The moment you meet Margarita Marinova she extends her hand and beams, “I’m going to Mars.” She speaks with such confidence that for a minute you actually believe her.

But she’s not kidding. She’s been visualizing this trip since she was five and first heard about Mars. “If you want something badly enough, you can achieve it,” says this freshman, who fully intends to realize her dream in 2015, the year Mars is especially close to Earth.

At age 18, Marinova already has co-authored five scientific papers. Last summer she worked at the NASA Ames Research Center in San Francisco. In high school, she was the chair of the Toronto Chapter of the international Mars Society. And three times she coordinated a team that entered the International NASA Space Settlement Design Contest, and her team won all three years.

You see, she says, it’s not so much that she wants to become an astronaut, so much as that in her mind and heart she already is one. She thinks about flying to Mars more than half the day. “It just gives you a completely different mindset if you believe you’re going to do something,” she says.

Born in Bulgaria, Marinova speaks five languages — Russian, German, Bulgarian, English, and French. She has lived in Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, and Iraq.

Designing a space suit

Marinova intends to major in aeronautics and astronautics. At the moment, one of her two undergraduate research projects is designing a space suit to be worn on Mars.

Once, when she was a child, her parents met Russian Astronaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and she was in awe. Then, last fall, at a two-day Mars conference at MIT, she met Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, G’63, the second man to walk on the moon.

“I mean, I was standing beside this man who seemed like the most normal person on earth, and you would never guess that he walked on the moon. That’s what makes me believe that I can go to Mars. I figure if he could do it, then I could do it.”

That day, she studied Aldrin’s movements, how he stood, how he walked, and how he spoke to people. Modeling, she says, is a powerful way to become like a man you admire.

Marinova often boosts her confidence by pushing herself to achieve. Once quiet and shy, she transformed herself into an extrovert. She had a good reason, she says.

“If you look at astronauts, they’re really social people. One of the big ways they’re chosen is because of public relations. They have to be really good at speaking to audiences.”

Marinova daydreams about walking across the red, barren surface of Mars. “It will be great to explore a completely new place,” she says. One thing she has learned from travel and from living in different countries, she says, is “A new place gives you a whole new perspective.

“One of my favorite things is being placed in new situations. That’s one of the reasons I loved moving. You change your mindset, and you’re not stuck with your old ideas.”

Marinova has a brother four years older. Often she would help him do his math homework. “I would explain it to him, but sometimes he just did not understand.

“I love pushing myself,” she says. “You think you know your limits. But if you push, you see that you can go beyond. It’s great to expand who you are.

“A lot of times when I tell people I want to go to Mars, they just laugh. People shouldn’t laugh at other people’s dreams. In high school, my guidance counselor gave me a big speech about how I would never get into an American university. But I didn’t listen.If you doubt yourself, then how are others supposed to believe in you? I know for sure that I’m gonna be an astronaut, and I’m gonna fly into space.

“My dream to visit Mars is my motivation for working so hard,” she says. “If you think about something long enough, I believe it will happen. Mars is far away, and it’s a big ambitious thing, but because I believe I’m really going, it feels like it’s within reach.”