Hester Maria Mende has just arrived in Scotland after a marathon 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. Yet, 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 just 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 applicants from around the world), she will be in the final two rounds that will determine man’s foray on Mars soil.
She harbors no doubts she will make it.
“I believe myself to be the perfect candidate because the people in my age group and my circumstances are the ideal cannon fodder,” says Mende.
“I absolutely want to go. 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 had spent R300 ($27) in all to apply for the mission after succumbing to an online recruitment notice. She had read that Mars One, a not-for-profit foundation, was seeking to establish human life on the red planet. Probe her further and the real reason emerges. 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.
Mende brushes off any negative speculation about the possibility of humans on Mars with the conviction in her voice. “There is a lot not known. Things can also wrong along the way, but I am sure there will at least be one settlement there for scientific purposes,” she says.
At the moment, Mende is preparing for the next round of interviews. While the first tested her mental strength, the next two 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 – to Mars.
If Mende is one of them, she will be 78 at the time.
Mende, who ended her career implementing IT projects for Eskom in Johannesburg, says she has always tread off the beaten track. A classical singer, she has also sung 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.”
A total of 1,058 global candidates have cleared the first round of Mars One’s mission to the red planet of which 586 are male and 472 are female. In this group, 54 are from Africa, with more men (42) from the continent than women. On the Mars One website, the project’s co-founder Bas Lansdorp describes the 1,058 candidates as the first tangible glimpse into what the new human settlement will look like. “We anticipate our candidates to become celebrities in their towns, cities, and in many cases, countries. It’s about to get very interesting,” he says. FORBES WOMAN AFRICA connected with some of the future female astronauts who are from or have origins in Africa.
Alexandra Doyle, 28
Law student, South Africa
Specializing in international law and criminology, Doyle worked full-time as a dental nurse in order to support herself through college, also at times dabbling in acting and modeling. “I know in my heart I am right for the Mars mission and have this funny feeling that everything I have done in life until now has been in preparation for it,” she says. Least expecting to be chosen, Doyle says she was overcome with shock when she first heard of her selection. “I am looking forward to proving myself in the next rounds. The ultimate dream of sustaining human life on another planet is my dream too. And I think that a life spent in the pursuit of a dream is better than any other, whatever the outcome.” And what would she take with her if she were chosen? “My sense of adventure, and a hot water bottle!”
Adriana Marais, 30
Research student, South Africa
Completing her PhD in the University of KwaZulu-Natal, her abiding interest is astrophysics. “Research in the field of quantum biology contributes to the development of renewable energy technologies essential for our continued existence on this planet, and perhaps others,” she says. Having decided as a child that she wanted to be an astronaut, she became fascinated with quantum mechanics, and the eternal question about life. “In my opinion, if life can exist on earth, it must also exist or have existed elsewhere. I will be prepared to sacrifice my joys, sorrows and day-to-day life for this idea, this adventure, this achievement, that would not be my own, but of all humanity.” She is keen to know more about her fellow Martians, and thinks they will be some of the most interesting people on earth. “The first Martians will need to be multi-talented and quick-learning. What sets me apart is my dream of being part of the discovery of evidence of extra-terrestrial life: a goal which becomes a more realistic when Mars is my backyard,” she says.
Kristy Flower, 20
Nursing student, Zimbabwe
A first year nursing degree student, Flower has adventure in her genes. Her family has moved to New Zealand, and the rest have ventured from Zimbabwe to Australia and England. “My parents and grandparents are incredibly strong-willed. Both my grandparents served in the Rhodesian war and in World War II when my grandmother worked as a registered nurse.” Flower’s keenness on the Mars mission is to be at the forefront of knowledge and exploration. “I want to be able to contribute not only to my community but also to mankind and leave a mark on future discoveries that will benefit us all. This is an amazing opportunity to make a difference and I will do anything to ensure I am the best candidate and most capable person for the job,” she says.
Maggie Wernich, 51
Personal assistant, South Africa
A divorcee with two children, ages 20 and 25, Wernich says her family structure is one of support and respect for another’s dreams, and that she has always harbored the wish to travel to space. When she first saw the Mars One website 10 months ago it was a dream come true. “We need to realize orthodox structures and outdated belief systems have no place in the future of our children and the continuation of a healthy environment on earth,” she says. “It is every individual’s right to decide how and where they choose to live their lives.” The reason she chose to be a part of the Mars experiment was to explore different ways to live. “This opportunity will be a breakthrough for women, especially in Africa. It is my belief that older people needn’t retire to await death in a facility or system that is socially acceptable. It will be an honor to spend the remainder of my life as a colonist on Mars, to plant the seeds of life for my children’s children.”
Esther Kabuchi Kanyiri, 42 Dentist/pharmacist, Kenya
Kanyiri is a mother to two teenaged children, and yet, has chosen to go to Mars. Her reason? “To explore the outside world and better the human race. I like being a pioneer and believe I have skills and the knowledge necessary for this process. The selection process requires individuals with different talents who are able to live away from family and in seclusion and maintain sanity. The individual will also need to be able to make decisions individually and trust the decisions made by others for them. I believe I have demonstrated this in my life as I have lived away from family and friends and still focused on my goals. I like spontaneity and embarking on missions most people think are impossible. I have an open mind and am ready to learn, even for survival,” she says.
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