The Kind Of People Who Will Go To Mars

They won't lack fear—they'll be able to operate well in the face of it


This is part of IEEE Spectrum’s Special Report: Why Mars? Why Now?

Living in space requires near-perfect planning. The International Space Station is an ideal place to practice and iron out the technologies. We can try new things and launch new equipment, and compared to Mars, the station is very close. Once we set off for Mars, we need to have the technologies and human factors well worked out, because there will be no reasonable return, support, or resupply.

We need a mix of people to do a Mars trip—a good psychological mix as well as a good technical-background mix. Each person will become a leader at times, and each will become a follower at times. We need people who are flexible enough to assume each of those roles at the appropriate time. We need people who are physically in excellent condition, of course.

One characteristic we look for is the ability to act correctly in the face of incomplete information, because rarely do we have everything we need to know. If we did, we’d be paralyzed; we’d have paralysis by analysis. We like people who thrive on stress—people who are alert to problems as they evolve and who react to them appropriately in real time. We need people who when faced with large amounts of information are able to pick out the important parts. The early astronaut selections called that characteristic “perspicuity.”

A zero-risk approach isn’t possible. In order to push the frontiers, there are inherent dangers and risks. A courageous person, I read recently, isn’t someone who has no fear. It’s a person who is able to operate effectively in the face of fear.

—As told to Susan Hassler

About the Author

DAVID A. WOLF is a NASA astronaut and an IEEE member. He has logged 158 days in space during three missions; at press time he was preparing for his fourth, to deliver and install the final components of the Japanese experimental module to the International Space Station. He holds a B.S. in electrical engineering from Purdue University and an M.D. from Indiana University.