The Psychology of Mars One Hopefuls

Studies show that it takes a certain kind of crazy to volunteer for a trip to Mars.
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Might this one day be the scene of a softball game? (esfera/Shutterstock)

Might this one day be the scene of a softball game? (esfera/Shutterstock)

In the two years since the non-profit Mars One announced its plan to colonize the planet, more than 200,000 people have applied to be among the first humans to die on Mars (and probably do some other stuff there too). Now, the Netherlands-based organization has narrowed down the group to 660 lucky individuals. A documentary from the Guardian released on Monday gives viewers a glimpse into these space hopefuls' mindset.

“A hundred years down the line, who’s going to know who was the president of the United States or something?” asked one Mars One finalist from the United Kingdom, named Ryan, in a video made by Stateless Media. “But everyone will remember who were those first four people who stepped on Mars.”

A slew of personality traits have also been linked to risk-taking behavior, including narcissism, impulsivity, extroversion, aggression, and sensation seeking. Or, as another Mars hopeful, Dina, told Stateless Media: “It might put me in danger. But that’s the whole point.”

Humans are, by our nature, explorers. Our ancestors fanned out across the globe by land and sea, and once they reached Earth’s highest peaks and deepest trenches, we took to the stars. The Mars One astronauts will join an exclusive club of explorers who have stepped onto other worlds. They will be celebrated, remembered, deified. But they will never come back.

Though we may be genetically predisposed to explore, it takes a special kind of person to trade this blue planet for a red one. In the Psychology of Space Exploration, psychologists Albert Harrison and Edna Fiedler wrote of what previous Soviet and NASA missions have taught us about the behavioral health issues that can arise when humans are forced together in confined spaces, say, a spacecraft:

Members of isolated and confined groups frequently report sleep disturbances, somatic complaints (aches, pains, and a constellation of flulike symptoms sometimes known as the “space crud”), heart palpitations, anxiety, mood swings including mild depression, inconsistent motivation, and performance decrements. Crew members sometimes withdraw from one another, get into conflicts with each other, or get into disputes with Mission Control.

The astronauts of the Apollo 7 crew never flew again thanks to confrontations with mission control. Several other missions—Soyuz 21, Soyuz T-14, and Soyuz TM-2—were shortened because of mood or other psychological health related issues. Mars One candidates will not have the option to bail out early (or ever, really).

What makes for a good space traveller? Aside from intelligence and a certain degree of insanity, these candidates probably have a little extra dopamine—a neurotransmitter associated with (among many, many other things) reward. Risk-takers tend to have fewer dopamine receptors in the reward circuits of their brains, according to a 2008 study. Fewer receptors to recycle free-floating dopamine means a heavier dosage of the brain chemical. Higher risks result in higher rewards, or higher levels of dopamine.

A slew of personality traits have also been linked to risk-taking behavior, including narcissism, impulsivity, extroversion, aggression, and sensation seeking. Or, as another Mars hopeful, Dina, told Stateless Media: “It might put me in danger. But that’s the whole point.”

Whatever their reasons—guts, glory, or straight up genetics—there is no shortage of people willing to leave this rock we call home behind. But until the Mars One non-profit actually launches four amateur astronauts toward the red planet, China (and I) still think Mars One might just be a long-running and elaborate hoax.

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