UC Berkeley alumna Yvonne Young is set to launch a new chapter millions of miles away from Earth.
The 32-year-old is one of 100 finalists for a one-way trip to Mars, a controversial mission in which she’s staked her faith, despite experts’ questions of its legitimacy.
Mars One is a privately funded Dutch enterprise that plans to land four people on the planet by 2027, eventually establishing a permanent human settlement. The organization, founded in 2011, will finance the mission through investments from the private sector and profits from a reality television show, according to Young.
Young’s motivations range from the practical to the whimsical. She cited Earth’s overpopulation as one of the reasons behind her decision, but she also sees the opportunity as a chance to satisfy a longtime yearning for extraterrestrial exploration.
The Mars One project is not the first of Young’s unconventional aspirations. She has previously looked into alternative living situations, such as floating cities, and a few years ago left a well-paying job at an architecture firm to pursue other passions.
“My friends told me, ‘You were so set. You were so secure,’ ” Young said. “But I didn’t find it fulfilling.”
From Montana to Mars
Young, who was raised in Las Vegas, graduated from UC Berkeley in 2005 with a degree in cognitive science and currently works as a fitness instructor at a local exercise studio.
She shares an apartment in Berkeley with her younger sister, Elaine, where the two spend many weekend evenings playing video games and piecing together Disney-themed jigsaw puzzles. Their living room is occupied by three large bookcases that have shelves crammed with Young’s fantasy and science fiction novels.
A tattoo of the star cluster Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters, spans Young’s chest. She said the celestial formation was a beacon for her when she attended boarding school in Montana, where “the winter skies were super clear” — clear enough to see the “faint but distinct” constellation.
Young, who describes herself as a “dreamer grounded … on Earth” on her Mars One profile, has hoped to someday travel to space since she was little. She attributes this aspiration to her love for “Star Trek,” which she said she and Elaine Young inherited from their mother.
Young was drawn to the Mars One program as an alternate path to the pursuit of this childhood dream, one that allows her to circumvent the challenging and competitive route offered by NASA.
“She dreams big in general,” Elaine Young said. “I’m more of a logical, realistic type, and she focuses on doing things that will make her happy.”
Young’s mother alerted her to the program when Mars One was accepting applications in August 2013.
Young’s application consisted of a questionnaire and introductory video, in which she describes her “off-beat” sense of humor and “superhuman power of being able to bring out the silliness” of others as personal qualities that make her an ideal candidate for the mission’s social aspects.
“I just submitted it and then kind of forgot about it,” Young said. “There was an application fee and everything, but I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ ”
Although the project initially reported receiving more than 200,000 applicants, only about 2,700 applicant names have been made publicly available. Young said she was “shocked” to receive an email toward the end of 2013 notifying her that she was one of 1,058 hopefuls to move on to the next round of selections.
After candidates submitted the results of a vision, blood and physical test, among other medical examinations, Mars One eliminated about 300 more contestants from the application pool, according to Young.
The next step for the remaining candidates was a short video interview with the mission’s chief medical officer, which included both knowledge-based and personal questions. Young said she was given test material to study on topics such as potential risks of space travel and disaster preparedness.
In February, Mars One released the names of 100 finalists who had moved on to the third round, and Young was on the list.
The Mars One project has been criticized by scientists and researchers for what they say is a lack of planning and financial backing. Last year, a team of engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a study on its deficiencies.
More recently, Joseph Roche, a Mars One finalist and former NASA employee, publicly questioned the project’s funding, selection process and legitimacy.
Michael Manga, a professor of earth and planetary science at UC Berkeley, said the organization’s projected launch date seems “too early” to be successful. He added the project’s execution under a private company, however, could mean Mars One has “different standards” for safety that might make the mission less expensive and easier to carry out in a short period of time.
“NASA’s expensive because their expectations for quality control and safety are very high,” Manga said. “They don’t want people to die, and as a government, they can’t sacrifice people. As a private company, there may be more freedom.”
When contacted for comment, a Mars One spokesperson cited lack of time for individual interviews and pointed The Daily Californian to the Mars One website for specific details on the mission.
Despite this scrutiny, Young has put her faith in the mission, deflecting skeptics with relentless optimism.
Young said that although some family members and friends have drawn attention to public criticism of the project, they’ve been largely supportive of her involvement.
“If we told her not to go through with it and found out down the line that this was real, we’d be kicking ourselves,” Elaine Young said. “It’s something I learned from our dad — stay away from negativity.”
Despite remaining supportive, Elaine Young said the possibility of her sister’s participation in the Mars One mission is difficult for her to comprehend, especially because it would put an untraversable distance between them.
“When she told me she had applied, the first thing I asked was how long she’d be there,” Elaine Young said. “I wasn’t aware it was a one-way trip.”
A hazy future
Elaine Young tries not to dwell on the prospect of her sister’s absence, especially given the fact that it’s far off. If Young is selected as one of the 24 crew members, she will spend years preparing for the trip in an astronaut training program before departing for the mission.
Although Young said the applicants have not been given an exact timeline for the next steps of the selection process, she said Mars One will conduct team simulations in the latter half of 2015. The simulations will include social and physical challenges that test the contestants’ ability to work with one another — a concept Young compared to the reality television show “Survivor.”
In the midst of the uncertainty surrounding the mission, Young plans to pursue a degree in physical therapy or acupuncture — which she jokingly refers to as her “back-up plan” if the project doesn’t come to fruition.
“If this turns out to be a bust, at least it was a great experience,” Young said. “Your life is all about your experiences. All you can do is trust it and go with it.”