Mission to Mars: the enduring appeal of the Red Planet

Nasa’s latest call for astronaut class saw a record-breaking 18,300 applications, which might be down to the agency’s designs on Mars

What do you want to be when you grow up? Ask a child that question today and the answer might range from social-media marketer to smartphone designer. But back in simpler times there was only one answer to that question: an astronaut..

For baby-boomers such as me, being an astronaut seemed like the ultimate cool job. You got to wear a spacesuit, blast off in a rocket, explore new planets and meet alien life forms. And when you splashed down on Earth after your mission, there would be a ticker-tape parade for you down Fifth Avenue. What’s not to like?

When we grew up, however we realised we couldn't just stroll into Nasa with a Leaving Cert, fill out a form and be whisked off to the moon. To even get a sniff of the outer atmosphere, it seemed you had to be a mix of Hercules, Houdini, Einstein and Errol Flynn.

With that in mind, you would think only a small, elite, overqualified minority would even consider applying for the job. But when Nasa recently announced it was taking applications for its 2017 astronaut class, it received 18,300 replies. That's a lot of people who reckon they have the right stuff. It is the highest number of applications the US space agency has ever received in a single year, obliterating the previous record of 8,000 set in 1978.


What is prompting this fresh burst of interest in becoming an astronaut? The recent Hollywood blockbuster The Martian, starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet, might hold a clue. Nasa's stated aim is to get a man (or woman) on Mars within the next 20 years, so these 18,300 applicants might be hoping to get in at the start of something big.

Planet hopping

“At the moment the applications for space are huge, and social media has played a big part in getting people behind it,” says Deirdre Coffey, a lecturer in space science and technology at UCD’s school of physics.

"I think the fact that the next goal is to go to Mars is a huge side of it. There's an awful lot of research going on now in how to do these long journeys, how to spend a long time in space, how to live in space, how to grow plants in space, farming in space, how astronauts will actually live."

There are also many commercial and scientific initiatives happening right now that offer a range of opportunities to work in the space sector.

“The commercialisation of space has really taken hold at the moment. A lot of private companies are going into that field, and a lot of people are refocusing on the fact that it’s a possible career opportunity,” says Coffey.

When Nasa chose its original magnificent seven to be the US’s first astronauts, they picked experienced test pilots such as John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Gus Grissom and Gordon Cooper.

These days you don't have to be a Top Gun-type to apply for astronaut training, but you do have to meet a number of very demanding criteria. Candidates for Nasa's 2017 programme (applications closed on February 26th) had to have a bachelor's degree in engineering, biological science, physical science or mathematics. They also needed three years' related professional experience or 1,000 hours as pilot-in-command in jet aircraft. And if you fulfilled those academic requirements, there are still the physical and psychological hurdles to jump.

You have to be “extremely physically fit and also mentally stable”, says Coffey. “That’s one of the concerns about going to Mars, the idea of remoteness and how the human psyche handles that. They’re doing studies in the Arctic and Antarctica, closing people away for months on end to see how they handle that.”

European astronauts

One thing Nasa is a complete stickler about is that applicants must be American citizens. So for space cadets on this side of the pond, the place to go is the European Space Agency. Alas the ESA's last astronaut selection campaign was in 2008-2009, when six astronauts were chosen from 8,413 qualified candidates, and we don't know when its next round is due to begin. But if you let that discourage you, you definitely don't have the right stuff.

Studying for a master’s degree in space science and technology in UCD could be a good way to start, says Coffey. “What we do is we place people depending on their interests. We can place you in the agencies, Nasa or ESA or anywhere that takes your fancy. You can work there as an intern for several months, and that will form part of your education. Then you have to convince them to take you on to the next level.”


  • ISS: Three new crew members arrived at the International Space Station on March 18th. Nasa astronaut Jeffrey Williams and cosmonauts Alexey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and will be met by current crew members: Nasa astronaut Tim Kopra, cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and ESA astronaut Tim Peake.
  • ExoMars: A collaboration between the ESA and the Russian Federal Space Agency. The ExoMars programme will search for traces of life on Mars. March 14th saw the launch of the Trace Gas Orbiter, which will hunt for sources of methane, and the Schiaparelli EDM lander, which will gather data on its descent and on the surface, paving the way for the launch of the ExoMars rover in 2018.
  • SpaceX: Founded by Tesla tycoon Elon Musk in 2002. SpaceX designs and manufactures advanced rockets and spacecraft with the goal of enabling humans to colonise Mars. In April the company will launch its 68m Falcon Heavy rocket, the world's most powerful rocket booster, from Cape Canaveral.
  • Osiris-Rex: The race to prevent an asteroid collision with Earth hots up when Nasa launches its Osiris-Rex craft on September 3rd, aiming it at a 500m-wide chunk of rock called Bennu, which has been rated a high risk for impact with Earth. The probe is due to land on the asteroid in 2018 and bring a sample of Bennu back to Earth for examination in 2023. Don't worry, we've got time – probable impact date is between 2169 and 2199.
Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist