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?
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.
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?