On the route to infinity and beyond, 4.2 miles does not seem very far. But Rebecca Esselstein acknowledges that, in her ultimate ambition to become an astronaut, the stretch of river between Putney and Mortlake is unquestionably the toughest step she has so far faced. This is one giant leap for a woman.
“This is going to be way harder than anything I’ve done before,” the Oxford University rower says of Sunday afternoon’s race. “I spent most of my time since I got to Oxford walking around going, ‘how the hell did I get here?’ Now this. It’s kind of intense. But I’m really trying to embrace it. Not over thinking it. Accepting the hype around it – you know, the fact there’s going to be 250,000 people there watching me - but not getting too overwhelmed.”
The 24-year-old Rhodes Scholar is on secondment from the US Air Force completing a Dphil in astro physics. A qualified fighter pilot, her studies here are part of her long-term plan to go a lot further than Hammersmith Bridge.
“There’s two traditional tracks,” she says of heading to space. “There’s the test pilot route, you know all The Right Stuff kinda stuff. There’s also a scientific one. Because you need to do a lot of experiments in space.”
Though until she did, no future astronaut has thought it necessary to undertake a third route: the seven months of gruelling, masochistic training required to row in the Boat Race. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, for instance, never bothered with a blue boat.
“Yeah, it’s not quite the same as being in a jet,” she says. “But I’d say rowing is the perfect sport for anybody in the military. The mentality of cooperating is really the same. The fact it’s a unit and everything you do affects everyone else. The way you work through the pain, work through the early mornings, stay focused. All that’s huge in any application in the military.”
If Esselstein speaks with the urgent enthusiasm of the recent convert that is because she is. An accomplished middle distance runner at college, she only took up rowing when she arrived in Oxford last September.
“I’d never been in a boat,” she says. “When I was at college, the river nearby was white water. But I trusted my athletic ability. And though it took a while to get the technique I really relished the way you have to become a team player. The fact your every movement directly and physically affects everyone else in the boat. I love that, love the way you have to check your ego at the door. It was quite humbling, but that trust you place in each other is really inspiring.”
Inspiring for sure. Though the other thing about rowing is it is really repetitive. For a ferociously intelligent, ambitious young woman, the endless requirement to complete the same action time and again in training must surely represent a challenge.
“Sometimes on the ergo my mind does wonder and I’ll think through physics problems. But on the water it’s different. I’m so aware of issues of technique I’m very mentally engaged. Rowing’s the pursuit of perfection.
But the thing is, you never get there.”
Which is another similarity with space travel. Though in the case of travelling to Mars the problem is less the getting there than the coming back. Hundreds may have signed up for in the hope of joining a putative future expedition despite the fact there is as yet no chance of returning.
But Esselstein insists she is not keen on open-ended ventures.
“Sure I would sign up, but only if I had a return ticket,” she says. “I wouldn’t go one way. But I’d love to go to Mars. The idea of being on another planet is so exciting. Being somewhere we haven’t evolved to live would be fascinating. There’s so much we could learn.”
Indeed, when she isn’t out on the river, in the gym or poring over equations, the orange planet features a lot in her mind.
“I did like The Martian,” she says of the Matt Damon movie about an astronaut abandoned up there. “Things is, I’m not a botanist, so I don’t know if I’d have been able to grow potatoes like he does.”
Her favourite piece of space travel fiction, however, is the movie Interstellar.
“I’m a big fan,” she says. “My research group at Oxford looks for exile planets that orbit other stars. In Interstellar they go to such planets and the way they imagined them to be was very much like I do. There could be anything out there. That’s what I love about it. There’s so much out there literally anything could be going on.”
“Sure,” she says. “I don’t know how likely it is, but it’s possible that somewhere out there someone is getting ready for a Boat Race.”