Kristin Richmond is ready for her one-way ticket to Mars.
The upside: Richmond, of Folsom, was chosen this month from among 200,000 applicants as one of 100 candidates for a project called Mars One. Founded by a Dutch entrepreneur who joined forces with a reality TV producer, the project proposes sending the first group of human colonists to Mars by 2025.
The downside: They can never come home. Costs in the billions and the difficulty of launching from the surface of Mars make a return trip unfeasible, the Mars One planners contend.
Some critics say the project is unrealistic or merely a set-up for a TV show about astronaut selection and training. Others call the private plan intriguing because of its emphasis on sending people to Mars, using current technology, for far less than governments might spend.
Whether visionary or delusional, the plan has had a powerful pull on peoples’ imaginations.
Major media outlets around the world have covered it, even though it exists mostly as a website. Tens of thousands of people sent audition videos. And those who are eager to go say they’re willing to leave family and fresh air behind for a risky trip to a frigid, barren world, where they’ll live and die in tight quarters, 140 million miles from home.
“A lot of people who do really meaningful great things that affected the world have had to sacrifice,” Richmond said.
Richmond, 32, is a civil engineer with the state Department of Water Resources and graduate of UC Davis. Her sacrifice would include leaving her husband and parents behind. Her husband, Frank, is a high school teacher and wrestling coach in Folsom.
She said he isn’t thrilled about the prospect but doesn’t want to stand in her way.
“He wouldn’t keep me from pursuing my dreams,” she said. “But he doesn’t really want me to go.”
One of the main questions she’s been asked, is whether their home life is so troubled that a one-way rocket to Mars seems preferable, she said.
“I don’t have any marital problems,” Richmond said. “I have a great marriage. I love my husband. We’re really happy together.”
Her husband “doesn’t want to be in the spotlight” and did not want to be interviewed, she said.
Richmond grew up in Silicon Valley, where her father worked as an engineer for Intel. She has lived and worked in the Sacramento area since graduating from college in 2006.
To apply for the Mars One mission, Richmond submitted a one-minute audition video, shot by her husband, that shows her sitting at a desk surrounded by engineering books, chopping wood and kicking a soccer ball. On the Mars One website, she said her nickname is K.C. and her interests include dance, snowboarding and writing poetry.
Richmond said if she were chosen as a colonist, she would weigh the comforts of home against the Mars mission’s epic scope. She sees the mission – or even a role on a TV series – as a way to inspire young women to pursue careers in engineering and technology.
Dawn Sumner, a Mars expert and professor at UC Davis, said she understands Richmond’s point of view. For a mission to Mars, “you need people who are really smart, work really well under pressure and can make difficult decisions.” You also need “someone who’s willing to not come back.”
“A lot of people are amazed at that,” Sumner said. “But if you think back to the 1400s, when sailing ships were going around the world, only a third of people who left Europe ever came back.”
In such journeys, she said, “there’s this amazing sense and feeling of adventure and finding out new things and doing things that no one’s done before. I think there’s always been a segment of humans willing to do that. They’re the ones that blaze new trails and pave the way for the rest of us who want a little more security.”
Sumner said she wouldn’t undertake the Mars One mission even though she’s spent many hours living on “Mars time” and viewing the planet’s surface as part of the team behind NASA’s Curiosity Rover, which is trying to find evidence of microbial life in the Martian soil.
“I like taking long walks outside,” she said. “I like being alone. I am willing to spend two months camping in Antarctica but don’t want to be confined.”
Mars One proposes a seven- or eight-month journey aboard a cramped spacecraft, followed by living in hut-like units delivered in advance. Astronauts would don spacesuits to journey outside. The thin atmosphere on Mars is mostly carbon dioxide, the gravity is about a third of Earth’s and temperatures average 80 degrees below zero.
Sumner said she believes the Mars One plan is more than a publicity stunt but still questions if it could actually work using current space hardware.
“I don’t think the Mars One plan for technology is necessarily reasonable, but I think it’s really interesting and exciting to have private space exploration.” The costs of such projects could be vastly lower than those undertaken by nations or groups of nations, she said.
Project spokeswoman Suzanne Flinkenflögel declined to be interviewed because of the number of requests she has received.
Whether humans could make it to Mars and still function well enough to grow their own food and establish a settlement is a major problem, Sumner said. Long stints in space cause changes to human immune systems and to the bacteria that live in our bodies and help us survive, she said.
“There’s huge numbers of questions about astronaut health and how long they can function,” she said. “It’s not clear to me people will be able to work hard enough to survive on the surface of Mars with all the physical changes and all the mental and emotional changes that go with it.”
Kim Stanley Robinson, a prominent science fiction author who lives in the university town of Davis, said he’s skeptical of the Mars One plan. Robinson wrote about the colonization of Mars, starting in 2026, in his “Mars Trilogy” of books.
“We’re nowhere near the technology that could take us there. That’s decades away,” Robinson said. When it does happen, “it should be an international public effort. In the meantime, it’s an inspirational dream people have.”
Mars has called to people for eons in its travels across the night sky, Robinson said. When astronomer Percival Lowell described canals on Mars in the late 19th century, he inspired writers such as H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs to imagine civilizations there, until scientists realized the Martian atmosphere probably couldn’t support life.
That sense of wonder is inspiring humans to push the limits of technology and dream of one day sending travelers to Mars, he said.
“You can see it yourself with your own naked eye in the night sky,” Robinson said. “It’s real but empty, and that’s attractive. Its emptiness implies a blank slate of possibilities.”
Richmond said she was never particularly interested in science fiction or outer space growing up. An astronomy class in college piqued her interest. Now she owns a telescope, reads scientific journals on the subject and regularly visits a small observatory in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
One day, she said, she may have to choose between her dream of space travel and her life here on Earth.
“It’s very glamorous to think you could be the next Neil Armstrong,” she said. “But of course if I was selected to go, it would be a decision I’d have to make.”
Call The Bee’s Hudson Sangree, (916) 321-1191.