They say a liberal arts education can take you far. One alumnus hopes his Vassar degree will launch him 250 million miles away from Earth.
Max Fagin ’10 is a first-round finalist for the Mars One Program, a private company working on sending the first humans to mars by 2025.
He is one of 1,058 members of the Phase Two Shortlist, chosen out of a pool of over 200,000 applicants from around the world. Over the course of the next year, the Mars One Program will interview and test Fagin to determine if he is qualified to passing into the next round and perhaps even eventually joining one of the four-person shuttle crews.
When Fagin was 12 years old, he read “The Case for Mars” by Robert Zubrin. The book, which argues for the human exploration and settlement of the Red Planet, instilled in Fagin a lifelong passion for space travel.
But Mars is not just the final goal for the mission. Mars is the final destination for the astronauts’ lives. If the Mars One Program in fact succeeds in sending humans to Mars, it would be to establish a permanent colony. There is no return plan, and the astronauts who go would be leaving Earth forever.
The benefits of a Mars mission, in Fagin’s eyes, would outweigh the necessary sacrifices.
He explained his decision to apply for the Mars One Program, claiming that the survival of the human race in the future will depend on the innovations made in the present.
“Earth is a great place to live, but it is also just one planet,” wrote Fagin in an email “Humans must spread to other planets, or we will eventually go extinct. Maybe not anytime soon, but eventually. The dinosaurs taught us that the universe is a potentially lethal place for life that is stuck on only one planet, and I am very much opposed to humanity going the way of the dinosaurs.”
Fagin, who is currently pursuing his masters in aerospace engineering at Purdue University, admitted that his academic background, with its liberal arts education, is not typical for an aspiring astronaut. The most competitive applicants may be more technically trained than he is.
“Plenty of other applicants are excellent pilots. Plenty of them are excellent engineers,” he said. Any mission and colonization of Mars, however, Fagin claims, will require a jack-of-all-trades.
“But my skills and knowledge base isn’t just a narrow tower of a single subject, it’s a broad multidisciplinary pyramid of many types of engineering and science, capped with aerospace engineering, and all of it supported by the solid foundation of physics that I got at Vassar,” he said.
From his time here, Fagin remembers well the parties the Astronomy department threw.
“The dome parties at the observatory are some of my happiest memories of my time at Vassar,” he said. Fagin was a double astronomy and physics major, and he also earned his Bachelor of Engineering in the dual-degree program at the Thrayer School at Dartmouth.
Professor of Astronomy Debra Elmegreen was Fagin’s major adviser. She recalled Fagin as a bright student. “From his freshman year onward, he was legendary for asking probing questions in class (in mine as well as in physics classes),” wrote Elmegreen in an email.
She continued, “He was always ambitious and eager, and it was clear that he was destined for great things. He never knew this, but I privately thought of him as ‘Maxwell Smart’ from the old TV show (for his smartness, not for the bumbling ways of the TV character!).”
Fagin also shared how Vassar allowed him to explore other interests of his outside of astronomy. “I also remember the Shiva theater very well,” said Fagin. “My main mode of recreation at Vassar was student theater, and I can’t even remember the number of shows I performed in at the Shiva. ‘Rear Window’, ‘War of the Worlds’, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, and a bunch of other shows and reviews.”
This Friday, Feb. 21, four years after Fagin performed on stage, the Shiva Theater will premiere a musical about the Mars One Program. Written and directed by Hanna Tobias ’16 and Belle Shea ’16, the show, named “2023,” follows the story of four program applicants.
According to Shea, what spurred them to create the musical was the question of what would it mean to leave the earth behind forever.
“That’s what we really got into. The idea of one way and what does that mean for the rest of your life,” said Shea. “A question that we ask a lot in our show and that is kind of obvious is, ‘What would you miss most about earth?’”
In the case of Fagin, what he imagines he would miss most is the fresh air and nature.
He said, “I really enjoy being outdoors, and I think it is going to be at least somewhat stifling to not be able to go outdoors without a completely enclosing pressure suit.”
But if he succeeded in going to Mars, Fagin would be missing more than the chance of an outdoor hike.
As he put it, “Every human being who has ever lived I will be leaving behind except for the three people who will be with me.”
According to Fagin, however, his family stands fully behind his desires to go.
“My family has had my entire life to come to terms with this,” he said. “They have been very supportive of me because they know it is my ambition and they know it is my love and they know I have been planning to do this for so long.”
Astronauts on Mars will still be able to see and talk to loved ones back on Earth via a satellite feed.
“I wouldn’t be leaving anyone behind in the sense that there would be people I would never see again,” he said. “After all, we can communicate with Mars just as well as we can communicate across the country.”
Every extra ounce of mass brought aboard a space shuttle means more fuel and less available space. The astronauts would take with them only critical equipment. Fagin said that, if he were to go, he would bring a couple lightweight items of sentimental value, including his Rubiks Cube and the book that sparked his dreams of inter-planetary travel, Zubrin’s “The Case for Mars.”
Fagin is keeping his advancement to the program’s shortlist in perspective. “I still have not moved beyond the phase where I consider it anything beyond a remote possibility,” he said.
There is no guarantee that the Mars One Program will be launching any shuttles into space, much less establishing an off-planet colony. Whether or not he makes the next round or if the Mars One Program fizzles, Fagin will continue working towards becoming an astronaut. The field today faces limited options for space travel—the last manned space shuttle NASA sent was in 2011.
But Fagin is not discouraged yet.
He said, “I have a lot I still want to learn before I will be able to really do what I want to do, which is work on the task of getting human beings to mars. Mars One is not the only way to actively work on making humanity interplanetary.”