Mars Exchange
Preparing the new Martians for survival

Preparing the new Martians for survival

by Vince on Thursday, 25th September 2014 in Astronaut Selection, Expert Opinions, People, Christopher McKay

Christopher McKay, PhD, is a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, where his research includes the origins of life in the solar system and active involvement for future Mars missions. He’s also an explorer with experience in extreme environments, having led or participated in expeditions in Antarctica, the Arctic, the Atacama Desert, and Siberia. With a PhD in AstroGeophysics (University of Colorado, Boulder, 1982), McKay is recently the author and coauthor of papers documenting the methane cycle on Saturn’s moon, Titan, as well as research on terraforming Mars (or “ecosynthesis”). He’s also been a co-investigator on the Phoenix and Curiosity missions. (

Recently, Mars Exchange asked McKay about  survival, science, and living on Mars: What should Mars One astronaut candidates be studying in preparation for the mission?

“There are two key things they need to learn. First, they need to learn survival, and second they need to learn to do scientific exploration."

“Survival includes how to maintain equipment to stay alive. It’s just like a camper preparing for a camping trip…you have to know how to use the stove, the first aid kit, all that sort of stuff. When you are on Mars you are living in a little bubble of Earth. If that bubble bursts, you’re dead in minutes. So the number one requirement is to keep that bubble intact and safe."

“So you have to worry about mechanical issues—the seal breaks, the door breaks, the window breaks. Micrometeorites, which are a concern on the Moon or the International Space Station, are probably not a big deal since Mars has enough atmosphere to protect against them. But that bubble has to be maintained."

“The number two issue is water and food supply, which is already a problem occasionally on the space station. Water may get contaminated by bacteria, for example. So the crew has to watch water and food supply to be sure it is not compromised, because if the water becomes infested with bacteria, you can’t just throw it out and get a new batch. So water and food are the next issues."

“The next level of priority is the power supply. Whatever is being used must be maintained and operated. On Earth, we just plug into a socket, and so we take power for granted. On Mars, you can’t just call the power company and say, ‘Come fix this.’"

“Of course, Mars One engineers will have a more detailed list of priorities. But the point is that all the things we take for granted, from the air we breathe to the power coming out of the wall socket, those things can’t be taken for granted on Mars."

“As important as those things are, the biggest lesson from my 35 years of field work as an explorer in extreme environments like the dry valleys of Antarctica is that the most important factor in any expedition is the human factor. It’s not the quality of the gear or the quality of the instrumentation or speed or logistics. It’s the human factor. As an engineer, a physical scientist, I resisted this conclusion. But in fact, the productivity and success of an expedition depend on the motivation, coherence, and team spirit of the crew. Much of this is largely determined by the attributes of the team leader. Obviously the crew needs their technology, but the crew’s success is a function of themselves, not their technology.”

Tell us what you think. And look for more from NASA's Christopher McKay, who, in future installments discusses scientific exploration of Mars, living on Mars, and the potential for making Mars habitable.

 Story by Vincent Hyman, a writer and Mars One volunteer living in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. 

Photo credits header image:

  • Left: Ian White Photography LLC - Discover Magazine
  • Center: Ian White Photography LLC - Discover Magazine
  • Right: Chris McKay
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