Though the prospective Mars mission is at least 15 years away, NASA has trained a team of astronauts as candidates for the trip–half of whom are women. Astronauts Nicole Aunapu Mann, Anne McClain, Jessica Meir, and Christina Hammock Koch are 2016’s pivotal women in the space industry.
“This will be the longest, farthest, and most ambitious space-exploration mission in history,” said Dava Newman, Ph.D. and NASA’s deputy administrator.
Only 57 of the 534 people who have gone to space are women, so the gender-balanced team has come as something of a surprise. Despite this achievement, the women are more focused on the potential significance of the mission.
“What are people capable of? That idea of exploration has always been a part of the human experience,” said Meir. “Trying to understand our place in the universe is what drives me more than anything.”
The importance of the mission to the four female astronauts is paramount, and the feminist implications of the team fall short compared to the eye-opening opportunity that awaits the four in space.
“From space,” said McClain, “you can’t see borders. What you see is this lonely planet. Here we all are on it, so angry at one another. I wish more people could step back and see how small Earth is, and how reliant we are on one another.”
If the progressive, feminist reasons for a balanced team aren’t enough, data has shown women are actually cheaper to send to space. Because of weight, as well as metabolic, and dietary factors, women eat and expend less calories, reducing the amount of supplies necessary.
However, McClain isn’t concerned with the financial or progressive reasons for the mission. To her, despite all the barriers and labels people face on Earth, a mission to another planet can really put life into perspective.
“With so much conflict in the world,” said McClain, “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.”
Several of the women have been determined to make it as astronauts since they were young, but Koch’s journey to her dream job was particularly unique.
“I had always set my sights on working with NASA,” said Koch, “but I didn’t want to get there by checking the usual boxes, like learning to fly and scuba dive. I wanted to get there because I was passionate about science and the next frontier.”
McClain also took an unconventional route to her out-of-this-world career. She started in the military, but fate took her a different direction.
“Wanting to be an astronaut feels more like my destiny,” said McClain.
The Mars trip, if all four women embark, will be tied with the Apr. 2010 STS-131 mission for putting the most women in space at one time. More than that, to Meir, the mission has historical and futuristic implications for Earth.
“Mars can teach us so much about the past, present, and future of our own planet,” said Meir. “That’s a phenomenal thing.”