ASCAN class of 2013 astronauts after Christina Hammock and Jessica Meir receive their swearing in as NASA employees. PHOTOGRAPHER: Mark Sowa

For the first time, NASA has an equal number of males and females in their astronaut class.  This class was recruited in 2013 and are the prime candidates for NASA’s plans to land and return from Mars by the end of the 2030s.

Female astronauts are not unusual with Helen Sharman, Sally Ride and Valentina Tereshkova all preceding this gender equal class.

The selected candidates for this class had to rise to the top of over 6,000 initial candidates.  Through their training, they had to learn to perform complex tasks underwater, flying T-28 supersonic jets and regularly flying on the “vomit comet,” a place that simulates zero-gravity by intentionally diving toward earth.

The most difficult part of a mission to Mars will likely be the time away from loved ones.  Mars is approximately 35 million miles away.  With current technology the trip will take 9 months, the return trip and approximately a month on Mars, the total time away is over a year and a half.  Three of the four female astronauts are married and two have children.  The emotional toll could be high but nothing that these incredible women have not dealt with in past.

Astronaut Anne McClain thinks the perspective from space is worth the strain.  “From space, you can’t see borders. What you see is this lonely planet,” she told Glamour magazine. “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.”

Letter sent to female applicant in the 1960s.
Letter sent to female applicant in the 1960s.

In the 1960s, NASA sent a rejection letter to a hopeful astronaut simply because she was female. At the time, there was no impetus to set up a training program for women. How times have changed.