The Chatter

Owings Mills woman in the running to go to Mars

Laura Smith-Velazquez is one of 100 semi-finalists for the Mars One project. But what about her husband?

Growing up, Laura Smith-Velazquez had a poster of Mars on her wall, and longed to become an astronaut. She found a kindred spirit when she met her husband, Matthew Velazquez, who had always been a self-proclaimed airplane guy. Laura, a 39-year-old Owings Mills resident, could get her chance—she’s one of 100 semi-finalists to be part of the Mars One mission, which aims to establish a colony on the Red Planet by 2027. Matthew applied too, but didn’t make the cut. Now, a decision looms—will Laura leave behind love to pursue her dream?

How did you find out about the project?
M: It was my fault.

L: (laughs)

M: I did it. I forget where I heard about it, CNN, Tech Review or something and it immediately sparked my interest. Laura’s been applying for the astronaut corps whenever she can and I read this thing that said, “They’re accepting applications from anyone. You can go to Mars.” So I brought it home and we applied together.

L: It was a long time (before we heard back) actually, six months . . . Amusingly enough, when I applied to the NASA astronaut process it is pretty long, but this was even longer . . . They asked lots more psychological questions, like, “How do you handle fear?” They had you write essays about how you handle emergencies and how you work with other people. There was a lot more leadership, personality questions, like, “Can you live in a contained environment for months on end?” And then we recorded videos.

M: We took it all the way down to the wire. It was apply by midnight on whatever date, so at 11:57, here we are in my friend’s closet recording her.

Are you still holding out hope that Matthew could go?
L: Once you get down to the final 24, people could drop out and previous applicants could get a chance. We hope so. I’m taking him if I can.

M: After I washed out it was, ok, so let’s see how far this goes. Then all of a sudden she’s one of 100 . . . You have to think about the very real possibility that she could just go, take off. We made that call pretty early, when we first applied. If one gets to go and the other doesn’t, I guess we have a decision to make. And that’s where we are right now.

How long have you guys been married?
M: Four years?

L: It’s funny, we have to think about it.

M: We met at work.

L: We’re both engineers.

M: You grew on me big time.

L: I was previously married and I went through a divorce, and it was one of those things where I wasn’t sure if I wanted to jump back in.

M: Then she jumped on me.

L: Yeah, I did. We actually knew each other a year before we started going out. But we’re in totally different engineering disciplines. Matthew is an aerospace engineer and I’m a human factors and systems engineer. The amusing thing is when you’re designing an aircraft, he does everything on the outside, and I do almost everything on the inside.

M: We started talking about string theory almost immediately. And [she said] “there’s a book you have to read by Michio Kaku.” I went, “This one?”

L: The same exact book. And I was like, “I love you.”

M: And we discovered that she lived . . .

L: Around the corner.

M: No kidding, I could throw a rock through her window.

L: It was one of those things where everything fit perfectly together. Us, and everything else.

Was space travel both of your dreams growing up?How did that evolve?
L: The tipping point came when I was 8 and my parents got me a telescope for Christmas and I spent hours outside in cold Michigan weather . . . freezing, looking through my telescope, going, “This is awesome.” [I grew up] with all of the Star Trekmovies. My parents were avid NOVA watchers and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos­­—those were the things we really watched on TV because we weren’t allowed to watch junk TV.. . . I did most of my classes [for my masters program] on long-duration space flight and habitation design, believe it or not, so I was like, “Oh, designing a colony on another planet would be great, I wonder if we’ll go to Mars?” So even then I still had the dream.

M:My dad was in the Air Force and the Air Guard after that . . . One of my earliest memories is kind of manhandling a C-130 out on the flight line. Dad had to hold me up so I could touch it. I grew up reading about the moon missions . . . the various incarnations of the space station before this one. Even now, I’ll get a text message that says, “Hey, the space station is going to be overhead at 6 o’clock tomorrow morning.”

L: We’ll go out and watch it, or he’ll say, “Saturn’s out tonight, let’s go see the rings.”

What is it about Mars? Laura, you mentioned you had the poster of Mars on your wall as a kid.

L: It’s the most like our planet and it’s the most achievable . . . It’s so like Earth, similar climates and everything. Mars’ history can tell us a lot about Earth’s possible future history.

M: It’s like standing on your desk: same room, different perspective.

L: Just think what you can learn about surviving, too. I think that’s what I like about this Mars One project is that it’s not a country going to Mars . . . it’s about a world going to Mars. There are people from all over the world, all different countries. That’s a whole different concept—I don’t really think we’ve had anything that unifying.

There are obviously skeptics, the people who are saying the project will never get off the ground. Does that bother you?
L: No, because there are a lot of hurdles. Just think of everyone who was skeptical about going to the moon. People died trying to go to the moon . . . they’re risks. But we’ve overcome them once before, and we can do it again.

M: What people don’t realize is that the occasionally loud, occasionally public critique is totally normal in the scientific community. That kind of criticism is normal, healthy, and more than welcome—especially when you’re talking about my wife. I’d like her to get to the planet in one piece and stay as long as possible.

L:People always ask me, “Why do you want to go to Mars and not come back?” Astronauts, every time they do a mission, they know they might not come back, their families know they might not come back. It takes people who are willing to risk that.

You have already thought through all of what could happen to you?
L: Anybody who wants to be an astronaut has already thought through all of that. It’s realities, it’s very tough . . . If you risk nothing, you do nothing.

You’ve gotta die some day. Wouldn’t it be awesome to do it doing what you love and something that is an important thing not just for your future but everyone’s future? That’s a pretty awesome thing.

What kind of plans have you guys made in terms of the future?
L: We’re kind of going with the flow. We did look at all of our finances . . . because if you’re going to leave you have to know, what happens to my student loan? If I do end up going, I don’t want to leave (Matt) in a crunch. I am thinking ahead for my family, my parents and brothers and sisters. But most of it’s just, ok, if I go through training do I have to take a sabbatical from my job? When you’re talking about something 13 years, 15 years from now, in the future, all the planning you want to do now is going to change.

In 15 years, you’ll be in your 50s. Do you try to picture what it will be like to be that age in space?
L: Nah. His mom’s a great example. Your mom’s 83? 84.And she climbed the Acropolis in Greece. When it comes to age, it has most to do with your mobility and hour health. And, in this day and age, 54 is nothing.

The hardest question for us: Can you go without each other? And after so many years, it’s hard . . . Hopefully by then he can come with.

Has this process changed how you feel about each other?
L: A lot of people think, “How can you leave each other?” One time he said [turning to Matt] . . . How did you put it? I should have recorded you. [He said] he would never stop me from doing my dream because he didn’t want to be alone. When you’re in a marriage you’re all about nurturing each other and accepting certain things, there’s a give and take. How many couples have stopped their dreams and lives for somebody else’s dream and life?

M: You have the hard choice. You have to make the choice to go. My decision isn’t difficult. We made promises to each other when we first got married. One of the things I promised her was to support her in all of her endeavors and this completely counts. How do you not choose that? What kind of a fraud of a husband would I be to ask her to stay just for me?

L: He’s Mr. Wonderful. That’s what makes things even harder. It’s a war of two loves.

We’ll still have each other but in a very distant fashion. So, what demands do you put on a marriage? Would you expect him to stay married? . . . I would rather not have to deal with it now, we’ll deal it when I leave and don’t come back. This would be a reallylong-distance relationship.

[It will be] kind of like having a pen pal, right? You’ve got someone you can pour your heart out to . . . It’s probably the hardest decision I’m going to have to make.

When’s the next time you expect to hear from Mars One?
L: They were looking at the end of summer to get everyone together, and they were looking at final selecting by fall. I don’t know how the road map goes since they had a little trouble getting investors on track. That might push things out. It’s gotta be so interesting getting that many like-minded people in the same room. I’m really looking forward to that.

Are you still going to keep applying for the astronaut program?
L: Oh yeah, absolutely. You don’t put all your eggs in one basket, right?