One Small Step for
M ankin d
Vanessa Liu wants to be an astronaut, quite specifically, the commander of the first international mission to Mars.
"It's the next frontier," she says, her eyes dancing simply imagining the journey. "On Earth, we've basically explored almost everything. If we establish a colony on Mars we can go to other planets."
But Vanessa has three strikes against her. For one thing she is a female seeking membership in virtually an all-male club. For another, she is Chinese-American while the astronauts are red, white, and blue—though mainly white—Americans. Most of all her mother thinks she's crazy. "My mom says, 'What happens if you go on the space shuttle Challenger and it blows up?' " Vanessa says. "I love astronomy so much that I'm willing to take that risk. I'd rather be a doer than a spectator."
So there on a crisp sunny day in early March, a day brimming with premonitions of spring, is seventeen-year-old Vanessa taking her first small step for mankind. She is standing in front of a mock‐ up of the space shuttle, which is perched on scaffolding inside a cavernous hangar of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Dwarfing Vanessa, the shuttle looks like a beached white whale except that it has been fitted with a new weather-research satellite that will soon be released into space. Goddard is where satellites are tailored to the shuttles and where the data they transmit is gathered and studied, and Vanessa is here to talk to NASA's scientists about what it will take to become an astronaut and command a craft like the shuttle. For Vanessa, Goddard is easily the