The intent of this review is to describe what is known and unknown about telomerase in somatic cells of the human organism. First, we consider the telomerase enzyme. Human telomerase ribonucleoproteins undergo at least three stages of cellular biogenesis: accumulation, catalytic activation and recruitment to the telomere. Next, we describe the patterns of telomerase regulation in the human soma. Telomerase activation in some cell types appears to offset proliferation-dependent telomere shortening, delaying but not defeating the inherent mitotic clock. Finally, we elaborate the connection between telomerase misregulation and human disease, in the contexts of inappropriate telomerase activation and telomerase deficiency. We discuss how our current perspectives on telomerase function could be applied to improving human health.