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NASA Might Send This Alpinist to Mars

Ulyana Nadia Horodyskyj climbs mountains around the world---she has the Seven Summits in her sights---and also conducts research on glaciology. Could that unique combo make her a good candidate for NASA?

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The buoy was sinking, she knew that much. And if it did, she would lose thousands of data points, months of work, along with it. Ulyana Nadia Horodyskyj took a deep breath and eased out onto the frozen lake.As an experienced alpinist and climate scientist, Horodyskyj knew she was on, well, thin ice.

Horodyskyj’s Ph.D. work in glaciology had taken her to the Himalaya to study the effects of climate change on glacial lakes and villages high in the Nepalese mountains. She had participated in and even led alpine expeditions before, participating in climbs up Mount Ranier, Argentina’s Aconcagua and Lobuche in eastern Nepal. Crawling spread-eagle onto the ice, she gingerly retrieved the expensive instrument and painstakingly hauled it back to shore.

“I’m not reckless, but I assessed the risk and decided I could do it. You get used to making these decisions,” said Horodyskyj.

Horodyskyj with her double pack of gear for climbing and experiments in the field. Photo: Courtesy of Ulyana Horodyskyj.

Ulyana Nadia Horodyskyj is petite and strong and carries herself with an air of palpable confidence. She has shoulder-length blonde hair and blue-grey eyes reminiscent of the glacial lakes she loves so much. She’s dressed like she might be leaving for an alpine expedition at any moment, which it just so happens, she is.

“Sorry to rush, but after this, I’m going to the San Juans for some mountaineering. The weather has been awful, but it’s looking good now,” she reassures me just before jumping in an Uber to meet up with her boyfriend and climbing partner, Ricardo Pena.

They’re constantly training for ambitious climbs. For now, their tick-list includes the Seven Summits, the 50 state high points and the Colorado centennial peaks. On each summit, Horodyskyj will make a short video about science, and Pena will sing a song.

Her training schedule each morning includes an hour-long climbing session at the local gym followed by a hilly bicycle commute to work. Weekends are spent in the mountains honing alpine techniques. When I first met Horodyskyj, she was on her way to do a full-pack speed ascent of Bear Peak, a local favorite amongst aspiring and established alpinists alike. The couple hopes to summit Denali, North America’s highest peak, while Horodyskyj plans to gather snow samples from the mountain’s highest ridges.

For as long as she can remember, Horodyskyj has been combining her love of science and adventure. She grew up in Rochester, New York, exploring the woods near her home collecting bugs, rocks and anything else she could find. She loved the outdoors and slept with her windows open so she could fall asleep to the sound of crickets.

Horodyskyj examines plants aboard HERA. Photo: Courtesy of Ulyana Horodyskyj.

As a teenager, she read everything about space—planets, stars, galaxies, wormholes—that she could get her hands on. She competed in science fairs and eventually won a scholarship to Rice University with a project on solar sails, or a method of spacecraft propulsion that uses light and mirrors like a ship would sails and wind.

She dove into research, further investigating how photons could be used to power spaceships for future expeditions. But, as she got deeper into her work, she began to long for the outdoors.

After completing a bachelor’s degree at Rice and a Master of Science degree in Planetary Geology at Brown, she ventured west to Boulder, Colorado. Horodyskyj was determined to marry her passion for science and love of adventure.

“It was not an easy path, but I look back on those years fondly,” said Horodyskyj. “I’m glad that I decided to move to Colorado in pursuit of my dream, as, at the time, it was financially and academically risky to start over.”

The pull of mountains even taller than the Rockies drew Horodyskyj to Nepal, where she began researching the effects of climate change on glacial lakes, studying how steadily warming glaciers endangered Nepalese villages near flooding lakes. Leaning on traditional knowledge and collaborating with Sherpa scientists in the mountains was a dream come true for Horodyskyj.

“When my scientific work has application and can be used to help people, it holds a lot more meaning for me.”

Horodyskyj takes measurements near a glacier. Photo: Courtesy of Ulyana Horodyskyj.

“Both science and mountaineering use the power of observation and assumption. They also require you to think objectively. In science, you make observations, ask questions, formulate hypotheses, figure out ways to test your hypothesis through experiments, and then interpret your experimental results,” said Horodyskyj, “In mountaineering, you also make observations, ask questions, do experiments, and then, based on your experimental results, either go for it or not.”

Her scientific research and alpine expertise eventually attracted the attention of NASA and earned Horodyskyj a spot in an intriguing mission.

In the fall of 2016, Horodyskyj and three other “astronauts” were sealed in a three-story, mock space station. Horodyskyj was appointed flight commander of HERA, or Human Exploration Research Analog, an experiment to study the effects physiological and psychological effects of extended confinement as well as various hardware prototypes for research in space.

For 30 days, Horodyskyj and her crew lived and worked in the NASA equivalent of a studio apartment, a mock laboratory to simulate what living on a space station would be like.

She said, “You can’t go outside. It was an interesting exploration. Humans are very adaptable. It’s a lot like climbing in the mountains when you’re mission-oriented and your life depends on communication.”

They performed research, navigating complex team dynamics and tested new freeze-dried astronaut food. Horodyskyj was right at home.

Horodyskyj and her team as they prepare to board HERA. Photo: Courtesy of Ulyana Horodyskyj.

Tight quarters and freeze-dried food aren’t new for the experienced alpinist, and Horodyskyj loved the challenge that HERA presented. Though the mission never actually left Houston, much less planet Earth, it brought Horodyskyj closer to realizing her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut.

“I’ve always wanted to go to Mars,” she said, “but it’s a one-way trip.”

Though her first love will always be the mountains, her sights are still set on space. In 2016, she was one of 120 top candidates to join the astronaut program. She wasn’t selected this time, but Horodyskyj is intent to see her goal through. She’ll keep applying and doing research to boost her resume, shooting for the moon.

Often, on long training hikes and mountaineering expeditions, Horodyskyj will find herself standing on some far-flung summit, looking at the glowing orb of the moon in the sky. She’ll look up, and imagine what it might be like to stand on its cratered face and gaze down at her home planet.

Zoë Rom is a Boulder based writer and journalist. When she’s not running, she’s climbing, and when she’s not climbing she’s cooking or eating. Southern story-teller turned mountain-dweller, she starts every day with a cup of strong coffee and a good story. Her work has appeared in  REI Co-op Journal, Discover, Rock & Ice, Trail Runner, Backpacker, and Threshold Podcast. To see more of her work, visit and follow her on Instagram.

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