When the initial tingle had passed and the idea had been given time to marinate and settle, Peter Degen-Portnoy said his family split into camps regarding his decision to commit to a one-way trip to Mars.
His sons think it’s cool.
His two oldest daughters stopped speaking with him.
And his wife left him.
Three years ago, Degen-Portnoy, a 54-year-old father of five from Stoneham, was one of 100 semifinalists chosen for Mars One, a wildly ambitious Dutch-led project that ultimately seeks to colonize Mars, beginning in 2032, with 20 permanent, never-to-return-to-Earth settlers. The plan has been controversial from the moment it was announced in 2012, with serious questions about the technological feasibility, as well as the plan to fund much of the mission.
Mars One organizers say the project can be accomplished for roughly $6 billion; critics say that is preposterous, as is the plan to raise much of that through corporate sponsorship and the sale of television rights.
The mission is currently far, far away from becoming a reality — millions of miles and millions of questions remain about how they will get there, how they will survive on Mars and build a self-sustaining colony, and of course how they will survive the trip. The current plan involves sending supplies ahead, then sending crews of four crammed into spaceships the size of a tour bus for the 18-month journey. When solar flares erupt, they will retreat into a bathroom-sized pod, surrounded by water for protection, for several claustrophobic days at a time.
While space experts and keyboard cowboys continue their debate, Degen-Portnoy and the three other semifinalists from Massachusetts have been dealing with the very real impact on their personal lives that comes when you make a commitment to a one-way trip to outer space.
For whether they go to Mars or not, “the 100,” as they call themselves, are the first humans to actually experience the terrestrial repercussions of making such an extravagant extraterrestrial commitment. And according to Degen-Portnoy, the countless books and movies and songs that have tackled the subject have missed the mark.
“I have not seen an accurate representation of the internal personal cost in accepting that you will leave your family and loved ones behind and you will still choose to accept the mission,” he said recently while in a coffee shop near his office at a software development company in Burlington. “For me, it took a little while. First, everyone was excited. My wife and I were in the car on the way to see a play when I got the e-mail telling me I’d made the 100, and she was exuberant that I got to continue in the process.”
Then time passed. Then the questions came. “Daddy, why do you want to leave us?’” he recalled. “Then it all came out. ‘Hey, you decided to leave us, and even if you change your mind, you can’t undo that decision. You made that decision.’ ”
He said his older daughters, who are 20 and 18 — he also has an 11-year-old daughter — viewed it as a breaking of the marriage vows he made to their mother. Till death do us part.
Degen-Portnoy views it another way. When he was a young boy, obsessed with outer space, he promised himself if he ever had the chance to go live on another planet, he would take it.
“So I was in a position where either I broke a promise to myself, or I broke a promise to my wife.”
Love and Mars. It is a tricky topic for everyone in the 100. Promises have been broken. And promises have been made.
. . .
Before the corps of 100 was chosen, many of the aspiring candidates joined a Facebook group called “Aspiring Martians,” and one of those candidates, Yari Rodriguez, a then-27-year-old engineer living in Somerville, was surprised to find the online community was rather flirty.
“There was a lot of cruising going,” she said. “A couple people were definitely like, ‘Hey, baby,’ which I hated.”
But there was one guy in the group who seemed to know his stuff about Mars, an Army soldier named R. Dan Golden who was living at Fort Bliss in Texas. She sent him a friend request, hoping he might help her study for their upcoming interviews for the cut to 100 candidates, and they struck up a long-distance friendship.
“At the time he was looking to leave the Army to go to college, and I told him to come to Boston. We have colleges on every corner,” she said.
Golden wasn’t looking for anything but a new college. He had been married and divorced once. He has two small children who live with their mother in Puerto Rico.
And so in late December 2014, he boarded a plane for Boston to visit some schools and meet a fellow would-be Martian.
His plan was to stay for just over a day, but a snowstorm extended his stay, which was fortuitous because something was happening between the two. On New Year’s Eve, they went to watch the fireworks over Boston Harbor, and at midnight, she turned around to wish him happy New Year.
“Then he kissed me really fast,” she said. “It was magical. Like a movie. It was . . . ” — wait for it — “out of this world.”
Mars One, which was hatched by Dutch wind-energy entrepreneur Bars Lansdorp out of frustration with the lack of government efforts to send humans to Mars, had made it clear they were recruiting individuals, not couples. But something was happening between Golden and Rodriguez, and they felt they had to inform Mars One of their romance. When the acceptance e-mails for the 100 went out in 2015, they waited to open them together when Golden came back to Boston. They clicked on the e-mails on Valentine’s Day.
She got in. He did not. “I was so excited,” Rodriguez said. “But I didn’t feel like celebrating.”
What was next for their relationship seemed obvious. She did not want to have a long-distance relationship, at least not until she left for Mars, so Golden made plans to move to Massachusetts to attend the University of Massachusetts Lowell and reapply for the Mars One program.
Before that happened, Mars One sent out an e-mail stating that six of the 100 candidates had dropped out. Rodriguez read it at work one afternoon at Lincoln Labs, and when Golden called moments later she was screaming into the phone. She knew in her gut what he was about to tell her. He had gotten in.
When they decided to get married, they thought it would be cute to do it when Mars was in opposition, when the red planet and the sun are on directly opposite sides of Earth. Instead of wedding bands, they got small tattoos on their ring fingers of the two planets on either side of a tiny sun.
“I don’t believe in fate. But I believe in coincidence, in serendipity,” said Golden, 35. “When I look back, I always feel like I’ve ended up where I was headed.”
Even if they make it to the final 20 who are slated to be sent to Mars, there is no guarantee that they will go at the same time. Regardless, Golden said that something about their unique partnership makes fundamental sense.
“If you’re going to marry somebody, why not marry somebody who has the same goals?”
. . .
“I have no desire to leave Earth,” Evan Seitchik said as he sat on a couch in his Somerville home. “There’s so much to see and do here.”
Across from him, his new wife, Sara Director, laughed. They’re both 29 and met in college at Bard. She’s one of the 100. He married her anyway, proposing three months after she made the semifinals.
“We’ll be the ultimate long-distance relationship,” he said with a big smile. “Some people would love to send their wife to Mars. I’m not one of them. I get a lot of questions about it. Maybe I should be more anxious than I am. But if the most ridiculous thing about a relationship is that your partner may be one of the first people to settle Mars, then that’s pretty good.”
Seitchik’s a jovial guy, a Buddhist with a big beard. Director is more of an introvert. She has purple streaks in her hair and says her current occupation is “stay-at-home-mom to our cat.” (She’s also an artist.)
“People make a big deal out of it. The idea of going to Mars is certainly exciting,” Director said as their cat, Rebel, tore through the house, attacking phantom enemies. “But our day-to-day life is still very mundane. We’re just trucking along. Yes, there’s this thing that might happen. But there are a lot of things that might happen. We might have kids. I might go to Mars. Couples have all kinds of things that might happen. Ours is just a unique version of something that all couples deal with.”
When Director first expressed an interest in applying to the Mars One program while they were dating, Seitchik said he was not the least bit surprised. “She was a science major. Her dad is a serious sci-fi fan, and Sara was raised that way. So it wasn’t a huge shock. She was exactly the sort of person who would go to Mars.”
The odds that Director will ever board a spaceship and leave him behind are long. She might not make the final roster. The mission may never launch. But if it does, Seitchik said, he would want to see her go.
“I won’t take it personally,” he said. “I’ll be very sad. This partnership is a huge part of my life. I would grieve the loss of this. But if she were getting on a spaceship to Mars, I wouldn’t feel like she was breaking a promise to me. The opportunity is just so fundamentally huge, she has to go for it.”
. . .
Back in the coffee shop near his office, Degen-Portnoy is firm in his belief that it will all happen. That the extraordinary technical challenges will be solved. That the billions in funding will be raised. That he will be chosen for the mission. That he will die on Mars.
In the meantime, he is optimistic that he can repair his relationships here on Earth.
“I won’t get to Mars until I’m 70 at the earliest,” he said. “I’ve got time to reconcile. It should never go without saying that I love my children very much and would miss them.”
And if he gets to Mars, he already knows what his first feeling will be.
“I’ll look around at the landscape of Mars, take it all in, and I’ll wish my children could be there to see it.”Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@billy_baker.