Do you have “the right stuff”? The mental fortitude of John Glenn, who sat coolly in the Mercury 7 spacecraft Friendship 7 moments before blasting off to orbit the Earth, with a recorded heart rate that never rose above what the average adult might experience while gardening? The physical stamina of Chuck Yeager, who exceeded transonic speed suffering from two broken ribs and emitting no more than what Tom Wolfe noted as a “faint chuckle”? The ability of Gordon Cooper to be simultaneously in command of both body and mind as he manually steered a space capsule into reentry after its total electronic failure?
These are the questions I want to ask my wife as she lounges on our couch, reading the Sunday paper and leisurely drinking her tea, hair still mussed from the previous night’s sleep. Are you prepared to endure an hours-long delay waiting to launch into space, cramped in a metal basket as mission control deliberates whether the weather and timing and Earth’s rotation make for optimal conditions? Are you prepared to withstand the longest trip in mankind’s history, to travel 35 million miles away? Are you prepared to live on the fourth planet from the sun?
Do you have what Tom Wolfe called the “ever righteous stuff”?
This internal inquisition of my wife—the same woman who promised to love me forever, who puts up with my brother’s rude jokes, who puts up with me—is a self-serving exercise. It allows me to dance away from the real questions that haunt me. Am I prepared to actually say goodbye? Am I prepared to steel my spine and not beg her to stay? Am I prepared for the moment when I will be left standing on Earth with my face pointing up at a rapidly disappearing rocket carrying my partner away from me on a one-way trip to Mars?
When my wife, Sonia Van Meter, was chosen as one of the 100 finalists for the Mars One Project, a mission to establish a permanent human colony on Mars, I already knew the answers to these questions (yes, a thousand times yes, she has the right stuff), but I wasn’t prepared for just how much it would change the world she and I live in, so to speak. A couple of years ago, when she put in an application with some 200,000-odd other earthlings vying for the chance to be a “marstronaut,” it was a novelty, great cocktail chatter. But then the pool was whittled down to roughly 1,000 contestants, and that’s when the real scrutiny started. People attacked Sonia, accusing her repeatedly of abandoning her family, of seeking glory at the expense of her earthbound obligations. I attempted to squash or preemptively address the hateful questions and comments hurtled our way by writing about my support for Sonia. The comments got ugly. Things got even uglier when Sonia was named among the 100 finalists and our story burbled to the top of Internet consciousness again, prompting more incendiary backlash against us.
To be sure, she got a ton of support too. My sons and I support her, as does her dad and extended family. Generally speaking, nerds think she’s cool, women admire her bravery, and kids think this is all very real, an idea I have not yet accepted. In fact, she’s still hearing about schoolchildren who wrote current events reports about her, and speaking to classrooms over Skype is by far her favorite part of this whole strange story.
What I am coming to grips with is that this part of my life isn’t mine at all. My world changed, but so did yours. Like Cortez burning the ships once they reached the New World, Mars One will be a one-way trip. What could be my personal horror story would become the world’s grandest adventure, and understanding how this might change my life forced me to realize that Mars One could change everyone’s life. If it succeeds in its mission—establishing a sustainable colony on another planet—it would change the history of humanity by expanding our boundaries beyond this planet. This was bigger than me. It raises existential questions far weightier than how much I’d miss Sonia and whether I remembered who our plumber was or knew where she kept all the passwords.
Space travel has long piqued human curiosity. But our galactic wanderlust appears to have been on the wane for the past few decades. For years, we satisfied ourselves with the low-earth orbits of the shuttles, letting our ambition “to boldly go” get flabby. When George W. Bush proposed restarting the moon program, in 2004, the country politely ignored him as if he’d farted, and Newt Gingrich’s proposal to colonize Mars, in 2012, was cited as proof of the former Speaker’s lack of presidential makeup.
Perhaps it was the Curiosity that reignited our curiosity. Since that rover landed on Mars in 2011, it seems like a new space race has begun. The European Space Agency and the Russian Federal Space Agency are teaming up for two unmanned missions to Mars over the next three years. Even the Indian Space Research Organization is getting into the act, first sending MOM (the Mars Orbiter Mission) and now planning a second unmanned mission in 2018. Naturally, the next evolution of this idea is to colonize the planet. NASA has had long-term plans to send humans to Mars on a round-trip sometime in the 2030’s, and SpaceX is trying to become the first private company to solve this puzzle.
Amid all these serious endeavors, Mars One is getting most of the attention, even if that doesn’t necessarily translate to respect. In a recent article in The New Yorker, that arbiter of seriousness, journalist Tom Kizzia surveyed the field in the race to Mars before patting Mars One on the head as “the image of space exploration as a teen-age fantasy” because they plan to fund it partly with revenues from a reality television show (though a deal with the production company behind Big Brother recently fell through).
Cynics were quick to embrace the criticism of Dr. Joseph Roche, who dropped out of the Mars 100 in March with a widely circulated interview in Medium that cast Mars One as a big scam. Roche used to work at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center before getting his PhD studying the chromospheres of red giant stars using far ultraviolet spectroscopy of symbiotic systems, and now he’s an assistant professor in Trinity University’s School of Education. With all these credentials, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that his supposedly insider account of how Mars One is a Potemkin village space program went largely unchallenged in the media.
Taken at face value, Roche’s accusations were damning. There were never 200,000-plus applicants, he contended. The real number was shy of 3,000. The finalists, my wife included by implication, had bought their way onto the Mars 100 list through a points system built on donations and purchasing gear . The whole shebang lacked any psychological and psychometric training and was not a real space program. In other words, Mars One was as big a put-up job as the cynics expected all along.
But a cynic looks at ambition and sees the probability of failure, not the possibility of success. There’s no explanation other than cynicism for Roche’s criticism of the points system, which served no purpose that I or Sonia could see. The only money she ever gave Mars One was her negligible application fee (she thinks it was $37 but doesn’t remember exactly). She never bought a T-shirt, wrote a check, or was paid—or offered to be paid—for an interview. Mars One did certainly request donations along with 75 percent of any proceeds from participants’ media interviews, but this had no impact on Sonia’s selection that we could see.
Bas Lansdorp, Mars One’s founder, had no explanation for why Roche was convinced that the number of applicants was inflated by a factor of almost 100. He offered the reporter who interviewed Roche access to the list of 200,000 applications, but she ostensibly wasn’t interested. “It seems that she was more interested in writing a sensational article about Mars One than the truth,” said Lansdorp in an interview published on Mars One’s website.
Where Roche’s criticism cut close to the bone was the lack of any scientific rigor in the selection process and the absence of any training. But training is supposed to start in September 2016. First, the Mars 100 (others have been added as Roche and five others have dropped out) will be culled to 40 when they are separated into groups of 10 to 15 and given “group dynamic challenges,” according to Dr. Norbert Kraft, the chief medical officer of Mars One. “This allows us to observe how the candidates work in a group setting.”
That pool then gets knocked down from 40 to 30 after they undergo isolation training, which lasts nine days. “It is very important that the candidates are observed closely to examine how they act in situations of prolonged close contact with one another,” said Kraft. “During the journey to Mars and upon arrival, they will spend 24 hours a day with each other. It is during this time that the simplest things may start to become bothersome. It takes a specific team dynamic to be able to handle this, and it is our job to find those that are best suited for this challenge.”
Then they plan to cut the list of 30 down to 24 after they undergo a four-hour-long Mars Settler Suitability Interview that measures each participant’s potential for long duration Space missions and colonizing the planet. Mars One plans to offer those 24 marstronauts full-time employment to train for the Mars One missions, at which point their lives become deeply weird on a full-time basis for the next decade, until the first Mars One mission launches four humans in 2026. According to the plan, every two years following the first mission, Mars One would send another foursome to Mars, slowly building up the colony and working toward sustainability.
If there ends up being a Mars One reality show, it will not bring to mind the film adaptation of The Right Stuff, Wolfe’s story about the beginnings of the American space program. Besides it being a one-way trip, what sets Mars One apart from every other space mission ever is that anyone could apply to be an astronaut, no experience necessary. Unlike the Mercury program, which limited applicants to graduates of the military’s test pilot program and narrowed their pool to only certain white men in the military, Mars One invited everyone on Earth to apply. In this way, the Dutch company’s mission was less like The Right Stuff and more like Dick Vermeil’s open invitations to residents of Philadelphia to try out for the Eagles (the plot of the movie Invincible), making my wife less Scott Carpenter and more Vince Papale.
This invitation for applicants resulted in exactly the pool of sad cases, kooks, dreamers, flakes, and basement-dwellers you’d expect. For every Army Ranger, medical doctor, pilot, or scientist, there were thousands of people with nothing better to do. Loneliness seemed to be a common trait. One said he had nothing to live for on Earth, so he might as well die on Mars. Several offered their lack of friends as credentials, reasoning that no one would miss them, so why not go? They were chosing to go to Mars in the next decade, not because it was easy, but because they had nothing better to do.
Even accounting for a fuller view of Roche’s accusations, Mars One looks like a wildly ambitious hot mess, but truth be told, the open sourcing of Mars One’s astronaut corps was actually not that different than the original civil-service prerequisites for the Mercury program. At first, the only qualifications one needed in order to apply to the Mercury program was to be a male college graduate with some experience facing danger. There were also height requirements: five-foot-ten or shorter to fit into the capsule. Basically, any danger-seeking dude of moderate height would do. The announcement listed parachutists, scuba divers, and mountain climbers as possible qualifiers. It took President Dwight Eisenhower to foresee the circus that the space program nearly invited to town. It was he who told NASA to limit the pool of applicants to military test pilots, which made the operation much more dignified.
Dignity is not something that exemplifies Mars One, but what made it seem ludicrous from the outset—sending goofy amateurs to die on Mars?—was also what made it sneakily feasible. Mars One is the brainchild of Lansdorp, a practical dreamer from the Netherlands who knows precisely why he is the wrong man to fulfill his ambition to colonize Mars. He grew up imagining that he would be one of the first humans to step onto Mars, but the more he investigated it, the more he recognized the isolation and deprivation required of the marstronauts.
They would have to endure an eight-month-long ride to Mars, work in close quarters with only three other people for the rest of their lives, and survive on insects and algae to stay alive on a planet where the average temperature on a summer night is minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The good news is that they would not have to endure this existence very long because of Mars’ extremely thin atmosphere; the radiation would likely kill the settlers inside of a decade.
Fighter jocks need not apply. On Mars, the right stuff requires no egos and no drama. Any long-term mission to Mars, one-way or round-trip, would prize collaboration over military command structures. Less Mission Control than mission support; less yippee-ki-yay than kumbaya.
Lansdorp knew he was not wired that way, but he suspected that there were a lot of people in the world who were. Instead of starting with a pool of type-A personalities trained in medicine, science, and aerospace, Lansdorp reasoned that a willing and intelligent person could be trained to do almost anything over a decade. The key was to find the right personalities. So he did what any modern entrepreneur would do and crowd-sourced it on the Internet. It all makes sense if you forget that this is the exact opposite of the way NASA does things. But for a Dutch engineer who doesn’t care how anyone did things before, being different wasn’t a problem.
The perhaps unintentional genius of Lansdorp’s method of reverse engineering astronauts is that Mars One could reclaim the glamour of the Mercury and Apollo eras when astronauts were celebrities. Allowing anyone to apply would invite everyone into the story. Reality television would not just help fund the mission. Televising the intensive training phase would create an emotional bond between these astronauts and, well, everyone on Earth. Think about it: with applicants from every continent, a reality show about Mars One would attract fans from all over the world. As a funding mechanism for Mars One, a worldwide reality show does seem somewhat absurd. But as a way to get everyone on Earth to come together as one and look up to the heavens, dreaming of space exploration, it’s not a bad idea at all.
Even critics of Mars One grant that the program has succeeded in drawing outsized public attention. Sonia more than most. But perhaps this was to be expected.
One of the big questions that participants in the Mercury 7 mission encountered was whether the astronauts’ wives “had anything to say about this.” Sonia, a stepmother and wife, flipped the gender script on an archetypal story and made such inquiries irresistible. She’s been asked how she could abandon me more times than most people have been asked if they want fries with that.
She’s also rather good-looking—achingly lovely in my book—so some of the media’s interest has been rather prurient. During an Austin morning radio show she was asked if she was going to “marsturbate” in space. The BBC came calling, which was when Sonia and I were asked about our sex life for the first time on international radio. When we politely declined to discuss how Sonia colonizing Mars would impact our vows of fidelity—truly, the most important aspect of human settlement of another planet—this inspired one Austin columnist to write a “humorous” piece about my reticence to publicly discuss the, well, private parts of our life. This put me into a purple-faced rage that was diffused when a friend observed, “At least someone thinks your sex life is interesting.”
But that was all back when she was one of hundreds of thousands of applicants, and then one of a thousand, and then one of only a hundred. As the deadline for announcing the final 100 approached, the Washington Post included Sonia in a feature on the local Mars One hopefuls. As I rode the train into work that morning, I saw dozens of people reading the article. I wanted to shout out with pride, “My wife is one of them!” followed by “and I’m really not sure how I feel about this!” Surely, though, out of the nearly 700 semifinalists, there were 100 better-qualified candidates, right?
Wrong. We found out, appropriately enough, on Friday the thirteenth, right before Valentine’s Day weekend. Mars One emailed her and the rest of the 100 finalists to tell them that they’d made it. Sonia says she didn’t breathe for ninety seconds when she read the email, which contained a strong admonition against telling anyone until Monday. So, of course, she called me right away, and the conversation went something like this:
Sonia: “I’m going to tell you something, and you can’t show any reaction.”
Me: “No problem. [Uh oh.] Lay it on me.”
“I was picked.”
“What? Did you say ‘kicked,’ as in ‘kicked out’?”
“No, picked. I was picked!”
“Picked to stay home?”
I never found out who was on first, and I still don’t know who’s on second, but my wife was suddenly on the short list to end up on Mars.
We hid inside all weekend, venturing out only for a Valentine’s dinner on Capitol Hill. The tables next to us probably thought that we were doing live-action role playing or that we were simply insane. I kept insisting that she needed to prepare for a media onslaught. She didn’t think the Mars 100 would get that much attention, but I knew how this worked. There were only 33 finalists in North America, fewer still who had already done TV and who lived in a major media center.
As ridiculous as this sounds—and I grant its full measure—Sonia was about to become one of the world’s most famous astronauts. When the Mercury 7 members were unveiled, they were given the title “astronauts” even though at the time, the United States didn’t even have working rockets to get them into space. By that standard, Sonia had become an astronaut, a designation that she rightfully rejects as laughably unwarranted.
Title change or no, the spotlight did come and it has hovered over our lives with a promise to stay for at least a while longer. During the two weeks after the announcement, her life was one extended press junket, pivoting from CNN’s morning show in a downtown studio to Skyping for an Austin television interview from home, then heading back to downtown D.C. to do an afternoon show on MSNBC before calling in to talk to a radio show in the Bay Area, and then setting an alarm before bed to do Good Morning Britain in the middle of the night.
She was in the media so often that the Kardashians were having to keep up with her. Time magazine asked her to write an essay, which they headlined, ghoulishly, “Why I’m Volunteering to Die on Mars.” NPR had her on. Twice. She appeared on Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore with actor Don Cheadle, director Lee Daniels, and some comedian who insisted that Mars One was going to be “one big space orgy.”
She could have crumpled under the pressure. She could have lashed out the millionth time she was asked, “What does your husband think about you leaving?”, “How’s it going to affect your marriage?”, and “How do you feel about leaving your children behind?” She could have gotten righteously pissed off when her sex life became a topic of conversation on a live national television broadcast watched by, among others, her father. Or likeliest of all, the glare of attention could have revealed a mortal, a regular person unable to thrive in the artificial environment of television.
Instead, in becoming a public persona, my wife became a bigger version of herself. What used to be something I alone treasured about her was now in the public domain, and the very best qualities about her—most notably her indefatigable optimism about humanity’s potential—became obvious for all to see. What was happening to my wife is what happened when the cameras turned on the original Mercury astronauts. Each of the original Mercury 7 had credibility and an early Mad Men–era glamour. But it was John Glenn who stood out as the star, reflecting light differently as the guy with an optimistic message that united the mission’s goals with the public’s patriotism.
There are others in the Mars 100 who have gotten their share of the spotlight. Maggie Lieu, a British astrophysics PhD student, drew some headlines when she speculated that “it would be a funny thing” to give birth to the first baby on Mars. (She recently dropped out.) Many have appeared with Sonia on panels at conventions or on cable news shows. Most have drawn local news coverage. Some, like Lieu, seemed a little goofy. Some, most notably Oscar Matthews, a Navy reservist and nuclear engineer in Virginia, seemed like the kind of person one might trust with a spaceship.
But there aren’t any square-jawed supermen in the bunch. To the average person, they are all decidedly regular, even relatable. And if they can do it, if a person no more remarkable than you or I can raise their hand and get picked to go to Mars, then perhaps we all can dream about what it would be like to bounce around on a planet with one-third the gravity of Earth’s. Maybe people like my wife, who is in some ways not perfect some of the time, might inspire us all to live our lives a little bigger than we might have expected. Maybe if we’re all looking up at once at that rocket, we will remember that we’re all on this planet together.
“There are millions of things that have to happen for this to be a success, and there are plenty of things that can and will go wrong along the way,” wrote Sonia in Time. “But Mars is humanity’s inevitable destination, and Mars One has accepted the challenge to take that next great leap. Now it’s up to us to live up to the adventure.”
I am so comprehensively screwed. No one cuts John Glenn from the mission. They give that guy one of the plum spots. It turns out my Miss Right has the right stuff, at least so far. We’ll find out more when she ships out for the first round of training next year.
Sonia is still the same fetching vision on our big purple couch (now she’s watching Daredevil on Netflix). As much as she’s grown into her media role, she’s still the same woman I fall in love with over and over each day. But if, a decade from now, I’m looking up at the rocket that will take her away from me forever, I’m going to have to expect that she’ll change not just in the way any of us are shaped by novel experiences but in ways humans have yet to experience. In fact, as Chris Impey argues in Beyond: Our Future in Space, Sonia will first stop being an earthling and next become something not quite (it’s hard to write this) human.
“They’ll evolve physiologically quite quickly, because if the gravity is less—as it would be on Mars or the moon—then they will change,” Impey said on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” “Their physical bodies will change even while they’re alive. And then, if they have children and grandchildren, they’ll change even more.”
Imagine that you know you will be watching your spouse evolve on another planet before she dies of cancer inside of a decade. Imagine that everyone on Earth is watching with you. Now imagine that this idea no longer seems strange.
Maybe she’ll wash out on the technical training. Maybe she’ll find the isolation of a simulated Martian environment unendurable. Maybe Mars One will find 24 other people better able to handle the public role of being an astronaut in the media age. Or maybe she’ll grow gills and turn into a mermaid. Playing the odds has not worked so far, and it’s looking worse. So it’s time to accept my role. Her name is Sonia Van Martian, and I’m the astronaut wife. We’re just an ordinary married couple in an extraordinary situation, and we’re taking it one small step for man at a time.