Colonising Mars – School Skype Q&A

I’ve mentioned it before, but I spend much of my time either visiting schools or skype calling them to answer questions about Mars One. Often I’ll end up answering a mountain of questions sent through after a school incursion from kids who couldn’t make it on the day, however this week I was sent a list of questions before a school skype call so I knew what their students were going to ask.

While Skype calls are far more engaging than just answering questions via email, often a lot of the detail gets lost in the process. With that in mind I wrote up answers to the questions I was sent this week, and sent them to the teacher so that she and her students had written answers to come back to, and so that you could all read the answers to the genuinely insightful questions I often get from Year 4 groups!

How did you find out about Mars One? I’d just finished my fourth year at the Edinburgh Fringe festival, performing comedy as a giant ukulele-playing koala called “Keith the Anger Management Koala”, and was living in Brighton (UK) reassessing what I wanted to do with my life. Comedy was hard work and I wasn’t enjoying it enough to keep going, so I decided I was going to write one final Edinburgh fringe show on something I’d been thinking about for 3 years – sending people one-way to Mars. I knew from my physics degree that we could get people to Mars, but didn’t have the technology to bring them back, so I was sitting in a coffee shop in Brighton researching a comedy show about going one-way to Mars when I discovered Mars One!

Who or what inspired you to go to Mars? For me Mars isn’t special – it’s just one of many destinations in the solar system we should be looking to explore and colonise. I’d wanted to be an astronaut when I saw Andy Thomas being selected as Australia’s first professional astronaut in 1992 when I was 7, but I knew he’d had to become a US citizen in order to join NASA so I forgot about wanting to be an astronaut and go to space for nearly 20 years. It wasn’t until after I left the military at 25 that I suddenly remembered one night that I’d wanted to be an astronaut as a kid, and just after I turned 27 I discovered Mars One. When I realised Mars One was open to any one regardless of their nationality, I knew I needed to sign up to help make humanity a dual-planet species.

How does the selection process for who’s going to Mars work? You can read a full description here on the selection process from Mars One’s Chief Medical Selector Dr Norbert Kraft, but the short story is that in 2013 Mars One had 202,586 people start the online application, only 4,227 successfully completed it. From there Mar One selected 1,058 candidates they thought were serious about the application and sent them for a medical exam very similar to what a commercial pilot requires each year. 660 of the people who passed the medical exam were offered a psychology interview, and from those people the current 100 were selected for their understanding of the mission and their motivations for applying.

The next phase of selection is expected in 2018, when the remaining 100 candidates all get together for 5 days to see how we work in teams. This will cut the group down to 12-24 people who will start 14 years of training as full-time employees of Mars One. Teams of 4 will be tested to find who works together most effectively, and shortly before the final launch date there will be a vote involving both expert judges and the public to select the team who will be first to go.

Do you have to have a special skill to be able to go to Mars? The most important skill you need to go to Mars is to self-reflect and know yourself really well. Mars One needs people who are a bit like MacGyver – not the best in the world at one thing, but very skilled at a lot of different things and fast learners of new things. People who are resilient, curious, trustworthy, adaptable and resourceful; but above all they need to be honest with themselves and know what their strengths and weaknesses are so that they can help the team and the mission most effectively.

Do you have to pay to go? I had to pay about $30AUD when I first applied, so that someone else could be paid to read my application and decide if I was serious enough to be one of the 1,058 selected in the first round. Since then I’ve never needed to pay anything, however since 2014 I have bought a lot of Mars One merchandise to give away at National Science Week so I could promote what Mars One is doing.

Are you scared that you won’t come back? I’m excited about the opportunity to explore a whole other planet! To travel further than anyone ever has before, and help humanity learn more about the universe we’re part of. Earth is a pretty amazing place for humans and there’s lots of incredible things to want to stay for, but I’m excited about being part of something that is so much bigger than me that it will change the way we see ourselves as a species.

Will you miss your loved ones? Ofcourse, but at the same time I’ll be doing something way bigger than myself, bigger than my friends and family, something that will help people everywhere look to the sky and see life from an orbital perspective. A lot of people get really attached to their family, friends, pets, car, house, football team and country – living on Mars is something that is so much bigger than all of that, so while I’ll miss my loved ones we all know that what I’m involved with is so much bigger than my individual relationships.

What did your friends and family say when they found out you are in the running to go to Mars? It varied a lot initially, and has changed a lot over the last 5 years as I’ve been shortlisted further. My Mum and Dad were pretty upset when they first heard I applied but have always been very supportive of whatever I choose to do with my life, especially supporting the work I do visiting schools and talking to kids about space exploration. A lot of my friends laughed it off when they first heard, but as time has gone on my good friends have made more of an effort to catch-up and people I was friends with but not that close too have disappeared.

Will there be a way for you to contact your family and friends? We’ll have email that we can send messages, videos and files back and forth between Earth and mars, however the distance between Earth and Mars means those messages will take between 4 and 22 minutes each way because that’s how long it takes light to travel between the planets. So no instant messaging, video chat, or even phone calls – we’ll have to record audio or video messages, send them to Earth, and then wait at least 8 minutes for a reply.

Are you scared? nervous? I’m excited about the opportunity to do something really incredible that will help humanity learn more about the universe and change the way we see ourselves – to make humanity a dual-planet species. Right now all I can do is answer questions, write and do interviews in-between getting myself physically and mentally ready for the next phase of selection, so while I might feel nervous when the next selection comes around I’ll also know I’ve done all I could to be prepare for it, regardless of whether I get selected or not.

Do kids get to go as well? For now you have to be at least 18 to apply for legal reasons, however we also don’t want to send kids to Mars for quite awhile after we’ve sent adult, because we don’t know how living on Mars will effect the astronauts’ bones and muscles. Kids muscles and bones grow in response to the effects of gravity, and with just 38% as much gravity of Mars we don’t know how kids bones would be effected. There’s a really high risk that kids growing up on Mars would have really weak bones and muscles compared to kids growing up on Earth because of the difference in gravity, so until we know more about how Mars gravity affects adult bones we really don’t want to be risking sending kids.

Where will you live on Mars? Mars One is looking at colony sites between 42 and 45deg north of the Martian equator, in a band from +130deg to -190deg latitude stretching from Utopia Planitia (near where Viking 2 landed) to Arcardia Planitia (directly north of Olympus Mons). We need somewhere that’s got fairly level ground with lots of water in it, but not so far north that our solar power won’t work. The area near where Viking 2 landed looks especially promising, but we’ll need to send more probes there to be sure. We’ll be using rovers to dig up the water-laden dirt, extract the water using an oven, and then dump the dry dirt on top of our living habitat to provide radiation protection. We’ll be living indoors under these mounds of dry dirt most of the time, but we can go outside (in spacesuits) for 1 hour per day on average for 60 years before reaching our safe radiation dose limit.

What do you want to do on Mars? I want to tell the story of what life is like for the first people living on another planet. There’s lots of science and maintenance to be done – such as medical research into how our bodies are changing in the reduced gravity, geology to learn more about Mars’ past, or repairing life support systems and growing plants to eat. But for me the really interesting part of sending humans to Mars is sharing the story of what it’s like for people to live there. Our colony of Mars will be very similar to an Antarctic research base initially, so just like the stories of the first Antarctic explorers I want to record the human experience of living on another planet.

What happens if you miss Mars and go past it? Short answer is we die! The spaceship taking us to Mars will only have just enough resources to get us to Mars, and not enough to get us all the way back to Earth if something goes wrong. This is why we have to work so hard to get things right, but also have to accept that there’s a much higher risk of us dying in an accident trying to get to Mars than if we stayed on Earth. Doing things that no one has ever done before means accepting there might be things that go wrong that you didn’t expect because you don’t have all the answers – if you already knew all the answers it wouldn’t be exploring!

How will you grow plants if Mars has toxic soil? The perchlorate salts in the Martian soil are toxic to humans by shutting down our thyroid function, however experiments in the Netherlands has shown that plants grown in Mars-like soil don’t absorb any of the perchlorates. The cool thing about perchlorates too is that they LOVE water, so you can easily remove them from the soil just by washing it. As an added bonus, if you collect the perchlorate-laden water and dehydrate out the perchlorate salts, they can be used as an oxidiser for rocket fuel! So the chemical that makes Martian soil to humans can be easily extracted and possibly used to launch rockets back to Earth.

What do you think it will be like in the rocket? The 7 month journey to Mars will be the toughest part. We’ll be four people inside a relatively small spaceship – cramped in with 800kg of dry food, 3000L of water, and 700kg of oxygen. We’ll want to point our spaceship away from the Sun almost the whole way to Mars so that the rocket engines and fuel block as much radiation from the Sun as possible, so we won’t have a day/night rotation because the Sun will always be in the same spot behind us, and also means we won’t see any stars out the window (besides the Sun). We also have to be watch out for Coronal Mass Ejections – huge eruptions from the Sun that happen reasonably regularly. Here on Earth we’re protected by the Earth’s magnetic field, but aspaceship on the way to Mars will be exposed to a huge amount of radiation if a Coronal Mass Ejection is thrown towards them during their 7 month journey, so the four astronauts will need to hide for 2-3 days in a radiation shelter in the middle of the spaceship that is about the size of a telephone booth.

Are you going to take technology with you? Will it work? We’ll be completely dependent on technology just to stay alive on Mars. Our life support systems will be working constantly to process our air and water, we’ll need to use solar power technology to provide power to the colony, and because we’ll be indoors and underground we’ll need special LED lighting systems to grow plants. A lot of technology will work exactly the same on Mars – things like computers will work exactly the same – however some of the systems will need to be adapted because of the reduced gravity. Toilets and showers will work mostly the same, but we’ll need to change the way water moves through them because water won’t flow as fast in the reduced gravity. If you used a normal shower on Mars the water would come out of the shower head in huge, slow-falling droplets because the water’s surface tension would affect the shape of the droplets more than gravity.

How are you going to contact Earth? We’ll use laser communication satellites between Earth and Mars to send messages, but they’ll still be limited to the speed of light which takes 4-20 minutes to travel between the planets. Lasers are more difficult to use for communication than radio is, but you can send a LOT more information with a lot less power using laser light than you can with regular radio waves. There are times when you can’t communicate directly because the Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the Sun, so about every 2 years NASA has to shut down all communications with their rovers and satellites on Mars for about 6 weeks because the Sun is in the way. Mars One will get around that by placing a communications satellite in a special orbit around the Sun so that it can always see both Earth and Mars, that way communications can be relayed by the satellite when the Sun is blocking Earth’s view of Mars.

How old will you be when you leave? If we launch in February 2031 I’ll be 45, and I’ll have my 46th birthday in space a few months before we land on Mars!

What do you do in your free time? Right now I do a lot of reading and writing about Mars, and lots of exercise to stay fit and ready for the next Mars One selection. I also play ukulele as much as I can, and I’ve also started to learn to draw!

Do you like particle physics? I love particle physics and try to stay up to date with the latest news on discoveries about the universe are the smallest level, but my university studies were mostly of physics at the other end of the scale in astrophysics and cosmology. I like all forms of physics because it’s a way of investigating and learning more about the universe we live in.

How does it feel to be so close to accomplishing your dream? I still feel like I’m a long way off “accomplishing” my dream. We still have selections to get through, then 14 years of training where anything could happen to stop this mission or my role in it. Even once I launch to Mars my job isn’t done – I’ll still be working to survive, working to share the story of colonising Mars with the rest of humanity, working to make things easier for the people who come after me. Every day I get to write, talk and think about living on another planet, so I don’t think I’ll even “accomplish my dream” because that would mean I’m complete and don’t have to do anything any more. While being selected and being one of the first people on Mars would be an amazing accomplishment, it would also just be the start of a new adventure to discover more about the universe except on a different planet to the one I was born on.

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Space – Choosing a Crew for Mars

With Mars One’s next astronaut selection round later this year looking to bring the current crop of 100 candidates down to 18-36 who will then start full-time training, I figured it was time to talk a little about how the next round will progress and what the selectors have said they want from the first Martian colonists.

When most folks talk about finding the “best” people for a job, especially when it’s space-related, there’s unfortunately one default reference pretty much every one leaps to:

It’s hardly a popular opinion, but the truth is today the “The Right Stuff” is a fantastic catalog of what NOT to look for when selecting astronauts for a mission to Mars. The Mercury program (and consequently “The Right Stuff”) was all about flying solo: selecting the best trained and most technically proficient pilots the US military had – who were the right size – and launching them alone on the US’s first foray into space. They had to meet incredibly stringent requirements: only test pilots under 40, no taller than 180cm (5’11”), no heavier than 82 kg (180lb), with a bachelor’s degree or equivalent (uncommon in 1959), and with over 1,500 hours flying time to meet even the basic requirements to apply at all. And don’t think the Russians were doing things differently back then: a huge factor in Yuri Gagarin being the first human in space was at 158cm (5’2″) and 70kg (153lb) it was easier to fit him inside Vostok 1. 

Good-sized hands though. The best hands. Very beautiful hands. Slightly large, actually.

I don’t say any of this to take away anything from any of the early astronauts – all of them were incredible people who dedicated and risked their lives to be the first to venture beyond Earth’s atmosphere. But it’s important to recognise the criteria the early astronauts were selected on is radically different from what future Mars mission astronauts/colonists will be selected on. From the first Russian space stations, to the US shuttle program, through to the astronauts selected for 6 and 12 month missions to the International Space Station, we’ve seen significant changes in the way selectors assess potential astronauts, and by far the biggest changes have been how candidates are psychologically screened and prepared.

The critical difference between the first people in space and now? You’re still hurtling through the darkness in a hazardous tin can; except now it’s a fraction larger, you’re going for a lot longer AND you’re going with other people… so just because you’re a really great pilot doesn’t mean you can get away with being a jerk anymore!

Sorry Steve – you’re staying home

There is still a requirement to be fit and healthy – I needed to pass the equivalent of a commercial pilot’s medical exam for example. But because we’re spending longer in space and not jamming people into tiny cockpits for the entire trip, being short and light isn’t such a necessity anymore (it still helps though). You also obviously still need to be smart enough to process all you’ll need to learn, which is why Mars One tested our technical knowledge during the interview phase. But given Mars One is planning on sending people to Mars for the rest of their lives, finding people who have a clear sense of purpose and get along with others under isolation and stress is way more important than finding people who are really, really good (and short) pilots.

Basically we need to find people who at the bare minimum can live together without someone turning into Jack Torrance after a few months.

Wendy! I’m home to the hab!

Given Mars One isn’t planning to launch a crew until 2031, they also have 12-13 years to train candidates – more than enough time to learn anything and everything they’ll need provided they have the right motivation and a proven capacity to learn.

So with a greater focus on 1) Why someone wants to live to Mars, 2) How they get along with others & respond to stressful situations while isolated, and 3) their ability to learn new things quickly; Mars One’s selectors identified five key characteristics they sought in an astronaut candidate: Resiliency, Adaptability, Curiosity, Ability to trust, and Creativity/Resourcefulness. The short answer? Mars One is essentially looking to send 4 MacGyvers to Mars who are also great housemates.

No, not the “new” series. I mean the one that was actually good.

I’ve always been a fan of the MacGyver approach: he knows what he’s trying to achieve, he knows what resources he has available, he knows how much time he has, and he doesn’t ask permission to use something in a unique or different way to solve a problem. In short, he survives because he’s a “do-er”. Even so, MacGyver was a bit of solo act: saving the day through knowledge, lateral thinking and cool under pressure… but usually on his own, and everything usually cut to fit a 48 minute episode. To find a much closer parallel to the psychological endurance required by the Mars One crew, we really need to look back more than 100 years to a group of explorers trying to cross the southern pole of this planet.

The 28 crew members of the “Endurance”

The story of Ernest Shackleton’s “Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition” (commonly referred to as the “Endurance Expedition”) is far better told by others elsewhere – “Endurance” by Alfred Lansing is brilliant, but even the Wikipedia entry is a great way to get an idea of what it was like: 28 men surviving back-to-back winters on the Antarctic ice after their ship was crushed in pack ice, before attempting one of the most daring rescue missions in history by paddling 1300km in open boats across the Southern Atlantic then hiking for 3 days across the unexplored interior of South Georgia to reach help.

Many look to Shackleton as one of the greatest leaders of all time, and rightly so. I’m currently rereading “Shackleton’s Way” by Margot Morrell, which focuses on the incredible leadership lessons that can be taken from Shackleton and the Endurance expedition. The entire book has countless pearls of wisdom that can be easily applied to the planning and execution of a human Mars mission, but arguably the most important is how Shackleton selected and prepared his crew. And even if you haven’t heard of Ernest Shackleton before, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of this though: 

“Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success. Ernest Shackleton 4 Burlington st.”

There’s been a persistent myth that Shackleton took out this advert to recruit for the Endurance expedition, but unfortunately it’s almost certainly #FakeNews. The reality is Shackleton didn’t need to put out an advert: he received more than 5,000 applications when the expedition was announced, which is surprisingly similar to the 4,227 people who submitted completed applications to Mars One (Note: 202,586 people registered & confirmed their online applications, but the process to actually complete the application was… thorough).

Shackleton had the applications sorted into 3 boxes: “Mad”, “Hopeless”, and “Possible”. You could argue everyone applying was “Mad”, but Shackleton was looking for people who knew what they were getting themselves in for, had the experience he needed, and most importantly shared his vision and enthusiasm for exploration. After discarding the “Mad” and “Hopeless” boxes, the “Possible” applicants were then put through some pretty unconventional interviews, like asking the expedition physicist if he could sing. Shackleton wasn’t looking for the “best of the best” – he was looking for people who were qualified for the work and could live together peacefully for long periods without any outside communication. In the wise words of the man himself “Science or seamanship weigh little against the kind of chaps they were”. As Mars One selectors Dr Norbert Kraft and Dr Raye Kass point out in their Huffington Post article on Mars One crew selection, Shackleton chose people who were optimistic and could keep morale up like musicians and storytellers.

Meterologist Leonard Hussey, and his banjo that Shackleton considered “vital mental medicine”

Above all Shackleton picked people who did their job really well, but weren’t prone to being miserable or obnoxious when things got tough. People who great at what they did, but focused on building a sense of camaraderie among the group and were always quick with a laugh especially when things have gone wrong. Rather fittingly, Ernest Shackleton went to Antarctica with people very much like Mark Watney…

As we head into the next selection phase of Mars One narrows the group down to the 18 to 36 who will start training, and as that training continues towards a launch date, more and more questions will be asked about the psychological challenges the crew will face, and ultimately what makes the ideal crew for a one-way mission to Mars. My suspicion is they will be the same kind of people who were aboard the Endurance in 1914 as it approached the pack ice: people who love what they do and working with the people alongside them, who know deep down why what they’re doing is important to them, and who love laughing at every ridiculous aspect of the bizarre adventure they signed up for together.