Sonia Van Meter is the managing director of Stanford Caskey, a national Democratic opposition research firm. She's also one of 100 candidates selected by Mars One for Martian colonization in 2025. Many are skeptical of Mars One's prospects; many (like Buzz Aldrin) hope the mission succeeds. Regardless, Mars is the future that Sonia is preparing for, and we spoke on the phone last week.
I'm so excited to talk to you about this. I'm so… jealous.
Oh, I'm so glad to get to talk to you, too. So much of what I've been asked is how I could possibly leave my husband and family, how I could stand to be such a horrible woman. I would love for this story to be told with a hint of a feminist perspective for once.
There are plenty of other women in the Mars 100, right?
49 other women!
Do you think they're all getting this reaction?
I think a few of them probably have. Although there are a lot of single women, and I don't know how many of the other women have children who are young.
There are certainly plenty of men and women who are married, anyway. But I might be one of the candidates who has younger children, even though—not to be cold—my children are stepchildren, and they do have two biological parents who will take care of them. And in 2024 they're going to be 21 and 24. It's not like I'm leaving infants to twist in the wind. As an ancillary parent, I feel like it's incumbent upon me to demonstrate to them that there's no reason why they shouldn't pursue their dreams.
What did it feel like when you found out you were part of the Mars 100?
I was sitting at my desk when I got the email and it said, "Congratulations. You and 99 other people have made it to the next round." I don't think I breathed for about 90 seconds. I just sort of stared at it. I had this weird sensation as if someone had knocked the wind out of me; I was blown away, knocked out. This wasn't what I was expecting. I thought for sure I would be eliminated in this round. To be honest, I don't think I moved for five minutes straight.
Why did you think you'd be eliminated—and why do you think you weren't?
I assumed that they would want people with some expertise in engineering, technology, and medical care. That's not me. I have my skill set on this planet for sure, but I feel like on Mars I'd be less than useless.
I thought I would be eliminated after an interview with the medical officer when he asked some hard, specific technical questions about the planet. I didn't know everything; I figured I had dropped the ball. But on the questions he asked about why I want to go—perfectly reasonable questions for a mission like this—I stayed true to myself: here's what I want, here's what I believe. In hindsight, I realize what they were looking for was the kind of personality that can handle it. The mission is still 10 years out. You can train a person on a lot of stuff in 10 years. You can't train a person on patience, compassion, discipline, and tolerance.
What's your short answer about why you want to go?
I believe that this needs to be done. Space exploration benefits humanity immeasurably. The stuff we've gotten out of the space race is endless: MRI imaging, GPS, all kinds of fabrics, Velcro. When we sent our minds to a thing that seems insurmountable, we have to come up with all kinds of extraordinary solutions in terms of technology and medicine.
There's so much that comes out of an effort like this. It is expensive, but the glory behind space exploration is that it inspires people. You don't grow up wanting to be the person who invents GPS. You think about space, and you want to be part of that adventure. And then later when you walk down the path of your interests—hopefully, a STEM education with a liberal arts bent—then suddenly you find yourself being the person who invents GPS.
And you're excited about being a conduit for all this.
When did the application process start?
2013, around August.
How did the conversation go with your family?
At first it was no big deal. I said I found this thing online, it's a one-way trip to Mars, I'm going to apply just so I can throw my hat in the ring. I told my stepkids; they were like, "That's cool." It was almost effortless in that respect. Obviously there were questions that had be answered on the application in terms of family and psychological preparation, but it was such a far-fetched whim, a kind of pipe dream.
Once I made it into the top 1,064, that was more of a real thing. There were 200,000 and now there are us. Everything becomes clearer, sharper, more into focus. But even then, it seemed like such a huge endeavor. So many things have to happen in order for this to happen that it still seemed fantastical—still closer to daydream than reality.
Having gotten to the 100, it gets even clearer. Suddenly the world is watching. That adds a very new and exciting component. But again, it's still 10 years away, and 10 billion things have to happen in the right order to make this go. I don't think you're going to find a single candidate without a healthy dose of skepticism. But the thing that unites us is that we all want to see it happen.
What is the process like from now on?
Mars One is playing this very close to the chest. We don't know things more than one step ahead. The email let us know that we have a few months to kind of sit on this, absorb the reality—then they'll get back in touch with a contract.
The contract is for training, etc?
I presume so.
And they'll be winnowing everyone down to a group of 40?
What's the elimination process going to be like?
I think we've seen the last broad cuts of candidates. From here on out, I think what happens is that training starts, and people will withdraw or be eliminated. They plan on reopening the application process every two years for the next 10 years, and they'll supplement the existing pool with new applicants. They have to train people on technology, medicine, and all the equipment; they also have to find the right combination of individuals. The three people that will be journeying with you will be your lifeline, your bread and butter. They're creating blended families, essentially. The four very best qualified candidates may make a horrible team.
Do you know any of the other people yet? Is there a Mars listserv?
There's not a listserv yet, but we've formed small communities. We've gotten together a couple of times. There's a guy up in Boston who I've done some interviews with; he's a biologist and brings a really fantastic science component. They talk about doing this on a TV show and chronicling our training, but it's not Survivor or the Hunger Games. We can't attack each other. That would be completely antithetical to what we're trying to do.
Yeah, I imagine that they've actively sorted for people who are not going to be at each other's throats.
A few cuts before this round sort of shocked me: people who had military training, medical training. The only assumption I can make, and it's a huge assumption, is that it was a personality thing. You have to be incredibly driven and motivated, but you can't be too intense, too type A.
You've got to be laid-back enough to understand that this isn't a sure shot.
Absolutely. If you're going to spend eight months in a tin can in space with someone, you want someone who can chill the hell out. And who knows, I may not be that someone. I may get eliminated.
What's the age range?
I want to say it's roughly twentysomething to 60.
Okay so, like I said at the beginning of this interview, I am jealous of you. I have wanted to go to space for a long time, although I have only recently understood that I would like my life to end there. Important moments for me were: the Magic School Bus episode where the kid takes off his helmet on Neptune; Ray Bradbury Martian Chronicles; Mitt Liv Som Hund. What were yours?
My father is a huge aerospace fanatic, and when I was growing up, there was a rule: no TV allowed during the week. There was only one exception, for Thursday nights, when Star Trek was on. Star Trek, we could watch together.
Obviously, space exploration is the central theme of the show. But there are some really wonderful aspects otherwise: teamwork, collaboration, problem solving, multiculturalism, integration. All these wonderful themes that are somehow better addressed in a science fiction format than they could be on regular TV. Star Trek was this universe in which humanity is curious about the universe, appreciates its place in the universe, appreciates its boundaries and limitations.
Space exploration is an embodiment of all these things. In order to do space exploration, you have to be the best version of yourself. You have to believe in something, collaborate, and believe in something. It demands the very best of human nature.
Yes. But people don't talk to you like you're invested in this: they talk to you about your gender.
Let me preface this by saying I know my conception of going to space is very abstracted, and I generally don't think isolated actions can be judged for "how feminist" they are. But: the idea of a woman sending herself to space turns out two things that I find really elusive in both society and feminism today—a radical diminishment of the self, and also an incontrovertible assertion of agency. And this is why it makes me crazy that you're doing this thing that I think of as literally my dream, and people are like, "BUT WHO'S GONNA WATCH BABY?"
I think people have kind of made up their minds without knowing much about the situation. The people who don't like that I'm going would still find a reason to dislike this even if I weren't leaving a husband or children behind. And I'm not saying it's not a legitimate consideration or concern or criticism to think about where this leaves your family. But really, like Sally Ride said, you either get it or you don't. It's clear as day why you want to do this or it's not. People who don't understand it, you can't explain it to them.
I do have a husband, I have stepchildren. But this is bigger than me and any family—and my family is inclined to agree. I've been called every name under the sun, and I'm not going to tell them that they're wrong, but I would like for them to look at the bigger picture. I'm doing it for me, but also for them, for their families, families everywhere.
It also seems so fundamentally an issue of individual choice. Why should anyone feel personally affronted by your business?
We are used to seeing men go off and be explorers, do the dangerous thing. Men are the head of families, while women stay home and take care of children and act as the warm place to come home to. It's peculiar for people when the gender roles are reversed. Which isn't to say that there aren't precedents—female astronauts from way back in the day. It's been done, but it's not what people are used to.
It can be hard for people to relate to a person wanting to go into space, but people can relate to the family.
More unkindly, people can also relate to the idea that a woman's life is up for criticism. Magellan was married. Shackleton. It's crazy! But I'm wondering if you've tapped into the opposite also. Women like me who are like "FUCK YES."
Yeah, absolutely. Tons of men and women have been very supportive. And the worst stuff is mostly in internet comments, the bathroom graffiti of our time. I've had schools ask me to come speak to them; someone asked me to speak to their Daisy troop.
That's a huge reason I want to do this. I like to think of myself as a reasonably smart girl growing up, but I thought math and science weren't for me, thought I was good at English and the touchy-feely stuff. And all of a sudden, here I am, a potential astronaut. It's really important to me to know that little girls understand that gender is not something that has to define your lot in life.
What is the part of this that you daydream about? Any particular moment?
Mars has about 40 percent of the gravity of Earth, so an efficient way of getting around the planet is not going to be running or walking, it's going to be bouncing. That's something I daydream about: bouncing, bouncing across the habitat.
That rules. What do you imagine life is going to be like? What are you going to do to amuse yourself? Are you going to be working the whole time? Are you going to be literally staring into space?
They've made it very clear that a lot of work is going to have to go into establishing the settlement, making sure it's working properly, maintenance. There's going to be scientific research to be done. There are people on Earth who are going to ask some questions, because we are going to be the new rovers, the new satellites, and the new science labs.
But we are still human beings. We're going to need time to hang out, work out, play games.
Imagine cracking the first beer on Mars.
Growing the hops and the grain!
Has this made life more exciting for you now—to know that in 10 years you might never see any of it again?
Not really, to tell you the truth, and that's because it still seems like a fantastical moment.
What do you think is going to happen if you don't get picked? What's the ratio of relief to disappointment?
Split right down the middle. But actually, relief is inaccurate. The thing is, I love my life on this planet. I love my husband, I love my stepchildren, the city that I live in, the work that I do, the people I work with. I love the adventures that I'm only going to be able to have on this planet—seeing parts of this world, where there's no shortage of extraordinary things to do. I would be disappointed, for sure.
But so much of this for me is advocating for the mission, whether or not they send me. Of course I would love to be the first human being to set foot on that red sandy ground, to have the next words that come out of my mouth be the stuff of bedtime stories. But I recognize that the chance of that person being me is slim.
I'm going to ask you a dark question. Would it be worth it for you if the shuttle blows up before you get there?
It's certainly a possibility. Of the millions of things that have to go right, plenty of them are on the journey from Earth to Mars. Every human being who has ever flown in space has known the risks that come along with it. It's no secret that spaceflight is dangerous. We're taking our very first steps into this arena, and there are no guarantees.
But this entire endeavor—it's worth a human life. And I would hate to think that we stop looking up and going forward and stop reaching for the stars, literally, just because accidents happen.
Photos via Twitter and Nasa.