A 20-year-old college student from Long Island is getting tantalizingly close to landing the trip of a lifetime -- a one-way ticket to Mars.
Laurel Kaye of Kings Park is one of 100 candidates -- chosen from an initial pool of 202,586 -- who are moving on to the final rounds of the global selection process for Mars One astronauts.
The Dutch nonprofit's daunting mission is to establish a human settlement on the Red Planet, starting with a launch in 2024.
Kaye and the other 99 candidates will next be narrowed down to a final 24. Plans call for six four-person crews to be rocketed to Mars in two-year intervals.
"I have just always wanted to be an astronaut," said Kaye, a Duke University senior.
As a child, she devoured books on science and the universe, a passion instilled by her father, an electrical engineer, and mother, a doctor. She'd spend hours gazing into space with a telescope she got for Christmas when she was 12.
Kaye applied for the space project the summer after her sophomore year at Duke but didn't think she had much of a shot.
"There were so, so many applicants. I wasn't sure I would stand out in any special way," she said. "I didn't think I would get noticed in such a large crowd."
But the aspiring astronaut is no slouch: A gifted student, the physics major studied at Oxford last year. In the video she sent in with her application, she shared her excitement for space exploration.
Even if she doesn't make the final cut, Kaye doesn't expect her enthusiasm to wane. She will likely apply to medical school in hopes of someday conducting human health research for NASA. "This has been my passion for as long as I can remember," she said.
Her father, Michael Koch, says it wouldn't surprise him if she was selected for the mission to Mars.
"They will find that she is . . . very much qualified, capable, in the right mindset -- and has the skills to do this," said Koch, 55, of Northport.
Kaye learned she was one of the final 100 in February -- the only New Yorker to make the cut -- and said her curious friends have peppered her questions, like "How will you shower?" and "Will I be able to call you?"
The fact that Mars One has no plans to return its Mars settlers to Earth doesn't deter Kaye.
"If you're spending a decade or more training, and it is your dream, you're going to go for it," she said. "You would want to stay there and really establish your research, and build up the settlement."
Koch says he'd miss his daughter if she went, but he's backing her completely.
"I want to support her in anything that makes her live out her dreams," he said.
A permanent Mars settlement eliminates the problem of having to send supplies for a return trip of at least 33.9 million miles. Instead, settlers would be given the means to till Martian soil and create their own air and water, said Mason Peck, a Mars One adviser and former NASA chief technologist who teaches engineering at Cornell University.
The 100 finalists are approaching the fourth and final round of the selection process, for which Mars One will test candidates' abilities to live in harsh conditions and to work as a team in a training simulation. Selection of the final group of 24 may begin as early as fall.
Mars One was founded in 2011 by entrepreneur Bas Lansdrop and former research scientist Arno Wielders of the Netherlands, who secured investments for an initial study the following year.
The group faces myriad challenges, including raising the estimated $6 billion needed to launch the first manned mission. Funding is being sought through partnerships, sponsorships and other sources, according to the Mars One website.
Peck said establishing a space colony isn't far-fetched.
"From a technological feasibility perspective, I am confident that we as a species are capable of sending humans to Mars," he said.
And if that happens, who knows what else the human race can accomplish?
"It's not a race to plant a flag," Kaye said. "It's humans coming together to go beyond where they've ever been before."