The international field of candidates vying to be the first colonists to Mars is now down to 705 people, out of more than 200,000 people who initially applied. Only 287 of them are women. I met one of these Martian hopefuls recently in Guatemala.
I was there trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. I just left my job of 20 years as a TV news producer, and I was terrified.
"What are you going to DO?" People would ask me, incredulous.
I didn't have a good answer. I had an inkling that starting my own multi-media production outfit would allow me to grow, but I didn't know how it would work out unless I took the plunge. This scared me to the point of nausea at times. And yet, I was also excited to be doing something new. My brain felt like an egg sizzling on a skillet, and I wasn't even on drugs.
On an impulse, I Googled "yoga retreat Guatemala" and clicked on the first link that came up.
Two months later, I was on a shuttle with eight other strangers headed to Villa Sumaya, a stunning yoga retreat center on the shores of Lake Atitlan, in indigenous Mayan territory.
Amid introductions, I found out that one of my fellow travelers was a finalist for the Mars One Mission -- launched by a Dutch company that intends to establish a permanent human settlement on the red planet. The plan is to send the first human colonists beginning in 2024. The settler's bodies will be so altered by the difference in gravity on Mars that if they ever came back to earth they would literally combust. So it will be a one-way ticket.
Patricia Woodford seemed like an unlikely interstellar colonist. Small and delicate like a bird, a pixie blonde haircut framed her pale complexion and glacial blue eyes. Her voice, in contrast, was commanding. The 29-year-old is a prosecutor for the city of Toronto.
Later, we sat down to talk by the lakeshore. I had a bunch of questions. Flying economy anywhere longer than three hours constituted torture to me. She wanted to fly to Mars and never come back. Why?
"This is the opportunity to see, do, experience something that no human being has done before," she said, enthused. "There's nothing that can be more... full of adventure and excitement and curiosity and potential."
What about all the million and one things that can go wrong, I asked? Anyone going to Mars will be exposing themselves to dangerous amounts of space radiation. The weather will suck, to put it mildly; it's 80 degrees below zero on Mars. Living in eternal winter? Talk to folks on the East Coast about what that's like, then multiply that by eternity.
Then there are the other humans. Living 24/7 with the same 20 people for the rest of your life in inhospitable surroundings sounds like -- yup, you guessed it -- a hit TV reality show. Which will be one of the ways Mars One intends to pay for this mission.
Surprisingly, this is the part that Woodford is most concerned about -- other humans.
"I don't fear our rocket ship blowing up halfway to Mars, I don't fear us running out of water and food... Death is a possibility of this, and everyone is going to die somewhere sometime," she said matter-of-factly. "Stuff can go wrong and it's not death that I fear. It's a lifetime of loneliness. There are things far worse than death."
We are social animals.
Woodford did not seem like someone with blinders on. She was well acquainted with the fragility of life. A few years ago, her 4-year-old niece died and that led to a series of other family crises, including divorces and health problems.
"In my family I sort of play the role of the caretaker... so when something like this happens, I take care of everything and everybody," she said.
Even being fully aware of all the risks, she still fully intends to go to Mars. You can just tell -- she is completely seriously about it.
"In 1,000 years, everyone on Earth will still remember who the first humans on Mars were," the Mars One website said.
To be the first to do something is very alluring. No matter what the consequence. I can see the appeal of that rather than having to swim in a sea of existential uncertainty about your purpose in life.
Alright -- lemme take a look at my to do list: Be the first to do something in the history of mankind -- check! I guess after that it's all just gravy.
Except then you'd have to live on MARS the rest of your life. You think Portland doesn't get enough sun? I've seen photos sent by Mars Rover Curiosity and it looks pretty dark and barren, not just "desert screensaver" barren, more like lizard terrarium barren.
However, the state of our blue planet is pretty precarious these days.
"There's definitely a lot of things that are frustrating, especially about what we've done to the earth that I'll be glad to leave behind and not have to confront everyday," Woodford said. "Congestion, and traffic, and pollution... and the fact that we still can't get along with one another... the disgusting way we allocate our resources, there's so much unfairness and abuse."
Glacial ice sheets are melting like ice cream cones in summer. Rising sea levels are gobbling up whole countries. Maybe it's not such a bad idea to find some other place to live, just in case.
Location, location, location!
I can see it on Redfin now: "Ultra-modern Mars pod atop majestic crater with panoramic view of earth. New appliances. Oxygen and dehydrated food all inclusive. Good curb appeal."
And yet, I don't have any desire to leave earth.
I would miss my family and friends like crazy, and I think I would even miss the people that I don't know well -- like the lady who hands out the samples at the local market who treats her little stand as though it were her home kitchen: "Oh you gotta try this turkey chili and polenta. It's divine!"
Or the security guard at the bank who made sure I took my debit card with me after I left the ATM.
"Don't worry, I'm looking out for you."
Other little things that I would miss:
- The fragrance of meals being cooked with unknown spices as I walk through the neighborhood around dinnertime.
- Watching squirrels nibble on ground scraps, perfectly contented, unaware of the role they play in the ecosystem.
- The spontaneous surprises -- stumbling upon a free concert, bumping into an old friend in a new spot.
I choose to deal with my existential uncertainty in a different way -- I like to think that's another kind of bravery. The everyman kind of bravery -- ordinary people who are trying their darnedest to somehow be helpful to their fellow man here on this earth; not necessarily shattering the history of mankind but just getting down into the nitty gritty, dealing with the traffic, the job, the myriad headaches of modern life, big and small, many of them of our own creation.
The mission if you choose to accept it -- everyday, wherever you live, give it everything you got to be a source of good in this messy world. It's a form of love.
In light of what Woodford was about to undertake, my mission seemed much less daunting here on earth, where at least I know I'll have oxygen.
Woodford will now go through in person interviews with the Mars One organizers -- I don't know if she will wind up on Mars; but at the end of our week at Villa Sumaya, she said something to everyone that I think we can all take away, whether on earth or on mars.