Workmom Q&A: PTA Mom-Turned-Pilot/Astronaut MJ Marggraff

Something as simple as losing her day planner inspired this San Francisco mom to pursue a long-held dream of flight.

By Marisa LaScala– workingmother.com

“My dreams as little girl were about flight, the stars and space.”

Like many moms, MJ Marggraff commanded the wheel of her family vehicle, manning carpool duty and school pick-ups for her children, Annie and Blake, with her husband, Jim. But she longed to trade in the steering wheel for an airplane stick. When she lost her day planner, she decided that the time was right to enroll in flight school. That started her on a journey from PTA mom to pilot to astronaut working on projects for the International Space Station—and writing about her reinvention in Finding the Wow: How Dreams Take Flight at Midlife.

How in the world did losing your day planner lead to becoming an astronaut?

I had a dream that was stored away in the attic of my heart, but where I’d often go to ask, “What if I had done … could I still?” But I’d always answer with, ‘No, It’s too late now.’ My dreams as little girl were about flight, the stars and space. My choices took me elsewhere, to a career where I was content, and successful if measured in by promotions and salary. When my children were 10 and 8, I had left my corporate work to spend time at home with them. My schedule quickly filled with a typical routine of carpooling, after-school sports and PTA committees. I filled some late hours reading about becoming a pilot, enjoying the fantasy.

Then one day my planner went missing. My life! I needed to get back to it right away, and ran to the bookstore to get a new one. Thumbing through a new, fresh, blank planner, I had a blank slate. I had a moment of challenge: Should I refill it with the same, or rewrite it with the dream? Still doubting, fearful of lots of things, but needing to try, I enrolled in flight school not long afterward. One pilot’s license—that was all I had intended at the beginning—became five, which led to becoming a fight instructor. That opened other amazing doors, and I became a part of our new space age. Within a year, I was training for space travel to prepare for suborbital space flights. Today I am the creator of a new experiment on the International Space Station and a project that connects students to space.

MJ with husband Jim and kids Blake and Annie.

What was the hardest part about doing such a complete turnaround?

The hardest part was starting. I procrastinated by reading and re-reading the textbook for years before taking a breath and going to the school to enroll. My friends were getting fed up with me just reading, just dreaming.

What did your kids think of your decision?

At first, the family thought it was just something Mom had to try. Perhaps a flight of fancy? But this was an endeavor that needed commitment, and then everyone saw me studying until late into the night. When I dropped my children off at school, I didn’t stay for committee meetings, I left for my flight lessons. When I returned to pick them up later, we asked each other, “What did you do today?” We shared some interesting replies!

How did you overcome the intimidation of being an older flight student in a class of young guys?

My classmates were not intimidating. The fears I had were my own. I didn’t try to become one of the guys, but a supportive classmate. I brought snacks and cookies. Being who I was, a mom, actually became an advantage I enjoyed. Our reasons for learning to fly were different, but we understood the hard work and the joy.

MJ is working on helping astronauts thrive on long-duration space flights. Her message to working moms: “Do what you love! Don’t let fear rule your life. It’s never too late to live the life you always imagined.”

Working mom MJ Marggraff

What was your first time as a pilot like? How did you feel?

It is the most embracing experience of my life. Every pilot can recall their first solo flight. I stumbled through my request to the tower that I was ready for takeoff—repeated it—and told myself over and over that I could do this. I lined up at the end of the runway, put in the power and I rose. There is nothing like being in the air alone. Free, focused and putting into practice a dream coming true. In a short time, it became clear to me that this was more than a physical and mental experience. Flying is also a spiritual experience.

Tell us a bit about your project on the International Space Station.

The project is called Space Games. It inspires STEM students in 9th grade through college to design a hand-held game that will be made on the zero-gravity 3D printer aboard the Station. Astronauts will manufacture that game and, using the rules, play it, we hope! The Space Games has been invited to the annual International Space Station R&D Conference this summer, as a new initiative and space challenge opportunity. Helping astronauts thrive on long-duration space flights is what I’m working on next. This fall I’ll begin that work as I start back to graduate school.