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The Uncharted Territories of Mars: Is Science Enough?

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"We need to have people up there who can communicate what it feels like, not just pilots and engineers." -- Buzz Aldrin

The world will be given the chance to fulfill their space exploration dreams and to do something that has not been done since humans stepped foot on the moon. Mars One will provide this opportunity. A project that aims to establish the first settlement on Mars by 2023, Mars One will provide the opportunity for scientists worldwide to work together and to achieve what previously has seemed impossible: to travel to Mars and to settle there. While significant progress has been made in providing the engineering hardware and life-support systems necessary for withstanding physical stressors of outer space and sustaining human life in a very hostile environment, is this enough? The men and women that will make this journey will need more than technological advances to see them through: while technology will get them there, teamwork will be what ensures they survive the journey.

Much work has been done by space agencies in the area of individual training and selection. At the same time, experience from long-duration space flights and space-analog environments have demonstrated that strong technical skills, excellent health, and absence of psychiatric illness cannot ensure effective crew performance. As long-duration space flight missions impose significant demands on crews, a safely undertaken mission to Mars must examine and address difficulties that lay beyond the physical. While we need to ensure that the team that journeys to Mars is adept at scientific thought processes (for obvious reasons), it would be disastrous to ignore skills that many pass over. The way a team works together is instrumental to the work they accomplish together, and for the Mars One mission the group dynamics process of the journey may be of more importance than that of the scientific.

But why then the need to ensure that the group we send to Mars is a team, and not individuals sharing a common destination? If our technology can support a mission of this scope, surely the process of getting to Mars is simply the means to an end, with the emphasis being on that of the destination, and not the journey. What one has to realize is where this crew will be going: a planet, that while in our solar system, is virtually uncharted by human eyes and minds. The advertisement Shackleton posted to attract crew members could be used to describe the environment in which the Mars One crew may find themselves: "Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, and bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success." Despite the ominous tone of the ad, the response was overwhelming.

Given the nature of the journey, one could assume that Shackleton's utmost concern was to find men who could fill and run the ship. However, Shackleton was a man who understood the importance of choosing and nurturing a healthy team. An accomplished Antarctic explorer, who missed out on being the first to the South Pole, turned back 97 miles from his goal to save the lives of himself and his companions. He and his men were forced to fight for survival in an uncharted land: because of who Ernest Shackleton chose for his crew (and his capacity as a leader), they survived against all odds and were rescued after 22 months.

Shackleton was adept at realizing what type of people he wanted on his voyage: and while navigation and exploration skills were important, there were not necessarily the defining factor. He chose musicians, storytellers, dancers: those willing to perform. This helped the crew to maintain a high level of morale, as well as ensuring that the crew had something else to focus on rather than the harrowing journey ahead of them. And when the journey did indeed become harrowing, and his ship and crew became stuck in the ice, Shackleton proposed an activity that would raise the eyebrows of many a modern day scientist: a group haircut3. While no one is proposing that we install a juggler on the Mars One crew, or stress the importance of a haircut during the mission, Shackleton understood an important factor in the functioning of a team: even though a crisis situation, groups need humor and play to help function as a team. Crisis events in extreme environments, when met with humor and play, not only serve as entertainment for the team, but provide a symbol of shared identity and strengthen bonds amongst members. This will be instrumental in ensuring that the crew of the Mars One makes it to their destination.

Currently, candidates chosen for space missions fit the profile of "...adults who take directions and follow rules like an exceptionally well-behaved child..." Upon reflection, one begins to realize that the Mars One voyage is more than just a mission, but a journey to the unknown. While current missions have a specific set of training and preparation that lend themselves to a period of time that has both a beginning and an end point, this is not the case for Mars One. The mission of this crew will not end once the journey is over: rather it begins when they have landed. And while they can train as best they can before they take off, the journey itself is the true training ground. Once they land, they will be faced with environments and situations that we, in reality, have no concrete idea of. Shackleton's men journeyed into the unknown, with little hope of returning (as is seen in the ad he placed). When their ship, the Endurance, sank, and the men began the most harrowing part of their journey (with no ship), they maintained a sense of optimism, despite the odds. What created that optimism? One can't help but think that it was a combination of their profound trust in Shackleton, their strong sense of community and the confidence they had in their ability as a group. The Mars One crew will need to develop this as well: once they are off the ship, they will be physically building a community in an unknown land, with challenges that they will not be able to predict. The physical building of the community is secondary to the emotional building of community that they will have to do as a team. It is essential that the team chosen understand this, and understand that building a sense of community before they land is imperative to their success.

According to scientific journals, since the beginning of human space flight in both Russian and United States space programs, there have been times when critical incidents relating to the psychological, behavioral, and interpersonal aspects of crew performance have jeopardized crew safety and mission success. In the future, selection criteria for crew members should include effective interpersonal relationships with fellow crew members. Implementing effective interpersonal relationships in selection criteria and training, and selecting most promising crews as a whole will be an important factor for successful missions to Mars.

The human condition by its very nature is to push through crises: history has been made when the impossible is made possible, and struggle is the impetus to change. The question is not whether we will make it to Mars, but whether we will be successful once we get there. Careful crew selection that goes outside current standards and the ability to build not only a physical community but an emotional one will determine whether we succeed or fail. The Mars One Mission does not begin when we step foot on Mars, but when the crew steps foot on the spacecraft.