What would we need to do to motivate people to go to Mars?

I’ve always wondered if I would go to Mars on the first trip (or any trip) if I was ever given the chance, would I be that pioneer of exploration, putting my life on the line for the good of humanity, knowing that I might never come back? I imagine it may have been a bit like when my ancestors left Europe and headed for the South Pacific. They didn’t really know what to expect, they knew plenty of ships didn’t make it, they knew lots of travellers died from diseases on the way, they had no idea what the conditions would be like when they arrived. They also knew that they were probably never going to go back to Europe. These were the travellers who went after the colonies were established, they were going to live and build a new life for themselves, they weren’t going to establish the colony. So this article explores what sort of people do we want in the established and growing phase of any settlement on Mars, what sort of motivations do we want them to have and what can we do about that right now?

Travellers to a different side of the world

It must have been both frightening and exhilarating, the prospect of spending months at sea before landing somewhere that had only rudimentary development, must have also been very daunting. This type of ship in this picture was their spaceship to another world:

For parents of family groups, it must have been a terrifying prospect to risk the lives of their children to make such an arduous journey into, what was really for them, the unknown. The cost and the risk to their own lives came because of the motivation to go in the first place. What made them want to leave and head for the unknown? If we want to motivate people to move to Mars in 50 years or 100 years, what would we need to do now to set the ground work? My ancestors who emigrated out of Europe did so for political and religious reasons. They were no longer able to live their lives the way they wanted to, so felt that they were forced to emigrate to somewhere where they could enjoy the freedom to live how they wanted.

Travellers to a different world

When it comes to being motivated to go to Mars, there’s two fundamental reasons, one is to be forced, one is to choose. Being forced could be because there is simply no other choice, it might be that the Earth faces an imminent catastrophe. Being forced could also be exactly how it’s written, being forced to hop on a space ship and head off to Mars much like those who went to the penal colonies in Australia from England. The nicer way is to go by free will, having the choice to go might not be all good though. It might be because things are getting so bad on Earth that people volunteer to go in the belief that Mars will be better. The exercise of free will might also be because the individuals that volunteer are truely motivated to do good for humanity, be the pioneers of Earth and get themselves permanently written into the history books.

The first group

The first group of people to go to Mars will be highly motivated specialists. They will have a range of essential skills to set up a settlement, conduct research and generally drive things. They won’t be worried about the sparseness of resources, crammed living, the danger and the distance from home. They will relish these things, they will be motivated by the excitement of being there first, of being the people who suddenly doubled our chances of survival as a species. They are the ones who will want to make ground-breaking discoveries, maybe be the first to discover life on Mars, they’ll be the people who want to prove we can live on Mars. Some of these people will be motivated purely for their own reasons, such as wanting to be remembered for something great, or wanting to be famous. They will probably not be bothered by the prospect they may never return to the Earth, though they may harbour the hope that they may return to the blue marble at some point in their lives. This initial group of travellers to Mars are more likely to be preoccupied with the establishment of the pathway of getting to Mars, they will be more like what we think of as astronauts and will be selected through the current rigorous training programmes (like in the picture below from NASA) that will hopefully weed out the psychological profiles that wouldn’t be helpful in a crammed dangerous place.

The builders

This group will be similarly motivated, they may well be the ones who missed out on the first trip, though they will be less motivated by the fame of being the first. They will be the ones who are motivated by the desire to set things up, to be the ones who will grow the settlement, also to make ground-breaking discoveries. As the settlement grows more wide ranging skill sets will be required and this will start to bring a new flavour of settlers, those who are not so strongly motivated as those in the first few trips. They will still be the product of rigorous testing for selection but there might be some who pay their way to Mars. These latter travellers will probably have the opportunity to return to Earth, so the limiting factor of never seeing the Earth again may be removed. This group will be less astronaut like, they will be more about the roles on the planet than about the trip there.

The settlers

This phase will be all about the activities on the planet, the trip there will be just a nuisance that the travellers will use have to put up with. They will not be astronauts in the sense that we currently think. Similar to researches heading to Antartica, they have very little to do with the crew flying them there or anything to do with the operation of the aircraft. In many ways this will be the group that is going to be the most challenging to get right, because they will be establishing the growth of the settlement as well as conducting specific scientific and engineering tasks critical for the new outpost.

The challenge

I think the challenge for us is ensuring we get the right people to go in this next phase, the post setup phase (or in star terms, the main sequence). If we fast forward 50 years (which may be a little optimistic) from now, that’s when we will probably be in the frame of looking at large numbers of people going to Mars. These will be the pioneering families that will establish the first and second generations on Mars. They will set the tone for the subsequent generations and put into the foundations the values that will endure for many more. These are the people who will benefit from changes we can make now in school curriculums, in research funding practises and in building community awareness of space because it will take 10 to 20 years to bring science back to the front, and give it a better chance when competing against celebrity obsession and the myriad of other distractions that contribute to the dumbing down of society. Survival and eventual growth on Mars is going to take the sort of people who understand scientific method, who have curiosity and who question and seek proof. So when it comes to growing the next generation, the one that’s not born yet, let’s make it easier to get them into science.

If we can build a focus back on science and a passion for space then we won’t be filling up those settler spaceships to Mars with people who will buy their way there or who are escaping Earth. We will get people who will contribute to the fullness of their abilities by taping into their motivations. This will help the new presence on Mars succeed and set a pattern that can be replicated in other similar endeavours.