Yajaira Sierra Sastre says that dreaming "doesn't cost anything," so she's spent all her life getting ready to be the first Puerto Rican woman in space - and now she's a little closer to her goal after being chosen to take part in a new NASA project.
"I've wanted to be an astronaut since I was a little girl. I told people at school that's what I wanted, and since then I've kept every newspaper article I ever saw about astronauts and missions to outer space," she told Efe Friday in an interview.
The 35-year-old Sierra, who has a PhD in nanotechnology from Cornell University, could not hide her excitement when saying she is one of six people who will take part in a forward-looking NASA project.
"We're six scientists who will live for four months isolated in a planetary module to simulate what life will be like for astronauts at a future base on Mars, while also taking part in a study on the importance of healthy meals in outer space," she said.
Behind the project is NASA's interest in finding out why astronauts don't eat enough, having noted that they get bored with spaceship food and end up with problems like weight loss and lethargy that put their health at risk.
"It's a problem they want to solve for missions to Mars where astronauts will have to stay for more than a year," said the scientist, who would not speculate on when the first landing on the red planet will be but believes that manned spaceships will be going there "in the next 20 years."
During the four months of simulation at a base in Hawaii, the crew will have no real-time communications with the outside world, though they will have contact with "Earth" via e-mail, and every time they step outside the module they will have to wear space suits.
"As part of the food study, we want to control our exposure to fresh air, evaluate how our senses of smell and taste change over time in isolation, and find out what role food plays in the crew's spirits and state of mind," she said.
Astronauts currently eat pre-prepared meals, but Sierra said that on the surface of Mars "there is a certain degree of gravity" which will allow astronauts to cook, so those in the simulation study want to try cooking with a great many non-perishable ingredients.
"They're teaching us new cooking techniques and we're putting together a database of recipes that we'll recommend to NASA for future missions to Mars - and I will personally make sure we'll have Martian paella, which we will make with rehydrated seafood," she said with a broad smile.
The aspiring astronaut told Efe that to add zest to the recipes, the "Martian pantry" of the future will not lack some typical ingredients of Puerto Rican cuisine, such as recaito pepper sauce, culantro and annatto.
She said that the simulation project is "one more step" toward having her dream come true, after sending in her application last November to fill one of the 15 available positions NASA announced for its team of astronauts.
Meanwhile, Sierra, who recalls as if it were yesterday the first time she was entranced by the stars when as a 5-year-old she watched a formation of planets with her dad in her native Puerto Rico, continues training so that one day she can observe her native island from faraway in outer space. EFE