The first British astronaut, Helen Sharman, says a child in school today will be among the original explorers to step foot on the surface of Mars (the Red Planet) in the coming decades.
NASA's Artemis program, which aims to land the first woman on the moon by 2024, has loftier goals, including landing humans on Mars by the mid-to-late 2030s.
Sharman said that those currently in the earlier years of school will be in their 20s when NASA, ESA and others start pushing towards the Red Planet and could well be part of the cohort of astronauts that create a base on another world.
She spoke to MailOnline ahead of an event aimed at encouraging young people to take up a career in STEM, that is science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The event will see school children design science experiments that Thales Alenia Space will send up to 30,000ft on a balloon and gather them back up when they fall to Earth to return them to the children and their teachers.
The firm found in a survey that 35% of British school children, aged 5 to 16, had been inspired by the pandemic to enter a STEM career - including doctor and astronaut.
Helen Sharman, a chemist by training, launched for the Mir space station in May 1991, becoming the first British astronaut, the first western European woman in space and the first woman to visit the Russian orbiting laboratory.
The next big adventure for humanity, after returning to the moon by the end of the decade, will be to land people on the surface of Mars by the end of the 2030s.
Sharman says the group landing on Mars within the next 20 years are likely still in primary school, or at least in secondary school today.
The survey of parents of school children by Thales Alenia asked about changes to career aspirations after the pandemic - so these are views that have changed as a result of coronavirus and its impact.
The survey of 2,000 parents found their children, aged 5-16, now consider a career as a doctor or nurse to be the most inspiring closely followed by an astronaut.
'Being an astronaut is very very high up there,' said Sharman.
'This is a huge increase in students wanting to be astronauts and I wonder how much is due to the expeditions to Mars with Perseverance.'
Mars is currently a planet entirely inhabited by robots - with both Curiosity and Perseverance trundling along the surface, and Tianwen-1, the Chinese Mars rover due to land on the Red Planet before the summer.
However, NASA has big plans for the future - the second stage of its Artemis mission that will see astronauts land on the moon by 2024 and Mars by 2035.
Other companies, including Elon Musk's SpaceX are more confident, with Musk claiming Starship will land people on Mars by 2026.
Even with the longer-term goal of NASA, children in school today are likely to be visiting Mars in their lifetime, said Sharman.
The European Space Agency recently put out a call for astronauts, the first in a decade, and when the next one happens current primary and secondary school children could be graduating university and in a position to apply.
'They will be going into space and they could well be part of the European Space Agency endeavour with the Lunar Gateway,' she said.
The Lunar Gateway is a space station being built in orbit around the moon by NASA, with modules contributed by Japan and the European Space Agency (ESA).
It will act as a staging ground for missions to the lunar surface, as well as for astronauts to study the moon from orbit.
Astronauts from the European Space Agency are expected to launch for the station within the next decade - after NASA has established the operation.
'Or, even more. We think the first people to walk on Mars are now in school, it will be late 2030s for humans, Sharman told MailOnline when asked about the future opportunities for children today.
'Somebody today can actually inspire, if not to go themselves, to be part of the mission to get people into space, she said.
She told MailOnline that the UK space sector alone was growing at a rapid pace - from launches planned for Scotland to satellite construction and space policy.
More than 70,000 jobs are expected to be created in the UK space sector in the coming decades, Sharman explained, many due to filled by current school children.
'It is an exciting time for these young people. they know Mars is going to be part of their lives, just like the moon is part of ours.'
Sharman's trip to space lasted eight days where she carried out a range of tasks including medical and agricultural tests, as well as photographing the British Isles.
Aged 27 and 11 months at the time of her flight, Sharman is the sixth youngest individual to have flown into space, adding she would willingly go back again.
She said seeing the world below was like nothing before, especially watching the entire Earth go under your feet every 90 minutes.
'The idea that you can go all the way around the Earth so quickly makes the Earth in some respects feel quit small,' she told MailOnline.
'Relative to the fast globe of the Earth you get this tiny layer on top which is the atmosphere and that is what supports all known life.
'That concept of interconnectedness and the need to be aware of what we do and the impact we can create, and there is only so much that tiny atmosphere can absorb until we push it past the point it can absorb no more,' was notable, she said.
She said while she fully supports the drive for space, it should be done in a sustainable, clean and green way - reducing debris and emissions.
A lot of that will come from the next generation, those currently in school, who see the green agenda as part of their every day lives, Sharman told MailOnline.
'We know that young people find climate change significant for their lives, but it is also a big turn on for them in studying STEM as they see it as important,' she said.
However, the research by Thales showed that there are still barriers that exist prohibiting children from pursuing a career in STEM.
This included not having access to enough information about a career a science, technology, engineering or maths subject, parents not knowing enough about the subject, and not enough role models in STEM careers.
To provide students with the opportunity to channel their interest in STEM into action, Thales Alenia Space runs the 'MARSBallooon project'.
In June 2021 the project will launch over 150 experiment capsules designed by UK school children up into the atmosphere via a high altitude balloon, testing student ideas for technologies that could one day be destined for Mars.
There is no cost to take part in the project other than that of experiment materials and postage, although students have to be linked to a school or official group.
Students can work together to create Mars experiments that fit inside a Kinder Egg™ capsule, putting in anything from electronics, materials, plants and even food.
Previous examples of experiments include testing the effect of Martian conditions on rubber bands, ink, memory sticks and 3D printed materials.
During the launch the balloon will ascend to 30km, more than twice the height of commercial airliners, in approximately one hour.
It will then burst and the experiment tray will return to Earth via a parachute. The experiments will be collected and returned to the schools for students to analyse the results.
The experiments will experience conditions very similar to the surface of Mars including temperatures as low as -50°C.
This will allow students to test the response of electronics, materials, plants and even food to the conditions outside of a future Mars base, helping future explorers to prepare for this strange and hostile environment.
Some of the children contributing work to these experiments could one day fly to the ISS, travel to the lunar gateway or even step foot on Mars, said Sharman.
When asked if she would go back into space again, Sharman told MailOnline she would 'go up in a heartbeat' as it is a 'fabulous experience'.
'You experience the weightlessness which is absolutely amazing, the relaxing free feeling, you feel how your body is adapting, I loved the feeling in my own body let alone watching it in the experiments. It is such a magical thing.'
This article has been adapted from its original source.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.