Meet The Mars Generation

10 November, 2016

Abigail Harrison first dreamed of becoming an astronaut when she was five. Unlike other kids, she held on to her dream. In 2015, at the age of 18, she founded The Mars Generation, a nonprofit that works to educate and excite kids about space exploration. She’s been an Earth Liaison for Italian Astronaut Luca Parmitano, and a guest blogger for NASA’s International Space Station blog. Today, she’s 19 and more dedicated than ever to joining the first mission to Mars. We recently sat down with Abby to talk about the future of space travel and what it takes to dream that big.

I know you’ve been interested in space from an early age, but why Mars?

Looking up at the night sky, Mars is a very prominent celestial object. As I got older and got more interested and involved in space travel, I realized that Mars is really the future of space travel. It’s the next step that we, as humanity, need to take. It's a perfect next step, something that is extremely challenging, but not impossible.

How long is the journey to get there?

With current technology, it's estimated to be about six to eight months there, and six to eight months back.

How does someone prepare for that? What's the process for you?

The things I'm doing right now to hopefully be selected as a NASA astronaut within the next four to eight years are receiving an undergraduate degree in astrobiology and Russian, training for my pilot’s license, training to be a master scuba diver, and learning other languages as well. I studied Mandarin Chinese and I'm planning to study Arabic in the near future. I'm also planning to go directly into a PhD program in astrobiology after obtaining my undergraduate degree.

What are you doing physically to prepare?

I maintain a very careful diet to make sure that I'm building up bone density and muscle mass over time, because that's something that really you have to do over a 10 or 15 year period in order to have real results. I also try to stay very fit and exercise. I'm training for a marathon right now. I play rugby. I play ice hockey. Last year I was a NCAA varsity college athlete, so ... just all kinds of things that in 5, 10, or 15 years would make me the ideal candidate for a mission to Mars.

What happens if they say, “Abby, thank you, but the crew’s full right now.” Will you keep applying every year, until you get there?

Absolutely. So that's one of the things about the NASA astronaut selection process that a lot of people don't realize. Most of the astronauts with NASA didn’t get selected on their first try applying. Most of them have applied between three and six times before being selected. The part of that that's important is to apply as soon as you think you have the necessary qualities, and when you get rejected, learning from that rejection what it is that you can do before the next selection in order to improve yourself and your chances. That's one of the ways they ensure that they really get the best of the best.

Is there an age limit for applying?

The only age requirement for applying is that you have to be an adult, 18 or older.

How old are you today?

I'm currently 19.

You’re studying languages, biology, flying. What could you be expected to do with those skills on a mission?

On a mission to Mars, let's say you send six crew members. There are more than six jobs that need to be done, so every crew member needs to be able to multitask, to be specialists in more than one thing. When you take into account that you also want to have backups, then crew members need to be specialists in two or three or more areas. So you could be a pilot and a biologist and a doctor. Or a geologist and a biologist. To really make sure you can cover all the bases of what needs to be done.

What role do languages play in making sure things run smoothly on the ship?

Languages will be a very important part, because it's highly unlikely that a mission to Mars will be just the United States, or just Russia, or just China, or just India. It will be all of these countries potentially working together, a truly international, collaborative effort. Having people who are fluent in multiple languages will really allow that to be a possibility.

NASA is owning the first trip to Mars. Will they be the first ones sending a spaceship there?

Well, nothing is certain, obviously. So we don't know what China or Russia will choose to do in the future, but NASA is the organization right now putting in the necessary time and effort and resources into producing technology capable of going in 10, 15, or 20 years. I strongly believe that it will be NASA.

It’s a very long way to go, obviously. Is this a round-trip, or a one-way ticket?

Definitely round-trip. There's no quicker way to lose public support for space travel than to kill astronauts in space! We don't currently have the technology to sustain human life for a full-life period on the surface of Mars, so if you were to send astronauts up on a one-way trip, that would in essence be a known suicide mission, which NASA does not do. So yeah, it'll most definitely be a two-way trip.

No one’s ever been to Mars before. What do you feel are some of the biggest challenges — mentally, emotionally — about that?

I imagine that it will be very similar to how explorers feel when they venture to the Arctic poles, or the Antarctic. There's that same feeling of alienness, that same feeling of knowing that the environment outside of you is so stark and will kill you in a minute, with the added knowledge that you’re so separated from the rest of humanity. Which will take a very big toll on the astronauts’ mental and spiritual health, but will also teach them a lot of things. It’s just a very complicated range of emotions, I guess.

What do you see as your routine on a day-to-day basis? How will you manage to keep your sanity?

I believe the astronauts will be quite busy both on the way to Mars, on the way back, and while on the surface with assigned tasks, ranging from science experiments that they're conducting, all the way to maintenance efforts. So, making sure that the spacecraft, the habitats, the growing systems, really everything that they need in order to maintain safe and comfortable lives, is working properly.

Will there be down time?

They will definitely have some free time every day. A portion of it will have to be for exercise. Astronauts exercise about two to three hours a day when in space, and they may increase that because of the extended duration of a Mars mission. So, anywhere up to maybe four or five hours of exercise a day. And then I’d imagine we’d also have time to write emails to loved ones and transmit them back, or read books or listen to music, those types of things. Yeah, definitely some time everyday spent emotionally connecting with humanity and entertaining yourself.

How long will the mission be on Mars?

It's estimated that a mission would be around three years round trip. You have the six to eight months to reach Mars and six to eight months back, but you have to stay on the surface for a certain period of time because you have to wait for the orbits of Earth and Mars to be in the proper alignment to have the shortest distance of travel between the two, as well. So roughly a year-and-a-half to two years on the surface.

Do you have any idea what sort of biological study you’d be doing there?

Once again, I can't say for certain. I always feel the need to put that disclaimer out there, but it’s very likely that the primary biological study on a mission like that would be the search for extraterrestrial life forms, or for areas where alien life could develop. The second would be monitoring the humans on that trip, seeing how Mars and long-term space travel affects people. And then, of course, there will probably be experiments related to plants or microbial life forms, but those will be secondary goals.

I’m actually curious about how Mars might impact the brain over the long-term, since our brains are electrical fields, and the Earth acts like a magnet on them…

That’s an interesting concept. We haven't seen any effect on that on humans who have spent extended durations of time on the International Space Station.

But that's not standing on a planet. The ISS is a non-gravitational environment, right?

It’s beside the point, because it's not so much about placing yourself on Mars as it is about removing yourself from Earth. The gravitational field on Earth is largely due to the molten core that we have. Mars doesn't have a molten core anymore.

So it has almost no electromagnetic field.

Right. And therefore it won't add anything to humans that they're not already experiencing in orbit.

How would Earth reach out to Mars? By radio, internet waves, some other way?

That would primarily be done through radio waves, which is the way we currently communicate with Martian probes and landers like Curiosity or the Mars Hope Probe, which will be launched in 2020. We can't use the Internet because it requires strategically placed satellites in continual longer distance orbits around Earth. If you’re outside the orbit of those satellites, you can’t send or receive signals by phone or Internet.

Okay, so no email.

Yep. No email, sadly.

Have you seen the spaceship? Is the spaceship being designed or conceived right now?

Yes, NASA is currently in the design and development process of something known as “the space launch system” (the SLS). It’s a large capacity launch system being built to launch both human and cargo payloads with the concept in mind of going to Mars and potentially someday further. The craft that goes along with that currently being developed is the Orion, which is the capsule that would house humans. So those are definitely being worked on right now.

Is this happening at one of NASA’s centers now?

It’s happening in all of the centers. That's one of the things that people often don't realize. NASA draws work and parts from all over the United States. Every state in the United States contributes to the space-shuttle program in some way, and it will definitely be similar with the space launch system as well.

Words by The Editors and Abigail Harrison.

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