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Duke grad prepares for potential trip to Mars despite delays

The Mars One program is expected to send astronauts to Mars in 2026

<p>Laurel Kaye is one of 100 finalists for the Mars One program&nbsp;hosted by the Netherlands-based nonprofit Mars One.</p>

Laurel Kaye is one of 100 finalists for the Mars One program hosted by the Netherlands-based nonprofit Mars One.

Although the Mars One program has encountered further delays, Duke graduate Laurel Kaye still hopes to travel to the Red Planet. 

Kaye—a Trinity '15 graduate with a degree in physics—is one of 100 finalists for the Mars One program, which is hosted by the Netherlands-based nonprofit Mars One and aims to send astronauts on a one-way journey to create a human settlement on Mars. The list of finalists will eventually be narrowed down to 24 people next year, and the finalists will begin training by undergoing a simulated Mars-like environment on Earth. 

“There’s something to be said for exploring the limits of our world,” Kaye, a Long Island, N.Y. native, explained. “We have people exploring the deepest oceans. The history of our country is based off of people not being content to stay where they are. They had to seek what was on the other side. That’s what I see in Mars and in the coming decades in centuries I hope we push even further than that.”

The mission could provide new insights into technologies such as renewable energy, waste management and super computers, she said. Kaye added that Mars One has started conducting small experiments to test components necessary for survival away from Earth. 

Kaye originally submitted her application for the program in 2013 and then found out in January 2014 that she was one of 100 finalists out of 200,000 original applicants. After graduating from Duke, Kaye received a fellowship to work at the University of Oxford where she is now helping to design the Cherenkov Telescope Array, a worldwide project to build an instrument that will measure gamma rays. Scientists hope that the system of telescopes will shed light on black holes and the origins of the universe.

When The Chronicle first covered the Mars One program last year, the first astronauts were supposed to depart Earth in 2024. However, the program's website now lists an expected first human launch in 2026 with the launch of a communications satellite in 2020.

“I think they have a pretty ambitious timeline and I don’t know if it’s realistic,” Kaye said. “It’s great to have those ambitious goals and NASA sets those too.”

Finding investors and political support for space exploration can be difficult because of slow monetary returns and long time frames, Kaye explained. Mars One has been working to identify sources of financial support.

“What they are basically doing is waiting for greater sources of funding before moving forward,” Kaye said. “The big question is will they get those, and I can’t answer that.”

Despite the insights the project could provide, it has faced criticism from one of its applicants. Last April, Joseph Roche—an astrophysicist at the University of Dublin's Trinity College and one of the 100 finalists—claimed the program chose applicants who could help drive publicity and funding and has not focused on safety.

Kaye disagreed with Roche’s assessment and noted she would drop out if she felt safety was being neglected.

Roche also questioned the program's viability, but last year Kaye defended the program's ambition—noting that even a failure could yield tremendous scientific advances and encourage future scientists. 

Kaye said the delays have not hampered her dream of becoming an astronaut, noting that she may apply to work for NASA.

“To me, these things are extremely exciting because it’s progress towards an exciting goal,” Kaye said. “I do think it will be many years before this gets off the ground.”