Living On Mars: Colonists Will Need To Be Creative, ‘MacGuyver’ Types

When one thinks about colonizing Mars, many often believe that the population that first settles Mars should be scientists and specialists, experts in fields that range from astrobiology (just in case) to geology to psychology. However, even though individuals trained in these fields will be of use to a colony that will also be the vanguard for human exploration of the Red Planet, the first colonists on Mars will of necessity have to be creative thinkers, people who can quickly assess a given problem scenario or emergency situation and address it by using local resources — because what you really need is back on Earth millions of miles away or requires a unique solution due to the Martian environment.

According to Space, planetary scientist Phil Metzger, who is also a co-founder of NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Swamp Works, a space technology and innovation lab, believes that the success and survival of the Mars colony will depend on being able to manipulate and resource simple materials, finding low-tech solutions and displaying a broad set of problem-solving skills that will enable colonists to adapt to their lives on Mars.

“Here on the Earth, when we go to a remote location to do an engineering development project, we’ve learned that taking high-tech equipment isn’t really the right approach. What you want is appropriate technology,” Metzger said. “You want technology to be maintained using the local resources and local labor.”

In other words, high-tech equipment and esoteric specializations might be great for think tanks and studies on Earth, but life on Mars will depend on tools, equipment, and habitats (among many, many other things) that can be fixed or replaced.

Mark Jernigan, the associate director of NASA JSC Human Health and Performance Directorate, put it simply: “We will need a lot of MacGyvers out there.”

(For those not in the know, a MacGuyver is an individual who can find solutions to problems using only what resources are available. The term derives from the hit ABC Television series, which starred Richard Dean Anderson, of the same name (and which has since been rebooted by CBS). “MacGuyver” has been appropriated by pop culture and is commonly used as a verb as well, such as when describing a situation where the exact parts for repairing something are not readily available, so such-and-such “MacGuyvered” it.)

Both Metzger and Jernigan were part of a panel that spoke at the New Space Age Conference held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School on March 11. Also speaking on the topic “Sustainable Expansion: Reaching Mars and Beyond” was Jeffrey Hoffman, former NASA astronaut and director of MIT’s Man Vehicle lab, and Keegan Kirkpatrick, founder and team lead of RedWorks, a private company that has designed a Martian habitat that can be built with a 3-D printer.

A DIY Mars colonist
Mars colonists will have to be self-sufficient and creative, taking care of problems with the tools and resources at hand. [Image by studiostoks/Shutterstock]

All panelists were in consensus about maintaining a Mars colony in that it would have to be self-sustaining and self-reliant. Relying on being resupplied would be a dangerous gamble.

“Mars has to operate independently from Earth,” Kirkpatrick said, comparing a nascent Mars colony with Virginia colonists of the early 1600s. He noted that if colonists had transported their already built houses from Britain to America, then awaited supplies from the home country to effect repairs, the United States would have never expanded beyond outposts along the Atlantic coastline.

“The advantage of having people is that people are capable of responding to situations that were not anticipated,” said Mark Jernigan. “People can understand the situation and adapt as needed, and they also have the ability, that when failures occur, to use resources that were not originally anticipated in order to solve the problem.”

And even the specialized scientist colonist should be a jack-of-all-trades, a DIY MacGuyver.

“You have to have a lot of people with a diverse, less-specialized array of skills to go to Mars,” Kirkpatrick explained. “In other words, average people that have to be able to support this large diverse economy.”

Jernigan added, “When you’re talking about trying to survive on the surface of Mars, the level of skills that you need are so much broader.”

The Mars panel’s thoughts on a future colony and how the colony might better function and thrive only add to the growing surfeit of research being done on the subject.

Astronauts exploring Mars
The colonization of Mars will be not be done with specialized explorers but with creative and adaptable individuals that can handle difficult situations and problem-solve -- a do-it-yourself MacGuyver. [Image by SergeyDV/Shutterstock]

Along with teams of Macguyvers to get the colonists through the community’s formative years, cognitive scientist Konrad Szocik recently pointed out that the conditions of Mars could not be accurately duplicated. This means that the actual physical and biological effects of humans living on Mars cannot be predicted. Szocik suggested that strategies involving electronic enhancements for colonists to better adapt to real-time situations on Mars and medications for emotionally dealing with crises in an outpost environment might be necessary for a colony’s ultimate success.

[Featured Image by Jan Kaliciak/Shutterstock]