"Part of me thinks I'm in a unique position to demonstrate that there is no such thing as a dream that is too big to be chased," she told SheKnows.
The 37-year-old political consultant and stepmom to two boys, ages 12 and 14, said she has always had a fascination with space exploration, harking back to her childhood, when her parents let her watch only one show on television: Star Trek. She was hooked.
"What appealed to me was the ambition and the optimism of [space exploration]," she explained. "That humanity could achieve these wonderful things if they were able to put aside their cosmetic differences."
Those weekly intergalactic glimpses sparked a lifelong dream of space exploration, and now Van Meter truly has a chance to go where no man or woman has gone before: Mars.
Van Meter said she's as shocked as anyone that she's one of 100 finalists culled from more than 200,000 applicants. "I'm not a scientist or an engineer… I'm just an enthusiast." When she first learned of the project, "I thought, 'I've got to be a part of that.' I knew that I had to throw my hat in the ring so I could say, if only for a second, that I tried."
Media attention recently turned to her husband Jason Stanford's essay in Texas Monthly explaining why he really — yes, really — supports his wife of five years. "At first all I could see was my loss," he wrote. "Then I realized it’s humanity’s gain. So now I’m just taking it one small step for man at a time."
"He's been this extraordinary partner," Van Meter said. "When he promised to love me forever, I think the implication was that he would do it on this planet. [Perhaps] the limits of marriage do not necessarily include a single planet.
"It was a whim, and neither of us thought I would get to this point," she admitted with a laugh. But as the pool of applicants dwindles, "it's becoming something that could actually impact our life."
Van Meter said interacting with young girls has been her favorite aspect of this extraterrestrial addition to her résumé.
She understands she may be a role model for young girls whose own ambitions deserve to be supported, and she'd "be lying if I said I hadn't noticed" that bystanders have judged her choices more harshly than male counterparts'.
"I've gotten some backlash from people for being a wife and stepmother who's willing to abandon her family. I understand that. It's not like I can argue, 'No, no, I'm not leaving behind a family on this planet if I go.'" But for now, she said the possibilities outweigh any doubts.
As space explorers, "we have to be the very best versions of ourselves," she said. "We've got to collaborate and think outside the box. We have to anticipate challenges… I feel like it brings out the very best of our species."
Meanwhile, her stepsons are enjoying "modest celebrity. Their teachers all want to know about their crazy stepmom," she said with a laugh. The boys are "extremely close to both [biological] parents" and "have great relationships with all four of their parents."
"They're very much on board with my candidacy so far," she said, acknowledging the reality of her decision is still 10 years away. "They still think of it in abstract terms."
But the ongoing characterization that Van Meter will happily abandon her family clearly bothers her.
"I'm not doing this without the full support of my husband," she said emphatically. "The only reason I'm willing to consider this is because he believes in this mission. He thinks what I'm doing is noble.
"The minute he tells me he doesn't want me to go, I'm out." Still not convinced? Van Meter plans to pack only one item for the trip: her wedding band.
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