Hester Maria Mende has just arrived in Scotland after a three-month holiday crossing continents, cultures and time zones. She is yet to discard the boarding passes she has collected from Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney and Auckland on this recent trip. Call this retired 67-year-old former South African IT developer and opera singer a globetrotter, and she is not satisfied.
For Mende, the world is not enough.
Late December, Mende was basking on a sunny beach in Thailand when she received news of her clearing the first round of interviews for a one-way trip to Mars in 2025. Now, one of 1,058 chosen candidates, from a total of 200,000 from around the world, she will be in the final two rounds that will determine man’s foray on Mars soil.
She has no doubts she will make it.
“I believe myself to be the perfect candidate for the first mission because the people in my age group and my circumstances are the ideal cannon fodder,” Mende tells FORBES AFRICA.
“I absolutely want to go. To be on another planet, to be a part of that first step will be the ideal way of ending my life. We die anyway, so dying in the midst of this exhilarating endeavor will be fantastic for me.”
Early last year, Mende spent R300 ($27) to apply for the mission. She read that Mars One, a non-profit foundation, was seeking to establish human life on the red planet and she was immediately hooked.
“I have always been keen on science-fiction, but here was a chance to live my dream, experience space in my lifetime,” says Mende.
Probe her further and the real reasons emerge. Retirement and the death of a loved one.
“I lost my husband [in an armed robbery attack in Johannesburg] seven years ago, I have no children and although I have five siblings, I realized that post-retirement, you really need to find a support system of your own. I have led a full life. Nobody depends on me, nobody’s life will stop when I am gone.”
Mende confesses she withdrew from the world for several years after her husband’s demise. Signing up to be a part of the Mars mission added a new purpose to her life—and death.
At the moment, Mende is preparing body and mind for the next round of interviews due shortly. While the first round tested her mental strength, the next two levels will determine her physical agility to withstand the rigorous eight-year training that will ensue. If selected, she will be one of only 24 to 40 candidates training in teams of four. The team with the greatest chance of survival will be the first to undertake the seven-month journey—without a return ticket.
If Mende is one of them, she will be 78.
On the Mars One website, the project’s co-founder Bas Lansdorp describes the candidates as our first tangible glimpse into what the new human settlement will look like.
The website states public interest will help finance the project; the estimated cost of dispatching the first team is $6 billion.
Mende and her teammates have already been briefed about the drill.
“There will be ample work to accomplish for the first team,” she says.
Hydroponics—a method of growing plants in water rather than soil—will have to be established, the settlement will have to be maintained and new ways of survival devised.
Mende, who ended her career implementing IT projects for state-owned power utility Eskom in Johannesburg, says she has always walked off the beaten track.
“I always enjoyed being at the forefront of new disciplines. I started in IT when computers were not widely known, I started on project management when it was new,” she says.
Alongside a busy career, Mende, a trained classical singer, also sang on national radio, TV, and performed at operas across South Africa.
Singing is something she will miss on the red planet as the atmosphere is not conducive for sound.
And what if she does not qualify?
“I hope with every fiber in my body that I will. I am trying not to be fixated, but I believe my sense of humor will get me up there.”
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