Talking about Mars One with the Class of 2025

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I’ve been actively seeking opportunities to talk to people about the Mars One Project and my participation in it. As it turns out, one of my first chances to talk to a group arose at Loveland Elementary in Omaha, Nebraska — where I was a student more than 30 years ago — in a free-form discussion with the first-grade class The experience was joyous, educational (in both directions), and at times hilarious.

I confess that I had some initial trepidation: I feared that first grade might be too early, that 7-year-olds are too young to benefit from a conversation about space exploration. But that anxiety dissipated within a few seconds after entering the classroom. I was mobbed by students, every one of them full of questions, thrilled by the prospect of talking to someone who, someday, might be a real live astronaut.

Their questions were uniformly excellent; I would add “…for their level”, but I it turns out that their level was surprisingly high. Simple inquiries early on (“How do you get there?”)  led rapidlyto follow-ups that demonstrated an impressive understanding of the issues involved. After a quick discussion of rocketry, the students wanted to know what happened to the booster stages after they fell off the launcher, how the ship would slow down to enter Martian orbit, how the astronauts would get out of the lander, and how anything could stay in place on the surface of Mars. These questions led to lively discussions of recoverable launch vehicles, aerobraking, airlocks, and the differences between microgravity (in the interplanetary vessel) and reduced gravity (on a planet smaller than Earth). I didn’t even have to stay away from ‘big words,’ just define them carefully at a measured pace; the follow-ups made it clear that the students were staying with me. Each question provided a chance to teach a scientific principle, or elaborate one that the students already knew.

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The overall tone was one of wonder. In pleasant contrast to some of the more challenging (though still delightful) conversations I’ve had with adults, the children were curious without being critical, and more interested in how to make it work than why it might not.

That said, they were aware of the potential risks, and intrigued by them. One theme, to which we returned more than once, could be summarized by one of the first questions: “What if your rocket breaks?” (That was a girl; the boys tended more toward gleeful hectoring about the possibility of A CRASH.)

This was a difficult issue to address because the answer is scary (to me), and the last thing I want to do is frighten children; if nothing else, that would be inconsistent with the educational mission of a presentation like this one. So I tried to do what I always try to do with young kids: tell the truth in a way that is sensitive to their stage of emotional development. I told them about how the equipment would be tested to avoid failures, and the astronauts trained to solve problems, and the options available if something goes wrong. Ultimately, though, I had to say: “This is dangerous, the same way it was for our ancestors to go to new places and cross oceans. When I think about it, I’m a little scared sometimes, because it’s risky. But it’s important, so we want to try.” And they thought about that, and I could see the concern on their faces. They were OK with it; they understood. I’m glad I was frank.

Rather than focusing on the potential downsides, however, the class was more interested in practical considerations, like how we would eat, drink, breathe, and (of course) go to the bathroom. One marvelous wacky girl wanted to know how we would keep our wigs on. Wigs.

Most gratifying to me, and most touching, was the way in which the children put themselves in the position of an astronaut/settler, as evidenced by questions like “How would you talk to your mom and dad?”, “Can I bring my cat?”, and “How do you get home?” They weren’t thinking of Mars settlement as something that will happen to someone else. Instead, they were asking the questions they would need to answer for themselves if they had the opportunity to go.

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I came away from the experience more certain than ever that Mars One provides a precious opportunity to encourage young people to be interested in science. If all goes well, the Project will be the Apollo of this generation, and the media produced about it will provide countless opportunities for integration into science and writing curricula. I’m not sure that Mars One will be the effort that gets us to Mars, and I’m certainly not sure that I’ll be one of the few who are chosen to go. But I am sure that on Earth, right now, for sure, Mars One can inspire a generation, and I’m committed to finding more opportunities to engage with students of every age about the Project.

[If your school or summer program is interested in incorporating a talk by a Mars One candidate into your curriculum, please contact me using the form on the About page. If I can, I’d love to do it; if not, I can refer you to someone who is closer to you. I’m living in the Boston area, but there are candidates all over the world. We can make this happen.]

The Class of 2025 will be graduating from high school when the first colonization vessels leave Earth for Mars. Their generation will see humanity settle the solar system; the science educations they receive now will enable them contribute to those efforts.

I may go; I may not—but they will. It is never too early to start talking about it.

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