Ex-Apprentice star and all-round menace to society Katie Hopkins recently tweeted: “Brit, 24 on short list for one-way trip to Mars 'my family are thrilled for me'. With respect, you must have been a pretty bad daughter.”
She was referring to 23-year-old (get your facts straight, Katie) Hannah Earnshaw, who is one of the five Britons shortlisted for Mars One, a one-way mission that aims to create a human colony on Mars.
Earnshaw tells me: “I got a text from one of my little sisters a few days ago, saying ‘Hannah, Hannah! Katie Hopkins tweeted something mean about you!’”
Seeing as she’s relatively unfazed by the prospect of spending the rest of her life in outer space, it’s hardly surprising that Earnshaw wouldn’t be ruffled by one bad-mannered tweet. “All I can do is laugh at that. I got famous hate tweets, it’s great,” she quips.
It isn’t just Hopkins’ attention that Earnshaw has caught. The astrophysics PhD student at Durham University hit the headlines when she was chosen out of over 200,000 hopefuls for a 100-person shortlist to take part in the privately funded mission. After undergoing another round of assessments later this year, she has a one in four chance of being chosen to leave Earth for good.
Earnshaw has always harboured ambitions to be an astronaut, but never imagined she’d be able to turn these into a concrete career. “When the opportunity came up to apply for the Mars mission, I thought this wasn’t one I ever expected to have but I was really glad it existed,” she says.
But why would a woman who seems to so relish her life on Earth (she loves films, music and live-action roleplaying, having just returned from a weekend with some friends re-enacting a medieval banquet) be prepared to leave it behind forever?
Earnshaw explains that it’s partly down to her thirst for a challenge. Quoting John F. Kennedy, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”, she says she is inspired by “working to overcome challenges, and approaching difficult things because they are difficult”.
She also cites her religious faith as a motivation. As a Christian, she says she thinks of Mars as “very much something made by God and so having as much inherent value as Earth does”.
'My boyfriend understands we'll go our separate ways'
There have been far fewer female astronauts than male ones - as of November 2014, 59 women had flown in space, compared with 477 men. But Earnshaw admits she’s attracted by the gender balance of the Mars One mission, which plans to send crews of two men and two women to the “red planet” every two years. “These types of crews have been shown to perform better anyway because, surprise surprise, men and women bring different things to a team and complement each other,” she says.
As a feminist, then, was her decision to travel to space part of a rebellion against the traditional narrative for women? Although it wasn’t her main motivation to apply for the trip, she says feels pleased with the “deviation from that expectation.”
“One of the things that really makes me happy,” she says, “is challenging expectations and not behaving as people expect a woman expect to behave.” She thumbs the collar of her checked flannel shirt, and adds with a grin: “This is in fact a man’s shirt from H&M, so there you go.”
Earnshaw has a boyfriend, but says the relationship operates within “the understanding that for me the Mars Mission is what I want to do and if I do end up getting through to the final groups, then we’re going to go our separate ways and that’s something we’re both okay with”.
'My crew will be my life partners'
She adds: “I’m comfortable with the idea of not actually having a life partner as such because I’ll have these life partners in my crew. I compare it a little bit to a marriage because we’ll be spending the rest of our life together if we do get in, but it’s certainly quite different to your idealised picture of a family home”.
Nevertheless, with an aim of colonising another planet, the Mars mission can hardly be a complete haven from the sproglet-popping pressures. Indeed, another of the female British candidates on the shortlist, 24-year-old Maggie Lieu, made headlines earlier this week after announcing that she’d like to have the first baby on Mars.
But Earnshaw laughs off the suggestion that the crew is simply “going to Mars to have babies”, assuring me that “there’s definitely no pressure to populate the planet”.
She says: “We want to set up a place in which that will eventually be possible, but first of all a lot of research needs to be done into the effects of the lower gravity on Mars to see whether pregnancy is viable.”
'Mars will be my home'
Final assessments will take place later in the year to select the candidates who’ve got what it takes to survive in a harsh new habitat. There’s talk of the selection process of the final crew being broadcast as reality television, which will help fund the estimated £4 billion cost of the mission. The journey to Mars is likely to take seven months, and the colonists will have to live in an environment where temperatures plummet to -62°C and radiation levels are high.
Will Earnshaw fit the bill? A self-confessed introvert, she says she thinks she’ll be able to manage the isolation, citing times during university holidays when she’s been the only one living in her student house-share. “I’m quite happy pottering around by myself and leaving the house only for shopping,” she says.
And although she admits that leaving her family behind - who have been encouraging her all the way through the process - will be hard to come to terms with, she says her flexible attitude to the idea of “home” will help her to adjust.
“Home for me is where I’m living right now and where my friends are. I’m sure that if I get in to the final crew, the other three people – we’ll be doing all of our training together, we’ll be living together, I imagine – they will become my new home.”