By now you’ve probably heard of Mars One, the Dutch nonprofit that aims to put colonists on Mars permanently by 2023, and intends to turn the selection, training, and colonization process into must-see reality television. The application process ended on August 31, at which point over 165,000 people from around the world had applied for the project. All of them insisted that they were ready to leave behind Earth and all the people they know forever to become red planet pioneers. Of course, even the boldest and most cocksure applicants can’t truly know what they might be getting themselves into. The problem is that Mars One may not know either.
The Mars One plan has drawn plenty of criticism: NASA, to whom money woes are all too familiar, doubts the feasibility of racking up enough funding for such a venture (that’s where the reality TV part comes in, ostensibly), and others worry about all the technical requirements of such a campaign. Can we really get a human crew to Mars without exposing them to scary levels of radiation? Will we be able to send and deploy all the necessary structures ahead of the colonists’ arrival? Will they have enough to eat?
Let’s set aside all the external concerns for now and focus on the internal ones. While all applicants will undergo rigorous psychological tests, how can we really be sure that the chosen colonists will be able to withstand the realities and rigors of daily life?
Mars One acknowledges that very few people are capable of undertaking such a mission, and they’re relying heavily on their selection process to weed out anyone who might seem unable to withstand it. On their website they mention a couple of psychologists they’re using as advisers, but they don’t mention any specific strategies that could help the colonists deal with their emotional challenges. The lack of a plan to anticipate and treat any psychological needs the colonists might have is troubling. Even though anyone could predict the difficulty of such a mission, I’m not sure anyone, including expert psychologists, can really anticipate exactly what it would be like to be on a different planet.
An article in the Guardian enumerates the fears and possible pitfalls of sending humans on such a mission. Social isolation tops the list. I mean, what if the people on Big Brother had only one another to interact with for the rest of their lives? That’s kind of what they’re talking about, except instead of being in a house together, these people would be stranded on Mars together. It would be difficult for the colonists to communicate with anyone on Earth — the best-case scenario for a communications delay is 10 minutes, which would make Skyping pretty irritating. I also haven’t heard anything about the U.S. Postal Service adding Mars to any of their routes.
Research has shown that social isolation causes a number of problems for astronauts, including depression, anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, and boredom. And all of the astronauts studied thus far have been trained and were on round-trip missions. A NASA psychologist who specializes on the effects of space exploration on astronauts published findings that indicate that “crewmember psychology may result in increased feelings of isolation, homesickness, dysphoria, or even suicidal or psychotic thinking” when so far removed from Earth. It’s hard to imagine that having a positive attitude and a little training would actually help the Mars colonists cope.
Another challenging factor is being cooped up indoors all the time. Because of the lack of breathable air and the low temperatures on Mars, colonists will be confined to small pods. Given how stir crazy I get in my house, I can’t imagine what this would be like. It’s like putting people in a zoo and then watching them on TV. Even animals don’t always react well to that kind of scenario.
Lack of privacy, especially considering the kinds of emotional challenges the colonists will be facing, will undoubtedly be a huge issue. Under the best of circumstances, being on camera all the time would be trying, but coupled with the confinement, isolation, and other effects of being so far from Earth, having a camera in one’s face all the time could get really old. And given that there won’t be a camera crew following the colonists around, if they turn off or break the cameras, there’s not a whole lot anyone could do — except suffer the loss of TV-generated funding.
Lastly, if anything does go wrong out there, colonists won’t have access to counselors or therapists. Sure, there are computer programs that simulate therapy, but no one and nothing will be able to respond to the colonists’ mental health needs in real time, which means that those who tune in could end up watching a train wreck.
While I think the idea of a permanent Mars colony is a good one, it does indeed seem like Mars One is overlooking, or at least not adequately addressing, the myriad psychological complications that seem pretty inevitable. Perhaps one of the solutions would be to set up a bar on Mars where colonists could drown their sorrows and vent their frustrations to a sympathetic (though quite likely not human) barkeep.