It’s official: I’m moving on to the interview round

An email I received yesterday.


Dear Dr. Christopher Kashinath Patil,

We’re writing you today to confirm that you are one of 706 candidates that will be invited for an interview in your region with a Mars One selection committee.

From the originally 1058 pre-selected astronaut candidates, nearly one-third dropped out in the first phase of this selection round. Besides not being able to provide the medical statement or make their profile public, several others withdrew their candidacy due to personal reasons.

Regional interviews
The dates and locations of the regional interviews will be communicated over the next months. In your personal interview we expect you to show your knowledge, intelligence, adaptability and personality.

We’re looking forward to informing you on the next steps of the astronaut selection process!

Best regards,

Mars One Selection Committee

Great! Now all I need is knowledge, intelligence, adaptability, and personality.


Landing heavy things on Mars

The Martian atmosphere is too thin for parachutes to be efficient, but too thick to allow landers to decelerate using only rocket engines. Consequently, a great deal of ingenuity is required to drop massive objects (like robots, and one day, people) onto the Martian surface without breaking them. (via

Here’s a beautiful graphical review of the approaches we have used in the past — and one prospect for delivering even larger payloads in the future.

landing heavy payloads on mars

Mars One medical director outlines next round of selection

In this short interview, Dr. Norbert Kraft, the medical advisor of the Mars One Project, describes the next round of selection, which will take place over the next few months.

LINK: Mission to Mars Medical Director

From more than 200,000 applicants, 1058 Round 2 candidates were selected. Of that 1058, 715 (including me!) passed a series of required medical exams. Now, the candidates will undergo interviews and as-yet-unspecified “additional challenges” aimed at selecting representatives from specific geographical regions.

As we already know, the plurality of applicants (28%) came from the USA, which means that the geographically based competition will be fiercer for Americans. Fortunately for us, it sounds like the country will be split up into smaller segments (East Coast, West Coast, and Central). Still, each of those groups amounts for almost 10% of the total applicant pool.

Getting through the next round is going to be challenging.



Mars One may partner with Lionsgate TV on a reality show


As I’ve written before, the Mars One Project intends to obtain some of its funding by licensing the media rights to broadcast the selection and training process. A few weeks ago, the news broke that Mars One and Lionsgate Television (WP) were negotiating the terms of a partnership aimed at producing a reality TV show (q.v. here and here). The scoop was premature: initially CEO Bas Landsdorp denied that a deal had been struck, but then acknowledged that negotiations were underway.

To the best of our knowledge, however, no contract has yet been signed. (Consistent with this, Lionsgate TV has not yet issued a press release on the matter). Thus, even if everything we know so far about the possibility of a deal is true, we should keep in mind that there’s no deal yet.

Due to the preliminary nature of this news, reliable details are scarce. One oft-repeated claim has it that Lionsgate or the network partner that eventually broadcasts the show will perform its own new search for participants, ultimately merging the new crop with the existing candidate pool identified last year by Mars One.

This could be good news or bad news: On the good side, the original applicant pool was just over 200,000, sizable but still only tiny fraction of potentially qualified humans; a second search with serious marketing muscle behind it could reach a much larger percentage of the best candidates for the mission. On the other hand, we already know something about how  companies select talent for reality TV. I’m not convinced that a population of high-strung physical beauties is likely to be enriched for the skills needed to ensure the success of the mission.

There is a significant tension between what makes for good television and what would make for rigorous selection and training of literal astronauts planning to risk their literal lives. When preparations for an off-planet mission are going well, they aren’t (and shouldn’t be) “dramatic” in the way that holds viewers’ attention in what one source breathlessly called the “red-hot social experiment genre”. (There’s a reason why Ron Howard didn’t make his film about Apollo 11.) 

Reality TV has reimagined Lord of the Flies, explored the petty depravity of rats in a cage, and invited us time and again to jeer at the antics of moral imbeciles, but it has very rarely explored the quiet victories of humans at our best.

These concerns have led others to criticize the proposed partnership, with one Mars One candidate decrying what she sees as potentially descending into  a “lowbrow media circus”, and one entertainment reporter speculating, in essence, that the risks are simply too great to be prudently assessed:


While the series has yet to be given a title, we’re pretty sure for the first few seasons at least it will just be referred to as “that reality show were all those poor people died on the way to Mars.”

For now, I’m reserving judgment. We don’t yet know how the corporate partners will pursue additional searches, how they will seek to weigh in on the training and selection process, or even what the format of the reality show will ultimately be. This is new ground: the timescale is very long compared to other unscripted series (10 years at least, and that’s just the preamble on Earth), and the goals are unprecedented; old templates may not apply. Perhaps Hollywood and Madison Avenue will surprise us.

In the meantime, I remain cautiously optimistic. I’m glad that the media plan appears to be moving forward, and I’m eager to see what happens next.

P.S.: Stipulating that Lionsgate becomes the media partner, which network might broadcast the resultant reality show? Yesterday, fellow candidate Bill Dunlap pointed out to me that CBS has been covering Mars One more intensively than the other networks, leading me to do a bit of poking around on my own. I found nothing definitive, but it may be relevant that last month CBS and Lionsgate entered a distribution partnership, and Bas Landsdorp recently appeared on CBS’s This Morning

Farmer in the sky: Modeling the Martian soil for agriculture


Vegetables on Mars within ten years?

UnknownThe soil on Mars may be suitable for cultivating food crops – this is the prognosis of a study by plant ecologist Wieger Wamelink of Wageningen UR. This would prove highly practical if we ever decide to send people on a one-way trip to the red planet. After all, if we are going to live anywhere in outer space in the future Mars stands a good chance of being the place.

In a unique pilot experiment Wieger tested the growth of 14 plant varieties on artificial Mars soil over 50 days. NASA composed the soil based on the volcanic soil of Hawaii. To his surprise, the  grew well; some even blossomed. “I had expected the germination process to work, but I thought the plants would die due to a lack of nutrients,” Wieger explains. The soil analysis showed, however, that Mars soil contains more nutrients than expected. In addition to phosphorus and iron oxides, the scientist found nitrogen, an essential plant nutrient.

I confess to some skepticism regarding the relevance of these findings to actual plant growth on actual Mars. The experiment used Hawaiian volcanic soil, which has a very different geological history than the Martian regolith, so I’m not sure to what extent it is a good model. Also, if the scientist whipped it up himself, it’s hard to understand how there could be “more nutrients than expected”, or why a surprising result regarding the composition should create optimism that we might see the same thing on Mars.

Plus,there’s some evidence that Martian soil is full of perchlorate and other consequences of UV irradiation, and it’s not clear that these parameters were incorporated into this experiment.

That said, experiments of this general type are of great utility: With an eye toward the future, we should be trying to model the Martian soil and determine how best to convert it into something that Terran plants can assimilate. Hydroponics (and variants like aquaponics, which might be a good way to get some animal protein into the colonists’ diet) will unquestionably be central to early efforts to establish a renewable food source in the early colonies. Subsequently, we might shift from using ready-made (and probably imported) fertilizer substrates to chemically extracting important elements directly from the regolith. But eventually we’ll want to start relying on plants’ natural ability to assimilate nutrients from their growth substrate, and (with the help of bacteria) decompose back into that substrate, to create a true Martian soil cycle. And despite the critiques I offered above, experiments like this are an important start in that direction.

The ‘sociability paradox’ of Mars One


Earlier this week, science writer Barbara King discussed Mars One in the blog 13.7 (“Cosmos and Culture”). Her article, which I encourage you to read in full, bluntly asks:

Why Do 202,586 People Want To Leave Our Planet For Mars?

In the piece, King raises an issue to which I have given some thought: the apparent contradiction between candidates’ expressed willingness to leave everything behind, and the notion that these individuals could be sociable (and trusting, and supportive, and loving) enough to work with a small group of other people (probably chosen primarily for their technical competence, and only secondarily for their interpersonal skills) for the rest of their lives.

UnknownMars One CEO Bas Landorp told The Huffington Post earlier this year that “the most important skill” considered in the selection process is an applicant’s “ability to function in a team.” (The full selection criteria is [sic] available online.)

Still, my question is this: Are people eager to leave behind everyone they love — for the rest of their lives — good candidates to succeed at forging a tight-knit colony on Mars? A colony that surely will require great sociability, shared good feelings and cooperation to succeed?

I have asked myself a similar question in slightly different terms (and this is as good a point as any to say that the below should not to be construed as my interpretation of King’s intended meaning. I’m simply using her piece as a jumping-off point for my own musings, which constitute the remainder of the post):

What sort of person is willing to sacrifice every significant human relationship, but—once separated from Earth— still capable of sufficient community-mindedness that they could be entrusted with building a new world?

It is a rather fine edge on which to dance, all the more so because it’s so important to get this right. As I wrote in one of my application essays:

UnknownThe first astronauts need to care intensely about our species, but be willing to leave most of humanity behind for the rest of their lives. They need to be highly socially adept but willing to limit their social interactions to a few people for many, many years. I believe that identifying the personality types that are best suited to these apparently contradictory requirements is one of the principal challenges facing Mars One.

Let’s call this the ‘sociability paradox’. How should it be resolved? I don’t have any firm answers right now, but it’s a critical question and one to which I expect we’ll return again and again. For now, a few related thoughts:

• Separation ≠ isolation: Traveling a great physical distance from loved ones is not the same as permanently abandoning them. Written and other  forms of communication at a distance have become enormously important parts of webs of social meaning that keep us happy and sane here on Earth, and the same media will be used to communicate between Earth and Mars. The round-trip time lag of 8–48 minutes would make conventional telephony impossible, but the settlers could still use delayed voice and video chat.

In any case, I don’t think I’m the only person in the world who talks on the phone far less than we used to back when phones and printed letters were the only options, and I nonetheless manage to maintain a large network of meaningful, satisfying relationships, including some with people I may never see in person again. A large part of social communication involves sharing news and reassuring people who care about us that we’re OK; there would be no obstacle to this happening on Mars. In other words, a major premise of the sociability paradox—the idea that physical separation is equivalent to social isolation—may not hold true.

• Mars will be a very small village: Just because someone is willing to leave behind the sprawling, complex societies of modern Earth doesn’t mean that they eschew social life or fail to appreciate the value of intimate relationships. Instead, their brains might simply be more suited to much smaller social networks.

Indeed, the interpersonal skills that might help someone thrive on Earth might not be useful or even adaptive on Mars. People who happen to be very good at monitoring zillions of social details might not necessarily find it easy to achieve the single-minded devotion required for the work of starting a colony.

The most sociable people on Earth might not be sociable in the right sense for Mars; “social adeptness” is not a one-dimensional trait but a suite of interrelated skills that depend heavily on context. So it’s not that we need to balance social adeptness with tolerance for isolation in a small group; rather, we need to identify the social skills required for this mission and determine who has them in abundance.

I’m not sure whether I’m addressing the central issue here, or simply talking around it. It is clear that there will be much more to say on this subject, and I’m very interested in learning more about how others (the selection committee, the other candidates, and readers in general) will be thinking about it. For now, I have a nebulous sense that the sociability paradox involves only an apparent, rather than an actual, contradiction; I’ll try to articulate that more clearly as I think more about the topic.

The view from Mount Olympus


From my dear friend Wayne Chambliss:

UnknownGiven the opportunity to die on Mars, I’d take it. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about committing the most elaborate, expensive suicide in the history of mankind. I only mean that a trip to Mars is likely to be one-way; the voyage home, a coin one must be willing to pay the ferryman. Since I was a boy I’ve dreamed of scaling Olympus Mons. I mean, think of it. A volcano 15 miles high, 680 miles in circumference, rising from a flat plain beyond the Tharsis dome. A mountain big as the state of New Mexico, three times as tall as Everest, soaring to such an height that at its peak there is less than one millibar of atmospheric pressure. Which is to say, a Martian Sir Edmund Hillary would find himself planting his flag on the very edge of space. And the storms. The atmosphere of Mars is too thin to breathe, but thick enough to produce winds. Absent inhibitory features like trees, grass, and bodies of water, these winds can become incredibly strong, picking up more and more loose dust, converging into increasingly complex systems. Sometimes these dust storms can cover the planet’s entire surface, lasting for months, or even years. Now, imagine yourself sitting atop Mount Olympus. Everywhere you look, you have an unobstructed view of the planet’s actual curvature. And then, the leading edge of the storm: rising from canyons in the distance like a vast swarm of insects, blackening the horizon, obliterating first the surface, and then the sun, as if the planet itself were vomiting night. These are the sorts of the things I see when I close my eyes.