I grew up twinned with the space age, entering elementary school just before Sputnik 1 launched and finishing high school as astronauts first walked on the moon.
Then, in 1972, the year I graduated from college, the space age abandoned me. NASA budgets dried up, human space exploration beyond Earth orbit became null and void, and my number-one career choice paled into a remote fantasy that now seemed hollow and uninviting.
Not that I'd prepared myself for a career in space. I grew up pre-STEM, when girls my age were routinely denied access to advanced courses in science and tech. I didn't have the right temperament, my high-school guidance counselor told me when I tried to sign up for trig. Instead he enrolled me in art. Never again did I venture outside the safe orbit of arts/humanities that had so clearly been defined for me.
But there remained a need to prove myself in some other medium besides that amorphous array of oils, pastels, charcoal and papier-mâché sculpture our pert art teacher insisted we engage with -- when she wasn't busy flirting with the crew-cut chemistry teacher across the hall.
It's been 41 years since humans last left Earth orbit. Some would say we've been going nowhere ever since. Others maintain that the ISS circling overhead has served its purpose as a working space laboratory by providing valuable fact-finding for future long-term missions to other worlds. Both are true, but even a dramatic space walk in orbit does not pack the same punch as would venturing untethered into untested territory.
During this extended space-age lull, I entered adulthood, earned a doctorate, pursued multiple careers, married more than once, raised a son, wrote books, made movies, and learned HTML. I've been through seven cars, 11 computers, and several hundred houseplants. Then, just as 2013 was ending, I received this email:
You and only 1057 other aspiring astronauts around the globe have been pre-selected as potential candidates to launch the dawn of a new era -- human life on Mars. Congratulations. You have made it to the next round.
I'd been shortlisted for Mars One.
Of the 534 humans who have flown in space, 57 have been women. Of the 23 who have left Earth's orbit and the 12 who have stepped onto another world, none have been women. But our last extraplanetary mission was four decades ago, and during the long hiatus we entered a new stage of space democratization, one that insures a more equitable selection process for future space explorers. In 2013 NASA, for the first time, chose an equal number of women and men as new astronauts. China's new space program has already established a gender-equal norm, including women on all missions to date, and Russia, after a 13-year drought with no women in space, plans to send a female cosmonaut to the ISS in September 2014. Mars One invited anyone in the world 18 or older to apply for a one-way trip to Mars; more than 202,000 submitted video applications.
The 472 women, including me, who have advanced to what Mars One calls Round Two have a reasonable expectation of being among the first to colonize Mars. It's even conceivable that I could be the one to take the sure-to-become-iconic first footstep onto the surface of the red planet.
What took us so long? Why couldn't this have happened when I was younger, less entwined with a life I've spent decades getting just right? I have tenure. I have cats. I'll be 75 when the Mars One spaceship launches. If the rumored reality-show coverage results, will anyone want to watch an old lady making her dogged way to Mars?
On the other hand, if manned -- and womanned -- Mars missions had come along sooner, no one would have given me a chance to participate. I didn't have anyone's version of the right stuff then. I'm not so sure I can get any of it now.
Mars One has renewed my belief that a dream deferred is not necessarily a dream denied. But at my age I have to ask: Is my dream by now demented?
Follow Jan Millsapps, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JanOnMars