The '60s were an heady time for space exploration. President John F. Kennedy fired the starter's pistol in the space race with a rousing speech about America's manifest space destiny:
"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. ..."
Even so, by the time Neil Armstrong ventured his giant step, the moon was old news. Three years earlier, Major Matt Mason beat him to the punch. He and his intrepid team lived the lunar life, handling hostile ETs, doing America proud.
Of course, Major Mason was just an action figure.
Five decades later, a civilian in St. Cloud dreams of outdoing the major. You see, Matthew Liam Mason longs to go to Mars.
And no, he's no space cadet. Last month, Mason was among the 1,058 candidates plucked from a pool of more than 200,000, who now have a shot to compete for a one-way ticket to Mars that a Dutch nonprofit group hopes to provide four astronauts in a decade.
"As a kid, all I ever wanted to do was go up in space 'cause it was cool," says Mason, 27. "As an adult, I wanted to do things that change and impact the world. I thought this was an opportunity to do both. Putting us on another planet and colonizing are the first steps. This step, 100 years from now, is going to be monumental."
As a boy, Mason attended space camp and watched in person several shuttle launches. Joining space voyagers like Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Eugene Cernan was his calling. Yet, after weighing the time investment against the payoff, he scrubbed his life mission as college neared.
"[I] just decided to put in all that work to go into space two or three times wasn't worth it."
Plan B was studying history and international studies at the University of South Florida. After he graduated in 2012, Mason — who matter-of-factly drops phrases like the "Malthusian effect" in conversation — planned to launch a life of social change on a global scale with the Peace Corps. Then, he read about Mars One. Its mission: plant a permanent human colony on Mars, starting in 2024.
It sounded "a little crazy," he says. It also sounded like a second chance to reach infinity and beyond. So he submitted his application, a $40 fee, and a video — making his pitch in a NASA jumpsuit.
In the private sector, at least Mars is hot. Inspiration Mars and SpaceX plan Martian missions. Over the next four years, Mars One will trim its astronaut roster to 40 through medical exams, rigorous simulations and a reality-show-style final selection by which the world will select Earth's first Martian explorers.
Mason, a lead server at Miller's Ale House, reckons he has the right stuff — he's a Mensa member with optimism and a sense of humor.
"It's going to be lonely at times and you've got to have a great sense of humor to do that," he says.
Yet, even if the Mars One is legit — skeptics like Buzz Aldrin question whether the outfit can deliver — and even if it develops Mars-capable technology within its short time frame, and even if Mars One can solve health concerns such as lengthy radiation exposure, money may ultimately ground Mason's dream. Mars One puts the mission sticker price at $6 billion. Maybe Mars One approaches that fiscal orbit through sponsorships, partnerships, and crowdfunding. Maybe.
Still, Mason knows it's his best shot. His only shot. NASA's not looking toward Mars until the mid-2030s.
JFK realized space's prospect of "new hopes for knowledge and peace." Likewise, Mason sees a similar prospect in Mars: a do-over for humanity.
"There's always been some kind of war in the world, but on Mars you wouldn't have that," he says. "You'll have a self-sustaining community where you wouldn't have to worry about all the past problems on Earth. Maybe in turn it'll become a prime example of what humanity can do when working together and striving for the same goal."
Not that he's written off Earth. If selected for Mars One, he'll use his celebrity to spotlight human-rights issues before he blasts off: "A thousand years from now, we could go to 50 different planets and Earth will always be our home, so let's take care of it."
For Mason, employing his civic-mindedness on Martian soil would be the best of both worlds.
"I'm going to go up there, kick some butt, work hard ... and we are going to create a utopia."
Major Matt Mason would be ever so proud.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun