From Arkansas to Mars? Maybe.
How far would you go to make your dream come true?
For Bill Dunlap, it’s measured in astronomical units 1.5 AU (Astronomical Units) or around 35 million miles. That is the average distance from Earth to Mars, depending on where we are in our orbit at the time. Dunlap, a 1985 graduate of Van Buren High School, is an astronaut applicant in a project called Mars One.
Mars One is a not-for-profit foundation with a mission to establish permanent human life on the red planet. An important part of that plan is the people who will comprise the “new world” – the astronauts.
More than 200,000 people across the globe applied for the chance in 2013. The selection committee includes former NASA officials. They took nearly four months to review the written and video components of every would-be space traveler.
In December, 1,058 hopefuls were named as candidates to establish human life on Mars in 2025. Among those is Dunlap, who must pass two more rounds of selection. The applicants are competing for one of 24 paid astronaut slots.
“When I was growing up, I had every intention of going to college to become an astronaut, but it fell along the wayside and I thought my dream was over, gone, dead,” Dunlap, 45, recalled. “So I spent the last 20-plus years thinking it was never going to happen.”
When he first spotted information about Mars One on a friend’s Facebook page, he knew instantly he would apply.
“There was no question I was going to do it,” he said.
He studied the Mars One plan and became excited to see the organization was not looking for the typical astronaut but for people who would build a community, a new society. His work background is in mechanics.
“To do what they are asking takes patience and intelligence, among many other factors,” he said. “What they are doing is not impossible, it is difficult and it will take lots of work ... it took very little to convince me to apply.”
Mars One planners believe a human settlement on Mars is possible today with existing technologies and their mission plan integrates components that are tested and readily available from industry leaders worldwide. In the coming years, the project plans include a demonstration mission, the launch of two communication satellites, rovers and several preparatory cargo missions to Mars. A reliable living environment will be waiting for the astronauts when they leave Earth.
It’s a one-way trip. The Mars One colonists must be willing to live on the distant planet for the rest of their lives.
Dunlap, who lives in Bella Vista, is married with four children. He has considered this permanent departure seriously. If chosen to depart in 2024, he would be 55 years old.
“There is some tension over this,” he said. “Our kids will all be grown by the time the first humans leave and they are very supportive. They have grown up with communication technology like texting and it feels natural to them.”
He describes his wife, Anita, as mostly supportive.
“When you are involved with someone, you want to support their hopes and dreams and wishes even if they are not what makes you happy,” he said. “The idea of having her husband fly away and not come back is not what she wants, but on the other hand, she sees how important it is to me and wants to be supportive and help me go for it.”
Extended family also are supportive, though he is not sure they are taking it seriously just yet.
“Growing up, my parents have been the most supportive human beings in the universe about anything, from playing football to starting a rock band, and this will be no different.”
Becoming an astronaut is a dream shared by many. But becoming a permanent Martian colonist? What attracts a person to actually do such a thing?
Dunlap believes his desire to go to Mars is a calling.
“A calling is what drives people and what motivates them,” he said. “I believe that is built in for some people and there is no choice or cause.”
He said he grew up watching the space shuttle being built and watching the first pilots train for their mission. It had him – along with much of the world – captivated.
“People laugh, but watching the shuttle being built along with watching ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Star Wars’ at the time, well, all that combined has contributed to my mindset of it all as possible.”
The mission is not without risks, yet Dunlap said he is not afraid.
“I feel space flight has become routine and I have studied the plans for the seven-month journey, landing plans, then the settlement. Of course, random things can occur not unlike natural disasters but I believe you can’t go around being afraid of things that might not happen.”
He does expect to feel sadness and homesickness and to miss loved ones if he takes this journey. But there are many ways to cope with the process of this type of undertaking, he said.
He said it is not unlike voyages of discovery from all of human history – the ocean voyages of Magellan or Columbus were ventures into the unknown for them.
“Humans have always been explorers,” he said.
Communication with Earth will be possible. There is a 45-minute delay in transmission due to the great distance and complicated orbits involved.
“Two-way video conversations will not be an easy feat but e-mail will not be a problem,” he said.
The mission brings up profound questions. Technically, will sufficient oxygen, water and food be generated? Morally and philosophically, will there be children on Mars? The Mars One project will address these issues. The project is independent of any world government. The Mars colonists will develop their own community.
Could an Arkansan be one of the first human colonists to set foot on Mars in our lifetime? It is not impossible. One thing is for sure, those that do make it will be world and civilization builders. Dunlap is certain he wants to be among them.
Read more about the program at mars-one.com.