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Will Life on Mars Screw People Up?

The Mars One project is a privately funded mission to create the first colony on Mars, and they want to send people there forever. We spoke to the program's head of psychology to figure out if that's a good idea.
February 13, 2013, 4:01pm

The Mars One project is a privately funded mission to create the first colony on Mars. It’s headed by a Dutch engineer named Bas Lansdorp who expects that by 2023 his company will be able to secure a group of volunteer astronauts who will go through space and isolation training, fly to the red planet, and build a small community to live out the rest of their lives together. Also, it will all be filmed for a reality TV show.


When this story first came to my attention it was around the same time Iran was sending a monkey into orbit and Chris Hadfield was posting pictures of the Earth via Twitter, so it didn’t seem so out of the ordinary. What made it stand out to me, though, was the volunteer process. Anyone can apply to go to Mars, no experience required.

I wondered, couldn’t the weight of that responsibility be crushing? Is it too soon for us, psychologically, to understand what living a life in space can do to a person? I called Dr. Raye Kass, a professor who spearheads group therapy courses at Concordia University in Montreal and also moonlights as an advisor to the Mars One project to ask her about the psychology of space travel as well as some of the doubts and concerns surrounding sending volunteers to a life sentence in space.

VICE: First of all, how long have you been involved in missions to space?
Raye Kass: It goes back quite a few years to when I was involved in the capsule mission, being the only space simulation that Canada put on with actual astronauts like Julie Payette, Bob Thirsk and Dave Williams. That was my first dip in space. So since 1994. I’ve been involved in space projects for nearly 19 years.

Tell me about your role with the Mars One project.
Their interest was that I would help to develop the criteria for selection as well as training potential crew who eventually get selected. Initially when I heard the caveat was there’s no returning, I thought [laughs], “Well I don’t know. I don’t even know if I want to be part of this project.” It sounded so crazy. But as I thought about it there was some excitement that I began to experience and I felt… It’s very cutting edge. And when you take a look at some explorers over the years, when you look at Magellan, they didn’t know if they were coming back. And they broke new records. So I said I’d be part of it.


And anyone can apply to be sent to Mars?
Anyone can apply. Anyone from around the world, we’ll have translators and people from different nations.

That’s all it takes?
Well all of this is seated in personal quality. Attitude. It is the foundation upon which everything else is built on. When a person is going to Mars and with no way of coming home and potentially questioning the decision they have made, what will ground them? They’ve got to really be clear in what their attitude toward this is. They need to have a deep sense of purpose as to why they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s a dangerous mission, it’s hard to say whether anybody would ever come back so they also need a willingness to build and maintain healthy relationships. They will have to rely on each other for survival and mental well being in the face of many, many unknowns. And we really want to stress is the applicant's capacity for self-reflection.

Well let’s move to the space flight aspect of this project. I’ve spoken to a few people who have gone through several years of astronaut training and they’ve told me that typically with missions in space there’s about six months before the excitement wears off and the reality sets in. Then problems start to arise…
It’s not that things wear off. Astronauts in space keep reporting how excited they are by what they actually see, that’s it’s so unbelievable. Surely there’s the mundane stuff, but the excitement of being in the capsule apparently remains quite unusual and quite riveting. And when they come back they often say that being back on Earth does not equal the incredible experience of being up in space.

What if there are violent aliens, tho?

So you say the excitement stays with them, but those people get to come back…
It’s a different kind of excitement. This is only based on stories that I have heard directly from astronauts. Just look at Chris Hadfield. He keeps talking about all the incredible excitement he’s experiencing. Now, how much he’s saying that because everything is being recorded, I don’t know but I have yet to hear of astronauts who are up there who say, “I can’t wait to get back.” When you look at the early cosmonauts who were up in space for 300 days, 400 days, if they did not get along, life was very tough. Very, very tough. Then there’s the reality of problem solving, conflict resolution, conflict management, the dredge of having to do things as a team, you’re no more your own master, you’re told by mission control what to do, when to do, how to do it.


One person that I spoke with, he did training in the arctic. His concern was that he was scheduled to be there for six months, it ended up being seven months, and during the last month one of the things that got him through and kept his sanity was knowing that this project would soon come to an end. His concern was that these people going to Mars won’t have that safety net.
That’s true, because the caveat is that you can’t come back. But one of the things you may want to look at is the story of Ernest Shackleton. When he was advertising for his crew, because he was going to the Antarctic, I think the advertisement said: Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, and obviously all of the recognition in case of success. They had a terrible time. It was very, very difficult. What sustained them was their teamwork and his leadership. And after his boat, The Endurance, was crushed, they had to walk through the ice. When the whole trip was over and they couldn’t reach their goal, Ernest Shackleton asked if anyone wanted to go back again. They all wanted to go back!

It’s my understanding that Shackleton’s crew wasn’t necessarily a group of highly functional adults like these astronauts will be.
No, but they had a sense of teamwork. And Shackleton, in some ways, knew how to choose people. So he realized that this was going to be a long voyage, and while navigation and exploration skills were important they were not necessarily the defining factor. What’s interesting is that he chose musicians, storytellers, dancers, those willing to perform, and in fact at one point when they were going through a very difficult period he suggested a haircut.


Now why I’m bringing this up, Captain Scott was also in a race to the Antarctic and he did not develop his group as a team, and when they faced danger they all dispersed and they died. When Shackleton’s crew faced danger they never dispersed and no one died. So I think what Shackleton was saying and what I am saying, is that what would we would want to look at is that men and women can complete this journey, but they need more than technological advances to get them through. While technology will get them there, teamwork will ensure that they survive the journey.

I guess the concern is that there is such a wide margin of error. This could very well be one of the greatest historic events of our time, and it could just as easily be one of the greatest tragedies of our time. What do you think this project will accomplish?
Yes. The caveat of never coming back is extraordinary, and the shortest distance to Mars would be seven months depending on the time of year. It could be one year just to get there. Yes, one could look at it as ridiculous, unbelievable, unlikely. But then if you pause and you think, there were situations over the years that seemed impossible, like the moon landing. One could ask what did we accomplish going to the moon? I think obviously it’s a pushing of the envelope, it’s creating at the very minimum a new colony, it’s discovering what’s on the red planet; they may be able to contribute enormously in terms of science. There is the learning of another planet. It’s hard to say. I think it’s partly man’s desire to reach into the unknown. But the biggest caveat here is no return.

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