Jason Stanford has never been good with goodbyes.
This becomes painfully apparent during monthly trips to the airport, where the Alexandria, Va., resident is forced to put his two kids on a flight back to their other home in Texas, where they live with their mother.
Stanford describes the monthly ritual with a single adjective: “Horrible.”
“I don’t like saying goodbye to people at all, even when I know I’m going to see them again,” he told The Washington Post.
For most people, such a statement would be considered unremarkable. For Stanford, it involves a much larger — and messier — question:
How does the 45-year-old political consultant plan to say goodbye to his beloved wife if and when she packs her bags and moves 140 million miles away to Mars?
The travel plans are far from certain, but given the opportunity, that’s exactly what Stanford’s wife, Sonia Van Meter, says she intends to do. The 37-year-old is one of 100 candidates left from a pool of more than 200,000 applicants, all of them vying for a final spot on the highly publicized Mars One Project.
In 2026, the privately funded mission will provide 24 finalists with a one-way ticket to Mars, where the explorers will attempt to establish humanity’s first settlement on a planet other than Earth. Sourcing spacecraft from private manufacturers and operating with money generated by a prime-time reality show about the expedition, chief executive Bas Lansdorp believes he can get civilians to the Red Planet before government-run space agencies such as NASA.
A major reason for his optimism is that he doesn’t have to overcome a complicated hurdle facing government-employed astronauts: bringing people home.
It is a reality that Stanford claims he has come to terms with, though he admits it’s nearly impossible to envision the day-to-day reality of never being in the same room with and physically touching his wife ever again.
“I like to think of it as the world’s longest-distance marriage,” he said this week. “We would get to explore a new way of being married that has never been tried. How do you stay connected to someone who is at least 35 million miles away? I don’t have the answer, but her being on a different planet doesn’t mean I’m not going to feel intimately connected to her.”
When he married Van Meter five years ago, Stanford didn’t realize he may be signing up for the world’s longest-distance marriage. He details his emotional journey in a 4,000-word essay in this month’s issue of Texas Monthly, in which he explains how he moved from seeing his wife’s ambition as a “personal horror story” to “the world’s grandest adventure.”
Initially, when Van Meter was one of 200,000 applicants, the Mars idea was “a novelty, great cocktail chatter,” Stanford writes. Van Meter told the BBC that she initially embraced a lighthearted approach to the mission.
“I thought: ‘Shoot, this sounds like fun!'” she said. “I didn’t think there was the slightest chance that I would be selected, I just wanted to be a part of it.”
Reality began to set in when the application pool was whittled down to 1,000. Suddenly, the mission transformed from theoretical amusement to a real-life possibility. Initially, Stanford said, he was slow to accept the idea that he might lose his wife to space travel.
“Like any good red-blooded American male, at first I thought this was all about me,” he told the BBC. “I thought: ‘You’re leaving me.'”
But for the sake of his marriage, he said this week, he eventually concluded that he could not dither — he either supported his wife or he didn’t. With that realization, his decision become simple.
“You don’t say ‘I do’ and have an asterisk there,” he said. “When we got married, we promised to support each other for the rest of our lives.”
He added: “Either I’m her husband or I’m not.”
Stanford said he understands how strange his decision might sound to other married people, especially those who would consider their vows nullified by a spouse departing for another planet. His response: Marriage is not perfect, but you make it work.
To put things in perspective, he told the BBC that he compares his wife’s mission to those undertaken by explorers such as Columbus or Magellan, the first explorer to circumnavigate the globe.
“They didn’t stay home because they were married,” he said. “They explored, and they were assumed probably to be facing great peril. The peril here is guaranteed, and the fact she’s willing to take this on for noble reasons is something I can get behind.”
And yet, the harsh questions persist for Van Meter, who is frequently asked how she could think of leaving her family, including her two stepsons, Henry, 14, and Hatcher, 12.
“She’s been asked how she could abandon me more times than most people have been asked if they want fries with that,” Stanford wrote, noting that other men attempting to join the mission don’t endure the same line of inquiry.
While others fret about Van Meter’s decision, her husband has grown more comfortable with her pursuit than perhaps anyone else.
“Playing the odds has not worked so far, and it’s looking worse,” he wrote. “So it’s time to accept my role.”
He’s even begun calling himself “the astronaut wife.” Although Van Meter has told him that she’ll stay on Earth if he asks her to, Stanford said he refuses to make such a demand.
“Everyone focuses on what I might lose,” he told The Post. “But my wife, she truly believes in the best of humanity. With this mission, the whole world is getting to see her at her best and I get to be part of her life as she becomes the greatest version of herself.”