ON A WARM SATURDAY MORNING in May this year, at a Starbucks in Orlando, Florida, much like every Starbucks in the world, I met a young man in a deep blue turban called Taranjeet Singh Bhatia. I may never meet him again. Not because I’m not sure when I’ll next get to Orlando, nor because I’m not sure when he’ll next get to Mumbai, where I live. Instead, it’s because in another 12 years or so, he may land 225 million kilometres away, on Mars. If he does, he has no plans—and I mean none, I mean zero—of ever returning here.
Bhatia aims to leave for Mars in the year 2026. He wants to make the months-long trip, which no human has yet made. He wants to settle there. He wants to do this even though he knows he will not come back. A young man from Madhya Pradesh, Bhatia is on a quixotic global project’s shortlist of a hundred people, readying himself for an improbable shot at Mars few think will succeed. This is why I went to see him in Orlando, where he is a graduate student at the University of Central Florida.
Bhatia is the 30-year-old son of a family that runs the small Hotel Blue Star in Indore. He earned an undergraduate degree in electrical and instrumentation engineering from Medi-Caps Institute of Science and Technology in his home city, and then stayed on to work in Indore for three years. In 2011, he joined UCF’s PhD programme in computer science. In this respect, he is like thousands of other Indians who travel overseas to study every year. I was one of these, for that matter. In 1981, fresh off my own BE, I was the first Indian graduate student at the computer science department at my university in the United States. I can’t imagine there is now a single American computer science department that has never admitted Indian students.