Laurel Kaye

I Signed Up To Spend The Rest Of My Life On Mars -- For Real

Laurel Kaye might just be one of the first people to live on Mars. The 20-year-old physics student at Duke University is currently campaigning to start a human colony on the planet through a project called Mars One, a privately funded organization including space-lovers from around the globe. Laurel is part of the Mars 100, a group of potential astronauts whittled down from 202,586 applicants. From 100, they will be narrowed down to 24, and in 2024, after years of training, a groups of four will touch down on the red planet every two years -- and never come back to Earth -- in hopes to establish sustainable life on Mars.

Terrifying, right? Not to Laurel. Read her take below, where she answers the questions people ask her the most, and ponders never being able to eat chocolate again.

Laurel Kaye

By Laurel Kaye

I was packing for a year in Oxford when I first heard about Mars One in 2013 -- through a friend on Facebook, nonetheless. Because what are friends for, if not to post links that lead to you choosing to live the rest of your life on a different planet?

Mars One ambitiously seeks to design and build a settlement there, and then send groups of four people once every two years to the planet Mars starting in 2024. And that summer, they were looking for astronauts.

Mars One's call for astronauts went something like this: "Hey, want to train for a decade to go to Mars and then potentially never come back?” Most people would regard that with an internal chortle accompanied by a “hell no!” (and proceed to an article about kittens being frightened by pieces of strategically placed packaging tape). I have never been most people.

Currently, I am one of the 100 Mars One astronaut candidates out of an initial 200,000 applicants, who also aren't most people.

Applying to go to Mars was not an immediate decision in the way that sprinting away from a charging rhino or watching the next episode of "Gilmore Girls" is. I really thought hard about it.

There are many things I want for my future on Earth: I have always wanted to learn to play the cello, to eat an entire piece of cheesecake at the Cheesecake Factory unassisted, to run (or rather limp miserably through) an Iron Man race, to adopt a border collie named Wiggle. Colonizing Mars is a rather recent addition to the list.

But I have wanted to become an astronaut for a very long time. While most babies babble something about "dada" or "mama" or "cookie" when they are first learning to talk, my first word was "moon." Did 7-month-old Laurel really see the hazy out-of-focus moon glowing in the night sky over Palo Alto and know that she wanted to spend a significant part of her future eating freeze-dried noodles as she floated upside down while Skyping her future border collie?

Laurel Kaye

Growing up, I would read popular science books like “Big Bang” and “The Elegant Universe" -- books meant for hopelessly nerdy people who didn’t know quite enough physics yet to do the thing properly. And on weekends, I would freeze my extremities off trying to find star clusters and nebulae in my telescope eyepiece before showing them to my exasperated parents (“there’s nothing there, it’s just fuzz!”). In high school, I decided both that I wanted to be a doctor and that I wanted to be the first person on Mars. Simultaneously. My friends and family were pretty OK with this, probably thinking that I was slightly nuts but in a good, organic almond-butter sort of way.

The plan was to go to college, go to graduate school, adopt the border collie, and start applying to NASA’s astronaut training program as many times as I could until they got so sick of reading my application year after year that they would just decide to take me. I know I'll be an astronaut, but Earth-based research would be cool too.

Laurel Kaye

Now for the project itself: Mars One aims to send a series of unmanned missions containing science experiments, rovers, and supplies starting in 2018 before finally launching the first manned mission in 2024. Our settlement will be as self-sufficient as possible: we will melt our own Martian water from ice in the soil, hydrolyze it with electricity to make oxygen, and grow our own food hydroponically, which is super because I have always fancied myself a hobby farmer.

The astronauts will also be devoting a lot of time to building and expanding the settlement and conducting research. I am currently working on biophysics research in an orthopedics lab at Duke, so this is the part that I am really looking forward to. We will also have free time as well to read, write, paint pictures of our border collies, cook, play games, form barbershop quartets, and carve pelicans out of soap. Basically all of the things any person would do. Except on Mars.

Here, I've already started on that painting hobby:

Laurel Kaye

Now, I get asked a lot of questions by my very enthusiastic, intelligent and absurdly good-looking friends, so here are a couple of my favorites:

Will you be able to shower?

Yes. When we get to Mars we will have plenty of water that has been extracted as ice from the Martian soil to live comfortably, and luckily that includes showers. However, on the approximately seven-month journey over from Earth, we will only have access to the type of wet wipes that the astronauts on the International Space Station use, and that is on top of the three hours of exercise needed to maintain muscle mass in microgravity. Needless to say, you will probably not want to smell our socks upon arrival.

Can you communicate with people back on earth?

Yes, there will be a pair of communications satellites placed in orbit around Mars and into orbit around the sun respectively that will enable near constant Mars-Earth communication with one caveat: a time delay. Light, which is what communications signals are made of, travels very fast but it does take time to travel and Mars is extremely far away. This amounts to anywhere from a three- to 22-minute time delay. So when I let forth a “Heya buddy!” to Wiggle the border collie, it will take anywhere from six to 44 minutes for his delighted bark to return to me. So phone conversations would be a drag but I highly encourage Snap Chats.

Will you be able to eat chocolate? (This question was followed closely by “If you can’t eat chocolate will you die?”)

Alas, I do not think that cocoa trees will be among the first plants to set their virgin cotyledons in Martian water, but perhaps as the settlement is built up more and becomes a nicer place to live it will make its way over. In the meantime I shall carry on nobly in my enfeebled state and cross my fingers for care packages. At least it will reduce my risk for diabetes considerably.

Will they choose your man?

Um, no. They better not try. I like to think that through training alongside the same crewmembers for the better part of a decade we would form our own sort of family, but it is not an Aldous Huxley novel. A very interesting question though.

Are you afraid?

I think it’s a combination of the trip being a decade away, my willingness to watch and see the technology tested successfully first, and my intense excitement to possibly be living my dream but no, not really. But then again, I cook spaghetti with the pot handle facing out, I only use bumpers occasionally when I go bowling, and I decided I was too impoverished to immediately buy a helmet for my used bike in Oxford, so I guess you could say I’ve always somewhat of a daredevil.

How do you feel about never coming back to Earth?

I tend to feel an awful lot, which is why the chocolate becomes necessary. However, in this case, my feelings of curiosity and excitement and passion far outweigh the apprehension, and, despite my quackish remarks, I really do believe in what we are doing. I think that the place I am going and the group of people I am going with will become my home. On the other hand, I am only 20 years old and a huge believer in human ingenuity and progress, so I am also optimistic that, in my lifetime, there will be technology for a return trip; in fact, companies such as SpaceX are working on it right now. After I have done some neat science, helped to build a smashing Martian village, and constructed statues of all of my friends over the decades, I would enjoy returning to see my loved ones back on Earth, spread excitement for the mission, and have at that cheesecake.

What about your border collie?

As mentioned above, I will Skype him from space. Or who knows? Maybe he will come and visit.

Take a look at Laurel's blog, LaurelTheAstronaut.com, for updates and for answers to more questions.