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

2 min read
Sketch of David Wolf
Illustration: Jacob Thomas

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

Sketch of David Wolf Illustration: Jacob Thomas

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.

The Conversation (0)

The Hyperloop Is Hyper Old

Elon Musk merely renamed a 200-year-old dream

3 min read
Illustration of a tube and various ways of moving vehicles.

William Heath's 1829 engraving pokes fun at a vacuum tube that conveys travelers from London to Bengal.

Universal Images Group/Getty Images

"Lord how this world improves as we grow older," reads the caption for a panel in the " March of Intellect," part of a series of colored etchings published between 1825 and 1829. The artist, William Heath (1794–1840), shows many futuristic contraptions, including a four-wheeled steam-powered horse called Velocity, a suspension bridge from Cape Town to Bengal, a gun-carrying platform lifted by four balloons, and a giant winged flying fish conveying convicts from England to New South Wales, in Australia. But the main object is a massive, seamless metallic tube taking travelers from East London's Greenwich Hill to Bengal, courtesy of the Grand Vacuum Tube Company.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less

SambaNova CEO: “We’re Built for Large”

Rodrigo Liang explains the $5-billion AI startup’s philosophy and future

8 min read
SambaNova CEO, Rodrigo Liang

SambaNova CEO, Rodrigo Liang


AI, particularly the huge neural networks that meant to understand and interact with us humans, is not a natural fit for computer architectures that have dominated for decades. A host of startups recognized this in time to develop chips and sometimes the computers they'd power. Among them, Palo Alto-based SambaNova Systems is a standout. This summer the startup passed US $1 billion in venture funding to value the company at $5 billion. It aims to tackle the largest neural networks that require the most data using a custom-built stack of technology that includes the software, computer system, and processor, selling its use as a service instead of a package. IEEE Spectrum spoke to SambaNova CEO Rodrigo Liang in October 2021.

Rodrigo Liang on…

Keep Reading ↓ Show less

Fundamentals of radome and bumper measurements using the R&S QAR

This whitepaper examines how the R&S QAR quality automotive radome tester can help

1 min read

Due to design challenges, radar sensors are usually hidden behind bumpers or emblems, which can influence how well the radar sensor can interpret the outgoing and incoming data. To test radome and bumper influence on radar sensors, this whitepaper examines how the R&S®QAR quality automotive radome tester can help. Register now and download our free whitepaper.