Mission to Mars: Why aspiring colonists want to leave Earth behind forever

Michael Walsh
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Mars, between darkness and daylight

This computer-generated view depicts part of Mars at the boundary between darkness and daylight, with an area including Gale Crater beginning to catch morning light.

Do you have what it takes to colonize Mars?

Mars One, a Dutch nonprofit, plans to send a small group of humans to the red planet to establish permanent human life there. On Monday, the foundation announced that it had whittled down the initial 202,586 applicants to just 100 aspiring Martians.

The intent of the mission is to leave behind 24 colonists who will live out the rest of their lives on Mars. In other words, this is a one-way ticket. There’s no coming back.

This news led many to wonder why anyone would want to abandon everything they know to live (and die) on the fourth planet from the sun.

Kay Radzik Warren, 54, of Reno, Nev., who made it through the last round of cuts, says it is vital for humankind to expand into space.

“It’s really important to the nature of our species to explore and push it. It’s not going to happen if we sit back and say it will never happen,” she told Yahoo News.

Warren, an architectural project manager, said she wants to be on the ship that plants the seed for a future human civilization – a potentially brighter future.

It’s up to visionaries, she said, to push the human race forward, especially in times of injustice and despair.

“I think that regardless of the cruelty and strife that is in our world today, we [humans] are really smart enough to move forward and onward and upward,” she said.

Warren, who grew up in Los Angeles, said that the Mars One project appealed to her ever since she learned of its ad campaign in spring 2013. The group said they were looking for ordinary people to create a settlement, not necessarily “the few, the proud,” as space missions had in the ’60s.

Many people ask Warren why she would want to set off to die on Mars. She counters that she would just die here on Earth. Still, she notes, the decision to leave one’s home planet forever is not to be taken lightly.

“I will miss Earth just like I miss a lot of the things I would never go back to from my past,” she said. “If you think about it, it’s not an easy decision to say, ‘I’ll just pack my few personal belongings and leave the planet for ever and ever.’”

Peter Felgentreff, 50, of the San Francisco Bay Area, also made it through the most recent round of cuts. He is confident that humans will return to the moon and eventually journey beyond — and wants in.

“It’s a lifelong dream to keep pushing ourselves. The science aspect is particularly exciting. It’s not often that you can live a scientific experiment,” he said in an interview with Yahoo News. “I’ve always pursued adventures and been one who wants to push myself to the next level. And frankly it’s inspiring. What could be cooler?”

Felgentreff, who has held executive positions at a variety of software technology companies, said he is not particularly interested in self-promotion or making the history books. One day, he thinks, trips from Earth to Mars will be commonplace.

Like any other job, it’s all about the project at hand and helping in any way possible, he said.

When asked if he would miss planet Earth, Felgentreff conceded, “Everybody misses everything at some level,” but said that’s no reason to back down.

“Having been a person who’s traveled his entire life, you move forward; you don’t move back, you move forward,” Felgentreff said. “I was nervous when I moved from Connecticut to California … but home is where you hang your hat, or in this case your helmet.”

Another contender, Sue Ann Pien, 35, of Los Angeles, said she has always believed that space is the final frontier. Both of her parents worked in the aerospace industry and shared their curiosity about the cosmos during her formative years.

“From a very young age, I had an incredible fascination with space,” she told Yahoo News. If chosen, she said, “I basically have 10 years left on Earth. It changes the way I live. It gives me a new perspective about what it means to be alive on our planet today.”

Pien, co-founder of the Mars Society China Chapter, said she has been reading about the biological processes that occurred on Mars over 4 billion years ago and training as a rock climber for more than 10 years.

“A lot of astronauts have said the best thing to prepare them for space walk is rock climbing,” she said.

Pien fears that the human race might be racing toward extinction if we do not act quickly. She argues that overpopulation could deplete our resources and that we are destroying our own environment.

She thinks colonizing Mars will buy us more time. 

“I think it’s really important that we go and find out … I think it’s time,” she said. “The possibilities are there.”

Lt. Heidi Beemer, 25, earned a BS in chemistry from the Virginia Military Institute and serves as a chemical officer in the U.S. Army. But ever since she was a little girl, her dream has been to set foot on Mars’ red soil.

“Everything I have done academically and professionally has been for one reason, to leave this Earth and represent humanity on Mars,” she said in her Mars One video application.

Beemer did not make the most recent round of cuts, but she is so dedicated to reaching Mars that she is exploring other routes to bring her dream to fruition.

Her Mars One candidacy appears only to have strengthened her resolve to reach the red planet.

"My outlook on life during the last several months has changed a lot," she said in a post on Facebook. "I will continue to pursue my dreams through NASA and other opportunities that present themselves in the future. I truly believe all things happen for a reason."

“The large cut in candidates is an important step towards finding out who has the right stuff to go to Mars,” Mars One CEO and co-founder Bas Lansdorp said in a news release. “These aspiring martians provide the world with a glimpse into who the modern day explorers will be.”

Mars One plans to eventually narrow down its search to 24 explorers to set off for Mars in six crews of four. According to the plan, a crew will be launched once every two years starting in 2024. 

The group claims that the technology needed to pull this off exists today. But engineers at MIT think the nonprofit should reconsider the mission’s technical feasibility.

"It’s a bold vision — particularly since Mars One claims that the entire mission can be built upon technologies that already exist," reads a release from MIT.

The initial colonists would suffocate within 68 days of landing if they cultivated crops within the habitat as planned, according to MIT scientists.

Sydney Do, a PhD candidate in aeronautics and astronautics, found that doing so would create unsafe levels of oxygen that would require a perpetual supply of nitrogen to counterbalance it.

Survival, he said, would require undiscovered technologies to extract excess oxygen from the habitat.

Nevertheless, people around the globe are thinking of ways to reach the red planet in their lifetimes. Whether affiliated with Mars One or not, these space enthusiasts are dead set on taking the next giant leap for mankind.