Governments, non-profit organizations and private companies started a new space race. Goal is not a new orbital station or again the Moon, but the Red Planet. Not only a technological challenge, but furthermore it is a psychological one. Various projects and theories confirmed that different individuals in a limited room can lead to tensions and behavioral challenges, this may even risk the success of the mission.

The 1976 NASA Viking I-probe explored Mars by orbiting and later landing on the planet. Doing so, it took fascinating photos, which some of the viewers interpreted as faces and pyramids, especially in the “Cydonia”-region. Of course these images inspired alien-theories and several science fiction movies, including “Total Recall” or “Mission to Mars”. Later unmanned missions as NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor (1997-2006) and the European Mars Express-probe (2003-) took photos from the same region, but the former artificial constructions had been identified now as naturally formed mountains, which based on the interaction between sun and shadow perceived like faces and pyramids.

1976: The Martian face, photographed by Viking I. Image by NASA/JPL.
1976: The Martian face, photographed by Viking I. Image by NASA/JPL.
2003: The Martian face, photographed by Mars Global Surveyor. Image by NASA/JPL.
2003: The Martian face, photographed by Mars Global Surveyor. Image by NASA/JPL.

Today different governmental and private organizations are planning to return to the manned spaceflight. With exception of China, they are not planning to return to our Moon, but aiming directly to Mars. A challenging task, comparable to “Moon race” in the 60s, where John F. Kennedy gave his famous “We choose go to the Moon”-speech in 1962.

A manned flight to Mars still sounds like Science Fiction, but already Hollywood presented with “The Martian” a realistic outlook and most viewers understand that such a goal could be reached inside the next 30 years, meaning that the first human on Mars may already be born.

As such a unique mission requires a long-term preparation, different projects started not only to understand the logistical tasks, but also the challenges for health and psychology.

Who are the people already today are volunteering for such a mission? Ed Grann, fictive character of the 2016 National Geographic tv-series “Mars” brought it to the point: “You don’t go to Mars without ambition.”

To understand this better, we have to go even more back in time; until the 1940s of the last century, but again it is the geometric figure of a triangle: “The Hierarchy of Needs” by the US psychologist Abraham Maslow. In this original model, also known as his pyramid, he is defining five different levels of needs. First the physiological, safety, social and ego needs; then the wish for self-actualization. Hereby we have the general idea that an individual first have to satisfy the needs from a lower level, before he or she feels the needs from the higher ones, for example first you must have something to eat today, before you want to ensure that you have enough to eat for the whole month.

For the crew of a potential mission to Mars, this classical interpretation of Maslow’s Pyramid is not working. We can assume that such candidates are already on higher levels of the pyramid, at least on the fourth or fifth step, meaning the individual feels his or her physiological, safety and social needs satisfied. This as they are in the situation of a regular income, protected situation and social groups.  For the individual, the mars mission supports to satisfy his or her individual needs, as finding a unique position inside the group and achieve other’s respect. A group of people on the fourth level will, sooner or later lead to conflicts. Due to this, it is not only mandatory to simulate the mission to test the hard- and software, but also the crew.

The “Biosphere 2” project in the 1990s simulated a closed biosphere without any direct contact to the outside, similar to a potential Martian colony.  The experiment should run two years, but the two attempts had to be stopped earlier. The first time due to low oxygen levels inside the biosphere and the second time based on mismanagement until potential sabotage of participating crew members. Even if the original time-limited could not be reached, both attempts gave scientists precious information, as the organizers of a flight to Mars are aware how difficult the mission is related its human factor and where things can start to go wrong.

An person being on the fourth step cannot be shifted artificially one step up or down, mission command has to plan with a such a group and design the mission with as less as possible points of conflict. Furthermore psychologist have to work with the group and individuals to give them the skills to solve the different types of conflicts. If crew members are already on the fifth level of Maslow’s pyramid, conflict potential is lower, as such individuals aim for self-actualization.  They are not looking anymore for others’ respect but want to bring their-selves to higher levels based on integrity, morality, values, creativity; and due to this collect valid experiences, which can bring the persons to these.  Of course, there is no possibility that an external can promote an individual from the fourth to the fifth level, but it could be worked with the individuals to support them in reaching this level.  The long-term preparation phase offers the possibility to give the participants positive and constructive feedback, so that they achieve the required external respect. Furthermore, conflicts can get simulated and different possibilities to solve them.  Individuals have to understand that the success of the group is the only way to receive also personal success.

Maslow's Pyramid
Maslow’s Pyramid

Maslow introduced in a later model of his pyramid an even higher level, which he just described as “transcendence”.  A meta-goal, where the individual wants to become one with the earth, nature and universe.  As this level is beyond logic, it may be a risk level for the overall-mission, as an incompatibility between the personal values of the person and the perceived values of the mission may lead to an inner dissonance.  This is a situation of discomfort for the person. An easy solution as walk-away from the mission is not possible, so that this may lead to conflicts, up to sabotage which may be risk of the highly fragile Mars-flight or –colony.

To close the circle, in 2012 the NASA Mars Curiosity rover found on its way a 2,5 meter pyramid-like rock. Finally, we found such a structure on the red planet. For the usage and interpretation of Maslow’s Pyramid it is important to understand that a human cannot be mapped in a simple model, but such a theory can show us tendencies. The average person wants to ensure the daily survival before he or she wants to plan the long-term safety of this situation. A person already being on the fourth level of Maslow’s Pyramid or even higher may elaborate a preference of the higher levels in comparison of the lower ones. In others words, the members of potential flight to mars seek the satisfaction of their higher needs, even if they put their lower levels on risk. To be the first human on Mars, people would take on the risk of the flight and to never reach the red planet.

2012: The pyramid rock, photographed by Mars Curiosity. Image by NASA/JPL.
2012: The pyramid rock, photographed by Mars Curiosity. Image by NASA/JPL.