MONTREAL - Andrew Rader has always wanted to be an astronaut and he's ready to do anything to get into space — even spend the rest of his life on Mars.
The Ottawa native is one of at least 35 Canadians to apply for a mission to the Red Planet in 2023.
The Mars One project, the brainchild of Dutch entrepreneur Bas Landorp, plans to send a few willing pioneers on a one-way trip, with no chance of returning to Earth. The $6 billion project will use existing technology and be funded through sponsors and private investors.
Two weeks after the call for applicants went out, about 80,000 people from 120 countries have already responded in the hope of becoming one of the first four Martian settlers.
The Canadian applicants range in age from 18 to 47, with the majority of them in their 20s. While most are men, as of Thursday at least four Canadian women have applied.
Rader, 34, had already applied to become a member of the Canadian astronaut corps in 2009 but he wasn't chosen.
"I've always wanted to work in space and to be an astronaut is really my ultimate goal," he said.
Rader has discussed his far-out plan with his parents, and brother and sister, whom he said are supportive. Not everyone is thrilled with the idea, though. He said his aunt considers the idea a "suicide mission."
"There are enormous risks. That being said, I think that the risks are worth taking. I mean, major leaps required major risks," he said.
"Life is short, life is precious and that's why you really should do major things that you believe in."
Rader admitted that he views the project as a "very, very long shot."
"The chances if it actually getting carried out as stated are extraordinarily slim," he said. "(But) I think there is a very small chance that if all the dominoes fall in the right place, it could happen."
The modules that would be used to create a habitat, with the help of robots, would be sent up first. Eventually, the first settlers would arrive following a seven-month trip.
On its website, the non-profit Mars One group says the first four settlers would be followed by more groups, every two years. At first, the home base would be limited to provisions, oxygen and water, but would expand to everything the settlers might need, including solar panels.
Mars One says primary funding will come from an as-yet-unspecified "global media event" that will feature the astronauts and their preparation. One organizer bristled at the comparison to reality TV, and said she preferred to call it an educational project.
A veteran space scientist at York University has his doubts, but says the mission is thought-provoking.
"On one hand, you could be talking about this as a great mission, with great discoveries, expanding mankind and so on," Gordon Shepherd said in an interview.
"On the other extreme, you could say it's just reality TV and it's people paying to see people die."
Shepherd said proposing to do things that have never been done before — in just 10 years — is not feasible.
"I would say it's going to take more time, more thought," he said, suggesting a more realistic timetable would be 25 years.
"This idea that we have to do it in 10 years, and as a consequence people are going to end their lives there, to me it's a bit bizarre," Shepherd said.
Shepherd said anyone considering the trip has to answer some deeply personal questions: "What's the meaning of life — what's the meaning of my life?... That's a tough one and I think they have to understand that fully before doing it."
Shepherd, 81, whose science career has spanned 50 years, also questioned the ethics of what's being proposed.
"To persuade people to do things that they will later regret and can't be undone, (and) messing with people's lives like that, it's not ethical," he said.
But Raye Kass of Montreal's Concordia University, says it's not about persuading people to make the one-way trip.
The human-sciences professor, an adviser to the Mars One mission, put together the criteria for the selection process.
"I would disassociate myself completely with anything connected with persuasion," said Kass, 75, who has worked with space agencies including NASA in the past.
"There wouldn't be any persuasion — in fact, there would be a lot of people we would dissuade."
Kass will also be involved in the actual selection with an international team, as well as in the training of the Mars settlers.
She said five characteristics will be considered when judging applicants: resiliency, adaptability, curiosity, the ability to trust, and creativity or resourcefulness.
"The key factor related to all these qualities is attitude," she said. "That's probably the foundation.
"We're looking at a person who is willing to build and maintain healthy relationships because, after all, they're going to be developing a colony together... Unless they are able to work together and be together they will not be able to survive at all."
When asked if the one-way trip could be a suicide mission, Kass pointed to the manned moon landings.
"People thought it would be totally suicidal and would never happen and it did — so my hunch is (Mars One) will take place," she said.
"But will it take place in 2023? I don't know; that's what's being aimed for."
The project organizers hope to receive 500,000 applications by the Aug. 31 deadline.
Kass believes it is possible to send humans to Mars, but the bigger challenge is once they arrive there.
"I don't know if they can get over the possibility that they may never, ever see their families again," she said. "I think that's why a sense of purpose, as to why they're doing this, begins to be extremely important."
Kass admitted that she often wanted to be an astronaut, but had no interest in travelling to Mars.
"Because I love life too much and what's happening here in this world, I feel I can make a tremendous difference in what I'm doing," she said.
"Going to Mars, no. Trying to do the best for those who wish to go, yes."
- Gordon Shepherd