Mars One
An artists impression of what the Mars One settlement might look like. (Illustration courtesy Mars One)
Red ambition
UChicago alum hopes to be among first colonists on Mars.
“I think all movies that go to Mars end in tragedy,” says Mead McCormick, AB’09, reflecting on all the science fiction films and television shows she’s watched. “There are a lot of Shakespearian tragic deaths in space movies.” Cultural outlooks on space travel have changed dramatically in the past few decades, as NASA ramped down its operations to almost nothing. The romanticized journeys of Star Trek, where space represents a new manifest destiny for humankind, have given way to the horrific catastrophes of Event Horizon and Mission to Mars. As normalized space travel has seemed a less and less realistic proposition, it has also become a lot scarier. But McCormick isn’t scared off.
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"2827","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"503","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"500"}}]] Portrait of Mead McCormick, AB’09. (Photography—and haircut!—by Darrell Brett)
She is among the 100 finalists for a spot on Mars One, a project founded by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, which plans to send a group of four colonists to Mars in 2026 for the purpose of establishing a permanent settlement. The hope is that it would grow into humanity’s first civilization on another world. The original four would never return to Earth. Mars One’s organizers opened up their application process to the public; McCormick and 2,760 others applied. But that open call also helped fuel the skepticism that the project has faced from professionals in space and aeronautics fields. The mission’s planned timeline has been pushed back more than once and hasn’t yet reached any significant benchmarks. And it still has to produce the necessary equipment and technology tailored to Mars’s environment (as Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield told Newsweek, “You can’t just go to SpaceMart and buy those things”). The project’s estimated budget of $6 billion has been called outlandishly low—the Apollo program of the 1960s and ’70s, for instance, cost roughly $24 billion, and that’s without adjusting for inflation. Nevertheless, Mars One has joined the wave of private projects, such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, looking to pick up the slack of government programs that have lost funding. And although all have run into various problems, they are not at the mercy of tepid public opinion on space travel. According to surveys by Pew Research, around 70 percent of Americans favor either cutting spending on space exploration or keeping its funding at current low levels and spending more money instead on other programs. Only 20 percent favored increasing spending. McCormick’s interest in space and film have long intersected; she loves science fiction movies. If selected for the mission, she hopes to work on the planned reality television show that would chronicle the Mars One mission. Television is also McCormick’s plans for her life on Earth, if Mars is not in the cards. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is working on several independent film projects. Film and media, she says, are important tools for cultivating enthusiasm in endeavors like space travel, as science fiction did for her. Perhaps broadcasting the Mars One mission would do the same for others, she says. Meanwhile, here on Earth, the next major Hollywood film on space travel is The Martian, coming in October. In it, Matt Damon’s character is accidentally left behind by his crew on Mars, and he must survive there on his own while attempts at rescuing him are impeded by a surly mission control director played by Jeff Daniels. Having read the 2011 novel by Andy Weir on which the film is based, McCormick sees being stranded alone as one of her personal worst-case scenarios for the mission. The story also offers a unexpected parallel. “It’s funny because the character”—Mark Watney, played by Damon—“says he did his undergrad at the University of Chicago,” she says, “But of course he’s an engineer, and Chicago doesn’t have an engineering school.” But then again, McCormick did not learn engineering at UChicago, nor anywhere. She studied English and cinema and media studies in the College before earning a master’s in film directing at the California Institute of Arts. Astronauts have historically been veteran combat pilots or highly trained astrophysicists and engineers, but McCormick doesn’t feel any trepidation about her qualifications. Mars One’s staff “have made it very clear to me that they’re not looking for a group of scientists; they’re looking for a group of colonists,” she says. “They want people who can be very open-minded; they can be flexible; they want to be helpful; they want to contribute to the greater good of the community.” McCormick has heard the criticism, the concern from scientists that Mars One’s prospective crew would not be qualified for space travel, but she has confidence in the project. “History shows us that sometimes the greatest movements of mankind are made by one or a very few people in the face of adversity and skepticism from the rest of the world,” she says. McCormick has made at least one strange journey before. In the 1990s, she spent several years living in Siberia, where her father was working for USAID after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. She was seven years old when her family moved there from Virginia, and the language and culture were unfamiliar, as was the desolate landscape and bone-chilling winter. This Mars One endeavor is not a lark for her, she says. It remains to be seen whether space travel really is in her future, but she already has her mind in faraway places.