Until recently, I never understood the scene in Apollo 13 when the astronaut wives watched their husbands launch into space, leaving them back on Earth to deal with the reporters.
Reporter 1: Mrs. Lovell! Mrs. Haise!
Reporter 2: Can we speak to you? Can we just have a word with you, please?
Marilyn Lovell: Remember, you’re proud, happy, and thrilled.
Reporter 1: How are you feeling?
Mary Haise: Well, we’re very proud, very happy, and we’re thrilled.
It made no sense to me. Wasn’t saying you’re proud, happy, and thrilled stating the obvious? Their husbands were astronauts, for crying out loud. How else would you feel? At least, that’s how I felt until my own spouse made it past the initial stages in the application process to be among the first humans on Mars.
You might have read about my wife, heard her on the radio, or seen her on TV. She’s Sonia Van Meter, the Austin woman (and stepmother) who is a semifinalist for Mars One, the privately funded European nonprofit that wants to recruit and train people to be sent to Mars in groups of four starting in 2024. When people learn of this, they invariably ask how I feel.
I’m proud, happy, and thrilled, of course.
Now I get it. Marilyn Lovell’s string of supportive adjectives was more than an astronaut’s wife’s version of the clichés that Crash Davis taught Nuke LaLoosh. It was her way of being supportive while telling the press to go to the beach and pound sand.
But astronaut wives only had to hold out for a week before their husbands came home. If Sonia goes to Mars, she’s not coming back. The Mars One Project is a one-way trip to establish a permanent human colony there. And it’s at this point in the story when people turn to me again and wonder what evil lurks in my heart—or in hers.
Most of us run through certain hypothetical scenarios when getting married. Would you forgive me if I cheated? Would you stay if I were paralyzed? If I were brain dead, could you pull the plug? Do you really mean it when you say you’ll stand by me in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, till death do us part? We forget that our vows are not lyrics to be recited for public enjoyment but promises to be kept. I looked at the wedding vows that Sonia and I wrote so carefully, and there is no asterisk, no out clause releasing me in the event of extraterrestrial excursions. This is probably my fault. I was the one who suggested including the Michael Ventura quote in the wedding ceremony: “Marriage is not the answer, but it is the most demanding way to live the question. Don’t ask questions. Live them.”
On the other hand, going back over our wedding vows, as I have been doing frequently, reminded me how consciously we made a commitment to seek adventure in each other. Our vows ended with an overt attempt to leave the crowd laughing, but buried at the end is our solemn oath:
Do you promise that come Hell or high water, secession or recession, killer bees or swine flu, federal indictment or tabloid scandal, that you’re in this together, no matter what?
It seems like the best explanation for why I support her going to Mars, but that I married her “no matter what” satisfies exactly no one because it doesn’t answer the tabloid-level question people now ask. Will she, you know, have to help populate the planet? For the record, keeping adults alive on Mars will be enough of a challenge. Human reproduction is not part of the mission.
Usually, however, the questions I get asked are less about the babies and more about how they are made. Over dinner in a crowded restaurant, a friend asked her—in front of me—what she would do for sexual gratification for the rest of her life on Mars. (I assume this is why we named the Mars Rover Curiosity.) In one of the high points of media speculation, the co-host of an Austin morning radio show asked her how she would handle her urges and coined the word “marsterbation” by way of suggesting an answer.
I might have suggested another couple of words in response to that particular question, but I know better than most that the notion that someone can retain privacy once they’ve entered this modestly public life is archaic. When Mars One whittled the 200,000-plus applicants down to 1,058, Sonia got enough media coverage to become a minor celebrity around town. It doesn’t hurt that she is easy on the eyes. I love her, the camera loves her, and now strangers do too.
When we go to parties we hear whispers. “That’s the Mars girl,” people say. Women—it’s always women—approach to congratulate her on her bravery. Rarely does anyone engage her as a space geek to talk about what she hopes to find up there, but if someone did, he or she would open the discussion to Sonia’s innate curiosity and her enthusiasm about humanity’s drive to explore and expand our understanding of what is possible. She honestly does not understand why everyone does not want to go to Mars, though she knows I would last about half an hour before getting bored up there.
But that’s not what people talk about when they comment about her on the Internet. No sooner had a story about my wife’s astronautical ambition aired in Austin than strangers took it upon themselves to diagnose our obviously flawed marriage.
“Nothing says ‘I love you’ more than a one-way trip to Mars,” tweeted one stranger.
“She must really be sick of her husband,” commented another, unaware of how surprised I am that she married me in the first place.
One Internet commenter posting under the pseudonym “Acup” wrote: “Wow Im glad Im not married to her.” True enough, since she’d probably tell him where he could put his apostrophes.
More to the point was “buck,” whose keen insight resulted in this trenchant observation: “Going to Mars and abandoning your husband and children forever? Brave? Hardly. Selfish? Most definitely.”
Sonia had not learned the first rule of the Internet: never read the comments. Excited to see the reaction to the story, she read, aghast, as strangers sat in anonymous judgment of our marriage. What started as a brave woman claiming her ambition had become a public hazing.
“I want you to tell me honestly,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “Am I being a bad wife?”
Neil Armstrong probably never had to ask his wife this. Or maybe he did. Maybe his wife had to demonstrate to him that the fullest expression of her commitment was to love him to the ends of the Earth and then one very large step beyond. Maybe she had to reinforce to Neil that all she wanted was for him to become the biggest version of himself. Maybe she loved him “no matter what,” and risking his life in space was the “what.”
But as I mentioned before, Neil came home—and he hitched a ride on a government-funded spacecraft. Here is where my nightmare scenario deepens. To fund this private enterprise mission, Mars One is considering staging reality television shows to narrow the field of “marstronauts” down to the final four. If she goes the distance, I will evolve into a professional astronaut wife, constantly calibrating my words and tempering my public behavior to avoid hurting her chances or the mission. It’s not just that I don’t want to be sitting on a porch in our dotage with her glaring at me for screwing up her life’s dream. She has chosen this, so we will do it.
This mission is, admittedly, a literal long shot. They have to raise more than $1 billion, solve the radiation problem, build a new generation of spacecraft, and figure out how to sustain human life on a cold, airless planet that has neither water nor pizza delivery. Not even Netflix. But regardless of whether this actually happens, the possibility of my wife flying into space some day in the future forces me—right here, right now—to accept that this may happen.
Watching the launch will be the easy part. Living without her will be an agony that I will have to share with the world. I’ll be Mr. Sonia Van Meter for the rest of my life, showing up to cut the ribbon at Sonia Van Meter High School and telling her story here on Earth. I joke about endorsing products (“While my wife is exploring Mars, I’m doing the laundry with new Cosmos Detergent. It’s out of this world!”), but there will be some who view me as a cautionary male, cuckolded by an entire planet. And though remarrying isn’t an option, others might think me unfaithful if pictures of me socializing with women friends end up on TMZ. There aren’t a lot of happy options when the public gets invited into your private life.
This would all fit more neatly into popular understanding if we were conforming to gender stereotypes, if she were the man and I the supportive wife. These roles are not strangers in our society. She could be understood as an explorer, and I the determined source of support back at home. If I were the wife, I could say that I love Sonia, no matter what, that I love her to the ends of the Earth and beyond, that I want what she wants, and people would nod approvingly at how nice it must be to have such love and support.
But until the culture grows up, my answers will only puzzle those who want me to describe the view as I look into the abyss. I will miss her. I will be lonely. I will mourn her a million times before she dies. I will not like any of this, but I love her, and this is a horizon worth crossing. Like those astronaut wives before me, I will man up. And when people ask me how I am feeling, I’ve got my answer memorized.
I’m proud, happy, and thrilled.