Shirelle Webb has her feet planted firmly on the ground and her mind on Mars.
In May, the 21-year-old student at Del Mar College (DMC) in Texas learned that she made it through an elimination process and is one of 705 candidates worldwide who may be chosen for an ambitious Mars colonization project being developed by Mars One, a Netherlands-based nonprofit foundation. Webb and the other potential astronauts now advance to an interview round with Mars One’s selection committee.
“My passion for Mars is why I’m doing this,” Webb said. “We have a chance to inspire the world. I’m not scared to go out and do what I love. I’m scared of not getting picked.”
Mars One plans to launch its first crew of four astronauts in 2024 and land them on the Red Planet the following year. Additional crews will follow in two-year increments, gradually building up the colony. Currently, there are no plans to bring the settlers back to Earth.
The organization says it will send unmanned craft to Mars in the coming years to demonstrate technologies and prepare for the pioneers’ arrival. For example, it aims to launch a robotic lander and orbiter in 2018, a scouting rover in 2020 and six cargo missions in 2022. Theoretically, the astronauts will have what they need to be self-sufficient when they arrive in 2025.
Ready for the challenge
Webb has no reservations about the possibility of living months on end in a confined spacecraft with people from around the world.
“I was homeschooled and cooped up in a house for a long time,” she said with a laugh.
But her conviction for becoming a Mars colonist is deeper than that of an imaginative sci-fi buff. Webb, an emergency medical technician (EMT), will soon take a test to become a state-certified paramedic, and she believes that skill set will make her a valuable crew member.
“I don’t think I would have made it this far in the (Mars One) process without my training,” said Webb, who has logged about 100 hours with Corpus Christi Fire Department ambulance crews while enrolled in Del Mar’s EMT program. “I’m hoping it helps me make it through the next interview.”
Webb first heard about Mars One’s astronaut search on the radio last summer. She called her mother on the phone and told her, “I’ve got to do this,” she said. Mother and daughter stayed up until 3 a.m. recording and re-recording a 60-second video in which Webb talked about her passion for the mission.
“We had to record it 65 times,” said Webb’s mother, Terry Teri.
And it worked.
More than 200,000 people applied to become Mars One astronauts after the competition was announced in April 2013. In December, the organization culled the pool down to 1,058 candidates and then to 705 in May, which included Webb.
The next interview round, as yet unscheduled, will narrow the ranks further from 705 potential settlers down to just a handful – enough to staff “several international teams consisting of two women and two men,” according to Mars One’s website. These teams will train full-time for the planned Mars mission.
“Mars One will repeat the selection process regularly to train additional teams to replace eliminated teams and crews of settlers that have successfully left Earth to live on Mars,” the website states.
Mars One plans to fund the mission through a globally broadcast TV event that will document the astronaut selection process. A partnership with a TV production company was announced on June 2, and the first broadcasts are expected to begin in early 2015.
A long shot, but still
There are those who are skeptical about the project’s viability. But even skeptics are happy to have the public’s attention on space exploration.
“It’s good because it keeps Mars in the forefront. Otherwise, nothing will happen,” said W. Vernon Kramer, assistant professor of geology at DMC. A space enthusiast and member of the Mars Society, Kramer has participated in two Mars-focused expeditions since 2009, the first a simulated Mars habitat in the Arctic Circle and the second a research project in the Utah desert.
Webb has encountered doubters among people she’s talked to about Mars One. But she remains committed to the project, even when considering possibly leaving Earth and never coming back.
“I’m OK with that,” she said. “It’s about spending your life doing something you love. Columbus did it. This is like another ocean.”