Visiting Mars is mission of VC man

........................................................................................................................................................................................

Major R. Ken Johnston never shot for the moon. He set his sights even farther away from terra firma.

Since he was a child, Johnston has had his eye firmly fixed on the red planet, Mars.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Major R. Ken Johnston, a Valencia County resident, is hoping to be on of the first Mars colonist with the Mars One project.

When his wife, Fran, told Johnston about the Mars One Foundation’s call for candidates to join its efforts to establish a permanent human settlement on the planet in 2023, he was eager to participate.

“It’s always been Mars for me,” Johnston says of his space exploration endeavors.

So Johnston, who lives north of Rio Communities, got 60 seconds to make the pitch as to why he should be considered for the projects. So far, he is one of nearly 200,000 people around the globe who have submitted a video and brief biography to the foundation.

Those submittals are posted on the Mars One website and the public is being asked to rate them on a five-star scale.

To help Johnston get his shot at Mars, visit www.mars-one.com. Click on the view applications button, select 70 for the age and find Ralph, Johnston’s given name. You can vote early and often. Voting closes on Sunday, Aug. 31.

If he makes it through the first cut, Johnston will move on to a round of interviews and then into the final 40 people who will undergo eight years of training for the mission.

This won’t be Johnston’s first rocket rodeo, so to speak. He was one of the first four civilian astronaut pilots for the NASA’s Apollo program.

Johnston has logged more than 3,000 hours as a space craft pilot and helped train the astronauts how to fly the lunar module. He has also done zero-G and water training at NASA.

He holds two bachelor’s degrees and two doctorates, and is currently a major in the Civil Air Patrol. Johnston has also dedicated 35 years to volunteering with the Boy Scouts.

“I have trained pilots from all over the world and I like everyone, no matter what their race religion creed or color,” Johnston said in his introduction video. “I build teams, am a team player and goal-oriented.”

Being a part of this project would allow Johnston to be part of several firsts — one of the first humans to leave the Earth-moon orbit, one of the first colonists on Mars.

“Everything is a first,” he said with a grin. And while it wouldn’t be the first time he would say goodbye to his wife for an extended period of time, it very well could be the last.

The trip to Mars is a one-way ticket.

But he holds out hope that by the time he gets to Mars — and he will get there he says — there will be a way back.

“By then, there will be ships going back and forth all the time. It shouldn’t be too hard to hitch a ride,” he said. “My wife is 100 percent behind me on this.”

And even if he doesn’t get to come back, there will be plenty of ways to communicate to loved ones back on Earth via video calls, voice calls and text. Depending on the position of Mars relative to Earth, there could be anywhere from a two-minute to 22-minute delay, Johnston said.

“But heck, there are times when I’ve sent my wife a text message and she hasn’t answered for an hour, so really what’s the difference?” he said laughing.

At 70, Johnston is one of the oldest candidates who want in on the trip. By the time he completes the training, he will be closing in on 80, but that doesn’t worry him.

“My ancestors are long-lived. Some lived to 100,” he said. “And John Glenn was 77 when he went back into space and he set all kinds of records.”

Helping colonize Mars will not only help Johnston fulfill a life-long dream but also a long-ago promise to his grandfather.

“I put our family name on the moon, engraved on a microdot,” he said. “I promised him I would put our name on Mars too.”


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.