One-way Mars flight, without wife and kids

Wednesday , January 08, 2014 - 5:40 PM

Ken Sullivan (left) poses with his family in their Farmington home. Sullivan hopes to be one of a...

Mark Saal, Standard-Examiner Staff

FARMINGTON — If men are from Mars, as the popular relationship book has suggested, Ken Sullivan just wants to go home.

Sullivan, a Farmington resident, is one of eight Utahns who recently got a bit closer to their ultimate dream of one day colonizing Mars. Sullivan is one of 1,058 people worldwide, chosen from a pool of more than 200,000 applicants, who were recently informed that they passed the initial screening process and are in the running to participate in the Mars One project (www.mars-one.com), a nonprofit private venture to establish a human settlement on Mars. Other Utahns chosen hail from Salt Lake City, West Valley City, Murray, Park City, Provo, Mount Pleasant and Grantsville.

These thousand-plus hopefuls will eventually be whittled down to a couple dozen folks who will train to be among the first four-member crew to leave for Mars in 2025.

Sullivan first heard about the project last August, when he saw a story on the Internet about the open application process for Mars One.

“I became enthralled with it,” Sullivan said of the project. “I’d always had an interest in going into space, like most children, and this really spurred that.”

Born and raised in Utah, the 38-year-old Sullivan — whose parents still live in North Salt Lake — graduated from Woods Cross High School and then attended Dixie State College. He became interested in EMS training, and eventually moved to Salt Lake City to work for an ambulance company.

“But then I thought it would be more fun to fly an ambulance than to drive one,” he said.

So Sullivan first became a helicopter mechanic, and then began flying the machines. Today, he’s the lead pilot for CareFlight, an air ambulance service based out of Truth or Consequences, N.M. He commutes there from Utah, on a seven-days-on, seven-days-off schedule.

Sullivan applied for a spot on Mars One — along with a couple hundred thousand other Martian wanna-bes — and on Dec. 30 got the news that he’d made the first cut.

Ah, but there’s a catch: It’s a one-way ticket — those selected will go to live on Mars for the rest of their lives.

Oh yes, and one more catch, too: Sullivan is married, with children — four of them, ranging in age from 13 years to 6 months.

And that’s the real story here. What happens when your wildest dream comes into direct conflict with your current reality?

Sullivan has been doing a number of media interviews since he cleared this first hurdle toward Mars, and everyone is asking the same thing. How could a guy with a wife and four children — including a 6-month-old — even consider leaving them with no hope of return?

In an interview Tuesday at the Sullivans’ Farmington home, Ken Sullivan addressed that issue.

“There’s always pros and cons,” he told the Standard-Examiner. “And the most difficult thing will be leaving my family behind ... my wife and my kids.”

Sullivan says he takes comfort in the fact that there are people who have done this before — who have left home and family to colonize new places, or who simply went out exploring.

“I do think that humanity, deep down inside, wants to explore and learn,” he said.

Sullivan doesn’t see himself as one of those adrenalin junkies. He considers himself adventurous, but not “crazy adventurous.”

“I’m cautious in my adventures,” he says.

For example?

“We get a new TV, and I read the instructions before I set it up,” Sullivan says. “I’m confident this project will be successful, and that it’s not going to be a suicide mission.”

Still, Sullivan knows there are those who will judge him for leaving his family. He’d hoped his youngest child would be 18 and out of the house by the time the first flight to Mars left, but if all goes as scheduled, the first colonizers will leave 11 years from now.

“I’ve heard it all — Why in the world would I want to up and leave the kids? It’s so selfish,” he said. “It is kind of selfish, and it’s hard for me not to look like a total ass.”

Still, Sullivan insists none of this is considered lightly.

“I get a little emotional thinking about it,” he says, his eyes glistening slightly. “Do I love Mars more than I love the family and the kids? But I don’t frame the question in that same way. I also see it as, I can be an example to my kids about pursuing a dream.”

Sullivan’s wife, Becky, says her husband is “obsessed with this Mars thing,” but she’s trying to keep it all in perspective.

“I’m not worrying about it until it gets serious,” she says. “If I think about it too much, I get upset. I’m trying to be optimistic and not freak out.”

Not that her husband’s announcement particularly surprised her.

“Ken has always been the type, ‘This is what I’m going to do; just so you know I’m going to apply,’ ” she said. “He didn’t really ask my opinion.”

Whether or not her husband is eventually selected, Becky Sullivan admits it’s difficult not to feel at least a bit of rejection over the decision. They’ve briefly talked about divorce if he is chosen, so she could move on with her life.

“I’ve had those thoughts, too,” she said. “Why don’t I mean more — why don’t the kids mean more — to him?”

But in the final analysis, she says she supports her husband’s decision.

“Even if I was opposed to it, it’s something he wants to do,” she said. “Your dreams are your dreams.”

Sullivan says, to be honest, he doesn’t understand why more people wouldn’t want to take this chance.

“As I talk to family and friends, they say, ‘Are you just completely crazy? How can you even consider it?’ ” he says. “And I think, ‘How can you not consider it?’ It’s the ultimate adventure.”

Two of the couple’s four children are too young to understand, but the older two, from Sullivan’s first marriage — Jocelyn, 13, and Kaitlyn, 12 — understand all too well.

“They don’t want me to go,” Sullivan says. “But my oldest daughter figures, ‘I guess by the time you go, I’ll be out of the house and on my own.’ ”

And the 12-year-old? As this latest in a string of news reporters leaves the Sullivans’ Farmington home, a shy, quiet girl slips out onto the front porch and hands the reporter a small pink plastic bag, whispering, “Please don’t open this until you get in your car.”

Out in the car, the reporter opens the pink bag. Inside, is another white plastic grocery bag. And inside that is a piece of paper, artfully folded into an envelope-and-letter-in-one. On the outside of the paper is written “Open this in your car. From: Kaitlyn, my dad’s second daughter,” and the admonition “P.S. Don’t show this (to) my dad or mom.”(Kaitlyn later gave permission for the Standard-Examiner to use her letter in this story.)

Inside is scrawled: “Please don’t let him go. I need him (here) for me. I don’t know what I would do without him.”

And that’s when the reality of a trip to Mars really hits home.

Contact reporter Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Find him on Facebook at facebook.com/mark.saal.

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