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?
I looked at the wedding vows that my wife and I had written, and there is no asterisk, no out clause releasing me in the event of extraterrestrial excursions.
You may have read about my wife of four years, heard about her on the radio, or seen her on TV. She’s Sonia Van Meter, 36, the Austin woman (and stepmother to my sons, Henry, 13, and Hatcher, 11) who was chosen as a candidate by Mars One, the privately funded European nonprofit that is recruiting people to be sent to Mars in groups of four, starting in 2024. Unlike astronaut wives who have to hold out only a week before their husbands come back, I will never see Sonia again if she goes to Mars. The Mars One Project is a one-way trip to establish permanent human life there.
When Mars One whittled the 200,000-plus applicants down to 1,058, Sonia, a political consultant, got enough media coverage to become a minor celebrity around town. It doesn’t hurt that she’s 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. Some ask, Will she, you know, have to help populate the planet? (For the record, human reproduction is not part of the mission.)
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 get why everyone doesn’t want to go to Mars, though she knows I would last about half an hour up there before getting bored.
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 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,” wrote another.
One Internet commenter posting under the pseudonym “Acup” wrote, “Wow Im glad Im not married to her.” True enough, since she would probably tell him where he could place 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 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.”
This mission is, admittedly, a literal long shot. They have to raise more than $6 billion, 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, 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 some will view me as a cautionary male, cuckolded by an entire planet.
If she were the man and I the supportive wife, 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 I want what Sonia 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 not like any of this, but I love her, and this is a horizon worth crossing.
Jason Stanford, a political analyst and consultant, lives with his wife and two sons in Austin, Texas.