In a decade or so, when most people her age will be retiring from their working lives, Elena Shateni, now 58, plans to be starting a new life planting the human flag on Mars. Or so she hopes. The Santa Monica holistic medicine specialist is one of 100 semifinalists vying to become the first humans to live on Mars, as part of the Mars One project. That’s “one” as in something never done before, and as in a one-way trip (no return flight is possible). The project is the dream of a Dutch entrepreneur and engineer, and critics doubt that the project is financially or technically plausible. Shateni is no doubter. Her yoga group showed up in Mars One T-shirts to demonstrate solidarity, and she speaks of the adventure in the future tense, not the conditional, and of “we,” not “they.” If the project were powered by enthusiasm, she would already be there.
We are drinking coffee, sitting in a beautiful garden on a lovely California day. Why leave all this for Mars?
This is a dream job for me — a dream job!
I was always attracted to the unknown, to know what is out there. [I] got an invitation to watch the Curiosity Rover Mars landing at JPL. It took my breath away. All those people who had dedicated 10 years of their lives to this one thing.
So I was crazy about Mars. I started to follow all the news about Mars. A year ago, on the anniversary of the Curiosity landing, I was browsing on the Internet and found the project. I couldn’t believe it. A friend helped me apply, with a letter of motivation about challenging situations in your life, a huge questionnaire, and, I hate to be on the screen, but I made a video of myself. Over 200,000 people applied.
Why is it a dream job?
It’s a very humanistic project. We stagnate here on Earth. We are so predictable. Our first [reaction] to a new thing is, no, it’s stupid, it’s crazy. We want what is comfortable and familiar. This project is an opportunity to break through. Just think about if we start to live on another planet, what a breakthrough. We will be a totally new kind of human, homo sapiens Martianis. Humanity will take a new direction.
We have to understand that Earth is not what is our home. Our home is everything we have to explore. I want to contribute to it.
What do you bring to this?
At the age of 6, I played the violin and was accepted in a school for gifted children. I played the violin, like, four hours a day in a confined environment. I loved the feeling of staying within myself.
Then when I was 13, I decided to become a doctor. My mom was very upset. She said, “If you don’t want to play the violin, break it.” The violin was too expensive, but I took the bow and [she demonstrates breaking it]. I was serious.
I graduated from medical school in Moscow and worked as a general practitioner and internist [and studied psychotherapy and medical hypnosis]. At the same time I studied alternative medicine. I learned to stay open-minded. My goal is to make my patients healthy; it doesn’t matter how I do it.
I came to the United States 20 years ago, I got my master’s degree in Oriental medicine and have my own private practice, with my knowledge of Eastern and Western medicine.
Pioneers leave people and places behind. You were able to leave music, to leave your homeland — maybe Mars One saw something in that?
I lived in different cultures, under different political systems. I understand cultural diversity. That’s the most important challenge. It’s a huge test for us as humans. Are we ready? It will be up to us to decide what kind of society to start to build on Mars.
You won’t be able to come back; people call it a suicide mission.
We’re all going to die [anyway], but to die not having [made] this effort to progress a little bit, for humanity, for yourself? You would want your children and grandchildren to do the same.
You have two grown children. What do they think?
They’re saying, “Good, good!” But behind this I see that of course they want their mom to be on Earth. But I want to be an example for their generation and their kids.
Growing up in the old Soviet Union, did you pay attention to its space program?
Oh yes! Yuri Gagarin [the first human in space, in 1961], I remember it. I was thinking, is it possible? Somebody really went into space?
What questions do people ask you about Mars One?
The first reaction is to laugh. So I try to share my vision with them. They ask about how I would live there, what atmosphere, what conditions. There’s a lot of non-believers around, a lot of critics, but if we compare 2013, when it started, to now, there’s a huge community of supporters for Mars One, and they found investors.
What happens next for you and the other 99 candidates?
In the autumn, the 100 people will be divided into teams for compatibility selection, and after that, 24 will be chosen to enter a seven-year [training] program. We will learn medicine — I’m already there — electronics, exobiology, geology.
By the end of this month, a life-support-system architecture study here will [analyze] how it’s feasible to live there. We plan to extract water from the soil, and from this water we will extract oxygen. We will have a greenhouse with hydroponic plants, and the source of protein we plan [is] insects. I have already tried grasshoppers at an Asian restaurant. It was too spicy, so I did not get the real taste.
There’s a little problem: I am the oldest woman in this group of 100.
Why is that a problem?
The first flight would be 2024. If it would be delayed, I don’t know how much they will invest in me. But they chose me [now], and I am healthy; I have great motivation.
How long is the trip to Mars?
From six to eight months. It depends on the position of the orbits of Earth and Mars. In 2018, [there will be] a demonstration mission, [then] a working rover to find the best place for the colony. By the time we land, we would already have water and oxygen there — a base camp. Everything would be set up.
Do you read or watch sci fi?
I read a lot of sci fi literature; it’s difficult to say what is my favorite, but my favorite science fiction movie is “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It takes you into a different dimension, out of conventional thinking. I love any kind of unconventional thinking, any kind of new ideas.
This interview has been edited and condensed.