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The development of modern rocketry for space exploration in the 20th century opened the door to contemplating destinations for mankind beyond the home planet. More than 50 years ago humans reached Earth orbit followed only a few years later by manned lunar missions including six landings of humans on the moon. Farther and obvious human destinations such as Mars have been unattainable so far, except in science fiction. But one private organization expects to change that in the coming years and plans to land a human colony to Mars as early as 2027.

The nonprofit Dutch organization Mars One is behind the effort. The processing of selecting astronauts for the one-way expedition is well under way. When applications were first accepted, there were 202,586 people worldwide that applied for the opportunity to spend the rest of their lives living on Mars. Two rounds of the selection process have been completed resulting in 100 semifinalists — 50 men and 50 women.

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One of the semifinalists is Michigan-born Marylander Laura Smith-Velazquez. A long-time space enthusiast, Smith-Velazquez's day job is systems engineer for a government defense contractor. Her long-time interest in astronomy and space motivated her to sign up. Both she and husband Matthew applied for the coveted slots knowing that the odds of both of them being selected from the thousands of candidates was slim.

Of the two of them, Laura made it as a semifinalist. A new application opportunity is coming in which previous applicants can reapply for positions to replace astronaut candidates who may leave the program and to serve as staff aboard future settlement missions. According to Aviation Week's Aerospace Daily, the third round will "use team challenge, isolation and rigorous interview strategies to cull its current international roster of 50 men and 50 women down to 24 prospective colonists." The finalists will be paid and begin undergoing 10 years of training.

Laura Smith-Velazquez is coming to Westminster to discuss the Mars One program and her participation as an astronaut semifinalist at the next regular meeting of the Westminster Astronomical Society starting at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 9. The meeting location is the auditorium of Westminster's Bear Branch Nature Center. Matthew will also be attending the meeting.

Laura's already preparing for this phase. The final round will involve isolation testing so she has approached her employer to discuss a leave of absence. Uncertain as to whether the Mars One salary will be sufficient to pay the bills, Laura evaluates the situation and manages risk like an engineer. "Even though I want to go to Mars, logistically you still have to make ends meet here and balance the risk of the program not succeeding," Laura emailed recently.

For now, the married couple must consider what choices will be made in determining their future. If the mission takes place as currently planned, they could spend the remainder of their lives living on two separate worlds. The hundred semifinalists will enter the third round of the selection process next year.

Two major obstacles are funding and technology. The web site Space.com recently reported that the Mars One organization estimates the total cost for preparation and launching of the first four-person crew to Mars starting in 2026 would be about $6 billion. The project is being privately funded and the funding effort is ongoing.

The technology required for transporting the colony and making it self-sufficient on Mars' arid surface will require many new innovations that must be worked out and tested before launch. The timeline published by Mars One includes the following objectives:

• 2016: Begin full-time crew training

• 2020: Launch Mars-bound demo mission and deploy a communications satellite in Mars orbit

• 2022: Launch intelligent Mars rover and a second communications satellite into solar orbit

• 2024: Launch six cargo missions to pre-position supplies at site selected for the first colony

• 2025: Rovers set up colony in anticipation of human occupation

• 2026-2027: First four human colonists launched to and land on Mars

• 2028-2029: Second four-person crew travels to Mars

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Curtis Roelle is a member of the Astronomical Society. His website is www.starpoints.org, and he can be reached at starpoints@gmail.com.

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