It’s never too late to follow childhood dreams, says M.J. Marggraff, a stay-at-home-mom-turned-astronaut. She lost her day planner, and in doing so, strangely found herself.
It made her ask “Where am I supposed to be? What should I be doing?” When she sat down to fill a new planner with the same tasks that filled the old one, she realized how unenthused and uninspired she was about the way she spent her days.
“When [my planner] disappeared, a part of me disappeared too,” she said. Instead of refilling the planner, she rewrote it.
She remained a devoted parent, but she also chose to fulfill her dreams. Alongside PTA meetings, she scheduled flying lessons. She had to reshuffle household duties and let go of the guilt she felt for doing something for herself.
“I’m doing what’s essential for them, I’m doing something essential for myself,” she said.
That was 12 years ago, and it was just the start. “I didn’t just get one pilot’s license, I got five,” she said. She also became a mission support representative for Virgin Galactic, the creator of a project to take place on the International Space Station this year, and she is now training to be an astronaut on suborbital space flights.
With Change Comes Fear
Though her parents were terrified of flying, as a child Marggraff was fascinated by airplanes. She didn’t inherit her parents’ fear, but she had to overcome plenty of other fears as she changed course midlife.
On her first solo flight, Marggraff had index cards ready with all the detailed instructions she needed—such as when to change power settings, altitudes, how to land at the airport, and so on. When the index cards flew out her window midflight, a string of profanities followed them.
Her hands were sweating and her heart racing as she neared the airport. She was too high and going too fast. She did an unusual turning maneuver, then went in for the landing, but her wheels barely touched the runway and she took off again.
In her book, “Finding the Wow: How Dreams Take Flight at Midlife,” she recalled the response of tower control: “Uh, let us know in advance the next time you want to practice fighter-pilot landings.” She was mortified, but her flight instructor made her do it again.
Breaking out of old routines and getting out of her comfort zone has been hard in many ways. But the rewards have been great.
Her foray into the space industry started with a cold call to a local Virgin Galactic employee. Suborbital space flight was in the news regularly. (Suborbital flight, at the edge of space, just beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, will be more accessible to passenger spacecraft in the future than orbital space flight.)
“I felt pretty sure NASA wouldn’t be interested in a mom who was in her late 40s at this point.” But Virgin Galactic, specializing in suborbital flight, was. She met up with the Virgin Galactic employee, who worked in communications, and was eventually hired to help explain suborbital flight to the general public.
Marggraff also started a project, called Space Games, that has students invent a game that can only be made and played in space. The first Space Game will be made by the 3-D printer aboard the International Space Station this year.
She is now training to be a suborbital astronaut, though she doesn’t know when she might make it to space herself. She described how the simulations during her training feel: “In order to escape Earth’s clutch, you momentarily feel three to five times your weight; it feels like a small VW bug has been placed on your body.”
Before she had children, she had a career as a training manager, working at Hewlett-Packard and the Genetics Institute. It had never crossed her mind to follow her dreams when she was in her college years.
A chance event, losing her planner, opened up what Marggraff calls her “second act” in life. She thinks more people in their 40s and 50s will start having a second act.
“At any age, we can reinvent ourselves,” she said. “What holds us back is fear, and we can’t let fear rule our lives.”