The New Zealand woman who might be the first person on Mars

A University of Canterbury postdoctoral fellow is in the final running to become a NASA astronaut. And that could mean a trip to Mars.

Dr Sarah Kessans, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Canterbury, is in the top one percent of applicants shortlisted by NASA to become an astronaut. Kessans, from Canterbury’s chemistry department’s Biomolecular Interaction Centre, was one of about 120 candidates invited to NASA’s Johnson Space Centre Houston, Texas, for interviews this past September. Of all the people NASA interviewed, just 50 will be invited for finalist interviews, after which eight to 14 lucky souls will be chosen as NASA's 22nd Astronaut Candidate Class, reporting for duty in August 2017.

The visit to the gargantuan facility – which served as mission control for the famous Apollo missions to the Moon – was pretty spectacular, Kessans says. “It’s hard to explain just how incredible NASA’s Johnson Space Center is – both the facilities and, especially, the people,” she says. “Everyone – from the administrators to the trainers to the engineers to the astronauts – was exceptionally passionate, intelligent, and just really fun. Like a real-life version of the ‘JFK and the janitor’ story. The story goes that when President John F Kennedy was visiting NASA headquarters for the first time in the early '60s, while touring the facility, he introduced himself to a janitor who was mopping the floor and asked him what he did at NASA. The janitor replied, ‘“I’m helping put a man on the moon!’”

Dr Sarah Kessans.

The ‘team spirit’ was also inspiring, she says. “Everyone there understands that they’re a part of something bigger than themselves: part of a massive, inspiring undertaking responsible for exploring our universe, pushing science forward, and really connecting humanity on a global scale,” she explains. “It was humbling to just be amongst it.”

Going to space would not be the first adventure for Kessans, 33. In 2006, she spent 16 hours clinging to a capsized rowboat in the Atlantic Ocean during a 3,000-mile (4,828-kilometre) race. Terrifying as the ordeal would be for many, she resolved to attempt to row across the world’s second-largest ocean again. In 2008, she set a world record for rowing across the Atlantic. “When I was younger, I really wanted to be a fighter pilot,” she says. “For better or worse, I fell in love with science and rowing in university, and figured it would be hard to fit a military career in with those two passions. Sitting in the cockpit of a supersonic jet and being that close to realising that dream was almost too good to be true. As with the Orion entry simulation, while we sat in the cockpits with our hands on the controls of the jets, my fellow interviewees and I could actually visualise ourselves as astronaut candidates going out for training flights in the T-38s together, and the joy of that feeling is something that we won’t soon forget.”

Johnson Space Centre.

Being in an Orion capsule – made to carry a crew of two to six astronauts at or beyond low earth orbit – was one of the highlights of Kessans’ trip to the space centre. “Via one of my fellow interviewees, we had the great honour of experiencing a simulated ascent and entry of the new Orion capsule,” she recalls. “I could not believe my luck when one of my fellow interviewees and I were invited to lie down on our backs in the Orion seats. I’ll never forget the first time I sat down in a real ocean-rowing seat, and the sense of impending adventure and awe was much the same. Similar to the beginning of my ocean-rowing career, I understand the years of hard work and training that it will take to reach success, much less the starting line, but getting a taste of what that success might feel like was absolutely inspirational.

“As we were rolled back into the launch/landing positions, with our knees tucked up towards our chests, the control panels in front of our faces, and the windows of the module behind us, we could not hide our massive grins. During the simulation, we were able to see plasma through the windows as the craft re-entered the atmosphere, watch as the parachutes opened, and feel the splash of the capsule as it hit the ocean. The experience allowed us to reflect on our own potential trips to space, and it made the journey – with all of its risks and rewards - seem that much more real. Just being there, experiencing such a unique opportunity with my new friends, solidified my desire to become an astronaut.”

And there was another experience that Kessans says really stood out to her. “Sometimes the simplest moments are the most poignant for me, and as much excitement as I had over the course of the week, one of my very last experiences there at JSC (Johnson Space Centre) was the most memorable for me,” she explains. “As I was walking back towards the hotel from campus at the end of my last day, one of the current members of the Astronaut Corps pulled up to me in her vehicle and offered me a ride. It was the simplest gesture, but it meant so much to me to have someone whom I hold in such high regard both recognise me and go out of her way to help me out. Our easy conversation during those few minutes, ranging from her training flight that evening and my flight back to New Zealand to the state of traffic in Houston to our mutual love of a local sandwich shop, alleviated any fears which I might have had that I didn’t fit in with such an esteemed group of individuals. And while I know that I’m still quite a long ways off from making the final cut, for that brief period of time, I felt as if I was already part of the team, and I can’t explain just how proud and humbled that made me feel.”

And as for her desire to go to Mars? Kessans says she’s still keen. “More now than I ever was!”