After two years of intense preparation and government-enforced security protocol, I am free to announce that I may be part of the NASA crew that will travel to Mars on an 80-day expedition set for spring 2026. What an extraordinary turnabout for an ordinary citizen, especially after the years of constraint and lockdown.
I say “may” because at any time, the NASA leaders are free to rearrange the team. Something could happen in my own life to sideline me and preclude my participation.
What attracted my attention to this opportunity was NASA’s interest in studying the effects of life on Mars on older people, and whether there may be a survival advantage among the over-75 set. For this voyage they were seeking two healthy older individuals (among a crew of 10) who could tolerate the rigors of the voyage and the projected time on the ground on Mars of five to seven days.
I first read about the project five years ago, and, considering the requirements and my modest qualifications, I applied to the program with much trepidation and little hope of being selected. After all, by the time the spaceship launches, I’ll be older than most astronauts — but, then again, younger than many people who take on extreme challenges.
As a novice astronomer, I have always longed to slip beyond gravity and find out more about the mysterious frontier beyond our planet. I could never imagine that the opportunity would come my way at this time in my life. But, lucky for me, NASA was specifically looking for civilian participants with no space flight expertise.
The initial qualifications were surprisingly relaxed. Candidates had to be U.S. citizens or permanent residents. The standard age requirement of 30 to 55 was suspended for two members of this mission because of the interest in studying older people.
A master’s degree and two years of teaching experience in any field were required, and I had to pass a basic test in computer and biological science as well as the NASA physical. The tests, of course, were modified for the over-70 candidates.
As a finalist, I traveled to the Johnson Space Center in Texas last spring, where I underwent a medical evaluation and psychological and psychiatric screening to determine my suitability for what will be a physically and mentally demanding mission.
NASA paid for all the exams and travel expenses.
Fortunately, I don’t have any of the food allergies or gastrointestinal disorders that would have eliminated me from consideration. I was even given samples of the spaceflight diet to try at home to test my tolerance.
According to NASA, “Candidates on specific medications are automatically disqualified. For example, blood pressure medications, blood thinners, seizure medications, daily allergy medications, diabetic insulin, sleeping aids, ADHD/ADD medications, antidepressants, anxiety medications. Food supplements are not permitted during the mission.”
Of course, I had to provide proof of full Covid vaccination, and was required to wear a mask on the JSC campus.
Crew applications were evaluated in the order received for qualified applicants until all available spots were filled. I was notified of my acceptance six months ago. Recently we were informed that we could go public with the information.
The sobering disclaimer is: “Risks of participating in this protocol may include minor discomfort and low-level radiation exposure from X-rays during medical exams, and physical injury or a highly unlikely chance of death.”
Other preparations for the 2026 mission have been under way for some time. As we speak, participants have been living in artificially created Mars conditions in the desert outside Elko, Nevada. They have been there for eight months, with two months to go to test astronauts’ reactions to a simulated Mars environment, including altered gravity, time, and extreme atmospheric conditions. There are three septuagenarians at the Elko test site.
The trip from Earth to Mars will depend on the relative alignments of the planets. For my prospective mission, most of the trip will be travel time, in the capsule, with up to seven days on land. A new, faster rocket has been developed for the 2026 voyage. Consideration has been given to onboard features that would facilitate participation by an older crewmember.
If you are thinking of space exploration yourself, be advised that the application process for this mission to Mars is closed.
Imagine. The Heralds may be able to boast about their own columnist reporting from space.
Yes, imagine, because there’s no way this is happening. Happy April Fools’ Day, my friends.
Copyright 2023 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.