Sonia Van Meter in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 10, 2015.
Sonia Van Meter in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 10, 2015. Marvin Joseph—The Washington Post/Getty Images

Why I’m Volunteering to Die on Mars

Feb 20, 2015
Ideas
Sonia Van Meter is the Managing Director of Stanford Caskey, a national Democratic opposition research firm. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia with her husband. She has already decided what to say if she's the first human to step onto Mars, but that's a secret.

It’s a peculiar thing to imagine leaving Planet Earth forever. But when a Dutch nonprofit called the Mars One project announced in 2013 that it was accepting applications for a one-way trip to another planet, I didn’t think twice about signing up.

It started off simply enough. Answer some questions about yourself, put together an audition video, and submit the application fee. More than 200,000 people answered the call, and I was excited to be one of them. That was really enough for me. I was sure my efforts would go nowhere, but at least I’d be able to say I’d thrown my hat in the ring. It’s not like I’m a trained astronaut, after all. I’m not even a scientist. I’m a political consultant with a husband, two extraordinary stepsons and a black-lab mix. But I wasn’t going to let a lack of training stop me from trying.

Space exploration has inspired me since I was a little girl. I would watch Star Trek with my parents and daydream about what other life forms might be out there waiting to meet us and what challenges we would face as a species if (and when) we found out we weren't alone in the universe. As I got older, the daydreams became a tad more realistic. Could we ever reach out far enough into our galaxy to find that life? What technology would we need to develop to cover such tremendous distances? Are humans physically capable of spending that kind of time in space?

These are questions we’ll no doubt wrestle with for generations to come as we take the next small steps into outer space, but one thing is certain: space exploration and colonization are the next “giant leaps” for humanity. It’s human nature to explore, to question, to look out and wonder what lies beyond the horizon.

That spirit is at the heart of the Mars One project. They’ve picked up where Apollo left off, reigniting the dream of spaceflight in a way that low-earth-orbit shuttle missions, the International Space Station and unmanned cargo ships cannot. They talk of “going boldly” where we’ve yet to put human beings. But there’s just the tiniest catch. You don’t get to come home.

That’s where I usually lose people. “How can you leave forever?” “What does your family think about this?” “Your husband’s O.K. with you leaving him?” These are the questions I’m peppered with when I tell people this is a one-way trip. And these are reasonable questions, perfectly understandable, and they deserve well-considered answers. So here they are:

Space exploration is worth a human life. Every astronaut who has ever flown has known the risks they were up against once strapped into that ship. And there’s no guarantee that I won’t be crushed by a collapsing roof tomorrow or diagnosed with a terminal illness next year. Some call this a suicide mission. I have no death wish. But it would be wonderful if my death could be part of something greater than just one individual. If my life ends on Mars, there will have been a magnificent story and a world of accomplishment to precede it.

But that's not what people really want to know. "How can you leave your family/your life/Earth for certain death?" they ask. Simple: In the beginning, it didn't seem real. This was an easy conversation because there were so many applicants. When you’re one of more than 200,000, the odds are so long that you’ll be picked—never mind the technical hurdles—that the entire enterprise seemed like a lark, both theoretical and improbable, like writing in your own name for President. If there were consequences, they seemed abstract.

A full-circle view released by NASA on June 20, 2013, combined nearly 900 images taken by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, generating a panorama with 1.3 billion pixels in the full-resolution version. The view is centered toward the south, with north at both ends. It shows NASA's Mars rover Curiosity at the 'Rocknest' site where the rover scooped up samples of windblown dust and sand.
A full-circle view released by NASA on June 20, 2013, combined nearly 900 images taken by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, generating a panorama with 1.3 billion pixels in the full-resolution version. The view is centered toward the south, with north at both ends. It shows NASA's Mars rover Curiosity at the 'Rocknest' site where the rover scooped up samples of windblown dust and sand.NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/EPA
A full-circle view released by NASA on June 20, 2013, combined nearly 900 images taken by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, generating a panorama with 1.3 billion pixels in the full-resolution version. The view is centered toward the south, with north at both ends. It shows NASA's Mars rover Curiosity at the 'Rocknest' site where the rover scooped up samples of windblown dust and sand.
A detailed telephoto view from Curiosity shows Mount Sharp. The rover was expected to reach the 3.4-mile-high peak in February 2013, and the layered surface of the mountain should yield information to scientists on the planet's geological history.
Curiosity's tracks was taken by Navcam onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity, on Nov. 18 2012.
Tracks from NASA's Curiosity Mars rover on Aug. 22, 2012 on Mars. NASA said the rover moved forward 15 feet, then rotated 120 degrees before reversing 8.2 feet during its first planned movement.
The highest point on Mount Sharp is visible from the Curiosity rover on Aug. 18, 2012. The Martian mountain rises 3.4 miles above the floor of Gale Crater. Geological deposits near the base of Mount Sharp are the destination of Curiosity's Mars mission.
This image shows the robotic arm of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity with the first rock touched by an instrument on the arm.
This patch of windblown sand and dust downhill from a cluster of dark rocks is the "Rocknest" site, which was the location for the first use of the scoop on the arm of Curiosity.
A small bright object on the ground beside the rover at the "Rocknest" site. The rover team has assessed this object as debris from the spacecraft, possibly from the events of landing on Mars.
NASA's Mars rover Curiosity cut a wheel scuff mark into a wind-formed ripple at the "Rocknest" site to examine the particle-size of the ripple. For scale, the width of the wheel track is about 16 inches (40 centimeters).
A Martian rock illuminated by white-light LEDs is part of the first set of nighttime images taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager camera.
When the rover landed, it sent images from one of the hazard-avoidance cameras. The image at left was taken before the camera's dust cover was removed, the image on the right was taken after. These engineering cameras are located at the rover's base, and are lower-resolution than the color images produced by the rover's mast.
NASA's Curiosity rover and its parachute are seen by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as Curiosity descends to the surface around 10:32 p.m. PDT, Aug. 5, or 1:32 a.m. EDT, Aug. 6, 2012. The rover is equipped with a nuclear-powered lab capable of vaporizing rocks and ingesting soil, measuring habitability, and whether Mars ever had an environment able to support life.
A full-circle view released by NASA on June 20, 2013, combined nearly 900 images taken by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, g
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NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/EPA
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When I made the candidate list of just over 1,000, things became more interesting. People wanted to talk to me about it. I began to come up with answers and repeat them, which in itself became a way of not facing up to the potential reality of stepping off this planet forever. Staying on message became a way to stay away from my real feelings about this.

Now that I’m one of one hundred, the world is watching, looking to me for answers to questions that were easily brushed off when this was all just a fantastical daydream. The reality of this presses up against me, and I stay on message to protect that private space for me and my husband where I can face the hard questions that come at night. It's one thing to imagine the good that can come from a manned mission to Mars, but it's quite another to tally up the cost and see one's life on the bill.

Paradoxically, I couldn't even be contemplating this without the support of my family. My stepsons think it’s neat that their stepmom wants to fly off into space, even if it means I might not be around to see grandchildren. In doing this, I want to show them that there is no dream so great that it shouldn’t be chased. My father and sister think I’m a little nuts, but they know my reasons for doing this are about furthering a dream for mankind, not making a name for myself. And my husband, my incredible husband, has been my greatest advocate since the day I first applied. The promise I made to him on our wedding day was that our marriage would serve to make us the best versions of ourselves. He knows I’d walk away from Mars One without a second’s hesitation if he asked me to. And that’s why he won’t. He knows what this mission means to me.

The first launch of human beings won’t happen until 2024. That means we’re in Chapter 1 of a very long story. No one knows how this story will end. The mission might be scrapped over technical feasibility issues. The funding might not come together. They might have a hard time finding the right candidates. 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. 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.

Read next: Astronauts Vying for One-Way Ticket to Mars May Be on Reality TV

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