Burlington woman among 100 finalists for one-way ticket to Mars

A journalist and teacher from Burlington, Ont. is one of the top 100 applicants for a project that aims to establish a human colony on Mars by 2025.

Karen Cumming makes it into the next round for Mars One project

The Mars One project aims to establish the first human colony on Mars, but all tickets to the red planet are one-way only organizers warn. (Mars One)
  • A Burlington, Ont. woman is among the top 100 finalists for a one-way ticket to Mars as part of a $6-billion project that aims to launch a permanent human colony on Mars by 2025. She's one of six Canadians to make it to the next round. 

"I was flabbergasted," said Karen Cumming, 53. "I didn't realize they'd be narrowing it to such a small number. When I saw the number 100 and read 'you are one of them' I nearly fell off my chair."

The 100 finalists, 50 men and 50 women, were announced Monday after a search that began in 2012 and garnered more than 200,000 applications from around the world. Dutch entrepreneur Bas Landorp is spearheading the Mars One project. As the competition continues, they may be selected to be among the first four humans Mars One aims to send in 2024, with more following every two years. 

"We've just been told that we will find out more in the next few months," Cumming said. "Now that they've brought it down to 50 men and 50 women, we'll be put into situations that test how well we work together."

Cumming planned to take her 94-year-old mom a celebratory cupcake when she visited her in an assisted-living facility Monday. She called her mom Monday morning to share the news personally before she might hear it on the radio.

"This has not been the easiest thing in the world for her to wrap her head around," Cumming said. "But the more she reads me writing about it, explaining to people why it's been such a thrilling ride... She's come around to realize that it means a lot to me." 

'Are we going to get there in one piece?'

Cumming, a former CHCH reporter and a teacher at Sir John A. MacDonald school in Hamilton, said she was captivated when she first heard about the project. She said she has been taken aback by suggestions that she wouldn't be a good candidate for the project because she's in her 50s.

"I don't think age is really a factor," Cummings said. "If this is in your heart and this resonates with you on such a deep level that you can't even imagine not applying, I think you could be 18 or 88. I just see it as an extension of the life that I'm living now."

Just making it this far has brought new opportunities to Cumming's life. She sought the advice of astronaut Chris Hadfield at a trade show last year and took to heart his admonition to ask lots of questions to Mars One about their plans for safety.

"He said, 'Be relentless in your questioning about your hardware,'" Cumming said. "That injected a dose of reality into this whole endeavour. It's so easy to get carried away with the fantasy of it without realizing this is real."

She said she looks forward to the chance to ask those questions, to "make sure this isn't a wild public relations stunt." 

One of those questions she plans to ask: "Are we going to get there in one piece?"

Cumming, who is not married and doesn't have children, has lived more adventures than the average person on this planet, though she said even she has limits.

"My adventures aren't so much the skydiving variety," she said. "I don't like to tempt fate that way."

A 2003 trip to Calcutta brought into focus some difficult truths about the world, Cumming said. 

"I've had, I think, one of the great experiences in terms of having to dig really deep, to dig really deep within yourself and know that you have everything you need inside to survive it," she said. 

Cumming said other exciting things have happened since being named a finalist, too. She was featured in a Popular Science magazine story and a New York Times article about the venture. And she was asked to speak at the Ideacity conference in Toronto last year, where she met Buzz Aldrin's son, who is launching his own venture to send people to the moon. 

In that talk, she called the Mars prospect "exciting but terrifying." (Watch video here.)


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