Pursuing her life-long obsession to fly, a research assistant at NASA, Lulu Ferdous may be the first Bangladeshi to take a one-way trip to Mars. Ferdous, 35, is one of 1,058 people from around the world who advanced to the second round of applicants to be chosen for this extraordinary mission that may take up to seven months. The mission is sponsored by Mars One, a Dutch nonprofit foundation that aims to establish a permanent human settlement on the planet by 2025.
More than 200,000 people applied for the programme. Only four astronauts will be chosen for the trip, informs Ferdous.
A one-way trip sounds a little ominous as there is no guarantee that all will go well. Ferdous, however, is not at all afraid.
“I am excited and ready for it as I knew about the risks of being a pilot and an astronaut while growing up” says Ferdous. “Risks that are inherent in our scientific ventures never really scared me, rather, I look forward to the adventure as a test that will surpass our human limitations, both in terms of physical aspects and scientific milestone.”
Her family, she admits, were quite shocked when she told them of her decision. “But eventually, I know that they are happy for my journey and adventures in life, as that is part of what defines me.”
Despite how frightening the prospect of going away to live in Mars for good may seem, Ferdous explains that there will be satellite and video communications with earth so she and her fellow companions would be able to see their families virtually.
For Ferdous this is most certainly the most unusual adventure she is aspiring to undertake although she is not a stranger to formidable challenges. At age ten she was reading about what a sonic boom was; it was when she decided that she wanted to be the first Bangladeshi to break the sound barrier. She desperately wanted to fly planes, trying to apply for the GD Pilot branch in BAF in 2000. But she was not allowed to take out an application form. She was told that women were not being accepted as GD pilots. “But I was encouraged to be a doctor or work in the education sector in BAF or apply to other branches of the Armed Forces which had just opened for women.”
There was little Ferdous could do except try for the next best alternative: commercial flying. But the cost of getting a licence proved to be too intimidating and there was no provision for funding in this area. Ferdous had to give up this dream but it did not stop her from secretly nurturing her ultimate ambition – to travel in space. She ended up getting a Bachelor of Science degree in Aviation - Air Transportation Administration from the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) and then studying for a doctoral degree in aerospace science.
When the Mars One applications opened up, she checked to see if there were citizenship, gender and age restrictions.
“When I saw it was open globally, I immediately applied” she says. “I felt at peace with my purpose and knew that my aspirations were leading me towards a certain destination. I wanted to leave a legacy for the present and next generation of women who dream and aspire beyond social convention and manmade barriers. I still have a long way to go as there will be two other rounds for elimination, and four astronauts will be shortlisted out of 1058 for the first trip in 2025.”
The trip means more than a personal dream come true. It will be a way to break the gender stereotypes that try to keep women from pursuing higher studies in sciences or pursuing careers that are conventionally considered appropriate for only men.
“It took decades for an opportunity to finally materialise, and even then there is no guarantee that I will make the final cut,” says Ferdous. “But I fully believe that if we refuse to accept restrictions in our minds, we can manifest a seemingly impossible future, and live to our fullest potential.”