Her Different Life, Her Martian Year

By Colin McGregor

A year on Mars is equivalent to 687 Earth days. That is because the red planet is further from the Sun than we are. It takes longer to make an orbit around the Sun…

Farah Alibay, born in Montreal and raised in Joliette, the daughter of immigrants from Madagascar, with a PhD from MIT, spent one Martian year working on the Perseverance project for NASA, a Mars rover. The dream of a child, a dream achieved. A dream that sometimes required her to work Earth nights, because the Martian day is 37 minutes longer than ours…

Since then she has become a fixture on TV, explaining space to us, inspiring generations to reach beyond their grasp.

In her book Mon année matienne, Farah brings us on her own incredible journey from Joliette to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Along the way we meet her family, right up to her great-grandparents, and their own remarkable voyages through Africa, India and France. We read of her enfance joliettaine, and the close life-long friends she made, as well as some of the hard knocks she endured as a visible minority in a very white part of Québec. Athletic and bookish at the same time, she turns to figure skating, cycling and hours at the public library to pass her spare time.

In the playground of her school, she is often pushed around and called “savage” or even worse. Limited to 30 minutes of TV a day, she feels welcomed by the kindness and generosity of the world of Passe-Partout. Indeed, Marie Eykel, who played Passe-Partout, wrote the preface for the book. “At least in this world I felt accepted,” she writes.

Later she would suffer discrimination because of her status as an LGBTQ+ woman. Micro-aggressions that would come at her throughout her whole life. Females have their place in the science world, but their battle for equity is far from wholly won. But she never flinches when it comes to her studies. Generations of strong women in her family let her know that there was no limit to what could be accomplished in the classroom. They can take a lot away from you, she is warned, but never your education.

She learns to ask for help, because: “Even in the deepest valleys, with a little help, you can always find the sun.” At NASA she would suffer from impostor syndrome: Recruited for positions where her social skills and problem-solving gifts were valued. She has “excellent communication skills and a good team spirit” she is told. Anyone can be taught technical data, but these are qualities you can’t teach a NASA engineer from scratch.

She even gets to use her French when working with aerospace engineers at the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales in Toulouse, France – though they tease her for her Quebec accents and words like souliers d’escalade,  chandail, planche à neige and magasinage. Using her French “helped me gain their trust, which my team at JPL saw as a great strength.”

Along the way there are lessons she learns that she shares with the reader. “Comparison with others only weakens us,” she writes. “We all go at our own pace and succeed in our own way. I need to remind myself of this lesson whenever I am behind on my life goals. Everyone moves at their own speed.” There are plenty of other pieces of good advice in this book as well.

Was there ever life on Mars? There certainly is lots of evidence that lakes and rivers of water were once present on the Martian surface. Farah makes us feel as if she is part of the team at her space-age workplace. Working nights when our night corresponds to the Martian day is all worth it, she assures us.

Mon année martienne is very easy to read and very tough to put down once you’ve picked it up.

Like her hero le Petit Prince she has voyaged to another planet with her mind. Her ambition is to carry on at the JPL. Inspiration for little girls and women wishing to make their dreams come true in the real world. 

Mon année martienne by Farah Alibay, Les Édtions de l’Homme, 2022. 224 pages.

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