Five months ago, the MarsOne foundation began its search for the four people it says will become the first human settlers on Mars.
Now, with one day remaining before the deadline, more than 150,000 people from around the world have applied.
Many have even posted online video applications
, making passionate -- and sometimes playful -- arguments for why they're the best choice.
"I would like to go to Mars because I'm a Martian myself," says Filipp
, a 44-year-old Russian with a tattooed chest, who poignantly dabs at his eyes with a tissue as he talks about his professed home planet. "You'll need a local dude to help you out."
Others, like 28-year-old Morteza
, speak wistfully of freedoms unavailable here on Earth.
"As an Iranian engineer, I guess I can have a better, more influential life on Mars while I'm boycotted from doing anything on Earth," he says.
Viktoria, 20, a Belarusian science buff
with a penchant for chess and fencing, says the chance to go to Mars is a privilege -- "a chance to better understand human psychology, the body, and its limits. An opportunity to learn about a new world, and teach its wonders to others."
Goal Of Permanent Colony
MarsOne, a nonprofit group based in the central Dutch city of Amersfoort, is one of two private ventures with its sights set on Mars, the legendary red planet that has beguiled space-gazers for years.
But MarsOne is the only project with the ambition of establishing a permanent colony on Mars. The second initiative, Inspiration Mars, plans in 2018 to send a two-person crew on a 500-day trip that will merely circle Mars before returning to Earth.
Unlike government-funded space agencies like NASA and Roscosmos, MarsOne is generating its own financing for the $6 billion project, in part by asking all of its potential space travelers to pay a $40 application fee.
It is also planning to broadcast final selection rounds and later launch a 24-hour reality television show that will follow the training and eventual voyage of the first four settlers on their one-way trip to a cold, uninhabited planet exposed to intense levels of radiation.
Medical doctor Norbert Kraft is a former NASA researcher on the physical and psychiatric effects
of long-term spaceflight. Kraft, who's now leading the MarsOne selection process, says he's looking for candidates with compassion, good health, and -- above all -- a sense of humor.
"If you look at an astronaut who goes up in a space station, they have to follow a minute-by-minute schedule, basically. And then they come back to Earth," he says. "Our people are actually settling on a new planet. So they have to build a new society. And humor is one of the key pieces. When things are getting tough and things are getting really tense, humor can lighten it up, humor can make everybody pull together."
Once 24 potential Mars settlers have been selected they will be broken down into teams of four, each with two women and two men, and each from a different cultural background.
They will then be subjected to years of intense training in everything from mechanics and engineering to emergency dentistry, botany, and how best to kill time during a cramped seven-month spaceflight.
Eventually, a single team will be selected for the maiden MarsOne launch. Once on Mars, they will build habitats
, grow hydroponic plants, and prepare the colony for a second delivery of four permanent settlers two years later.
According to the MarsOne plan, the cycle will continue indefinitely until there is a thriving, largely self-sufficient human colony on Mars, complete with a government, an open policy on religion, schools, children, and even Internet screenings of so-called "Earth sports" like the World Cup final.
Kraft, who is planning a postretirement trip to the Mars colony -- where he says the gravity, which is only 38 percent of Earth's, will be a balm for his aging joints -- says personal chemistry and teamwork will play an essential role in getting the MarsOne project off the ground.
The Austrian-born doctor himself spent 110 days in an occasionally fraught
multicultural, mixed-gender isolation experiment in Moscow. He says he's convinced that crews must be selected according to how well they get along together, not how well they perform individually.
"It's most challenging when applicants come from different cultures, from different backgrounds, from different genders. And then you add age into that," he says. "But this can end up being the most creative, the most productive, and the most successful group, too."
MarsOne has drawn its fair share of skeptical press -- not least for its emphasis on popular culture addictions like reality TV. But Kraft argues MarsOne is more than just a show.
"It's educational, it's a chance to learn," he says. "When you can show that people from Palestine sit next to Israel, who sits next to Iran, who sits next to the U.S., and they all work together on a common goal, I think everybody can learn from that. They will have conflicts. But they will overcome them."