Feature | Affairs: Women of Mars
Women of Mars: Interview with Bay Area Candidates to Mars One
Whether it is to reach a philosophical or scientific understanding of where humanity comes from, the opportunity to seek and inhabit another planet resonates with profound and passionate individuals. Jan Millsapps, Ph.D., Blake Alana Bevin, and Kenya Elise Armbrister provide their perspectives, passion and experience regarding the future of space travel with reflections on the Mars One project. As astronaut candidates in the running to become part of the first settlers on Mars, they consider how race, gender, and class implicate the types of structures where there is currently no sustainable or viable lifeforms and governance.
Music, film, and fictional tales of space travel have long involved male-dominated narratives. For decades, popular culture and the collective imagination have put men at the forefront of innovation and technological advancement. Even subtle and romantic lyrics such as David Bowie’s Space Oddity about an unknown man communicating to Major Tom suggests the man’s role of explorer. “I’m feeling very still / And I think my spaceship knows which way to go / Tell my wife I love her very much / she knows”. In Elton John’s Rocket Man, space travel becomes a common part of human existence, but seemingly reserved as a man’s job. Both songs include declarations of love to an imaginary wife and dreamy, melancholy tones that indicate an almost cursory departure from Earth’s atmosphere for something greater and unknown.
While these interpretations allude to a type of fascination with what lies outside of our existence on earth, these constructs suggest a human desire for exploration and discovery. Whether it is to reach a philosophical or scientific understanding of where humanity comes from, the opportunity to seek and inhabit another planet resonates with profound and passionate individuals. But with all of the problems and issues that riddle humanity’s existence on earth, how does a woman’s perspective and experience help aid in the mission to Mars? How do race, gender, and class implicate the types of structures where there is currently no sustainable or viable lifeforms (to our knowledge)? The Mars One project aims to offer a chance for individuals to go beyond conjecture and imagination and live a life that aims to discover what is possible.
On their website, the Mars One organization stated that they, “will establish a permanent human settlement on Mars with crews of four departing every two years, starting in year 2024.” The organization has confirmed that the “first unmanned mission will be launched in 2018,” which is approximately three years from the publication of this article.
The mission has gained a tremendous following and thousands participating in the online community as Mars One supporters. The organization received over 200,000 applicants from its open call when the mission was first announced. As of December 2013, the number decreased to 1,000 hopeful candidates. In January 2015, approximately 660 applicants anxiously await the next round of the selection process. The fourth and final round has been slated for international broadcast and subjected to what has been described by the organization as a democratic process to determine the fate the candidates.
According to Mars One, “The final selection round will be broadcast throughout the world. The Mars One selection committee will create international groups of four candidates. The groups will be expected to demonstrate their ability to live in harsh living conditions, and work together under difficult circumstances. The groups will receive their first short term training in a copy of the Mars outpost. From the first selection series, up to six groups of four will become full time employees of the Mars One astronaut corps, after which they’ll train for the mission.” While space travel and environment simulations have been happening actively for the past decade, the specifics of this mission involve an estimated seven years of training to prepare for the journey and a one way ticket to the red planet.
Womens’ involvement with the Mars One project has proven to be imperative to both its appeal and success. Three women—Jan Millsapps, Ph.D., Blake Alana Bevin, and Kenya Elise Armbrister—represent the Bay Area as Mars One applicants that have made it through the latest round of the selection process.
Milsapps is a professor in the Cinema department at San Francisco State University and has written about and researched space travel extensively. In our correspondence, she referenced our evolution as humans as well as a perspective on the way in which the Mars One project may be perceived.
“As we become an interplanetary species, humans will evolve—and as we do so, we will adapt to whatever conditions or even whatever beings we find on Mars. Mars is not a pristine place; it has a history; there’s a high probability the planet harbors life even today—we just haven’t found absolute evidence yet.
I think how we work with what’s already there will reveal a lot about our species. Will we manage the planetary resources intelligently or misuse them in a mad dash to survive and prosper? If we find evidence of Martian life, will we become its conquerors or its nurturers? Will these decisions belong to the colonizing Martians alone, or will humans back on Earth demand their share of commerce, and insist on roles in setting up government, education, community systems?
Many people look at the Mars colonization as a do-over, a chance to right all our Earthbound wrongs. While I think there’s great opportunity there, I believe we will inevitably fall back into our habits, perhaps even our prejudices. There’s a really old and mostly unknown utopian novel, Unveiling a Parallel (1893), in which a man from Earth travels to Mars, where he is aghast to find women in charge. The “Marsians” (the term Martians had not yet been invented) engage him in lengthy (and boring) discourse about why women on Earth have such a subordinate status, while not quite grasping the irony—that the Marsian women have the same deplorable habits as men on Earth: drinking and carousing, aggression, and questionable morals—which is a long way of saying that whatever we envision as a “new system” in an ideal or utopian world may in fact have a familiar, ugly underside. So maybe best not to predict?”
Growing up in a pre-STEM era where boys and men were encouraged to pursue science and hone technical skills, her curiosity and passion for space, intertwined with her interest in philosophy, helped guide Milsapps’ passion for writing. In her feminist historical novel Venus on Mars, she mentioned writing about “women working on the periphery of astronomy and rocket science, which led to several related media projects, including the idea of what a virtual trip to Mars would be like and how these cyber-space explorers might be chosen.”
Thoughtful and perceptive inquiry that questions the way humans would fare on a foreign planet dictates the actions of potential candidate Blake Alana Bevin. As an inventor, Bevin expressed an unyielding passion for science, specifically space travel. In second grade, her teacher gave her a history book of space travel that sparked a lifelong passion. Naturally, the Mars One call for candidates gave Bevin an opportunity to re-imagine her skills and passions in the pursuit of human advancement. When asked about her decision to join the Mars One community and apply as an astronaut candidate, Bevin stated,
“I keep up with tech blogs and as soon as I saw the project I signed up right away. I didn’t really even think about it. Be one of the first people to live on Mars? Why not? Most people spend their lives not moving much more than the dirt it takes to bury them. The pursuit of wealth or family never motivated me very much. I believe the best thing I can leave behind is knowledge, which drew me to the scientific fields. I love inventing and discovering. There are many things we still don’t know about Mars. Who knows what can lay just below the surface?”
Bevin posits that communication networks will be the first revolution to take place. She noted Elon Musk’s plan and investment in a “space internet” that would allow for hundreds of satellites to be placed 750 miles above the earth’s surface essentially providing faster and cheaper access to the internet. This project presents a benefit for interplanetary communications as well. Regarding language, Bevin theorized that a particular Mars dialect may gradually form with remnants of various languages used on the red planet. As for economic systems, she believes, “trade routes probably won’t be feasible for awhile, unless we discover something physically valuable up there that’s worth the tens of billions to get and bring back to Earth. There might eventually be mining operations set up but it’ll probably be at least decades away.”
As a transgender woman, Bevin also sees her contributions being less about who or what she is, “but more about the technical experience and knowledge that can help the journey succeed in its mission.” She continued, “as an inventor, I’ve trained myself to look for multiple solutions to problems, improvising as needed with the materials on hand.”
Another candidate and active member of the Mars One community based in San Francisco is Kenya Elise Armbrister. With a master’s degree in European Studies with an emphasis on Transnational and Global Perspectives and International Relations and her bachelor’s in Art History, Armbrister brings a multi-faceted perspective of art and culture. She has travelled to different parts of Asia, Europe, and South America. Throughout our correspondence, she tackled a complicated question about the use of the words colonization and settlement. The aforementioned words have a rather negative connotation and their relationship to capitalism are tethered to heavily influenced western ideas. Armbrister shared,
“I agree. The words colonization and settlement have negative meanings, but we have the opportunity to grow from our past. There are many public institutions such as schools and libraries that can help educate people. Though many people around the world do not have access to these institutions or are living in fear from trying to access them. I think it’s our duty as human beings to find new ways for our worlds to go in new directions. Education will help create new ways of awareness towards different cultures and societies and I plan to share this through stories, poetry, and music on Mars.”
Regarding new systems, she shared that the mission would necessitate the creation of an innovative recycling system since waste would unnecessarily contaminate the planet’s environment and there would be a need for sustainability. Overall, Armbrister expressed optimism and excitement for the mission. She has chronicled the selection process and experiences on her blog titled, Kenya’s Mission to Mars. In Spring 2014, Armbrister spoke to an audience at the Fichtenberg in Berlin, Germany about her reasons for applying to participate in the Mars One mission. She expressed wanting more of these opportunities to speak to the general public and hopes to inspire women and girls around the world.
Although the Mars One project entails an objective of human advancement and experimentation, the mission is not without risk and potential danger. While the allure of the first manned mission to Mars brings us closer to making interplanetary living and communication a tangible reality, it comes with ethical ramifications that have yet to be seen. The hypothetical inquiry of terraforming -a process of changing a planet’s environment to make it livable for humans by mimicking conditions and elements on earth—remains controversial. Much of what humankind has done to the earth doesn’t exactly prove that such a process would be entirely successful or beneficial on another planet.
Understanding human life on Mars is at an extremely nascent stage. From human birth to development to sustaining life on Mars, Bevin noted rather blatantly, “we will be guinea pigs in how low gravity and stronger radiation levels affect human development. There’s a chance people won’t be able to naturally conceive with regularity. If they can, the next generation of children might be much taller than the Earth-born average.” She ponders, “who knows how beings a couple generations down the line and natives to Mars will feel about another planet? Will the first settlers long to return to earth or be fiercely independent?”
A deep-seated passion lies within Milsapps, Bevin, and Armbrister that only they can fully understand. Their will to help pioneer scientific discovery reflects this commitment. Looking past the tropes of astrophysicists, scientists, and engineers that dominate popular cultural representations of space travel like Star Trek or the Big Bang Theory, this community of women from the Mars One project are determined to set a standard and ignite a spark of re-imagining outer space for women and humankind.