Editor’s note: On Friday, February 27, Mars One announced its list of the top 100 applicants. Scott Stoll was not on it.
Sometimes Scott Stoll dreams of that first day. He steps outside, the rusty red rocks kicking up a fine dust beneath his feet. He is in an extra-terrestrial bowl surrounded by an eroded rim that rises gently on the horizon, forming the lip of a vast crater. Huge boulders are strewn across a cracked surface that resembles dry stream beds in the Australian outback. In front of him, dominating the landscape, is a towering mountain layered in shades of black, chocolate brown, gray, and cinnamon. But what usually dominates his dream is an image of him, looking up into a coal-black sky filled with a million pinpricks of light. He searches for one point of light in particular—Earth. The planet he left behind.
Stoll wants to be the first man on Mars. He is not an astronaut or a pilot. He is not a geologist, engineer, computer genius, or even a Trekkie. But he is one of just 650 Earthlings remaining in an international search by a well-funded organization known as Mars One, based in The Netherlands, that hopes to colonize the Red Planet 10 years from now. More than 200,000 candidates applied for the program starting in 2013; 1,058 people made the first cut, and since then the candidates have been whittled down. Stoll’s next challenge is to be interviewed by Mars One team leaders, who ultimately want to settle on a core of 24 Martian pioneers.
“We are looking for creative people, to be sure, but mostly we need people who know how to deal with boredom and can adjust to little things,” says Norbert Kraft, Mars One’s chief medical officer. Kraft has worked for just about everyone in the space field (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Russians, the Japanese) over the last 20 years, and his speciality is developing psychological and physiological strategies to reduce the negative impacts of long-duration space flight. So he knows what to look out for. “Little irritations can become big problems and dangers to the mission,” he notes, “especially when you consider the tight spaces our astronauts will be living in.”
Now, before you decide this is a hoax, consider this: Mars One has the backing of two prestigious companies, Lockheed Martin and Paragon Space Development Corporation. Scientists and advisers with solid experience and connections to the Space Shuttle program are involved. And it has an undisclosed but purportedly ample pile of start-up funds thanks to Bas Lansdorp, Mars One’s Dutch CEO and cofounder who made a fortune in the wind energy business. Mars One proposes to use existing technology to launch a series of unmanned rockets laden with supplies to Mars, soft land them on the planet surface, and then employ a small army of rovers to assemble a living area that will resemble a string of upside down coffee cups linked by air locks. The first four-man launch, the one Stoll hopes to ride on, would leave Earth in 2024 and set up residence the following year.
Oh, one other thing: They won’t be coming back. The first humans to land on Mars will also be the first to die there. “Hopefully later rather than sooner,” Stoll muses.
While Earthlings have, indeed, proven they can send machines to land and work productively on Mars, the technology for a return trip does not yet exist. That’s one reason why NASA does not anticipate landing astronauts on Mars until the 2030s. The feeling is that American taxpayers like it when their heroes come home alive to a ticker-tape parade.
“Well, I really don’t know about this,” Stoll says, sitting in a Northside coffee shop, thumbing through a copy of A Traveler’s Guide to Mars. “I read about it on the Internet and thought, This is kind of scary. Isolation? Guaranteed no return? What am I doing? But I have always told myself that if a space ship came down and said, ‘Scott, do you want to get on board and see the universe?’—I’ve always said I’d do it.”
It would not be the first time he’s said something like that. Before moving to Cincinnati in 2013 from Milwaukee, Stoll pedaled his bike more than 25,000 miles around the world, starting his journey five days before 9/11 and ending four years later, in phenomenal shape but confronting a world that had changed dramatically.
“I was a little lost,” he says, remembering the days before he started out on his trip. Back then he was working in advertising as a graphic designer. “I was unhappy and I wanted to find some meaning in my life,” he says. “I needed to get lost. I didn’t want to do any more monthly reports.”
And so began Stoll’s experience in isolation. Of coping with boredom. Of being creative and learning to thrive where life and his two wheels took him. All pretty good training for becoming a Martian pioneer. He survived a game of chicken with a crazed Vietnamese motorcyclist, was chased by a gaggle of boys through dusty rural India (“where I was a bit of a celebrity”), and was run off the road several times. He was mugged, kidnapped, jailed (briefly), and had a deep meaning-of-life conversation with two spear-carrying Masai warriors who rescued him from a growing despondency about the human race. “Yeah, I guess I run a little on the philosophical side,” he says. “But that conversation opened my eyes: We’re all basically on the same trajectory of life.” Still, he wonders: Do they really want a philosopher on Mars?
“We’re not necessarily looking for science experts,” Kraft tells me over the phone from the Mars One office in San Jose, California. “We’re looking for compatible people who can create a community together. We’ll train each one of them to do what needs to be done to survive.”
That training will include rehearsing responses to the kinds of challenges one could encounter during the 210-day journey, cooped up with three other astronauts in the Mars Transit Vehicle. The chosen colonists will learn, over the next 10 years, how to deal with equipment malfunctions, solar flares, meteors, isolation, and the inherent problems in landing a spacecraft on the desolate surface of a planet some 140 million miles away, give or take tens of millions of miles depending on the orbital path around the sun. And that’s just the voyage there. After they land, assuming they survive, they will have to build a self-sustaining colony.
Kraft emphasizes that “interpersonal relationships are the key issue. It’s not just about teamwork; it’s about compatibility and living together happily. It’s avoiding those personality issues that could become big deals if allowed to fester.”
If that sounds a little like marriage, well, there’s one thing missing: No babies allowed. Period. The crews will be comprised of two men and two women but these pioneers are not charged with ensuring the propagation of the species. It’s all about fairness. The colonists are volunteers, fully cognizant of the risks and capable of independent thought. Babies are not.
That’s fine with Stoll. At 44, he isn’t interested in changing diapers in zero gravity or teaching his daughter to drive the Mars Rover when she’s 16. “I am interested in how they’ll select the crew,” he says. “Will we feel like we’re going up there as friends or business associates? Will they pair us up?” Pause. “I even wonder if they’ll ever get it off the ground.”
If you were chosen to be one of the folks in that tin can racing through space, you’d be skeptical too. Kraft, on the other hand, is not the least bit hesitant: The mission will go. It will succeed because he’s convinced Mars One will have the best technology and the best humans available. “We have amazing candidates,” Kraft says, a tinge of awe in his voice. “They come from all walks of life. They’re smart and adventurous.” Kraft has been surprised at how many applicants have said they are not interested in a round-trip to Mars. “They are motivated by the permanence of their decision and by a chance to make a new society,” he asserts.
Stoll thinks the trip to Mars will be a grand social experiment, apart from a scientific one, and an inspiration to those left behind. “Can you imagine? The whole world would be watching together, wanting the same thing and rooting for us,” he says. “I feel like it would unify cultures, politics, religions, borders. It’s possible that when we land on Mars, we can change the world.”
Kraft, who leans more toward science than Socrates, agrees the Mars One mission will rewrite the textbook on human relationships. In fact, it’s being designed that way for all the world to see. The powers that be at Mars One want to be sure their crews are culturally diverse, and come from different countries and backgrounds. “Our strength and inspiration will come from our diversity,” Kraft says. “This is, and should be, a demonstration of the human potential.”
Once the first crew is identified—the next cut is scheduled to be made by mid-March—those selected will become full-time employees of Mars One, leaving behind their current jobs, and lives, to commence years of intense training. They’ll bond on Earth. Their story will be documented for what Mars One officials hope will be the world’s most popular reality show. (Think Survivor meets The Right Stuff meets The Truman Show.) Perhaps as bold as the mission itself, the business plan envisions a worldwide television and Internet audience willing to pay to watch the future Martian colonists as they train in harsh environments, rocket into space, interact over seven months of interplanetary travel, and finally take their first breathtaking steps on the Red Planet. What would it have been like to watch the pilgrims from afar as they established their colony in Plymouth? Mars One wants you to know.
Of course, the idea behind the TV show is money. Mars One estimates the cost for the first launch to be $6 billion, and while it has the funds to proceed in these early stages, crowdfunding, philanthropic donations, and corporate sponsorships will take you only so far. “The beauty of a TV series and its transparency is that billions of people will closely follow and be inspired by [the colonists] as they prepare for and land on Mars,” Kraft says. And inspiration on that scale can translate into ad dollars. NASA estimates the cost of a Mars expedition to be upwards of $100 billion over about 20 years. But again, NASA plans to bring its astronauts home.
As he sips his coffee, Stoll wonders about that one-way ticket. He’s generally content and loves living in Northside. He’s written a book, served as a cultural ambassador to Argentina, and is excited about a new childhood education project he’s about to undertake with the YMCA and the University of Cincinnati as part of his day job as an author and artist. And he’s got a serious girlfriend. “Oh, she doesn’t like to talk about it,” he says. “She’s said something like, ‘Figures. I finally find the right guy for me and he wants to go to Mars forever.’”
Kraft points out that a sense of humor will be a good thing for Mars One astronauts to have. He’ll be looking for just the right spark of personality as he vets each of the 650 candidates still in the running. And if he asks Stoll what he hopes to learn living and dying on Mars, he’ll get a touch of the philosopher and the pragmatist. “I want to know if there’s a vibe on Mars,” Stoll says. “Or is there a subtle energy that links our bodies to Earth that isn’t present on Mars?” Then, he says, he’ll ask if he can bring his bike, so he can be the first human to ride around two planets.
Originally published in the March 2015 issue.
Illustration by Jesse Lenz.