So You’ve Got the Guts to Go to Mars–But Do You Have the Brains?

Since posting last week about volunteers for a one-way trip to Mars, several of you have written in asking where to sign up.


Planetary scientist Pascal Lee at Haughton Crater, Devon Island, wearing the upper torso of an advanced space-exploration concept suit (color-enhanced image).

—Photograph courtesy NASA Haughton-Mars Project/Pascal Lee

Hearing your comments and suggested qualifications for Martian colonists, a couple themes struck me.

For one, most people mentioned that they are gearheads, either by trade or as a hobby.

“I love tinkering with machines and computers, and I’m very handy with tools,” writes Rick from Naples, Florida.

Mars hopeful Matthew says that “using welding to fund my schooling, I intend on returning to college to study Mechanical Engineering.”

This certainly fits with what NASA already looks for in its space-farers. According to the astronaut application guidelines, candidates should have advanced degrees in engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics.

It also makes logical sense that you’d want someone who’s colonizing Mars to be highly skilled—perhaps even MacGyver-esque—when it comes to solving technical difficulties on the fly with limited resources.

What was really interesting to me was the number of volunteer Martians who said they are comfortable with loneliness.

“Sometimes, I feel lonely but it doesn’t matter for me. I know … how to cope with the feeling,” writes Seulyi from Korea.

Sheryl Bishop, a social psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, was one of the contributors to the Journal of Cosmology, Mars edition that sparked the “one-way to Mars” conversation.

Her paper assumes a trip as long as a thousand days, or just over two and a half years. But I think the reasoning would apply to a one-way trip as well.

According to Bishop, ideal colonists will be people who thrive in a cooperative environment, even in confined spaces. It’s gonna be a *really* long trip if you don’t get along with your crew mates.

She also mentions the importance of cultural attitudes toward privacy—in the cramped quarters of any space mission, I imagine the shy need not apply.

In addition, she sates that “fluid, adaptable personality types might be better suited to such a long, unprecedented mission than more rigid, task-focused individuals.”

Of course, to be a Mars colonist, you not only have to play well with others, you also have to handle the stress of limited interactions with loved ones back on Earth.

Right now, we face a one-way communications delay of about 22 minutes between rovers on the red planet and mission control back on Earth. There would also be extended communications blackouts during certain parts of the Martian year when the sun is directly between us and the red planet.

Rick, of Naples, probably had that in mind when he wrote: “I haven’t had many girlfriends and have little ties here that would keep me from abandoning my homeworld.”

It’s a tough one. You have to be a people person, but you also have to be cool with severing ties with family and friends, perhaps forever.

According to Bishop, even today’s best astronauts might not have all the right stuff, psychologically speaking, for a Mars mission.

“Mars is different—no turning back, no way out except forward,” Bishop said in a statement.

“The research my colleagues and I are conducting in natural, manmade, and simulated environments—from polar expeditions and deep-caving teams to submarines and bed-rest studies—will help achieve a mission to the red planet.”

(Check out the case for a human mission to Mars, as sung by Carl Sagan, Brian Cox, and Robert Zubrin.)

PS: reports that their original story about volunteers for Mars [and likely subsequent shout-outs across the web] sparked an additional hundred people to write to the Journal of Cosmology.

“Due to the volume of interest, the journal asks future volunteers, or those supporting a human mission to Mars, to e-mail”

Human Journey