A one-way trip to Mars sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but to Lulu Ferdous, it sounds like an adventure.
There's no waver in her voice as she says “it is not scary” to leave her friends, family and home planet to follow a dream.
A University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate, Ferdous is one of 1,058 people from around the world who advanced to the second round of applicants for a one-way trip to the Red Planet. The most difficult part for her, she said, will be knowing that her family and friends would be scared for her.
“But at the end of the day, they have to be happy for me,” Ferdous said.
The mission is sponsored by Mars One, a Dutch nonprofit that aims to establish a permanent human settlement on the planet by 2025.
More than 200,000 people applied for the program. The pool will be narrowed to 24 in 2015.
For Ferdous, 35, who was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, becoming an astronaut and going to Mars is an evolution of the dream she has had since she was 6 years old.
She wanted to be the first woman in Bangladesh to break the sound barrier as an air force pilot. However, officers in the Bangladeshi military told her repeatedly that a girl would never fly for them.
Ferdous also tried to become a commercial pilot and was again denied because she is a woman.
“I didn't get any social or cultural support,” she said.
Rather than give up, Ferdous spent 11 years working and saving money to leave her country.
Ferdous came to the United States in 2007 to study aviation, graduating magna cum laude from UNO in 2012 with a degree in air transportation administration. From there, she eventually became a research assistant for NASA Nebraska at UNO until October 2013.
Now she is pursuing a doctorate in aerospace science. She intends to continue her education, whether she is selected to the final 24 or not. But she said this mission could be her calling.
“I was waiting for an opportunity, and I really didn't know what would materialize,” Ferdous said. “But when the Mars One astronaut program appeared, I was like, I have this ambition and here is something that came literally out of nowhere, which is open to citizens all over the world.”
Mars One aims to launch the first group of four astronauts in 2024. During training, the astronauts will learn skills to survive on the planet, such as growing crops, living with three others in a small space and basic medical training.
A statement from Mars One said that although the planned mission would be one-way, returning astronauts to Earth could be a possibility as technology develops.
Ferdous isn't afraid of the seven-month space flight from Earth to Mars. Learning from the risks of long-term space travel would be beneficial for future missions, she said. And she has already conquered many of the personal challenges with settling in a new environment.
She faced isolation and cultural adjustment when she came to Omaha from Bangladesh. Being president of UNO's Women in Aviation group taught her about leadership and group dynamics. She already communicates via the Internet with her family in Bangladesh.
And if she were selected for Mars One, she said, it would be a testament that dreams are not limited by local boundaries.
“I'm hoping that I'll be the change that I want to see,” Ferdous said.