06/15/2014 05:38 pm ET Updated Aug 15, 2014

Fairies, Witches and Astronauts

I saw Maleficient yesterday. Sharing the theatre with preschool girls and their moms, I couldn't help but think about the special connection between girls and fairies (boys, for the most part, ignore fairies, except when they lose a tooth).

In the first scene, Angelina Jolie's Maleficent soars, dips and hovers, reveling in the unabashed joy of flying. Then she meets a boy. "I like your wings," he tells her. He touches them intimately, sensuously (for a Disney movie), then drugs her, cuts them off and steals them away. He ends up king; she's left Earthbound and in a perpetual foul mood.

Fairies are important to girls because of their supernatural powers, specifically the ability to fly. One might argue that fairies are the only creatures, real or fantastical, who can fly unassisted (Mary Poppins needs her umbrella, Aladdin his magic carpet). If girls want to fly, there's no better role model.

I was 10 when I learned about our expanding universe. I recall an energetic discussion in the front porch swing, asking my father and his best friend how we could ever reach the stars if they were all moving farther away every single moment.

I remember thinking: I have to leave right now. If I wait even another minute, everything in the universe will be so much farther away I'll never catch up.

I was poised for flight but never took off.

Recently I read a manuscript by noted astronomy historian and psychiatrist William Sheehan in which he describes his passion for the heavens soon after he began observing them through a telescope as "a sense of movement, of real as any experienced in actual flight."

Sheehan suggests his imaginative flight toward the stars was fueled by lack of Earthly inspiration, and my own childhood was strikingly similar: working class, little if any specific ambition instilled by family, friends, church or community. Like Sheehan, I truly believed if I was smart enough and worked hard enough, anything was possible -- up to a point. Sometime around puberty, my wings -- the metaphorical ones that buoyed my space-age dreams -- like Jolie's, simply disappeared.

What motivates a young person to reach toward the stars? Why do some continue this quest as they grow up, while others do not? What role, if any, does gender play in the outcome? Are girls like fairies whose wings are clipped as they mature beyond reliance on childhood fantasies?

My grounding did not come from lack of support: my parents bought me The Golden Book of Astronomy, with lavish full-color illustrations by space artist John Polgreen and astronomer Bert Bok's lovely preface, encouraging girls and boys alike to explore the heavens.

Nor for lack of trying: when the Echo satellite, made of reflective mylar, began orbiting the Earth in 1960, I'd head out outside every clear night to track its visible progress across the sky. I wrote a fan letter to NASA; they replied with a kind note and a letter-sized sheet of Echo's mylar coating -- at 10 years of age, I owned a piece of satellite!

Consumed as I was with the drive to explore the heavens, to master the ever-expanding knowledge base (back then, Jupiter only had 12 moons), and ultimately to fly toward the stars as a select few men -- and one Russian woman -- soon would, I found my ambitions first tempered, then all but extinguished, by the time I entered high school.

For the first time in my life, I mixed with kids from richer families, where the girls especially seemed to have it all -- looks, fashion, sorority sisters and suitors -- while I had my smarts, which suddenly seemed inconsequential. I joined their all-consuming quest to get boyfriends -- who seemed to be racing away from me at an alarming rate. Once more I was playing an impossible game of catch-up, but in a much-diminished universe.

What were all the boys who were running away from girls like me running toward, you might ask? Their glorious futures, of course. If boys wanted to fly, they had plenty of assistance. Fueled not only by higher levels of testosterone that prompted them to take risks and to pursue their goals aggressively, but also encouraged by a culture that valued their hormonal behavior, the boys I grew up with were inherently better equipped for flight.

They engineered their own wings: airplanes and rocket-ships. Pilots were groomed as the first astronauts, while stewardesses (the only women I knew who could fly) were trained to negotiate turbulent conditions in high heels while asking: how may I make your trip more enjoyable?

"I suspect that if I had been a young girl growing up when I did," Sheehan wrote, "I would have faced so many obstacles and such discouragement that I would have given up."

Ready for the happy ending? No spoilers here for the Disney version, but you know there has to be one (although I found myself more resigned than pleased by Maleficent's superficial re-telling of love, loss and redemption).

In fairy tales, older women described as crones and witches pull out their brooms, climb aboard and soar again. History suggests these women used their broomsticks to apply a hallucinogenic salve to their private parts. To others, it appeared as if they were "riding" the broom, but think how it must have felt to the woman -- "I'm flying!" Getting high and flying high are not so different after all.

In real life, as women age and find themselves no longer aligned with the fairies, perhaps so jaded they can no longer believe in fairy tales, they too may find they have gained the knowledge and perseverance needed to find another way to fly, and another tool -- a spaceship, perhaps -- to assist in their efforts. Perhaps this is why I've got my space mojo back and, after all these years, am determined once more to earn my astronaut wings.