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What makes a middle-aged man want to take a one-way trip to Mars?

TEMPLE TERRACE

Hampton Black plans his mission to Mars from a 6- by 10-foot office. Inside this windowless capsule, there's just enough room for a desk, a computer, a water heater and a corkboard, w

here he tacks important papers.

Behind him hangs a blueprint of a landing module he helped design for NASA. Next to that is a detailed illustration of Mars One, showing the cylindrical pods of a connected habitat he hopes to spend the rest of his life in.

Above the computer is a note. "March 8. 2014. Medical." It's a reminder that before he can leave Earth for good, he needs to pass a physical.

Next to that is a small canvas his girlfriend bought for him at an art festival.

Grow old along with me.

Hampton, 43, does not work. He's busy trying to lose weight, staying current on scientific news and watching NASA's TV network. He spends hours scrolling through a Facebook page called "Aspiring Martians."

Meanwhile, Ann Marie, his earthling girlfriend, waits for him to emerge so they can cook dinner or watch a movie or go out with friends, things couples who say they love each other do.

But Hampton doesn't emerge. At least not often. He's too focused. Ten years from now, he hopes to embark on a one-way, 35 million-mile trip to Mars.

Ann Marie will tell you that in some ways it feels like he is already gone.

• • •

Hampton and Ann Marie Slavik, 41, met in Cape Canaveral in 2001 at an apartment complex they describe as being like Melrose Place.

They were neighbors. He was an engineer at NASA, living alone. Ann Marie was a single mom bartending in Cocoa Beach. She remembers the first time she saw him. He was reading a book, the title something like "How to Do Your Own Divorce." They became friends, but that was it.

"It just wasn't our time," Ann Marie said.

Hampton moved away, and they lost touch. But Ann Marie stayed curious and found him on Facebook years later. In late 2012 she messaged him about a post she found a little too political. The romance took off.

"He was shy," she said. "I had to do all the work."

In February 2013, she moved into his house in southern Hillsborough. But then Hampton lost his engineering job. They moved into a small apartment in Temple Terrace. About that time, he started thinking hard about a one-way trip to Mars.

Hampton had heard about the Mars One project the year before. The project's goal is to send four people to start a colony on the Red Planet by 2025. The trip would take eight months. The colonists would live in small pods. They'd grow their own food. They'd stitch each other's wounds. Clean each other's teeth. And because the plan was hatched on Earth, it would include, at some point, the making of a reality television show.

"This has the potential to turn into something," Hampton remembers thinking.

More than 200,000 people — American, Peruvian, Indian, mothers, fathers, young, old — were just as interested in applying. At first, Ann Marie got swept up in Hampton's enthusiasm for the project.

Together they made his application video for Mars One. It was set up like a scene from Star Wars, in the Mos Eisley Cantina. Hampton played Han Solo, applying for a job as a Mars One crew member. Ann Marie played his green-skinned girlfriend.

"Have you lost your stupid mind?!" she asked in an alien language. "You're not going anywhere, and you're sure as hell not leaving me."

In the beginning, the real Ann Marie knew there would be challenges to their relationship. But how could she stand in the way of his dream?

"I'd love him enough to kiss his cheek and let him go," she said. She didn't really want to, though. Around this time, she bought him that little sign about growing old together.

When his application got him into a group of 1,058 selected for Round 2 in January, Ann Marie bought him a small present: a model of the Millennium Falcon. In Star Wars, it's the ship Han Solo uses to jet around the universe, smuggling contraband and running from responsibility.

"I kind of thought I had it," Hampton said of advancement in the selection process. "But I didn't want to be overly confident."

But after that first hurdle stood another, taller one. No matter how ready he made his mind, Hampton's body was far from primed for space. To make it to the interview round, he'd need to lower his body mass index to 30. That meant losing more than 40 pounds in a little over three months.

A form, certified by a doctor, had to be submitted by March 9. He scheduled a doctor's appointment for the day before. In the weeks leading up to it, he spent hours each day on an elliptical machine or a treadmill or at the weight machines in a white plastic sweat suit. He swore off sugar, abandoned Coke and started pumping himself full of zero-calorie Propel water. He stopped applying for engineering jobs.

"I'm in the gym twice a day," he said. "I don't think I'd be able to do that if I was at my desk job."

His only indulgence was a few weeks before his appointment, on Valentine's Day. He took Ann Marie to Bern's. He ordered the Delmonico.

• • •

In February, a few days before Bern's, Hampton sat in the living room of his small apartment. Ann Marie was on the couch, facing a wall-sized flat-screen television, listening to Hampton talk about Mars.

"It's the last frontier that hasn't been explored," he said.

Ann Marie got up, reapplied her lip gloss and sat back down, distracted.

She is petite and quick to laugh. She is outgoing and has a striking ability to say how she feels and why she feels that way. Her hands and arms are tattooed. A few years ago in Seminole County, an arrest report says, she kicked a deputy in the face during a confrontation about noise.

Hampton's unbuttoned shirts and gold chain make him look flashy, but emotionally he's reserved. Ann Marie wears her heart on her sleeve, she says, and he doesn't express himself at all. He has always been able to focus his energy, but he flits from one interest to the next. Once, he built a Ferrari from parts. He can solve a Rubik's Cube in 42 seconds.

As he talked about how to extract water from Martian rock, she looked bored.

He said he likes it on Earth and there are things he would miss on Mars. If he's selected to go, he wants to spend his last decade on Earth traveling, seeing the pyramids and the Mediterranean Sea. He wants to spend more time with his aging parents and find a way to say goodbye.

But there's a piece of him that thinks it might be nicer on Mars. A quiet, peaceful sort of darkness.

"I'm just not cut from that cloth," Ann Marie said. "I'm not made to be isolated like that."

• • •

Hampton's parents, Pat and Erna, live in Wesley Chapel. Hampton drove there for dinner a few weeks before his scheduled weigh-in. He sat on the couch, surrounded by travel memorabilia and science fiction DVDs.

When Hampton told them he wanted to go to space for the rest of his life, they weren't shocked.

When he was 16, he paid his own way to space camp. He started a space club at Gaither High School and took his classmates to Cape Canaveral to meet astronauts. He studied aerospace engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and when he got out, he took a job with NASA.

But Hampton started his career as the golden age of space exploration was winding down. NASA's funding was slashed after 9/11 as money was shifted to homeland security. Hampton was laid off from his job as a ground support engineer. As he drifted into other engineering fields, he watched the world that so fascinates him slowly shrink.

"It's pathetic," he said.

All Hampton's reading, all his time in the space program have led him to one conviction.

"I think humanity's destiny is in the stars," he said. "If we continue to be just a single-planet species, we're going to cease to exist one day."

Hampton's mother isn't worried about species preservation. She's worried about the grandbabies her son hasn't had.

"I'm praying for this thing to fall through," said Erna, a devout Baptist.

"God works in mysterious ways," Hampton reminded her.

"One-way trip," Erna said. "That's not my cup of tea."

Hampton is divorced with two sons, 21 and 22. The older, Hampton Jr., studies physics at Florida State University. A picture Hampton Sr. treasures shows the boy, covering his ears, on his shoulders at a space shuttle launch in the 1990s.

Hampton Jr. remembers just the noise. And he remembers his father always dreaming of space.

"He's talked about this his whole life," Hampton Jr. said.

Though Hampton wouldn't leave for 10 years if selected for the program, time goes fast, the son knows. Lately he has started to worry about having children before his father leaves forever.

"Then again," Hampton Jr. said, "it would be really cool to have my kids do video calls with their grandpa in space."

Hampton thinks about his sons' futures — about the children they might have — with a sort of trepidation. "I'd love them until it was time to go," he said.

• • •

On March 8, Hampton and Ann Marie arrived in the parking lot of his Riverview doctor's office. A drawing of an eye chart, written on a note card, was taped to his steering wheel.

"Just in case," he said.

The real concern was his weight. He'd lost more than 43 pounds. He was pretty sure he had met his goals. But he was wearing a pair of lightweight shorts and a featherweight polo shirt just in case.

"I think he made it," Ann Marie said.

The scale read 203 pounds. Hampton triumphantly held his signed medical form up in front of the office door. As someone snapped a picture, Ann Marie stood slightly behind him. Her smile was tight.

At home, Hampton scanned and sent the form to Norbert Kraft, Mars One's medical director. He waited for confirmation that he had made it to the interview round.

Minutes ticked by, then hours. Hampton refreshed his mailbox. In desperation, he turned to Facebook, hoping the Aspiring Martians could give him details.

How much longer are you going to be on the computer with your Martian friends, Ann Marie remembers asking. She wanted to watch television, get dinner — anything, as long as they did it together.

"Sometimes," she says, "it's really lonely."

Kraft sent Hampton an email five days later. It told him he was one of 706 candidates invited to an interview. When? It didn't say.

"We're looking forward to informing you on the next steps of the astronaut selection process," it read.

• • •

Hampton's closest confidants are the other Aspiring Martians. Each one hopes, at some level of intensity, to leave Earth forever. They post frequently, from theories to concerns to the latest news about space. They provide for each other what others close to them can't.

"I really didn't have a lot of friends that I could talk about space with anyway," Joseph Sweeney said.

Sweeney is a 25-year-old computer analyst from Boston. Like Hampton, he has always dreamed of living in space.

He got engaged in December, several months after he was accepted into the first round of Mars One selection. His loved ones want him to be happy, he said. But he doesn't talk about space with his fiancee unless he wants to get into a fight. His father told him he'd lie down in front of a rocket before he let his son go to Mars, so Sweeney doesn't bring it up with family, either.

"I felt very alone at that point," Sweeney said.

Sweeney said he tiptoes around the topic because the decision whether to go is far away. Why bring it up now and create conflict? When it comes down to it, Sweeney isn't sure going to Mars would be worth what he would give up.

"Anyone who tells you that this will be an easy decision is lying to you," Sweeney said.

"It's selfish," Hampton said. "I think I own that. But in the bigger picture, I think of this as a sacrifice for me, for you."

• • •

Hampton and Ann Marie's relationship got rocky in March. Hampton took a short engineering contract, but to Ann Marie it still seemed as though Mars weighed more heavily on his mind than anything else. He worked long hours and came straight home to the computer, she said. She lost her job at a tobacco shop and felt isolated, left home alone with their bulldog, Chunk.

When he finished his contract early, Hampton was happy for the downtime. But he began looking for other opportunities to train for space.

One of them, slated to start next year, could have him living on simulated Martian terrain on the side of a dormant Hawaiian volcano for up to 12 months. Strangely, Ann Marie said, that hit her harder than his application to permanently leave Earth. To dream of space was one thing. But to leave her for a year in Hawaii?

"That one hurt," she said.

"I get scared sometimes that we're moving in different directions."

In early April, they took a walk with Chunk and decided to break up. "Mars was hard on me," she said. "I felt abandoned from the beginning."

Hampton said her drinking got out of control. She said she asked for help he was not able to give. In the end, she said, it was the loneliness that got to her. They didn't go out to bars or clubs. What else was there to do but drink?

In the kitchen, Hampton spread out his arms. If Ann Marie left, he said, he wouldn't move. He likes the apartment.

"This kitchen is the perfect size," he said. "It's about the size of a Mars kitchen. Tiny!"

And it's the perfect space for his next plan. He wants to film a cooking show that would demonstrate how to grow, harvest and cook food in space.

"It could appeal to people interested in organics," he reasoned. "Or to doomsday-preppers."

In the end, the breakup didn't last long. They were back together weeks later. Mars, it turned out, was too far away.

"I love her too much," Hampton said.

In the office, the sign still hangs:

Grow old along with me.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Claire Wiseman at cwiseman@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @clairelwiseman.

What makes a middle-aged man want to take a one-way trip to Mars? 07/02/14 [Last modified: Thursday, July 3, 2014 1:23pm]

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