Illustrations by Julianna Johnson & Kate Giambrone
This article appears in our 2016 Winter issue, Nerds. Subscribe today!
We thought we’d be on Mars by now.
After the 1969 moon landing, a crewed trip to Mars seemed to many like the next giant leap (“as early as 1982,” thought Time), but proposed missions within NASA were enervated through changing presidential administrations. Though there have been several successful robotic journeys to Mars, humans haven’t even left low Earth orbit since 1972’s Apollo 17.
The Red Planet is having a pop culture moment with the release of The Martian, a big-budget film based on Andy Weir’s bestselling novel about a human mission to Mars. The film’s premiere saw both astronauts and movie stars on the red carpet, and its opening-weekend box office placed it as the number one movie in the world. Whether by coincidence or through savvy PR, the same week The Martian hit theaters, NASA had a big announcement: new evidence of intermittent liquid water on Mars. Now, NASA is leveraging the film’s popularity to connect the science depicted onscreen to real research aimed at getting humans to Mars.
In December 2014, NASA completed the first test flight of the Orion capsule, a key component of its planned missions to send humans to an asteroid in the 2020s and to Mars in the 2030s. Government space programs in Russia, Western Europe, and Asia also have Mars in their sights. But increasingly, space is not just the domain of governments, and space travel not just the dream of astronauts. With a rapidly expanding commercial spaceflight industry combined with falling technology costs, we’re in the midst of what many see as the democratization of space. A small country, a school, or even a Kickstarter campaign can put a tiny satellite into orbit. Launching humans, though, is more complicated—and expensive. From a $250,000 suborbital Virgin Galactic jaunt to a $20–40 million visit to the International Space Station or a proposed $150 million lunar flyby, going to space as a private citizen requires massive disposable income.
When we look beyond space tourism to a permanent settlement on another planet, who do we see there? Elon Musk, billionaire CEO of the aerospace manufacturer SpaceX, wants to start his Mars colony with “people who could afford to go.” A Dutch nonprofit called Mars One (though also helmed by an ultrawealthy white man) is taking another approach: an open call.
The organization’s goal is to establish a human settlement on Mars, with the first four-person crew launching in 2026 and subsequent crews every 26 months thereafter. They opened the application to anyone over age 18 and in “good health,” capturing the attention of space nerds and headline writers around the world. The buzz is about more than the prospect of “ordinary citizens” going to space. It’s also about the mission parameters: Since return trips are not part of the Mars One plan, travelers to Mars are there to stay.
It turns out a lot of people have no problem with that. More than 202,000 people created accounts on the Mars One website, and 4,227 completed the Round One application. In February 2015 the 100 finalists—the “Mars 100”—were announced. These 50 women and 50 men come from 35 countries and range in age from 20 to 61. They are racially diverse, queer and straight, religious and atheistic. Many work in scientific fields, but others are chefs, personal trainers, office workers, artists—people we’re not used to seeing as potential astronauts. Once announced, the candidates found themselves the public face of a controversial idea, their choices discussed everywhere from PerezHilton.com to the New York Times’s ethics column.
Mars One’s aggressive timeline and uncertain funding—relying heavily on advertising revenue from broadcasting the candidates’ training—have made it a punching bag for many critics. But the project has certainly prompted new debates about access to space. Bitch talked with five women in the Mars 100—Kenya Armbrister, Kellie Gerardi, Sue Ann Pien, Laura Smith-Velazquez, and Sabrina Surovec—about why going to Mars matters, the opportunities of a diversifying spaceflight industry, and their visions for the first off-Earth society.
Lives: Bay Area
Job: Project management and finance administration at a French pharmaceutical company. She has a background in international relations and has lived and worked in several countries.
Perfect Last Day on Earth: “A huge party on the beach with my friends and family.”
Lives: New York city
Job: Business-development specialist for a rocket technology company. She is a member of the 106-year-old Explorers Club and recently carried its flag on a two-week mission to the Mars Desert Research Station.
Perfect Last Day on Earth: “Like the last day in your hometown before moving away: revisiting favorite memories and focusing on the next step.”
Sue Ann Pien
Lives: Los Angeles
Job: Customer-support manager at a technology firm. She is also an actor and filmmaker who created the Living Library Project to capture the Earth’s remarkable and imperiled biodiversity.
Perfect Last Day on Earth: “Eating all the foods that I probably wouldn’t eat again in my life.”
Lives: Baltimore area
Job: Human factors and systems engineer at an aerospace company. She is a pilot and active STEM educator.
Perfect Last Day on Earth: “Go flying, maybe do some aerobatics, and then go scuba diving and swimming with sea turtles.”
Job: Co-owner of an online education company where she teaches English to Japanese learners. She is also a photographer and musician who creates techno/opera mashups.
Perfect Last Day on Earth: “Oh man, can I say this? Lots of sex.”
Tell me about your relationship with science growing up.
Laura Smith-Velazquez: My parents were very into science. My dad is an anthropologist, and when I was young he was going to school for it. He’s the first person that ever went to college in our family—I’m the second. When I was little he took me on archaeological digs and we got to excavate a mastodon—which is actually in the Grand Rapids museum, along with my dad’s picture. And then when I was eight my parents got me a telescope because I always loved the stars. After that I just wanted to be an astronaut, I wanted to explore space.
I originally went to school to be an airline pilot. As a pilot you’re cool, but then I took engineering classes and went from cool to nerd in about two seconds. [For girls,] there’s so much peer pressure, and they drop out of science early because it’s not “cool” for a girl. And they’re told most of their lives that girls aren’t good at math, but you know what? They are. And not only that, but you don’t have to necessarily be good at math. If you really like science and enjoy it, there are other creative fields to get into that don’t require you to be a physicist or a mathematician. Engineering and science can be just as creative as they are analytical. My form of engineering—human factors—combines psychology with engineering. I design flight displays, and in some ways it’s very much like art.
Sue Ann Pien: Growing up, I loved loved loved science and space. But going through puberty, I thought, “Oh my God, that’s so uncool,” and tried to hide it more and more. At my junior high, I was part of [what was called] the “Nerd Herd.” It sucked, you know? Girls would run into me and push me over, and I just remember thinking, “I don’t want to be picked on my whole life.” So now, I love [shows] like #BuiltByGirls. I would love to see more of that on TV: Girls who are really smart and who create and build amazing things.
Kellie Gerardi: I feel very lucky to have grown up in a generation where it’s sort of normal that there are people on Earth and then there are a few people who are living off-Earth on the International Space Station. By the time I was born, women were part of NASA, so I didn’t think of it as something that women had to overcome. Women like Mary Sherman Morgan, America’s first female rocket scientist, and so many unsung heroes of the Apollo program—I look at those women with complete reverence and gratitude for having paved the way for people like me to grow up and take these roads without being challenged. The opportunities are there for us to seek out. We just need to make sure that all children are exposed to all aspects of science. I don’t see girls starting out in science then getting discouraged; rather, I see a lack of exposure to STEM activities for young girls.
How did you decide to apply for Mars One?
KG: It goes back to why I sought out a career in the commercial spaceflight industry—I wanted to go, and I thought that my best shot of going to space would be joining this incredible industry. As I continued my career, I realized what a critical paradigm shift it would be if we could democratize access to space to citizen science—to tourists, to explorers, to regular civilians like you and me.
SP: My mom and dad worked in aerospace so I grew up thinking that space is an obvious “What’s next”; I’ve always secretly wanted to be an astronaut. But after the Challenger explosion, my mom was like, “There’s no way you’re gonna be an astronaut.” I put that dream aside. So when I heard about Mars One, I freaked out. I read about the premise and I thought, “This is for me. I need to apply.”
Sabrina Surovec: A friend sent me an article, and I thought, “I’ll sleep on it for the night,” but I couldn’t actually sleep I was so excited. So I got up and decided, “Let’s do this.” I was worried, thinking, who’s going to accept me? I’m just a musician, I’m a teacher. But one of my role models growing up was Christa McAuliffe and she was a teacher. The best part about the program is that they’re giving everybody an equal chance.
What do you think of media coverage responding to Mars One so far? Do you think the media is responding differently to the female and male candidates?
SS: Actually, I think it’s been very balanced. One of my space idols was Sally Ride, and I know she had to deal with questions like “Do you ever get upset and cry?” or “What’s it like to be on the rag when you’re in space?” No one’s asked me anything stupid like that.
LSV: With me, they really love the drama of me leaving my husband [a candidate eliminated in an earlier round], and they don’t ask quite as many technical questions. The whole element of “in your life and in your face”—becoming a public person—has been a very big change. The day after the announcement, both ABC and Fox News showed up at my door. I looked downstairs and saw somebody in a blue coat coming up to the door, and I thought it was the FedEx guy, and [it was] like, “Surprise! Fox News!” When you talk to the media, you never know what flavor it will be. But so far it’s been a good experience.
Kenya Armbrister: The media response to me has been pretty positive. But for other female candidates, I feel like the media is portraying them as abandoning their children and their loved ones. The media always wants to know how you’re going to do your hair in space. I never hear them ask how the men are going to do their hair in space or how they feel about leaving their children behind, so it’s been completely different.
The journey will be partially funded by filming the candidates’ training and distributing it as a kind of reality show, possibly letting the public vote on who is chosen for the first crew. The media has covered astronaut training since the Space Race, of course, but this would be a new level of exposure. What do you think of this approach?
KG: George Mallory’s final 1924 summit to Mount Everest was primarily financed by a documentarian. So there’s certainly precedent for these unique collaborations that provide funding and satisfy public appetite for behind-the-scenes access. It’s an inherently interesting topic, and if we—as a species—are going to be a space-faring species, then we need to be prepared to send all types of people into space and to understand how best to accommodate them. There are people who haven’t traditionally been astronauts who might have the aptitude to be sufficiently trained for survival in space. By putting this on the map in a public way, people can at least start having the conversations like, “What traits are necessary for long duration space flight? What sort of people might show an exceptional aptitude for surviving in isolation for a long time? How far can we push the boundaries of human resilience and survival?”
LSV: I think it’s good to see how hard people [will have] to try and what things they have to overcome. It’s no walk in the park. People have gotten so used to space travel being like “Oh, okay: The shuttle went up,” “Oh, okay: The International Space Station is passing.” People think that’s common, but there is nothing common or easy about space travel. Even just in microgravity, you don’t even think to pee, because there’s no gravity to press on your bladder to remind you, so you have to have a stopwatch to remind you every few hours to try and go. Every aspect of your daily life is changed. But people being able to prepare and overcome that? And people to share in that? I think it’s pretty inspiring.
On the other hand, you’ll get to see the worst sides of me. That vulnerability is going to be very interesting. That part is probably not my favorite part. People always ask me, “What are you afraid of?” but I’m not really afraid of anything. To me, most fear is of the unknown, so I go figure it out and know it and then I’m not afraid anymore. But what gives me the most angst is probably just everyone being right in your business. Normally, you have some level of yourself that’s yours, and in this case it will be very hard to have that.
Some of the language the space industry uses to talk about Mars (“colonization,” “exploring new worlds,” “settlers,” etc.) recalls a conquest-driven mindset. I regularly hear Christopher Columbus invoked favorably in discussions about settling on Mars. While there are obvious differences, missions to space still occur within historical and cultural contexts. With that in mind, how can we make sure space exploration is inclusive of all Earthlings?
LSV: Well, frontiersman-wise, it wouldn’t be so much like Columbus because he was in it for money and self-promotion. This mission is actually the opposite, and I think when it matters most, human nature is positive. When you start out small, it’s much easier to be democratic and to make a good foundation. Mars One is doing a wonderful job with that. They’ve worked really hard to keep it multicultural, and it’s a nonprofit, so it’s not like a government going to Mars, or a country going to Mars—it really is like the people of Earth going to Mars.
KG: Diversity is a great thing; safety is a greater thing. I certainly don’t think at this point that we’re far enough along in our risk appetite that it should just be a lottery system. But I do think that moving forward, we need to have a broader aperture for access to space. We can’t expect to have a super-productive future in space if there’s no current relation between normal citizens and the space industry. Conceptually and intellectually, I think people understand that their satellite phones, their television, their radio, their GPS are a direct result of progress in space. But it’s difficult to get beyond that granular look and see how it affects your life until you actually imagine yourself as a part of it.
Even 10 years ago, there was no possibility of a normal citizen thinking, “I’m going to go to space.” You either had an elite military background or a PhD or some hybrid of the two, and then you had to get through the very rigorous astronaut corps at NASA. And, if you look at that across the last 50 years of our species being a space-faring civilization, just over 500 people have ever been to space, which is really not a lot. You think about all the incredible science that’s been accomplished by those 500 and you imagine what could be done if some of those barriers were lowered—that’s the challenge the commercial space industry has tackled over the last decade.
SS: If we’re going to build a city [on Mars], we need to start right from the beginning to ensure that we can cooperate within a group that’s multicultural. To me that is the most important point about going up there: doing away with things like racism and sexism that are institutionalized here. You know, they don’t have to be there. I know it’s kind of a utopian outlook and that generally fails, but I really hope that we can make it work. Then we can show people on Earth, “Look, we can do this.”
Let’s talk about that utopian outlook. There’s a lot of discourse around a sort of “clean slate” for human culture when it leaves Earth or sentiments like “We can start a new society without racism and sexism.” Is that really possible?
KA: I’ve always talked about building a new society without racism and sexism and any type of discrimination. Because the world we live in now? Being a Black woman in Oakland, California, I’m scared all the time. I hate walking down the street being scared of what people think about me or if people are judging me based on the color of my skin. It is really sad and very unfortunate that so many people of color have to live in this world that way. To be able to build a new society where that doesn’t exist, and where people respect one another despite all our differences—that’s the type of world I want to build.
SP: We’re being really idealistic here, but if we’re talking in terms of the Mars One model, we’re talking about a team of us who are multicultural and multinational. We’re going to be working together as a team, as a family that has to survive, and I think when you get to that core level of depending on each other and relying on one another, you’re going to see some fucking amazing things happen.
Has the possibility of leaving Earth forever changed the way you lead your life or experience the planet now?
SS: I think I’m in more of a hurry to see it all before I leave. I’ll miss experiencing new cultures, new food, new art, new music. But we’ll have the Internet; it’s not like we’ll be completely disconnected from society. I’ll still be sitting there on my phone on Tumblr, probably, in space. So I’m hoping that we’ll be able to trade our experiences for things from back home that we want to see.
KA: I’m 37 years old, and some of my friends I see on Facebook are getting married and having kids, and I’m like, I should probably be doing that, not because I want to, just because it’s part of our culture—if you don’t have children and if you’re not in a relationship, people look down on you, especially if you’re a woman. Before Mars One I was struggling with all these unnecessary stresses, but now I have something much bigger to focus on, that is bigger than any type of seed I could leave behind, and that’s been my prime focus: exploring the world, making travel plans with my fellow Mars One candidates, taking things off of my bucket list, and focusing on this project and bringing people together.
LSV: Being Cherokee, I’m still very tied to the Earth, so leaving it is hard. But at the same time, I’m so excited to explore a new planet: to see a Mars sunset and sunrise, to be able to look back and know one of those points in the stars is Earth, just like you look up and see Mars now. You can love any new planet or any new place as much. And in fact, in Cherokee lore, one of the main creation stories is that we come from the Pleiades.
KG: Philosophically, I have always tried to live my life to the fullest and seek out experiences and opportunities that satisfy my curiosity, and leave me feeling fulfilled. Going to space will be the icing on the cake of an otherwise really fulfilling earthly experience.
I don’t look at this “forever” concept as being that shocking. What is forever really going to be for me? 30 years by the time that someone like me gets to go? When you put it in those terms, it’s like someone who retires to Florida and doesn’t look back at Brooklyn ever again. You move on to that chapter of your life. I think that it would be the most amazing thing in the world to have your life end farther in the solar system than where it began.
SP: I’m living as if these were my last 12 years on Earth, and whether I go to Mars or not, how could that be bad?
More information on these candidates and Mars One is available at mars-one.com