Metro

Stoneham man in semifinals for Mars colonization project

Peter Degen-Portnoy
Photo via Peter Degen-Portnoy
Peter Degen-Portnoy

A Stoneham man is one small step closer to being picked for an ambitious one-way mission to colonize Mars.

Peter Degen-Portnoy was selected as a semifinalist for the “Mars One” project, a nonprofit venture aiming to populate the distant planet within the next 12 years — a plan some say is far-fetched and unachievable.

But Degen-Portnoy, a software engineer, says he can picture himself on Mars one day, looking out toward Earth.

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“The whole thing is a dream come true,” Degen-Portnoy, 51, said. “I can totally see myself . . . in that habitat, working with my team and working every day to make sure our systems are functioning and our resources are sufficient.”

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Two years ago, Mars One put out a call for submissions from people interested in volunteering their efforts to bring life to the Red Planet. The Dutch organization says it received more than 200,000 inquiries before whittling the list down to 100 applicants last month. Degen-Portnoy made the cut. Known as “The Hundred,” the group consists of 50 men and 50 women from around the world.

If all goes well, the husband and father of five could make it to the last round of the process, and join 24 finalists for what Mars One says will be an intense training regimen to prepare for takeoff. Groups of four will then tentatively be launched into space every two years beginning in 2026, with the first landing planned for 2027, according to the Mars One timetable, an aggressive goal that has been challenged by researchers and the public.

The intent of the project is to create a self-sustaining colony that can produce food, oxygen, and water for explorers.

Degen-Portnoy remains optimistic about the journey to the planet, despite skepticism about the feasibility of the mission. A recent independent study conducted by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pointed out how difficult it would be for Mars One to ship enough supplies to sustain a new civilization. One of “The Hundred” also came forward in a recent interview and called the selection process, financial stability, and goals of the mission into question.

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Last week, Bas Lansdorp, chief executive and cofounder of Mars One, tried to put some of those concerns to rest, and invited criticism.

“At Mars One we really value good criticism because it helps us to improve our mission,” he said in a statement.

Even if nothing comes of the actual mission, Degen-Portnoy said the experience and his involvement so far have been worth it. “I have met some incredible people, and we spend a lot of time chatting in our social group, exchanging ideas, and also boosting and supporting one another,” he said.

Both Degen-Portnoy’s family and employer have been supportive of his dream, and he believes the project will have the technical capacity to keep him connected with loved ones.

“They will be able to send me text messages, and e-mail messages, and video messages,” he said. “That’s the part that makes it possible for me. We will always be in touch.”

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One co-worker, however, asked him why he would want to travel to Mars “just to die.”

“Aren’t people just staying here on Earth to die? To me, it would be worth the sacrifice. I’m not participating in this with the intent of dying,” he said. “This is about standing on another planet, being there, and saying ‘Yep, here I am, and I’m making this my life.’ ”

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.