NASA's class of 2013 might just have what it takes to visit the red planet and make history.
Astronauts are dreamers.
Astronauts look up to the stars and say, "I want to go there." Not metaphorically either, like a grandparent or graduation speaker might imply. They literally want to go up there and look around. Luckily for those dreamers, if they work hard enough they actually can do it.
But let's be clear. It's hard to be an astronaut. Really hard.
A particular combination of skill, education, experience, and "The Right Stuff" is what's necessary to go to space.
In 2013, eight people became NASA's newest class of astronauts. For the first time, half of them are women.
Nicknamed "the Eight Balls" (let's not think too much about how a team with four men and four women came up with that name), the 2013 class represents the future of NASA and space travel for more than one reason.
First, the class represents what you might call a "giant leap" for women in space.
Although women have been going to space since 1963, there has never been a class of NASA astronauts with a 1:1 male-to-female ratio. It's indicative not only of an evolving administration that seeks to find more gender diversity each year, but also the rising number of women in science, a field that is still largely male-dominated.
Second, members of the Eight Balls might be among those selected to go to Mars.
That's right. We're going to Mars! Eventually. It'll take at least 15 years before NASA is even ready to hit the big red launch button (they do have a big red launch button, right?), but when the class of 2013 was selected, NASA announced that they'd be among those in the running for the inaugural trip to the red planet.
Understandably, the Eight Balls are pretty excited.
"I grew up in Spokane, Washington, and I can't recall ever not wanting to be an astronaut," astronaut Anne McClain told Glamour Magazine.
McClain, like her colleagues, was chosen from 6,100 other qualified applicants. She's flown attack helicopters on the front lines of Iraq and has master's degrees in both international security and aerospace engineering (just in case you were wondering what the competition is like).
Rounding out the other women in the class are Nicole Aunapu Mann, who served multiple tours in Iraq flying fighter jets with the Marine Corps; Christina Hammock Koch, who spent a year in the south pole supercooling telescopes with 10,000 gallons of liquid helium; and Jessica Meir, who has a Ph.D. in marine biology and experience diving under several feet of ice in Antarctica.
15 or so years from now, these women could be among the first human beings to set foot on Mars.
Despite the fact that women have been going to space for over 50 years, there are still people who question the skills and abilities of women who dream of going to space. It wasn't that long ago that Russia's female astronauts were questioned about their makeup before an eight-day stay in a mock spacecraft to prepare for a moon mission.
Make no mistake, these women aren't any less skilled or prepared than their male counterparts just because they're women. These women are highly trained. They've got The Stuff. They've got What It Takes.
"If we go to Mars, we'll be representing our entire species in a place we've never been before," McClain says, "To me it's the highest thing a human being can achieve."
Indeed, a successful trip to Mars would probably afford human beings the most bragging rights we've had since we came down from trees, stood up on our hind legs, and invented the slap-chop.
Besides, as McClain points out, when it comes to venturing into the great reaches of outer space, "We're all just part of team human."