Astronauts were once picked for their individualistic traits. They had to have supreme confidence and ‘unflinching bravado.’ They needed ‘ice in their veins’ according to the psychiatrists who once recruited them in the early days of the space race.
In the December issue of The Economist, an article called Fighting Fit, described the challenges NASA faces today in deciding on the ‘right stuff’ for team members to go to Mars.
Bravado is still obviously required, but this is a very different mission, and the job spec will read a little differently. One of the greatest concerns today, is not so much about entering or exiting the earth’s atmosphere, but about getting smart and supremely capable human beings to tolerate each other’s unrelenting company for two and a half years. They can’t simply step outside and take a ten-minute smoke break and count to ten.
The Mars Mission will be an eighteen month round trip in the confined space of a very small house. Then there is the year spent on the planet. How many of us could cope with the same company, the same food, and the same view for the round trip? (I start to panic when I’m trapped in IKEA). How many of us could handle being watched twenty-four hours a day, while completing extremely detailed, micro-managed tasks? As the mission nears Mars, how many of us would cope with twenty-minute delays in getting answers from Ground Control? Although if anyone has tried getting through to Qantas lately, you’ve had some practice.
One obvious place I can think of to find these people, is in the prison system, preferably from super max security. Only problem is, I just don’t know how many compliant physics or aeronautical engineering graduates are getting out of Super Max any time soon. Submariners would also know the drill.
The HERA project in Texas is conducting experiments in order to advise on the human qualities and traits most likely to work for the Mars Mission team. This has involved some 30 day ‘mock’ missions and resulted in early conclusions. As I read this, I realise, there are no great surprises. There is nothing very new under the sun and that still includes the surface of Mars.
One conclusion from the project, is that conflict is inevitable. (I might have saved them some time with that one). Furthermore, constructive conflict is useful for creativity and innovation. (Honestly NASA. I’m here! An email will do!) They conclude that constant routines and micro-management can become irritating. They observe that human beings with insight into their behaviour, with the good sense to know that they are aggravating someone else and should stop, are so much easier to work with.
But here’s the clincher; the HERA project has concluded that the one trait that will be most precious in this team, will be humour. Let’s face it, ANY group of human beings, needs to laugh. We need clowns; not the painted face variety, but the people who can defuse a tense situation. Courage, intelligence, and super-human resilience will matter, but the ability to laugh and the willingness to help others to laugh, is gold. Who knew?
I’m know I’m poking a bit of fun at the HERA crowd (they know how important this is) but the Mars Mission itself reminds us that human beings can be extraordinary. If you’re thinking of applying, then good luck. I’ll miss you. It’s going to be amazing. It’s going to be tough – and I think it’s gonna be a long, long time.