Dawn Chapman

We were discouraged from having pets—or, for that matter, husbands or even boyfriends, and the same went for the men, none of whom were married as far as anybody knew. I think Mission Control would have been happier if we didn’t have parents or siblings either, but all of us did, with the exception of Ramsay, an only child whose parents had been killed in a head-on collision when he was in the fourth grade. I often wondered if that had been a factor in the selection process—in his favor, I mean—because it was apparent he was lacking in certain key areas and to my mind, at least on paper, he was the weakest link of the crew. But that wasn’t for me to say—Mission Control had their own agenda and for all our second-guessing, we could only put our heads down and hope for the best. As you can imagine, we all sweated out the selection process—during the final months it seemed like we did nothing else—and though we were a team, though we pulled together and had been doing so through the past two years of training, the fact remained that of the sixteen candidates only eight would make the final cut. So here was the irony: while we exuded team spirit, we were competing to exude it, our every thought and move duly noted by Mission Control. What did Richard, our resident cynic, call it? A Miss America pageant without the Miss and without the America.

I don’t recall the specific date now, and I should, I know I should, just to keep the record straight, but it was about a month before closure when we were called in for our final interviews. A month seems about right, time enough to spread the word and generate as much press as possible over the unveiling of the final eight—any earlier and we ran the risk of overkill, and of course Mission Control was sensitive about that because of what fell out with the first mission. So it would have been February. A February morning in the high desert, everything in bloom with the winter rains and the light spread like a soft film over the spine of the mountains. There would have been a faint sweetness to the air, a kind of dry rub of sage and burnt sugar, something to savor as I made my way over to the cafeteria for an early breakfast. I might have stopped to kick off my flip-flops and feel the cool granular earth between my toes or watch the leaf-cutter ants in their regimented march to and from the nest, both inside my body and out of it at the same time, a female hominid of breeding age bent over in the naturalist’s trance and wondering if this earth, the old one, the original one, would still be her home in a month’s time.

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