As I watched the news of flowing water on Mars come in this week, two feelings battled inside me. The first was excited delight, flavored with warm memories of childhood. The second was haunting, unrealistic regret best expressed as, I should have been there.
Having left my aspiring-paleontologist phase in late elementary school, I spent middle school and most of high school convinced of one thing: I was going to work at NASA on Mars exploration.
It’s easy enough to see how I got there. Pathfinder landed when I was ten years old. I read and re-read Managing Martians by Donna Shirley, the leader of the Sojourner rover team. Most of my other reading material came from Star Trek and Star Wars novels or my father’s bookshelves, packed with science fiction from the days when Mars was the obvious next step in humanity’s ongoing project of exploration.
I had a knack for mathematics the way it’s conventionally taught, so rushed through calculus by midway through high school. With a couple of friends, I doubled up on science classes until I ran out.
Not content with classwork, I put four years each into Math League and Science Olympiad, and I also managed some very successful science fair projects (in a town with a shockingly high bar for such things). Through the right filter, I fit the STEM geek stereotype to a T. Underneath all of this, sustaining me, was that dream of exploring the Red Planet.
When it came time to look at colleges, the top of my list was Washington University in St. Louis, home to a superior planetary science program with a history of placing its undergraduates at places like JPL for senior year internships. I applied, was accepted, and even managed enough scholarship money to make the place affordable.
But, as you may have guessed, something changed.
It’s tough to pin down exactly when it happened, but it was probably late in my junior year. That’s when I found myself over-extended beyond anything I’d experienced before, to the point that math and science stopped being fun. At the same time, it’s the year that other threads of my life came together in ways I hadn’t expected.
I was fortunate enough to share a grade with some truly impressive people across a great many fields of interest. Among these were some inspiring political types with a sincere belief in the power of organizing. Spending time with them introduced me to a whole new way of thinking about and taking part in the world. This would only grow stronger during my senior year, when we added policy-specific organizing, activism, and lobbying to the election work. It’s fair to say that my current professional efforts are in many ways an attempt to keep doing the job we started back in high school.
And then there’s the writing. One of the side effects of burning through so much math and science so quickly was that I had more time in my class schedule. Creative writing filled some of that space. Today, I can see that my class was mostly seniors looking for an easy way to pick up an English credit. For me, it was permission to spend time on something I’d dabbled with before, but never committed to like this. And, unlike my later math and science work, it was fun.
So I did not study planetary science at Wash U. I entered the University of Wisconsin without a declared major, intent on finding a field that would let me help people.
I never left the Midwest to build robots and look for the possibility of life on Mars. I became an English teacher in my home state.
I did not work my way up through the ranks of academia and professional space exploration. My master’s degree is in public policy, and I study educational equity, the same issue we organized around in high school.
My current employment uncertainty aside, I’m thrilled with the life I have. I’m happily married to someone I love deeply. I live in a neighborhood that feels like home in a city I’m excited to tell people about. I’ve done work I’m proud of for many different reasons.
I know any version of me that went to St. Louis to study planetary science wouldn’t have ended up here. If we’re being honest, most of the timelines that start with me going there don’t end with me at NASA working on Mars exploration.
And yet some part of me can’t help fixating on the tiny number of alternate universes where I did fight through the obstacles and live that middle school dream. I suspect those versions of me aren’t as happy with their relationships, their living situations, or their lives in general. In fact, all they have over my real life is their proximity to those recent moments when humanity’s understanding of Mars changed forever.
To those versions of me, I say, “Congratulations.” I lift my glass and toast them. To all the versions of me that started down that path but faltered, I offer my condolences. They have neither realized the old dream nor glimpsed the beautiful reality of my true life.
Now, I need to go buy mozzarella for tonight’s pizza while the dough I made this morning rises in the kitchen. My amazing spouse will come home in a few hours, and we will enjoy our evening together. The adorable dog who no other version of me will ever meet will demand attention, walks, and cuddles.
And, millions of miles away, briny water will flow on Mars. I can be content simply knowing that and dreaming about the future.