Hopeful Mars traveler torn between dreams and family

By Yin Lu Source:Global Times Published: 2015-2-27 5:03:02

Li Dapeng prepares himself for a trip to Mars. Photo: IC

"Dad, please don't go to Mars," Li Dapeng's 5-year-old son pleaded. The child had been told by his mother to say so, after Li received an e-mail one week earlier congratulating him on being one of 100 final candidates out of 200,000 applicants worldwide who would be shortlisted for a mission to Mars.

The outfit behind the project is Mars One, a nonprofit foundation based in the Netherlands, which aims to establish human life on the planet. In April 2013, the Astronaut Selection Program was launched and online applications were opened to people worldwide, followed by a two-year selection process that will end in a four-man team being sent to Mars in 2024.

Li, 33, a forestry technician working for the forestry bureau of Handan, Hebei Province, felt like he had won the lottery, as he and Lin Xiaoxia, a woman from Shantou, Guangdong Province, were the only candidates from China.

There has been a great deal of public attention and interest in Li, with reporters swarming to his apartment recently. Despite the skeptical voices and objections from his family members, Li is determined to reach his goal: to make people realize that "our destiny is to conquer the oceans and the stars." 

"Now in the cities we can only see the foggy gray sky and the solid concrete ground which makes us wrongly think that we are just some creature growing on Earth," he said. "I want to get away from it, and find peace in my heart in space. It's my version of romantic heroism."

Dreaming of the Red Planet

Li had no hesitation in signing up for the program. He spent his childhood in a village in Xingtai, Hebei Province, where he would look up at the stars, imagining himself standing on a giant spaceship and embarking on a grand voyage. He handed in the $11 sign-up fee, a video and an application article.

"In your whole life, how many chances do you have to spend $1.5 billion?" said Li, with a shy grin.

Li attributes his success in becoming a candidate to his enthusiasm and devotion to preparation. For example, to get fully ready for the 10-minute online interview, he printed 40 pages of materials he had prepared in English, a language he's not fluent in. 

His study is filled with books on astronomy. After signing up, Li read 33 academic and literary books about Mars in both Chinese and English.

After graduating from China Agricultural University in 2005, Li has taken a career in promoting pomology technology, which mainly involves assisting with training and lecturing work among local farmers.

With a stable job that pays 30,000 yuan ($4,784) each year, a 100-square-meter loan-free apartment and a car, Li's life in this small city seems a comfortable one. He goes to work, takes afternoon naps, and picks up his son from kindergarten.

But in between work breaks, Li dreams of Mars. Every day, Li goes online to search for anything related to the planet. Like many other young Chinese, he's a huge fan of foreign and domestic science fiction and movies, including the Chinese best-seller The Three-Body Problem, which was recently nominated for the Nebula Award. Li thinks one of the reasons for his story attracting so much attention recently is due to the "astronomy fever" that's been sweeping the Chinese community.

Li likes to compare himself to Spock, the half-human half-Vulcan first officer in his favorite movie Star Trek. "He's intellectual and extremely rational. I'm hoping [I can be] that kind of figure."

One-way ticket

According to Mars One, the four-man team will settle on Mars forever without coming back. Li already knows the questions people want to ask but are afraid to - What if the shuttle explodes in space? Why choose to die on another planet?

For Li, space exploration is something worth dying for. "As an atheist, I know that sooner or later, death happens. Space exploration comes with risks, but before the real thing, there will have to be many experiments and unmanned launches, to make sure it's safe for us."

But at the same time, Li is torn between going and staying. "If given this opportunity, I would definitely go," he said. However, he does show signs of hesitation. "If my family doesn't allow it, I'll probably choose to give up."

The biggest objection comes from his family. With the sudden interest and the social pressure from the local community, Li's 63-year-old mother is getting increasingly worried, thinking that she might really lose her son forever. Li's wife, a math teacher at a local junior high school, said that she'll support her husband in his work and research, but will never accept him actually going to Mars. Li's uncle is the only supportive one in his family. "Go ahead and try your best, since you'll never get picked," he said to Li.

As a result, Li's current strategy for comforting and winning over his family is emphasizing the fact that it is highly unlikely he will be picked.

Born in the 1980s, Li yearns for the free spirit enjoyed by the young generation, but still holds on to traditional Confucian values. Li particularly identifies with one quote from The Analects of Confucius: "When one has their parents, one shouldn't travel far."

But now, Li is planning to travel more than 55 million kilometers from his family.

Fiction and reality

Since 2013, doubts about the company and the project have been raised in the Chinese community and media. People question the possibility of a small company sending human beings to Mars by 2024, which is even earlier than the date for possible human travel to Mars announced by NASA.

In response to such skepticism, Li says, "It seems extremely difficult, almost impossible. But this is like writing a science fiction with real actions. You cannot call it a scheme or a lie. It felt like a reality TV show, with the worldwide selection being held among non-professionals. They want to raise funds this way."

Li was told that this year, the 100 candidates will be winnowed down to 24, but he hasn't been informed about the selection criteria or methods yet.

Before then, Li wants to be fully prepared, including physically. To fill gaps in his knowledge, he reads books regarding launching and landing, food sources, oxygen circulation on Mars and other topics.

Another important task he has set for himself is educating the public, including sharing his stories and opinions on social media, as well as forwarding and translating Mars-related news.

"The Earth is our cradle, but we cannot stay in this cradle forever," Li said.

Newspaper headline: Point of no return

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