When Christy Foley got the good news, it came in the form of an email: She was one step closer to, one day, watching the sunrise from Mars.
Foley is one of 75 Canadians — and 1,058 earthlings — to be selected for the second round of the Mars One mission of establishing a permanent human settlement on the red planet.
The mission, led by a Dutch not-for-profit foundation and supported largely by a crowdfunding campaign, plans to depart with its first crew of four in 2024.
The mission has its detractors but it’s also had more than 200,000 eager applicants from all over the globe. And Foley, a strategic planner based in Edmonton, couldn’t be more thrilled to have made the first cut.
“(It’s) the idea of being a pioneer — very, very high-tech, but still a pioneer. And that spirit really makes me feel a little giddy,” she said.
The selection process will be a long and painstakingly careful one, according to Raye Kass, an advisor to the Mars One mission with a focus on psychosocial issues, team-building and group dynamics.
Kass, a professor in the department of applied human sciences at Concordia University in Montreal, said she was initially reluctant to become a mission advisor, given the many obstacles inherent in the one-way mission.
But it didn’t take long for her to change her mind.
“I began to realize that this will happen, this mission to Mars. And I might as well be part of this and ensure that the best people are up there,” she said.
Personal qualities basis of selection process
So how exactly do you find the best people for such a uniquely challenging mission?
The selection process is still in development, said Kass — but a key takeaway is that much of it will be based on the applicants’ personal qualities and teamwork, as opposed to their technical knowledge.
“We have developed criteria that are connected with psycho-social areas and my team has put together five characteristics that will be considered: resiliency, adaptability, curiosity, ability to trust and creativity or resourcefulness,” she said. “(But) we’re also looking for a person who can build and maintain healthy relationships. And, of course, attitude (plays) a significant role — it is the foundation.”
In terms of personal qualities, it’s not the same kind of mission profile shown in movies and in space stations, according to Zac Trolley, another successful round two applicant and a Calgary-based project engineer.
“Those kinds of people we imagine in our heads when we think of Tom Hanks in Apollo 13 — those are the test pilots, the tough guys, the guys that love speed. And that’s not what this mission is about — it’s a settling mission, it’s a colonization mission. So the most important thing is working as a team.”
Even the preliminary stage of the recruitment process was based more on gauging the applicants’ personalities than on assessing their skills, requiring candidates to answer a questionnaire and create a brief video about themselves.
“The questions very much reminded me of a job interview,” said Foley. “They weren’t looking for skills because they figure they can train us. What they can’t train is personalities and the ability to work as a team and the suitability for being fairly isolated for a long time.”
Several stages involved
In terms of process, potential astronauts will have to weather multiple rounds of cuts before earning the chance to explore the red planet.
Round one was mostly a matter of selecting the best applicants based on how well they presented on paper (and video). Round two — the round Foley and Trolley are in right now — will involve screening for any pre-existing health conditions or drug, tobacco or alcohol dependencies, followed by a round of face-to-face regional interviews.
Round three will take place in the United States, involving a series of challenges connected to survival, while round four will involve simulations and isolated environments. The application process is expected to reopen at some point, and after the first four astronauts are sent, the plan is to send a new crew every two years.
“So the five characteristics will be considered and as we engage over the weeks, over the months in simulations, in isolation, watching them do different things for long, long periods, it will begin to be evident,” said Kass.
“We are looking at, ultimately, a person who is able and willing to build and maintain healthy relationships. Which doesn’t mean you don’t have conflict, which doesn’t mean you don’t disagree, but we’re looking here at healthy conflicts and (the) ability to move forward after that. After all, that’s who they will be living with, eating with, doing everything with.”
Given that Mars One has placed no limits on education level, gender, race, language or culture, there is no telling how members of the broad applicant pool might relate to one another. But that hasn’t stopped observers from speculating, said Kass.
“Of course, big questions have been asked — what about age? What about gender? All these questions are still up in the air in terms of who is really in front of us by the (end),” she said.
In fact, the age range of the round two applicants is quite wide, as there is no upper age limit.
“We haven’t said, ‘You’ve got to be such-and-such an age.’ As the screening process begins to take place in the selecting out in terms of medical and technical (requirements), age may become a factor,” said Kass.
“The beauty about this is we haven’t put any educational limits or anything like that. We haven’t said, ‘We need to have a physicist and we need to have a nurse.’ We haven’t said any of that.”
Group cohesion in extreme environments
A harsh environment that’s inhospitable to human life is problem enough, but being isolated in such an extreme environment can place extraordinary tension on group dynamics.
Even more complicated? The fact that it’s a one-way trip adds a whole new dimension to the psychological challenge, said Kass.
“I’m often asked, ‘What if people change their minds?’ Of course, they can change their minds — but that’s before they go. But they’ll have ample opportunity,” she said, adding the selection committee will be carefully examining each applicant’s motivations before they are sent.
“In no way will they be coerced. In fact, the whole process is set up to select out, so that those who have remained in are the ones who really feel quite grounded in their decision.”
Kass has studied and examined the social dynamics in other extreme groups, such as the trapped Chilean miners in 2010, the Arizona biosphere project in 1994 and crews spending extended periods of time on a submarine.
“You look there at the scapegoating that takes place and all of the things that happen when people are together for a long time under difficult circumstances… It’s the people part that really can push this forward or hold this back,” she said.
“Individuality will not work very well in a situation like this. It’s a sense of community, it’s a sense that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
“It will be very difficult — I have no illusions about that,” said Trolley.
“If you’re one of the first people to go up, you could potentially have only (three other) people that you’ll see and talk to for the next (few) years, so that’s a very small social circle.”
And living in such a small group for the indefinite future will make effective communication skills that much more critical.
“In life on Earth, it’s tough as it is. If I’m annoyed with you, I go to my room and close my door… I may take off to another city or country,” said Kass. “You won’t have that luxury (on Mars). We have those luxuries and it’s still difficult.”
There will be limited ability to communicate with Earth electronically, so Foley sees that as a silver lining.
“It’ll be tough, but growing up I moved around a lot. So while my parents were my constant… many of my friends, I only had contact with through social media. So I do have a little bit of familiarity or comfort level with that type of interaction and maintaining friendships that way,” she said.
Despite the many difficulties, the Mars mission will allow a lucky few to turn a new page of history, said Kass.
“It seems to me that the human condition by its very nature is to push through these crises, and history is made when the impossible is made possible.”
Personal qualities the key
Instead of technical skills or knowledge, the selection committee will be focusing on the personal qualities of potential astronauts. Raye Kass, Mars One advisor, discussed what each of the five key traits for applicants entails.
Resiliency: “We’re looking at someone who perseveres, stays productive — is at their best when things are at their worst. Indomitable spirit, the can-do attitude, robust thought process.”
Adaptability: “We’re talking about a flexible barometer of how to adapt to situations and individuals, while taking context into account. The ability to know one’s boundaries and when and how to extend them when it’s needed.”
Curiosity: “(It’s) the asking of questions to understand — not simply to get answers. Actively engaged in the journey of knowing, not simply content with reaching an answer. The transferring of knowledge to others, not showcasing what one knows while others don’t.”
Ability to trust: “That is so core. Trust in one’s self, trust in others, knowing when to mistrust… trust that’s surrounded by good judgment. Self-informed trust.”
Creativity/resourcefulness: “You’re not constrained by one way of doing things or by one initial way you’ve been taught to find a solution. And in there you’re looking at sense of play, you’re looking at the way in which an issue, a problem, a situation is approached.”