Future Mars colonists face psychological minefield on the Red Planet

The Mars One colonists will face not only physical challenges, but psychological ones as well.Mars One has an ambitious goal to put a permanent human colony on the planet Mars by the end of 2023. The over two hundred thousand people that have signed up for a chance to be part of that experience are likely well-aware that they will face an incredibly dangerous environment all around them, that is lethal to them on more than one level. However, what they may not realize is that they may face an even more dangerous obstacle from within.

There has been plenty of evidence lately (from Opportunity, Curiosity and even meteorites) that life may have existed on Mars in its distant past, and it may have even started out there before life ever took root here on Earth. Some studies even suggest that life on Earth may have actually come from Mars! However, today, the environment on Mars is about as toxic to human life as you can get, with a thin, carbon dioxide atmosphere that provides little protection against solar radiation, and fine-grain dust blowing around that contains toxic chemicals called 'perchlorates'.

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However, beyond making it through the training program, and surviving the rigors of the trip, and the physical dangers around them, these first colonists face dangers from their own minds, as the stresses involved with the venture take a toll on their mental health.

An article in The Guardian lays it all out quite well.

The colonists will likely suffer from social isolation, due to only having three other human beings around (although that will increase, with another four people added every two years after), and the lack of any real-time conversation with anyone back here on Earth (round-trip communications take between about 8 and 48 minutes, depending on where Earth and Mars are). As the author, Chris Chambers, points out: "Decades of research shows that prolonged social isolation in astronauts can lead to depression, insomnia, anxiety, fatigue, boredom and emotional instability."

We probably all know the sting of cabin fever, but the Mars colonists will never feel the natural environment around them ever again. They will be confined to the colony habitat, and any time they venture outside, they'll need to wear bulky, but necessary, protective suits. The effects of this would just compound the problems from the isolation.

Adding to these two already potent problems is the fact that the colonists lives will be on camera 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Part of the funding that Mars One will get is from advertisers signing on as the colony becomes a reality TV show. What is that kind of scrutiny going to do to the colonists, and what happens if they get sick of it all and turn off the cameras? It's not like Mars One can easily send the producers or director there to get them back in line.

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Now, although there isn't much said on the Mars One site about any of this, they aren't exactly rushing the applicants off-planet right this moment. These potential colonists have roughly 8 years to train for the mission. This is going to involve every technical aspect of the physical rigors and dangers, and I can't imagine that the Mars One team would leave out psychological training as well. After all, seeing someone melt down on a reality TV show might be entertaining for some, but with the significant investment and the very real dangers to the colonists, it's in their best interest to make sure whoever goes can handle it.

The crew training starts in 2015, using a simulated habitat which will put the potential colonists in the exact same situation they'll be in on Mars (minus the toxic atmosphere and perchlorates though). However, if one of them happens to go stir crazy, pops a hatch and goes running outside in only their underwear, that's going to be a fairly sure sign that they shouldn't be heading off to another planet. With 9 years to test out over 200,000 applicants, hopefully they'll be able to find at least 24 people that will not only endure but also thrive on the mission.

(Image courtesy: Mars One)

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