To the stars.Posted: January 11, 2013
Gemini astronauts Ed White and James McDivitt, circa 1965. UNC Collections.
When I was fourteen, I decided I was going to be an astronaut. I’d read a blurb in my biology textbook about astrobiology, the study of extraterrestrial life or the possibility thereof. I couldn’t think of anything more exciting. And, to boot, there were murmurs of a mission to Mars right when I’d be at the peak of my career—around 2020—which meant that, if I was going to go for it, I’d better decide now and dedicate my life to it. So I did. I chose a college with an outstanding science program, majored in biochemistry, interned at Johnson Space Center during the summers and worked for the infamous “Mars biofossil” team, attended the NASA Astrobiology Academy at Ames Research Center, got my pilot’s license, and went to MIT to get my Ph.D. in biogeochemistry, after which I’d apply for the astronaut corps every year until I got in. I had it all planned out.
I was reminded of that past when researching this piece for Our State magazine. It was nice to revisit that world, though amazing as it is, I had no wish to go back. I left MIT in 2005 after I’d realized a whole lot of things about myself. Wanting to be an astronaut was really about three things.
(1) A response to losing my mother young. I even recognized it as fatalistic at the time: “well, might as well fling myself into the vacuum. Can’t be any worse.” I didn’t know there could be, or ever would be, any other response.
(2) A desire for a vocation that encompassed all other vocations. For a long time, being an astrobiologist astronaut was It.
(3) A thirst for radical newness. This meant wanting to re-define life itself on an actual other planet.
And now I meet all three of those needs in very different ways.
When I told my Dad I didn’t want to be an astronaut anymore, he said, “There’s more than one way to the stars.” And he was right. And I’m glad.