While a manned mission to Mars is at least 15 years away, NASA is currently partnering with SpaceX to train the astronauts who will hopefully touch down on the red planet within a generation from now. And for the first time, half of NASA’s latest class of astronauts is female. Last fall, Glamour shadowed astronaut candidates Nicole Aunapu Mann, Anne McClain, Jessica Meir, and Christina Hammock Koch, during their training in Houston, Texas—talking about the varied paths that brought them here, why they all want to go to Mars, and what they would most miss from Earth. Some of their answers were entirely unexpected, and put a very human face on this daunting mission.
When I was a kid, I dreamed of becoming an astronaut, but ultimately realized I lacked the physical stamina and science know-how; instead, I decided I would write about astronauts. While most of these women (all in their mid-to-late-30s) knew they wanted to end up with NASA, they took very different routes to get there: McClain and Mann (respectively) flew attack helicopters and fighter jets in Iraq for the Army and Marine Corps, while the others both spent time in sub-zero temperatures—marine biologist Meir studying penguins in Antarctica, Koch in the South Pole. McClain has the most optimistic reason for why we need to keep pushing forward with space exploration: “With so much conflict in the world, space exploration can be a beacon of hope. No one cares about race or religion or nationality in space travel. We’re all just part of Team Human.”
What most surprised me about the Glamour profile was how many ties these women have to Earth. When the Mars One program announced its astronaut applicants about a year ago, it seemed that many candidates didn’t have families or major roots, that they only looked forward to Mars. (To be fair, the Mars One folks were looking at a one-way ticket.) By contrast, three of these four NASA astronauts are married; two are mothers. They don’t take lightly the possibility that, if picked for the program, they would be gone for a minimum of two to three years, maybe longer depending on their work on Mars. Crew members would be allowed to bring only two shoeboxes’ worth of personal belongings, so how would they cope with the time away? Each had a unique answer:
Koch: I’d definitely miss my husband. When I was at the South Pole, I packed boxes of things to take with me and opened one every few months, so I had something to look forward to. For Mars I’d ask my family and friends to make small surprises for me to open on designated dates. A handwritten card when you’ve been away 15 months can be the best thing imaginable.
McClain: [For a long-term mission today,] I’d want a way to video chat with my three-year-old son and my partner. Leaving them is the only downside to space travel; they are my everything. I’d also bring my son’s stuffed monkey. He would dig seeing it floating in space.
Meir: I’d need music—the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I would definitely request mixes from a few specific friends, and I’d try to get access to The New York Times.
Mann: If I get tapped for the mission, I’ll talk to my son about what I’ll be doing. He’s almost four now but will be a teen or in his twenties by then. His life will change while I’m gone. And that’s a big sacrifice.
I recommend you read the Glamour profile in its entirety. There’s more talk about the specifics of the Mars training; other astronauts and scientists also discuss the physical and psychological precautions that come with prepping these kinds of missions. And here’s another quote from McClain that hammers home the dedication to this mission:
If we go to Mars, we’ll be representing our entire species in a place we’ve never been before. To me it’s the highest thing a human being can achieve.