Alum Finalist For Private Mars Mission

When Leila Zucker (MED ’07) received an email from her husband about a possible trip to Mars, she did not think twice as she filled out an application.

The program Zucker applied for, Mars One, is a Dutch nonprofit organization founded in 2011 that aims to create a human colony on the barren planet. The organization’s website lists 31 small businesses that are current investors. After a rigorous application and selection process, Zucker, 47, was selected as one of 100 finalists undergoing training to possibly live on Mars by 2026.

The Mars One staff will select 24 people from the 100 finalists for a series of seven-month-long one-way trips to Mars in hopes of colonizing the planet, beginning in 2026. Leading up to this goal, they will run eight trial cargo missions.

There were an estimated 10,000 initial applicants for the program from all over the world, ranging in age from 18 to 71. From this group, 1,058 individuals moved on to the second round of physical examinations, after which 660 people were then selected for final interviews with Mars One Chief Medical Officer Norbert Kraft. While the entertainment company Endemol had been in talks to produce a reality television program following the selection process, it announced it was cancelling the project in February.

Zucker, an emergency medical physician at Howard University Hospital, compared her passion for space to her dedication to her profession.

“It’s kind of like asking why I wanted to be a doctor. I’ve always wanted to be a doctor,” Zucker said. “I’ve always wanted to go into space. I think humans must go into space.”

The next round, in which Zucker will participate sometime next year, will last two weeks, and will include physical, intellectual and psychological testing and competitions to determine the final 24 individuals who will become permanent Mars One employees. The final 24 will then be divided into six groups of four, which will compete to decide which group will be the first to leave for Mars. A second group will follow after 26 months, and if each mission succeeds, all 24 people will be on Mars within a decade.

Zucker said she believes establishing a human colony on Mars will be a safeguard for the human race.

“If the human is going to survive and prosper, we are going to have to leave the planet,” Zucker said. “We are going to run out of resources, or we’re going to have a plague or an asteroid is going to hit us. The planet can’t last forever and we don’t know how long it will sustain us, so we need to move.”

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010 and the U.S. National Space Policy, NASA outlines the goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s. However, Zucker emphasized her desires to go to Mars sooner and alluded to the successful 1969 landing on the moon.

“Every decade NASA has said, ‘We’ll go in 20 years,’ it’s 42 years later,” Zucker said. “When are we going? The time is now. There’s no more waiting. Let’s just go.”

However, members of the scientific community doubt the feasibility of the Mars One program. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a comprehensive analysis of the program in September 2014 that concluded life on Mars is not yet possible, given current technologies.

Zucker said that she has always dreamed of going to space and has not questioned her decision to apply to leave Earth without guaranteed return. The initial application included a brief letter and one-minute video explaining why she was a suitable candidate to go to Mars.

“There’s just certain things where if given the opportunity to go, many of us don’t even have to think about it,” Zucker said. “It’s not really a decision point. So when he sent the email, I had the application done as quickly as I could complete it.”

If Zucker is selected as one of the final 24 future astronauts, she will spend a decade in training, learning skills such as repairing components of the habitat and rover and medical procedures. The training will take place in a remote location with conditions similar to those on Mars, which include a limited diet, constant noise and a mandatory daily workout.

Zucker said that if she gets the opportunity to live on Mars, she anticipates most of her time would be spent on developing basic survival skills, but added she hopes her life on Mars would include leisure time as well.

“I suspect we would be spending most of our time staying alive. It’s going to take a lot of effort to keep the habitat running. Any spare time would be spent on research,” Zucker said. “Assuming there’s any free time besides that, I think sleeping would be pretty high on my list and of course you can take a tablet with you. … I also recently bought a ukulele. A lifetime on Mars is plenty of time to learn a musical instrument.”

Zucker added that she is aware of the severe risks of the mission, but she is willing to make the sacrifice for what she believes is necessary scientific progress. Risks include osteoporosis, complications arising from increased radiation exposure, psychological issues and death.

“I don’t think that we are going to last more than a year or two, the first group, and my husband and I have talked about this,” Zucker said. “The second group, when they arrive, is unlikely to find the first group alive. But if they even last a day it’s already a success and we should keep sending further missions.”

Her husband, Ron Zucker, added that he is supportive of her mission, even though they are both aware of the difficulties she will face should she be selected to travel to Mars.

“We’re not immortal. We have one life, and it doesn’t last forever; an opportunity like this comes along once,” Zucker said. “I would send her away to live that opportunity and I would have no qualms about it. It’s not that I wouldn’t miss her. Of course I would.”

Georgetown Univerisity Medical Center professor Susan Mulroney, one of Zucker’s former professors, said she is happy for her and is not surprised that she was selected as a finalist.

“This is so right for Leila. She’s always been a forward thinker, has been enthralled with space exploration, and is one of the most positive people I know,” Mulroney said. “She’s smart, a great doctor, and works well with others. And the Star Trek fan in me is rooting for her.”

Zucker is optimistic about the potential effects of the Mars One program and said one of the most important results of the program’s establishment is the discussion it has initiated about travel to Mars.

“I just think it’s exciting that people are talking about it,” Zucker said, “Prior to Mars One announcing, there was virtually no actual rational discussion of going to Mars, and since Mars One announced … the number of people talking about it has skyrocketed.”

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