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The Storytellers

Astronaut-in-waiting dreams of life - and death - on Mars

Stephan Günther may get a chance to realize his life's dream. The 45-year-old German has applied to become an astronaut on a mission to Mars. Even with a family on Earth, he accepts the ticket will only be one way.

Living in a hostile environment in a climate colder than the Arctic, dustier than a Sahara sandstorm and severely lacking in oxygen - that's exactly what Stephan Günther is applying for. Why? He wants to be the first human to ever step foot on Mars.

Günther is one of more than 200,000 astronaut applicants for Mars One, a space travel project launched by a private Dutch organization seeking to establish a permanent settlement on Mars by the year 2023. There is a catch: the chosen astronauts would never be able to return to Mother Earth.

But that doesn't scare Günther, whose life goal has always been to go into space. "It's in my genes to apply for a mission like that," he tells DW in an interview. "I have a deep knowledge inside that it would fulfill my life dreams. I'm a space maniac."

As far back as he can remember, Günther has always been fascinated by aviation. Even as a toddler, he was glued to the TV watching the moon landing. He soon transformed empty cardboard boxes into imaginary space shuttles and later read everything he could get his hands on about space travel.

"You could say I breathe aviation. This mission would close the circle and make my life complete," he says.

Günther runs his own software company, Space Dream Studios, which develops aviation games, apps and simulations. He's also a flight instructor and commercial pilot.

Searching for life on Mars

Though he wants to spend the rest of his life on Mars, Günther is anything but naive, and it's not that he has nothing to lose. He says he understands what he is getting himself into and what going to Mars entails. "Mars is not the typical holiday dream destination," he quips.

Picture of the red planet

'Mars is innately red, because it’s rusted. It’s dry, dusty and stony,' Günther says

Rather than relaxing on a sandy beach, astronauts will spend their days maintaining their life support systems, conducting experiments and searching for signs of life. "Being able to prove that there once was life on Mars would be my personal highlight," Günther says.

That's why he hopes to be among the 40 chosen by Mars One in 2015 to undergo eight years of training to become astronauts. In the end, a select team of four will take off in a capsule on a seven-month long journey to the red planet, where rovers - sent in advance - will have already prepared the settlement for humans.

The estimated cost of six billion dollars (4.5 billion euros) will be mainly raised via a TV show documenting the entire project - from the preparation on Earth, to the space travel, and the colonization on Mars.

A permanent visit

Günther says he sees why Mars One can only be one way. A return trip would make the entire mission three to four times as expensive. And while the technology to fly to Mars already exists, we still haven't figured out how to get back.

Even if the technology were developed in the coming years, chances are that the human body would not survive landing back on planet Earth after having lived on Mars, where muscle and bone mass will have been reduced.

"I'm not afraid of death at all," Günther says. "I don't think death is something final. It's simply a different form of being."

Ariane 5 rocket launches from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana (Photo: S. Martin)

'At take-off you’re basically sitting on a little atomic bomb; if the rocket explodes there’s no way you’ll survive,' Günther says

In any case, Günther sees going to another planet as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for which you have to pay a certain price.

Married to a Martian

There seems to be nothing that could change his mind and make him stay - not even his family. Günther has been married for five years and is the father of three kids from his first marriage.

"A gigantic mission simply weighs more than anything else that you have to leave behind, including your family, as hard as that might sound," Günther says. "My children will have to go their own way eventually anyway and won't need a father right there in front of them. They'll still be able to communicate with me."

Günther's wife, Beate Wieden-Günther, learned about his Mars application a year ago. "At the beginning I didn't understand what he meant by 'one-way mission,'" she says.

"And when I understood what that implied I was in shock. At that point I was questioning the entire marriage. I didn't understand the sense of us being together anymore, and I told him if you want to leave me in 10 years, why not now?"

But then the couple began talking about the situation. A year after receiving the bad news his wife has changed her mind.

"Now I totally back his decision to have applied for the mission," she says. "I think the mission itself is extremely interesting. Making headway, progressing and striving to experience something new is part of human nature."

Living life on Earth to the fullest

This 1968 image taken during the Apollo VIII mission shows Earth

'Think about how emotional it must be to sit in a space ship and see the world become smaller and smaller until it’s only a small blue dot,' Günther says

As difficult as it is to think about the possibility of leaving his family behind, Günther and his wife have realized that applying for the mission has had a positive impact on their relationship.

"We now deal with our daily life much more consciously and intensively. We tackle all these things we've always been meaning to do together, and we make the best of the time we still have together here on Earth," Wieden-Günther says.

"Even though I don't know whether I'm in the program yet, I already learned to not take things on Earth for granted, and I'm much more focused on spending quality time with my family and enjoying nature to the fullest," Günther says.

So what would he miss most? "If I am chosen, I'll definitely take video recordings of my family with me. And nature recordings of snow, the ocean, forests - everything that is unique to planet Earth," he says. "But as much as you leave behind, you have to focus on the things you gain."

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