As a kid, at one point you were probably told to “reach for the stars,” or “stay away from fire,” or possibly even once heard the rhetorical question, “What are you, from Mars?”
Apparently, Paul Larson was listening far too well. The Plymouth area (technically New Hope) stay-at-home dad has been an active on-call firefighter for the Plymouth Fire Department since 2005, bringing him in contact with blazing fires throughout his career.
“Eleven years ago, I retired from corporate America so I could be a stay-at-home dad, watch my children grow, participate in their growth, encourage them and enjoy the results,” he says. “I also had time to study the culture in which my children [a daughter, now 15, and a son, 11] were developing. Through reading and observation, it became evident that good science and math teachers were retiring faster than they were being hired. To me, that seemed to be a problem.”
So in May 2012, Larson graduated summa cum laude from St. Cloud State University with a bachelor’s degree in earth sciences. There, he found a passion for teaching people about stars and space, a passion that eventually led him to a position as the lead presenter at the St. Cloud State planetarium. As for the Mars thing? Well, he actually wants to live there, but more on that later.
Larson recalls fondly an early pivotal moment in his teaching at the planetarium: “After six shows at the planetarium, and a total of about eight questions through all six shows, this 4-year-old girl in the front row whispers to ask me, ‘How do baby stars grow?’” he says. “It came from a beautiful, innocent, naïve little person trying to understand the entire universe around her. I tried to explain in five minutes what had taken me a year to understand. She stood there with her hands on her mouth, eyes wide as she was delighted by the fact that the ‘things’ [atoms] in her right hand probably came from a different star than the ‘things’ in her left. I had goose-bumps talking with her about it while the entire audience disappeared in our teaching moment.”
Teaching is one thing, but actions are another. Larson has always led by example, first becoming a firefighter 22 years ago.
“I started with New Hope Fire Department, serving the cities of New Hope and Crystal,” he says. “About eight years ago, I was on a mutual aid call assisting Plymouth Fire. While sitting in Plymouth Fire Station No. 2, I learned about the Plymouth Duty Crew program and thought it would be a perfect fit for me as a stay-at-home dad.” The Duty Crew program helps provide Plymouth residents with a quicker response time by assigning firefighters to 3-hour shifts.
According to Larsen, Plymouth is a very progressive department that trains very professionally and is always looking for new and innovative ways to accomplish their objectives. He brought previous technical rope-rescue training to the department, and in 2006 earned the Firefighter of the Year award; the following year he became the image for Plymouth’s recruiting materials.
“Firefighting fits my personality. I am a rock climber, kayaker, motorcyclist, minimalist camper and overall adventure-seeker—running into burning buildings just makes sense,” he says. “These adventures are not done fool-heartedly. With proper skill and knowledge, the rational fears associated with these activities can be overcome; it’s very rewarding.”
Despite these ambitious interests, “Paul is a very level-headed person who demonstrates a calm demeanor and is welcoming to those he meets,” says Rick Fline, fire chief for the Plymouth Fire department. “He is an excellent firefighter who takes time to introduce others to skills that he is knowledgeable [about]. He is one of our best ambassadors who routinely goes beyond what is expected to meet the needs of others.”
Realizing he was “good at teaching stuff” and also a leader through his role in putting out fires, Larson set his sights on a new goal: He wants to be one of the first people to live on the planet Mars.
“In September 2012, one of my friends sent me a link to mars-one.com. It was essentially a one-way human mission to Mars,” he says. Mars One opened the application process to the world in April 2013, and Larson posted his application in July; in December, he was chosen as a semi-finalist, along with 1,057 other candidates. The final number will be winnowed to 24 by the end of 2015.
Larson makes clear that the decision isn’t a joke, nor is it one that he has taken lightly. Ultimately, it would require him to leave his family behind forever. However, he sees much broader implications of the betterment of all humanity through his journey, and that’s a trade-off he is willing to make.
“I want to excite young people about math, science, astronomy, planetology, Mars,” Larson says. “We are one world, one humanity connected instantly to others around the world. Humanity needs to identify a new frontier to explore, and Mars is that frontier. This innovation and inspiration would trickle down to the education of children. These children will be inventing new agriculture technologies and new technologies that will benefit all of humanity. I would like to be that link between these excited children and the exciting world of Mars.”
Refuting the skepticism and pessimism of the trip being a “scam,” he sees the reward far greater than any risk endured. “When I think of a scam, I think of a call on the telephone asking me if I would like a lower interest rate that I’ve already been pre-qualified for,” he says with a chuckle. “There are a lot of skeptics out there. But this is good, because we need skeptics in order to do good science. Our science needs to be critiqued and questioned from all angles to ensure that everything is safe and successful.”
If Larson is selected for that list of 24 candidates at the end of 2015, he will be put onto a team with three other team members. All six teams of four will train on a full-time basis for eight years. According to Larson, in 2024 the third and fourth rounds of the selection process and training will be televised around the world. In the end, four individuals will be selected to travel to Mars in order to create a permanent settlement there; four additional people will join the settlement every two years.
Larson’s friends and associates see him as a special mix of a person, pulling in the best elements from what’s around him and what he has learned. There’s a real respect and approachability that comes with this: “My best friend uses the term ‘scary smart,’” Larson says of himself. “My mother used to tell me, ‘Paul, you should join the FBI or CIA, because you’re smart enough, but you look dumb enough.’”
A broad Q&A from the Mars One website.
How long does it take to travel to Mars? Seven months. The trip takes a bit longer than astronauts currently stay on the International Space Station.The precise duration of each journey depends on when it is taken. Because both Mars and Earth’s orbits are not perfectly circular, the time it takes to travel between them varies from six to eight months.
How much does the mission cost? $6 billion, plus $4 billion with each subsequent group of four people.
What happens after the arrival of the first humans on Mars? The initial base will eventually become a small village. At first, expansion will be limited due to provisions, oxygen and water. Subsequent landings will provide everything they might need to expand the colony: solar panels, new living quarters and more.
Will Mars One meet the exact time schedule? Yes.The time schedule and exact dates and years of the missions to Mars were selected based on astronomical positions of Mars and the Earth. The mission’s suppliers have all confirmed they can build the required components within the agreed upon period. A potential challenge for Mars One will be to secure enough funding to pay the suppliers on time for their work, but at this time, Mars One needs only a small fraction of the total $6 billion.
Mars One: Human Settlement on Mars