions. Death a near certainty.

Mars is not a hospitable planet. The average temperature is minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit, the atmosphere is not breathable nor does it provide much protection from radiation. Water is not easily obtained, and the planet is not known to have food. To live on the planet any length of time means every aspect of life must be supported by technology. Should anything go wrong, help from home would not arrive quickly — Mars is on average about 50 million miles from Earth.

Despite all of this, two U.S. servicemembers are willing spend the rest of their lives on the Red Planet.

A Naval Reserve flight test engineer and an Air National Guard cybertransport specialist are among 100 candidates vying for 24 spots to travel to Mars through a Dutch-based company, Mars One.

Although experts in space exploration have cast doubt on the technical feasibility of the project, Mars One hopes to land four people on Mars in 2025 to establish the first extraterrestrial colony. Four more colonists will follow the next year and more after that.

Coming back to Earth is highly unlikely, because no one has devised a way to return from such a distance. Mars One wants to colonize the planet for the sake of exploration and in the hopes of developing new technology, but it is not willing to wait for the necessary technology to offer the colonists a way to come home.

That means the first human visitors to Mars will live — and probably die — there.

“A ‘one way’ trip (or, in other words: emigration) to Mars is currently the only way we can get people on Mars within the next 20 years,” Mars One officials wrote on the company website. “This in no way excludes the possibility of a return flight at some point in the future. It is likely that technological progress will make this less complex down the line.”

The one-way aspect of the trip was part of the appeal for Lt. Cmdr. Oscar Mathews. Mathews, who is a test pilot at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., said when he saw the trip was one way, he “knew right away” this mission was for him.

“If you’re going to go to Mars, you may as well stay on Mars because the whole reason to go to Mars is to do science and to live and to establish a habitat,” Mathews said, also pointing out that by living on Mars, colonists could explore far more of the planet than a temporary mission could.

Mathews said his friends were supportive, but declined to discuss what his girlfriend thought about the possibility of his leaving.

Tech. Sgt. Carmen Paul, another potential astronaut who currently serves full time with the California Air National Guard, said her friends and family were supportive of her going, even if they were sad that she would likely never return to Earth.

My husband “is weirdly supportive of it, too, which I’m not sure if I should be worried about that or not,” Paul said. However, she said her husband intends to apply for Mars One when the company starts accepting applications again.

Paul and her husband, however, have not discussed what they would do if only one of them was selected to go to Mars.

“Probably neither of us would end up going,” Paul said.

Mathews and Paul must make it through two more selection phases to become astronauts. Both have already been medically screened and given an initial interview. The next phase, according to the Mars One website, will see the 100 candidates divided into groups and forced to accomplish tasks as a team.

After that, a committee will select up to 24 candidates “to become full-time employees of the Mars One astronaut corps, after which they’ll train for the mission.”

Some have questioned whether this mission will even get off the ground.

Mars One estimates getting the first eight colonists to Mars will cost $10 billion, an amount they hope to raise partly through selling video rights to the mission. But Ian O’Neill, in an article for Discovery News, said that television executives were unlikely to pay billions for a show that colonists on Mars can cancel at will by disabling a camera.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have also questioned a basic assumption of Mars One: that the technology to travel and live on the planet already exists. Mars One officials make this claim on their website, noting they have consulted “major aerospace companies around the world” for the development of their colonization plan.

But in the fall of 2014, MIT publicized the results of a study that analyzed the logistics of living on Mars and found many pieces of the required equipment had not been tested in environments like Mars.

“Many of the technologies that would likely be employed on such a mission are not currently ready for deployment,” scientists wrote in the study.

Mathews, however, said he has researched Mars One’s plan and thinks its timeline is feasible. He said that studies like MIT’s, while exposing flaws in the Mars mission, also help point to solutions for the company to implement over the next several years.

The plan to get humans to Mars by 2025 is “an aggressive schedule but not an impossible schedule,” Mathews said.

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