Today I headed to Cambridge to meet Ryan MacDonald. He is a Theoretical Astrophysicist currently working on a PhD in Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, his research focuses on understanding the physical conditions and chemical composition of the atmospheres of exoplanets.

I got the sense that he is very passionate about his work while he toured me around Cambridge. We sat down at a cafe where I asked him a couple of questions about my focus on the Mars One mission mainly around emotional wellbeing. He said something that resonated with me, “Science is actually very emotional. It’s an emotional feeling when you’ve discovered something that nobody else in the universe knows.”

Described by his friends as the “crazy Mars guy”, Ryan’s family and friends weren’t actually surprised when he made this decision. As one of the younger candidates, Ryan can afford the delays that are expected and still be young enough to go when it’s ready. In 2010, Ryan met Tim Peake, the first official British astronaut selected for the European space agency. This was when he really thought it was possible for a British person to train to go to Space. Prior to this, British citizens had to take very convolated routes to achieve this such as double citizenships to go with NASA. “The UK space agency didn’t exist before 2010. The UK has been against human flight into space until the past 7 or 8 years because space was all about launching satellites and making money. The focus changed with Tim Peake because they realized the inspirational affect of having a person going into space.”

This potential to inspire people about space and science is one of  the major reasons that Ryan is so interested in the mission. “Up to this point, the biggest impact that Mars One had has been outreach.” Candidates use this as a platform all around the world to talk about science and space. Ryan has been speaking at schools and conferences and seen the effect that he’s had on younger generations. “The world is a better place if we base our decisions on rationalism.” Ryan sees science as the most important way to understand the world and solve problems.

On the topic of psychological health in this mission, Ryan says that’s why it’s important to pick the right people. He acknowledges that an integral part of the mission is isolation and some may experience negative mental health states due to this. There will be a lot of training, enduring 3 months a year of isolation for example. He says, “In this connected day and age, we don’t experience isolation very often. And so I don’t know whether I’m the kind of person who can cope with it or not.” Ryan is only going to find out more about himself and see whether he would be fit for the mission through training, “Recognizing when you have a flaw is the easiest way to fix it. I completely recognize that I don’t know whether I do have the right kind of mentality and pscyhology to cope with that, but I’m willing to find out.” Ryan confirms that you need to be self reflective and be able to modify your behaviour when you encounter new and strange situations.

Ryan says the apolitical infrastructure of Mas One is another big advantage, void of international bias. Ryan is disappointed at the overall political regulations associated with space exploration. “If Mars One is the first mission to Mars, it will automatically be much more representative of the human race.” Ryan imagines the society to be built on Mars as based on consensus. “I imagine it will be something like a representative technocracy where it still has voting and democracy as a fundamental tenant but the kind of people who are elegible for necessary roles would have to have the experience in order to to be allowed to stand.”

 

In this group, the participants are very different from  each other, but the one unifying factor is the interest in sending people to Mars. An individual of each team has to answer a knowledge based question before each challenge. The teams really have to help each other. Ryan’s team consists of engineers, physicists, doctors, and teachers. The candidates chat and connect regularly through Facebook and have formed a family bond with each other outside of the topic of space exploration. It’s important for everyone to know how to survive and operate in space because you will only have each other. If a member does not have the skills and knowledge in a life saving situation, it may result in fatality. The small teams of 4 will be trained over 9 days of isolation early next year, then selected teams will undergo much longer isolation periods as part of the training. Candidates are also put through psychological profiling during the selection process.

Meeting Ryan MacDonald

Road leading to Cambridge Observatory, where Ryan works

 

 

 

In the observatory, on every wall, there are posters of the universe and space and planets hanging from the ceiling. The Institute of Astronomy Library has books on everything to do with astronomy. The most intriguing part of the tour was when Ryan showed me the traditional and modern telescopes. We stepped into 2 dome covered buildings then Ryan hand cranked open the roof and pointed the telescope into the sky.

Meeting Ryan MacDonald 1

Meeting Ryan MacDonald 2

Stepping into the observatory

Meeting Ryan MacDonald 6

The modern telescope which is controlled by a computer program

Meeting Ryan MacDonald 5

The instructions for using the computer program is easily explained in 3 pages of instructions and can be used by anyone.

Meeting Ryan MacDonald 4

The oldest telescope observatory roof opening, built around the 1830s, a Victorian installation.

“It reminds me that Mars is a real place, much like many of the deserts that we have here on Earth, and it’s not just an infinitely far away fictional location. It’s a place where we can actually send people, and we can live there, and it can become a part of humanity’s domain.”

 

Through talking to Ryan, I saw that the fears that the public would have disappeared because when you understand it, it doesn’t feel so foreign. He says that science for him is a constant discovery in that every time something new appears, it’s always a surprise. So it’s important to admit that theories can change and the universe can always surprise us.

The rest of the meeting, we talked about the food that Ryan was preparing to eat, this is only one of the habits he would be prepared to change and to appreciate the new diet that he would adopt on Mars.  I could tell he fully understood the consequences as well as the uniqueness of this mission, “You could mitigate the risks as much as possible, but you could never get around it.”