Central Florida man finalist for trip to Mars

George Hatcher 1 of 100 finalists for Mars One Foundation voyage

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George Hatcher.

MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. - George Hatcher welcomed a guest at his Merritt Island home last week with 5-month-old daughter Io, named for one of Jupiter's moons, tucked in a baby carrier on his chest.

Inside, the NASA engineer's wife, Lorenia, took the baby and their 2-year-old son, Rafael, offered a small stuffed lamb and a Thomas the Tank Engine train for inspection.

Hatcher stretched out with Rafael on the living room floor to work on an animal puzzle, then played a game of "tickling spiders" and swung his son high up with his legs, to squeals of delight.

It's family time the 35-year-old father cherishes after a day at work at Kennedy Space Center. But he increasingly has reason to think about the day he might leave it all behind.

Not only his wife and children, but Earth itself, for good, in the name of space exploration.

"Every day that passes, that you go further in this process, you have time to think about everything that you would be giving up," he told Local 6 News partner Florida Today.

Hatcher recently advanced to the final round of 100 candidates vying to be selected as astronauts by the Mars One Foundation, which wants to establish a human settlement on the Red Planet in the next decade.

The Dutch nonprofit this year plans to choose 24 to train for the pioneering, privately funded missions, the first of which could launch as soon as 2024.

Their voyages to Mars would be one-way trips, a concept Hatcher said some refer to as a "Nocho."

As in "No One's Coming Home."

Basic mission

Mars One's basic mission plan starts with launch of a small lander and communications satellite in 2018, then a rover in 2020.

Six unmanned capsules, possibly based on SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, would launch during the next planetary window in 2022 to provide living quarters and life-support systems.

The first crew of four settlers would arrive in 2025 after a roughly seven-month flight from Earth. Additional crews would follow every two years.

Mars One estimates it will cost $6 billion to get the first crew to Mars, a figure many consider optimistic.

NASA, for example, will spend that much in just the next two years to continue designing a rocket and capsule that might help launch a round-trip Mars mission by the 2030s.

Mars One hopes to raise money through TV deals, sponsorships, merchandise sales, donations and crowdfunding, and has reported raising $760,000 to date.

One TV deal recently fell through and an initial crowdfunding campaign, to support a Lockheed Martin study of the early lander, didn't quite meet its $400,000 goal.

Dreams of space

Nearly 203,000 people from more than 140 countries applied to become Mars One astronauts in 2013. It should probably be no surprise Hatcher was one of them.

"I've built my life around the goal of going to Mars," he explained in a video submitted as part of his application.

Hatcher was his son's age when dreams of spaceflight took hold, after his mother gave him a Lego set that included a spaceman.

He remembers being captivated by that Lego figure's white helmet and gold visor, and by the spacesuits, landers and rovers that enabled humans to live beyond Earth.

At 3, he told his parents he wanted to become an astronaut, and at 11, he returned from Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, with a "Right Stuff" award and Mars on his mind.

"The more I learned about space the more exciting it was, because it was so exotic and varied and limitless," he said.

Nearsightedness dashed ideas of becoming a military pilot, a common career path for astronauts. But the space bug stayed with him through bachelor's and master's degrees in aerospace engineering from the University of Tennessee.

Today, with his cropped strawberry-blond hair and black-rimmed glasses, Hatcher looks as if he would blend in easily with the nation's earliest astronauts, or at least the engineers who helped put them in space.

An avionics engineer who worked on the shuttle and now expendable rockets, he's close to earning a doctoral degree in planetary science from the University of Central Florida, where he splits his time each week thanks to a NASA fellowship.

Another UCF student, computer science major Taranjeet Singh Bhatia, 29, is also a Mars One finalist.

Hatcher twice has applied to NASA's astronaut corps, not an unusual ambition for a NASA employee. But there are fewer flight opportunities since the shuttle's retirement and the odds are more daunting than ever: A record 6,800 applicants applied for for eight slots the last time around.

When the Mars One announced its competition to select astronauts in April 2013, Hatcher figured he had little to lose beyond the $35 application fee.

Still, he didn't submit an application until the deadline arrived that September.

"The fact that it was one-way gave me a lot of pause," he said. "That's the reason I waited until the last day to apply."

Encouragement came from a surprising source: His wife, Lorenia.

"You're not committing today with the application to leave forever," he remembers her advising. "At least apply and see how far you can get and whether or not they're able to raise the money."

Tech hurdles

In addition to the missions' enormous financial hurdles, technical and safety challenges are numerous.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study last year questioned Mars One's feasibility, finding that astronauts might die within 68 days of reaching the Martian surface. Unsafe oxygen produced by growing crops could doom the crew.

Hatcher said that's not what he's signing up for.

"The idea behind Mars One is not to go there and to immediately die, but to go there and live out the rest of your life," he said. "So that's what I'm looking for, is to have as much as possible a similar lifespan that I would have on Earth."

In a best case scenario, if you could call it that, he would face the gut-wrenching decision to leave his family in a decade, when Rafael is 12 and Io is 10.

For that to happen, he'd have to not only be selected as an astronaut, but be assigned to the very first crew, and the missions would have to stay on schedule.

"That's going to be really hard," he said, imagining that scenario playing out. "What parent who loves their child is going to put the kind of burden on them?"

Assuming delays typical in the space industry, it's far more likely that his kids would be older, perhaps graduated from high school, when Hatcher imagines it would be easier for them to understand his decision. And then, he said, he always reserves the right to change his mind.

'Hopes, dreams'

Even before they were married in 2008, when they were still just good friends, George and Lorenia, a 32-year-old professional interpreter, discussed the possibility of his departure on a space expedition.

She knew George was interested in exploring Mars if the opportunity arose, and that if it did, a one-way trip was possible, even likely.

"We talked about our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations," she said. "And I knew from back then what he wanted out of life."

Not everyone can relate quite as easily.

UCF Prof. Joshua Colwell, Hatcher's adviser for his doctoral research on early planetary formation, shares his passion for space exploration but would not consider participating in Mars One.

"It's maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it's also a last-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Colwell. "Even if I didn't have a family, I wouldn't want to leave human society behind."

Hatcher's conviction that he could eventually do that is rooted in his commitment to science and his faith, including his belief that he would reunite with family in an afterlife.

Hatcher is a member of the Baha'i Faith, a monotheistic religion founded in 1844 in what is now Iran, with about 175,000 adherents in the United States out of more than five million worldwide.

The faith "exalts science to equal rank with religion," Hatcher said, and emphasizes humans' duty to advance civilization.

"What makes it possible for me, what makes it something that I can swallow, is the idea that death is not the end of my consciousness, and that there are rewards in the next world for making great sacrifices," he said. "I think that the advancement of civilization and the exploration of the cosmos is worthy of sacrifice."

During the discussion, Hatcher has changed Io's diaper. She chewed on a soft spacewalker toy with a NASA logo. Lorenia and Rafael played with Play-Doh before she tucked him into bed.

In addition to his wife's support, Hatcher says his two younger sisters and his parents back in Tennessee have accepted his Mars pursuit.

"They're really nothing but supportive," he said. "They say, 'We love you to Mars and back.'"

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