Jonesborough resident hopes to explore final frontier

Nathan Baker • Jan 3, 2014 at 9:37 AM

A Jonesborough resident is one step closer to an all-expenses-paid trip to Mars after the first round of cuts in a global space exploration competition.

Darlene Denis, manager of a roadside deli and gas station on Cherokee Road, learned Monday that she advanced to the second round of a process to choose candidates for the Mars One project, which aims to establish a permanent human settlement on the red planet.

She first heard about the Mars One program near the first of last year, when she saw and responded to a post on the Internet gauging interest in volunteers.

Last August, she submitted her official application and was notified Dec. 30 that she passed into the second round, joining 1,057 others from a pool of more than 200,000 hopeful astronauts from around the globe.

“I’m sure I’m going to be nervous when I’m sitting in the cockpit, getting ready to go, but I’m more afraid to not try at all,” Denis said Thursday as she sat at a wooden table in The Store, a convenience mart owned by her father. “It’s an amazing opportunity.”

Founded in 2011 with the lofty goal of space colonization, the nonprofit Mars One foundation hopes to select crews and begin sending four-seat manned spacecraft to Earth’s neighboring planet by 2025.

Before humans touch down on the dusty, barren surface, two unmanned rovers will be sent to scout out a suitable location for the colony and deliver construction materials.

The project’s co-founder, Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, contends that colonization of Mars can be accomplished with existing technology, including rockets and spacecraft designed and built by private companies like SpaceX and Lockheed Martin.

The multi-billion dollar project will be partially funded by crowd sourcing donations and by selling television and advertising rights to terrestrial broadcasts showing the colonists’ activities.

While the project’s architects believe a 34-million-mile journey to the planet is possible, there are no plans for a return voyage to Earth.

“All of us applicants know that when we’re selected, it’s a one-way trip,” Denis said. “No technology exists currently to bring us back, and it would be a very difficult task to prepare a human body to come back after spending an extended period of time in a low-gravity environment.”

An enigmatic combination of a bubbly optimist and a stern realist all at once, Denis insists on saying “When I’m selected,” rather than “If.”

She said she was surprised to receive the email congratulating her on entering the second round Monday.

“When they said that anyone could apply, I though ‘Yeah, they’re going to pick PhDs and engineers to go into space, not me,’ but here I am in the second round,” the 46-year-old said.

The strong-willed daughter of a Vermont dairy farmer, she wound up in Northeast Tennessee four years ago while chasing temporary jobs on the road with her partner, Roger Michael, after the couple was tossed out of their rented home when the landlord stopped paying the mortgage.

“We’re used to flying by the seat of our pants,” she said. “We ended up here at The Store, expecting it to be a job to lay over until we continued west, but a year later, my dad asked us to stay.”

Before leaving Vermont, Denis said she briefly considered a run for the state’s governor’s seat on the Libertarian ticket, but the realities of politics quickly dissuaded her from that venture.

“I wanted to run for the power to actually make a difference, but there’s really no chance to do that, that’s not what it’s about,” she said. “That’s why I think I want to go to Mars, to get the opportunity to do something I can’t do here, where so many valid voices all talking at once.

“I would be part of shaping the society, the future of a human settlement. That’s huge, it’s momentous.”

One reality Denis would have to face if selected for the mission would be leaving her family behind.

Michael applied to take part in Mars One, but received a rejection letter last month.

Communications satellites would establish a connection with their old world, but the long-term effects of isolation are a danger even now to space travellers that stay in the Earth’s orbit.

In the years leading up to the manned launch, the remaining applicants will be gradually eliminated through a rigorous course of mental and physical tests, designed to ensure they can weather the 200-day space flight and be able to establish a functioning society on Mars.

Regular cargo drops, made every two-years when conditions are optimal, will resupply the colonists, but they will be expected to build dwellings, maintain a garden and deal with any problems that arise.

Even if she’s not selected to go into space, Denis said she will closely watch the mission, knowing that the best candidates were chosen.

“The tests we’re going to go through are designed to push us to our limits, and I hope they do,” she said. “We need to have the best of the best on this colony in order to ensure that it will succeed.”

Check out Darlene Denis' video application below:

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