How’d you like a one-way ticket to Mars? Surprisingly, a number of people over 50 are eager to make the trip.
Since the Netherlands-based Mars One nonprofit foundation announced its plans to create a permanent human colony on the Red Planet, more than 1,000 people have applied and nine Americans over 50 have made it to the second round of the selection process.
Next Avenue interviewed eight of them — all married — to learn why they’d want, — to quote Star Trek — “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
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Who Mars One Is Looking For
Among Mars One’s requirements for the 2024 mission: “psychological stability, the ability to be at your best when things are at their worst” and a willingness to undergo eight years of training. Six groups of four will undergo final training, but only one group will make the initial trip, which will take 210 days.
Why would people 50+ leave the good life on Earth (and their spouses) for the hardships of trying to colonize a barren world?
“I have dreamed of going to Mars ever since I was a little boy,” said Ken Johnston, 71, of Beren, N.M., who worked for NASA during the Apollo moon-landing era. He’s undeterred about being in his 80s by the launch date.
Of course, it’s one thing to dream of becoming a Mars astronaut as a kid and quite another to say goodbye to this planet forever. The Mars One team will spend the rest of their lives in an artificial habitat consisting of an inflatable Living Unit connected to a Life Support Unit that will, among other things, let them create potable water by heating ice found in the ground on Mars and protect them from temperatures as low as -225 degrees Fahrenheit.
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Why Applicants Say Age Is an Advantage
Jan Millsapps, 64, a cinema professor at San Francisco State University, explained her Mars One application this way: “Because I’m satisfied with the experiences I’ve had here on Earth, I feel I could leave without regrets. If I were younger, I might wonder what I’d be forfeiting.”
Marina Asbury, 56, a clinical psychotherapist in Fort Collins, Colo., said the time is right for her. “When I was younger I had small children; it was a priority to raise them,” she noted. But now, if she’s chosen, “I will be able to fulfill a long dream of space travel and in some small way contribute to broadening the field for future space exploration.”
Others who Next Avenue spoke with felt similarly, adding that they believed their age is a plus. To them, maturity brings wisdom, common sense, patience and the life experiences that could come in handy in coping with an unpleasant situation or an emergency millions of miles away.
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What If There's a Disaster
“You have a better sense of your own mortality, so you can better assess what living on Mars ‘for the rest of your life’ means,” said Dan Carey, 52, who lives in northern Virginia and works as an ontologist and data architect for a Federal contractor.
The idea that something could go horribly wrong is actually an ideal reason to send older folks to Mars first, according to several candidates.
“The public relations brouhaha if something disastrous were to happen — and it is a definite possibility — would have significantly fewer repercussions if a bunch of sixtysomethings were to die,” said Ann Beardsley, 63, a Mars One applicant who lives near Savannah, Ga. and was formerly a National Guard weather forecaster.
The possibility of disaster and of bidding a final adieu to loved ones weighs heavily on some of the Mars explorer wannabes.
“I am not sure that all of us remaining candidates and our families have fully worked through the psychological impact of leaving Earth forever,” said Berkeley Johnson, 53, of southern California, who is married and the father of four. “This may be the most critical issue as the candidate pool continues to shrink and this unspoken fact looms ever closer.”
For Ken Johnston, the least appealing element of the Mars One mission, if he were chosen: “not being able to take my wife, Fran, on this great adventure.”
If Mars One does choose colonists over age 50, that just might alter the way society on Earth views aging. Perhaps a Mars One mission with boomers on board would change perceptions.
“Older humans are not valued highly,” said would-be Mars colonist Chris Butler, 53, of Elkhart, Ind. “More value is placed on physicality than on the wealth of knowledge older humans possess.”
Kay Warren, 54, of Reno, Nev., eager to be selected, summed up her aspiration in global terms. “This is in essence a great human science experiment,” she said. “I’m willing to devote the rest of my life to this for the sake of the future of human space travel and the sciences in general.”
Plus, Warren added, “Mars might be a great place to retire. With forty percent of Earth’s gravity, it will be a welcome relief for achy bones.”
Stephen L. Antczak is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and is the author of four books and more than 50 short stories.