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New Mayo High School planetarium director on Mars list

Paul Larson, new director of the Mayo High School planetarium, is among 600 people with an interest in traveling to Mars who were selected to bid for 24 berths on Mars One.

Mayo High School's newest planetarium director, Paul Larson, said it's time to once again think boldly about space travel.

But Larson not only talks the talk, but he also walks the space walk. Or hopes to. Two weeks ago, Larson learned he had advanced to the second round of a selection process for sending a manned spaceflight to Mars and colonizing the Red Planet.

And if that sounds like something from the the realm of Ray Bradbury-inspired science fiction, consider this: The trip is a one-way ticket. If you go, you don't come back.

"I have this grandiose idea of changing the world," said Larson, who is only the third director in the planetarium's 48-year history. "If we're going to change the world, our children are going to change the world through science and innovation."

The proposed venture to Mars got a lot of attention this week, as the Orion space capsule was to have a test flight this morning. However, the launch was delayed because of high winds and other factors.


Still, Larson is hosting an Orion post-launch party at the school's planetarium from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. The test flight was to be unmanned (the first occupied test isn't set to take place until about 2018), but the launch will be a first step in NASA's efforts to explore deep space, asteroids and, beyond that, Mars. Former NASA engineer Earle Kyle also will be on hand to talk about the differences between the Apollo capsules that took man to the moon and today's latest spacecraft.

It's not as if Larson, 47, expects to take the next flight to Mars anytime soon. He hasn't asked for an extended leave of absence from Rochester Public Schools. A lot can happen between now and 2024, when the Netherlands-based Mars One company has projected sending the first of six four-man teams to Mars. After all, Larson is married with two children, and he is only six months into his new job as planetarium director.

But it does drive home his point that it's time to think big about space flight again, and his job as director, he believes, gives him the perfect perch to do that.

Larson acknowledges that space flight no longer captures the public's imagination in the same way the Apollo missions or the Space Shuttle did years ago. No longer do classrooms suspend their activities to watch space launches on TV as they once did. And that's a shame, really, because space exploration isn't just about space, it's about solving problems back here on Earth, Larson said.

Larson said he has spent two summer internships with NASA, and it just wasn't rocket scientists he was spending time with, but meteorologists, hydrologists, geologists and biologists.

"We were actually solving real-world problems on the surface of the planet using NASA technology," Larson said. "People just don't understand what's all out there that NASA does."

And then there are private ventures such as Space X and Mars One, which are doing as much as NASA to push forward the space flight agenda.

Larson's own association with Mars One began when he became one of more than 200,000 people to apply for the Mars trip. He has survived two rounds of cuts and is now one of 663 people to bid for the 24 berths on the flights. His varied life experience, he believes, have given him a leg up in selection process, including 23 years as a firefighter, a building manager for corporate Target, a stay-at-home dad and now, most recently, a teacher.


Mars One hopes to send the first humans on the 34-million-mile flight to Mars by 2024. But the daunting costs of space flight have made such deep-space missions off-the-chart expensive. Mars One's novel solution to reducing costs is to eliminate the return trip. By making it one way, engineers are able to shave 80 percent of what it would cost NASA to do the project.

Their job, once and if they should arrive on Mars, will be to colonize the planet, prepare for new arrivals and spend rest of their lives there, Larson said.

And what does his wife, Alese, think?

"She's not worried about it right now," he said.

Neither is Larson for the moment. Larson said a NASA Space Shuttle astronaut he talked to last summer advised him not to spend his life with the single-minded goal of becoming an astronaut "because the probability of you becoming an astronaut is very, very small," he said.

"There have been several candidates who have turned down jobs, they have broken off relationships, they have not done things because they're thinking, 'Well, I'm going to do this instead,'" Larson said. "To me, that seems a little reckless."

It's perhaps easier for Larson to go about his Earth-bound life because his desire to teach springs from the same impulse that led to his Mars One application: to change the world.

Larson won't be teaching three astronomy courses as his predecessor, Larry Mascotti, did. That will allow him to spend more time developing the planetarium as a resource not only for schools and students but for the community as well.


"I've been inspiring young kids to become scientists and engineers, so I've been changing my little corner of the world," Larson said. "And so when I saw this opportunity, I thought, 'wow, I could inspire an entire generation of kids to become scientists and engineers.' Just think what we could do in this world."

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