Dexter Walters, a 7-year-old from Britain, heard earlier this year that a Dutch NGO was looking for applicants to start the first human colony on Mars. Fascinated by space, but too young to reasonably expect the agency to select him, Dexter decided to send NASA a handwritten letter (plus astronaut illustration).
"My name is Dexter I heard that you are one sending 2 people to Mars and I would like to come but I'm 7. So I can't. I would like to come in the future. What do I need to do to become an astronaut?"
Although Dexter's family didn't expect much in way of a response from NASA, to their good-natured surprise a response came. Dexter's mother posted photos of the original letter and NASA's response, which also came with a picture of Mars, the Curiosity Rover, stickers, and a bookmark, to the popular online link aggregating community Reddit.
NASA's didn't say that Dexter's age would not be an issue, but encouraged him to continue learning about space programs. "Just think – in a few years, you could be one of the pioneers that may help lead the world's activities for better understanding of our earth and for exploring space."
The letter did read a bit generic, which some Redditors pointed out in the comment section underneath the post. But Dexter's mom, Katrina Anderson, was thrilled.
"He was looking forward to a reply I had to tell him that they may not reply as they are very busy, honestly I if anything I expected a short letter not the pictures too! Bravo NASA!" Ms. Anderson wrote, using her Reddit user account name, in the comment section.
Then, a Reddit user purporting to be an employee at NASA headquarters in Washington popped into the conversation and explained how NASA's Public Outreach staffers don't simply respond to letters like machines without a heart. The letters they receive from kids like Dexter are often scanned and "pinned to their cubicles."
Other Redditors chimed in with tips for Anderson on how to further encourage Dexter's fascination with science. One user suggested university programs, like the School of Earth and Space Exploration in Arizona. Another user, claiming to be an astronomer in real life, said Anderson could contact him for advice on purchasing a telescope.
Would Anderson be all right with Dexter continuing his education and leaving Earth for Mars? She's rooting for him, but first she'll see how she does with him leaving for college. "I think in the future I will lose him to an American university," she told Fast Company. "But that's not the end of the Earth. It's not Mars, is it?"