Human Settlements in Space: Mars Madness?

By: | June 18th, 2015

Advancements in technology and space travel mean human settlement on Mars is already possible using existing technologies. But while the mechanisms are ready, is human psychology?

Programs like Mars One are already ramping up plans for Mars colonization, with the goal of sending the first human pioneers in crews of four, every two years, starting in 2026.

Since April 2013, over 200,000 people have applied to be selected into the program, despite the fact it’s a one-way ticket to a cold, hostile planet where even the fastest video link to earth has a seven-minute delay.

Cut off from friends and family, selected astronauts will be put through eight years of grueling training in simulation facilities, learning new skills like physical and electrical repairs, cultivating crops in confined spaces, and basic medical and dental work.

Ironically, the chosen will find that in going to space, they forgo much personal space, with the flight itself taking between seven to eight months in the close confines of a shuttle devoid of luxuries like running water or fresh food.

What kind of a person is best suited to such a mission? Which of the five personality traits – openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism – are most and least desirable for these potential space cowboys?

Dr. Sharon Niv, who holds a PhD in Brain Cognitive Science from the University of Southern California, believes once they arrive on Mars, the situation will get “immensely boring” rather quickly, making it suitable only for the insatiably curious.

“They’ll be in a place with very little stimulation; a dark, desert-type environment for the rest of their lives.”

Dr. Leslie Sherlin, a Neuroscientist and Chief Science Officer at SenseLabs agrees, adding that those able to best manage stress, focus and creatively problem solve will be good picks, with more followers than leaders.

“We can’t send 50 leaders into an environment and expect it to go well. They’d just fight until the end,” he noted, adding, “people who can move swiftly, but not impulsively.”

Niv believes many applicants will be narcissists craving to go down in history as the first colonists. “Those are people you have to be really careful with,” she explained, saying they wouldn’t have the right team building characteristics.

“What you really want in a small colony is a high degree of agreeableness.” These traits, she said, should be good protection against high drama.

Being “tough skinned” with a burning desire to succeed, based on a deep pool of resilience and perseverance is also key according to Sherlin.

Two years after the first mission, the second crew of colonists will land and will have to quickly bond with their predecessors, slotting seamlessly into daily life, doing tasks and submitting research reports. A new group of four astronauts will land on Mars every two years, so there may even need to be some sort of policing system as the group grows larger.

“It’s really important to make sure you don’t have one person or a bunch of people there who will sabotage the peace,” noted Niv.

“You want people with a very steady stress response. You don’t want people who react strongly, or even normally. You want people who react very slightly to stress – people who can handle bumps in the road, because there will be huge bumps in the road and nowhere to escape to.”

Do you think you have what it takes? Do you believe the experiment will work from a psychological standpoint?

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Sylvie Barak

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