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Mission to Mars: Airman is one of 100 finalists for 4-person Mars settlement team

CHULA VISTA, Calif. (AFNS) -- When an Airman sets a goal, and an obstacle appears in front of them, they find a way over or around it to achieve their objective. After years of trying, Tech. Sgt. Carmen Paul may have found her way over and around -- and then some -- in a most unexpected place.

“One day I’m watching some TED Talks,” Paul said, referring to a series of free video seminars available on the web, “and I ran across the CEO of Mars One. He was on there and gave his spiel, and I was like, ‘Holy crap, is this real?!'”

Millions of people likely asked the same question of the nonprofit’s CEO, Bas Lansdorp, but for a wholly different reason. To Paul and 200,000 others who applied, the idea of flying to Mars to found a human colony with three other people -- and never come back -- seemed like a great idea.

Paul knew when she was a teenager she was going to have a career in the military, but she had set her sights higher than most future Airmen -- much higher. Growing up in Florida, about 2 ½ hours from the Kennedy Space Center, Paul had seen the space shuttle overhead many times and knew from an early age that leaving Earth was her ultimate goal.

“I’ll never forget it, it was something so mundane as walking to the bus stop,” Paul recalled. “It was right at sunrise, and I looked up, and I stopped in my tracks because this thing (the space shuttle) is going up right there in the sunrise, and I’m like, ‘This is the coolest damn thing!’… (It became) this childhood thing that is kind of engrained: I’m going to be an astronaut one day.”

Paul enlisted in the Air Force right out of high school with a clear focus on getting into the space program, but she encountered roadblock after roadblock in a career field that was already hyper-competitive.

“There were a lot of pilot requirements I didn’t meet: I’m too short, my eyesight is not as pristine as they want it to be, and they didn’t accept laser correction then,” she said. “But I went on active duty and requested a space base -- anything to do with space.”

Paul went into communications computer system control, commonly known as tech control, and learned skills valuable to her goal. But she encountered a discouraging commander and lengthy academic requirements that delayed her progress. Then, in 2011, NASA retired the space shuttle.

“I was pretty upset, since it was such an iconic program that I grew up with, but I knew it wasn’t the end (of my dream),” Paul said. “There are too many space nerds out there to keep human space exploration from dying out.”

Then in 2013, Paul saw Lansdorp’s talk on YouTube, explaining that four settlers would be chosen to depart Earth for Mars in 2024, following nearly a decade of intensive training.

The trip out to Mars was expected to take six to eight months, during which the travelers would conduct scientific experiments and exercise three hours a day to prevent muscle atrophy and bone degeneration. On multiple occasions during their journey, the travelers likely would be forced to seek protection from solar flare-related radiation, restricting themselves to a small shelter within a water tank on board for days at a time.

And a return trip to Earth would never occur.

Paul sent in her application, including a resume, motivational letter and one-minute video, and was shocked to learn she had made the cut from 200,000 applicants down to about 1,000.

“A lot of (the candidates’) resumes were super-intimidating: PhDs, doctors, engineers, astrophysicists, people who went to school for a million years and are in the aerospace industry. And some of them didn’t make it. I’m like, ‘How is this possible?’ I’m super-confused by it.”

The next round of evaluations included a medical exam and an interview via video conference, which Paul thought she had bombed, but once again she made the cut, this time to the final 100 candidates.

“I hit real hard on my teamwork and my experience in the military, and I told them a lot about my technical background, which is super-important,” she said of the interview.

Her personality, however, also played a role.

“They say they’re not looking for education or experience necessarily — they’re looking for people who get along well and are good at conflict resolution,” she said. “Conflict is going to happen no matter what, but we need to solve it very quickly or there will be major problems. I trust my teammates at work, and I don’t stir up trouble.”

Under Mars One’s plan, the first settlers’ supplies and building materials will be delivered to Mars in advance by unmanned flights. The settlers will use those materials to set up their habitat, and additional four-person teams are scheduled to arrive every two years.

“People think we’ll be bored (on Mars), but there will be so much construction, maintenance, research, we won’t have time to be bored,” Paul said. “The goal is to become as independent as possible.”

The settlers will have freeze-dried food and dehydrated meals reminiscent of the military’s meals-ready-to-eat, or MREs, for emergency situations, but the bulk of their food is to be grown in greenhouses on Mars.

The settlers will be able to communicate with home via video messages and emails, but real-time conversations with friends and family members will be impossible. Paul hopes she will eventually be able to communicate with her husband in real time, face-to-face on Mars.

“Well, hopefully, my plan is for him to come with me,” she said. “He has almost the exact same training background as me and the same career field, and he’s way smarter and funnier than I am, so I actually think he would make a better candidate.”

Craig Paul, who also formerly served in the active duty Air Force and the California Air National Guard, is planning to submit an application to Mars One, and if he’s rejected initially, he can continue applying multiple times for later settlement missions. If he isn’t accepted into the program by the time Paul is scheduled to leave, though, she may abandon her dream.

“I don’t know if I would continue on with it or not,” she said. “It would be difficult. When the time comes to make that decision, I’ll worry about it then.”

Of course, many other factors could derail Paul’s progress into outer space, including the mission’s massive technical challenges, which critics say could prevent Mars One from getting off the ground anytime soon. The launch, in fact, has already been pushed back to 2026. If the mission doesn’t happen or if Paul is not selected, she expects to have mixed feelings -- among them, relief.

“I have a really good life here. I’m living the American dream,” said Paul, a Chula Vista resident who works full-time in intelligence for the California National Guard’s Counterdrug Task Force and serves with the Guard’s 146th Airlift Wing. “The thought of having to leave that behind is troubling, but this is like the biggest opportunity ever, which no one else has ever had before.”

Excitement isn’t the only thing luring Paul to Mars though, and it’s not the purpose of the nonprofit Mars One. As Paul said, in addition to the adventure, “Ensuring humanity’s success is definitely a good bonus.”

“There have been several mass extinction events over the course of history, and it inevitably will happen again,” she said. “It’s an insurance policy if we start putting people on another planet.”

Paul will miss Earth’s mountains, sky, trees and beaches--and being able to step outside without suffocating. But in the final calculation, the tradeoff will be worth it.

“I get really excited about the thought of all the things we might develop during the mission, to kind of build a whole new way of life,” she said. “A colony on Mars, that’s really exciting, like something you think about as a kid.”