California Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. Carmen Paul and Navy Reserve Lt. Cmdr. Oscar Mathews, a 2004 Air Force Academy grad, are among the 100 hopefuls who made the latest cut for Mars One, a privately funded enterprise that hopes to land a four-person team on the red planet in 2025.
And while their military service didn't lead directly to the stars, both candidates hope their service-connected skills will help them make the next two cuts: First to a 24-person training group, then to the four-person crew that would launch on a one-way trip to Mars in 2024.
Here's a bit about each 32-year-old astronaut-in-waiting, and some details on what they've gotten themselves into:
Tech Sgt. Carmen Paul, with friend, during a visit to a California border-patrol station as part of her work with the California Counterdrug Task Force.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Tech Sgt. Carmen Paul
Paul began her Air Force career on active duty and hoped to earn a commission and astronaut's wings through Air Force programs. But she was short on required college credits and hit another roadblock in the form of a commanding officer who, she said, thought only pilots could be astronauts.
That would have been the end of her space-travel plans — until she heard about Mars One.
"I was just hanging out, watching Netflix or some other streaming service ... and I ran across [Mars One founder and CEO] Bas Lansdorp, doing his Mars One spiel," she said. "I was like, 'Is this real?' "
Real enough: Paul read up on the project, worked on her resume and essay, filmed her application video (over lunch, with her smartphone held vertically), and hoped for the best.
When she got an email saying she'd made the first cut to about 1,000 applicants, "I about had a heart attack," she said.
The second cut came after she'd studied up on more of her competition, many with advanced degrees (Paul is working toward a bachelor's in information technology). "How am I still in this?" she wondered.
Next came the video interview with a Mars One team member. Paul, who works with the California Counterdrug Task Force, left the 15-minute session less than confident.
"All right, I totally bombed that one," she remembered thinking. "I'm a horrible interviewer. Every time I go into one ... I end up blanking or sounding like an idiot. But I said the right thing, I guess."
Despite her pessimism, Paul brings some critical IT skills to the table, joking that she could be the first person to set up Internet access on another planet. She's also relying on her Air Force experience, including a 2004 deployment to Qatar in support of missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, to help her convince Mars One officials that she can excel in a key aspect of the next round of training: Playing well with others.
"The military is like the definition of teamwork," she said. "I really kind of hit heavy on that [in the interview]. I can follow instructions. I can follow checklists. I work well on a team. I can trust my teammates: I have to, to get the job done."
One small hiccup on the one-way road to the red planet: Paul's husband, whom she met on deployment when both were active-duty airmen (he's now a civilian federal employee). She takes the subject of space-based spousal abandonment lightly — "He's surprisingly supportive about it, which kind of worries me," she said — but has a plan for dodging an eternity without him, thanks to a second round of Mars One applications that just opened up.
"In an ideal world, he will apply [for the follow-on missions] and come along with me, which will be fantastic," she said.
Lt. Cmdr. Oscar Mathews
Photo Credit: courtesy Lt. Cmdr. Oscar Mathews
Mathews has the kind of background that made Paul marvel at her own advancement: A master's in aerospace engineering from the University of Tennessee to go with a degree in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Academy. The academy's long line of astronauts drew him to Colorado Springs, Colorado, along with prior Air Force enlisted service by his father and grandfather, he said.
He didn't make the cut for the NASA astronaut program, and years later, after service that included time in Kuwait, took a job with Naval Sea Systems Command as a nuclear engineer, hoping to expand his background and become an attractive candidate to help NASA build a planned plutonium-powered generator. The reactor idea fizzled.
His desire to serve in uniform again led him to the Navy Reserve, where he's assigned to a Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland-based unit. His desire to visit space — rooted in a love of science fiction ranging from classic novels to "Star Trek: The Next Generation" — was left hanging until Mars One reached his radar.
"I was a little skeptical," he said. "But I am, by nature, an optimist. I thought, worst-case scenario, I'm out the application fee, which wasn't much. Best-case scenario, you get to Mars. When you balance those two ...."
Along with aerospace and nuclear training, Mathews brings experience with 3-D printing technology, which could be critical for a Mars mission that can't afford to use payload space on spare parts. That background got him a ticket to the video interview; unlike Paul, Mathews said he "felt pretty confident he would be selected" after the 15-minute chat.
Lt. Cmdr. Oscar Mathews strikes a pose Monday, hours after learning he'd made the 100-candidate field for a privately funded trip to Mars.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Lt. Cmdr. Oscar Mathews
That meant he got to try on some of Final Frontier Design's gear, a possible precursor to what astronauts might wear on a mission to another world.
"You can really imagine yourself on the surface of another planet, like Mars, taking a rock sample," he said. "It was really, I hate to say it, an out-of-this-world experience."
Mission specs, and critics
Both Mathews and Paul were among more than 200,000 people who "expressed interest" in the program's early stages, Mars One said. The field was narrowed to about 1,000 in late 2013, and about 660 people reached the video-interview stage early this year before Monday's cut.
The next step for selectees involves team-based trials at Outpost Alpha, a work-in-progress preliminary staging area that will simulate some Martian conditions. Mathews said candidates could spend two months a year rotating through four-person teams, with 96 entrants eventually sidelined to make way for the first four-person crew.
But personnel is far from the only detail to be finalized by Mars One in less than a decade. Some technology included in the group's mission plan has yet to mature. One example: The Falcon Heavy rocket, manufactured by SpaceX and named as the launch vehicle for Mars One payloads, is scheduled to make its inaugural flight later this year.
There's also the matter of the bill. The project's $6 billion price tag, while dwarfed by estimates putting a NASA-backed trip to the red planet at $100 billion, would be paid for in "a variety of ways," according to the Mars One website, including donations, sponsorships and the sale of broadcast rights. At least one TV production deal has been announced, but nothing approaching the 10-figure price tag.
"The financial aspect is where I'm most concerned," Mathews said, calling it a "chicken-and-egg situation" — the project must show progress to get funding, but it can't make progress without funding.
"It comes down to how we present the mission," he said. "If we present it as a crazy plan that's really risky, everybody's going to die ... I don't think anybody's going to support it."
A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study last year didn't do that perception any favors. It states that current Mars One plans for the aspiring settlers would see them begin to suffocate after 68 days — not for lack of oxygen, but because plants grown in the settlers' habitat would create too much oxygen.
That would require venting some of the gas and replacing it with nitrogen, which would eventually run out and doom the settlement.
"People kind of took the wrong message from it," Mathews said of that study, which Lansdorp, the Mars One founder, said uses bad data. "You can control ventilation in an environment like that. You really just have to be highly aware of everything you're producing and everything you're using. If you stay on top of that, there are really no issues at all."
One piece published at Medium.com in November was more direct, labeling the mission "at best, an amazingly hubristic fantasy."
Mathews penned a response that, in part, called the article "sensationalistic internet bloggery."
"The lack of optimism was what I found deeply disturbing," he said. "There's nothing to be gained by being overly pessimistic. There's everything to be gained if we're optimistic and realistic at the same time."
Mars One has laid out its plans in a fairly detailed fashion, Paul said, but critics have their place.
"Whenever I see a skeptic, or a critical article, I get defensive, but it's a good thing they're doing that," she said. "It's a good thing they're poking holes in it, but those holes need to be filled in."
Especially with a scheduled launch date only nine years away, and a scheduled arrival about seven months after that.
"It's going to start becoming more and more real," Paul said. "For the most part, I get a lot of support ... and the occasional, 'You're crazy.' "
Looking ahead to next time
California Air National Guard Tech Sgt. Carmen Paul and Navy Reserve Lt. Cmdr. Oscar Mathews are the only two of 30 U.S. candidates remaining in the Mars One competition who claim military experience in their applications, but several other service members participated in the process, including a handful that made the recent video-interview stage.
Army 1st Lt. Heidi Beemer's quest included training at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah and speaking with thousands of schoolchildren "about the importance of having dreams and inspiring them to work hard in school to get to where they want to go," she said Monday in an email. Army lieutenant aims to launch with private Mars missionBeemer, a 25-year-old member of the Army's 63rd Chemical Company, 83rd Chemical Battalion, 48th Chemical Brigade, said talking to kids about space provided "my greatest joys throughout the process."
"Going to Mars has been a very serious goal of mine, and will continue to be," she said, thanking her chain of command for supporting her efforts and noting her plan to apply for NASA's astronaut program.
Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Glenn Slaughter, with the Defense Media Activity at Fort Meade, Maryland, said the bonds he has formed with fellow candidates will keep him invested in the Mars mission despite his elimination.
"I'm blessed to continue this journey with them, because I want these people to succeed," he said Monday via email. "I will stand behind Mars One all the way to the finish line, whatever that may be."
A Mars One spokeswoman said the group would not discuss individual candidates' performance during the selection process.