Think you’ve got the right stuff to make it to Mars? Richard Hollingham talks to the man selecting astronauts for a privately funded mission to the Red Planet.

This is the pitch: a perilous one-way journey to a dead, distant world, leaving your family behind for the rest of your life, before dying 225 million kilometres from the planet you used to call home.

“It’s something you really have to want from your heart,” says Norbert Kraft, chief medical officer for Mars One. “It’s a calling, like being a war reporter.”

In fact, getting shot at is one of the few hazards you are unlikely to face on Mars. Unless HG Wells was right or things go very badly wrong.

Despite the obvious downsides, more than 200,000 people from around the world have applied for Mars One’s mission to establish a permanent human settlement on the Red Planet.

The non-profit organisation plans to raise the money, build the spaceships and launch the first colonists within the next decade. Whatever the practicalities of this ambitious target, Kraft has been appointed to help choose the first potential Martian settlers.

He is certainly well qualified to lead the selection. After training as a medical doctor in Austria, and with a background as a doctor in the Austrian military, he has spent 20 years working with the US, Russian and Japanese space agencies studying the suitability of astronauts for long duration space missions.

“This is an exciting opportunity,” says Kraft, “because now I’m putting everything I’ve researched into reality.” So how do you go about whittling down 200,000 applicants to the first few pioneering crews?

“I’m going to give them so many challenges,” he says. “My hope is that when they get to Mars, they’ll say ‘compared to what Norbert put us through, Mars is a paradise!’”

Step 1: Physical

The first stage of Kraft’s 10-year astronaut training programme is physical selection – weeding out people who are not considered fit enough to make the journey. That includes those with chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and even asthma.

“For the first settlers we are very, very strict,” says Kraft. “Later on we might loosen the requirements when we have, say, 600 settlers on Mars and better medical facilities.”

The medical criteria are similar to those employed by the traditional space agencies and candidates have had to provide medical certificates, signed by qualified physicians.

Kraft says it has been an illuminating process. “Some of the potential participants discovered they had cancer or were sick and needed operations.” With no upper age limit to the programme, perhaps tellingly, doctors found the most unfit were in their 30s and 40s.

Step 2: Knowledge

Once candidates pass the medical, the next round involves a relatively traditional interview.

So far, 660 people from around the world have made it to this stage and in December Kraft began the process of formally interviewing each of them via internet video link.

On the face of it, Mars One applicants do not need formal qualifications – such as a degree – or even particular skills to apply for the mission. However, they are expected to learn about Mars, the mission and understand what they are letting themselves in for.

“Here we filter out people who have no clue about where they’re going, what they’re doing, what’s happening,” says Kraft.

He also hopes to get the first clues about how they might fit into a team and why they want to go to Mars. “I want to see from their stories why they think they’ll make a great team member and be able to do this journey.”

Each candidate will be scored and a few will doubtless be dropped. However, the greatest attrition is likely to come during the remaining stages.

Step 3: Group challenges

Forget the ‘Right Stuff’ – any successful mission to Mars needs people who can work together calmly and safely, under sometimes life-threatening circumstances, without bickering or help from mission control.

“We will be 40 minutes away in time delay,” explains Kraft, “so they can’t wait for us for answers.”

To begin selecting teams of colonists, candidates will be invited to training sessions (probably in the Netherlands, where Mars One is based) for a series of group challenges to prove they can work together. Any team is likely to involve a mix of sexes, personalities and skills.

“I have a perfect group in mind,” Kraft says. “You might be the perfect astronaut but not able to work with the group, so be totally useless – it’s the perfect group not the individual that I’m after.”

Step 4: Isolation

During our half-hour conversation, there is one word Kraft keeps returning to: isolation. Shutting groups of potential astronauts away in simulated spacecraft and isolation chambers for weeks at a time to see how they fare is one of the doctor’s specialisms.

In fact speaking to Kraft you might be forgiven for thinking he enjoys this part of the selection the most.

The aim of isolation, in a simulated Mars base, is to see how teams function together in a sealed environment – much like they would have to on a real long-duration mission.

So far, the longest experiment has been the joint Russian-European experiment Mars500. This saw volunteers shut in a simulated spacecraft in a Moscow suburb for 520 days to investigate the challenges of a Martian mission.

“It’s interesting what an isolation chamber does,” says Kraft with more than a note of enthusiasm in his voice. “It brings out the personality and your traits.”

“We had this [with an experiment I conducted] in Russia, the cosmonauts really wanted to be cosmonauts and they went in there and they totally screwed it up,” he adds. “If you try to fake it and cheat, it does not work.”

If they make it this far, then volunteers can expect another 10 years of intensive training to pick up the skills they will need for an isolated life on Mars – from flying a spaceship to fixing a Martian toilet.

Even if Mars One comes to nothing, the results from the selection process will still be useful to space agencies and future space explorers in refining their long-duration mission plans.

If, however, Mars One manages to raise the money to design, build and test a crew-rated spacecraft ready to blast off, there is no guarantee any of this first group of candidates will be selected for the mission.

“They have to show during the 10 years of training, studying and challenges we give them, that they’re ready to go,” says Kraft. “I tell them that when you are sitting in the rocket you go, and not a moment earlier – with us they’re only astronauts when they fly.”

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