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.