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Psychologist: Mars One could change the world

This vista from NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows "Wdowiak Ridge." Opportunity's panoramic camera (Pancam) recorded the component images for this mosaic on Sept. 17, 2014
(Courtesy: NASA)
This vista from NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows "Wdowiak Ridge." Opportunity's panoramic camera (Pancam) recorded the component images for this mosaic on Sept. 17, 2014

The world is sitting at the intersection of science fiction and science fact, in large part because of sci-fi devotees.

“People who are actively aware of what could be possible are psychologically more flexible than people who aren’t,” psychologist Michael Mahon told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh. Mahon was trained as a clinical psychologist but now works as a licensed professional counselor.

Mahon is a sci-fi fan. He was 13 when the first “Star Wars” film debuted; “Star Trek” was one of the first TV shows he watched; and he said he remembers watching the Apollo mission launches. He takes science fiction seriously. Mahon also spoke about the psychology of science fiction last year at Wizard World Comic Con in St. Louis.

Sci-fi fans, Mahon said, are better able to suspend disbelief and ask what if. People who aren’t into sci-fi are able to ask the same questions, but they don’t regularly engage in it, he said. That’s why it’s the sci-fi fan who is not only thinking about the future, but also is creating the foundation for that future. And that’s where science fiction becomes science fact.

The Mars One mission is one example. “The idea is science fact,” Mahon said. “The actual ability to go to Mars may or may not be science fact.”

The Mars One plan seems rather straightforward: The group plans to launch its first human crew of four in 2024. They would arrive on Mars in 2025, followed by a second group in 2026, and would start building a colony. By 2033, that colony is expected to have 20 settlers.

It’s not surprising that people are interested in traveling to Mars, even on a one-way ticket, Mahon said. A St. Louis area woman, Maggie Duckworth, is a third-round finalist for the trip.

“For these individuals, it actually is the journey that is important, not whether or not they make it to Mars, not whether or not they survive on Mars. That’s very different for us here at home,” he said. “Individuals who want to see themselves as heroic and take a great journey, this is a common theme throughout human mythology. That’s a great thing. (But) is the reality of that the same as the romanticized idea of that?”

If NASA was to send people to Mars, it would only do so if those people were coming back to Earth, Mahon said, and psychologically there’s a good reason for that. If the Apollo astronauts had landed on the moon and never returned to Earth, our understanding of space travel would be much different today, he said.

What if, Mahon asked, people are sent to Mars and are never heard from again? What if that happens twice? Three times?

“That is going to change our perception of space travel greatly from what it is currently, and I think that has the potential of having a far more devastating impact on us than if we had not made the attempt to begin with.”

What if it’s successful?

“It would change the world,” Mahon said.

But that’s jumping ahead a bit. First, Mahon, and many others, question how feasible the mission is from ethical, health and monetary standpoints:

  • This Mars mission is a one-way trip. The people who leave will not be coming back. They will either die during the journey or on Mars. There are no plans for their remains to return to Earth either.
  • A lot is still not known about how the human body reacts to zero-gravity — if a crew member breaks his arm, will the broken bone mend? There also are psychological issues, including coping with isolation. People are built to interact, Mahon said. A person begins to lose his ability to interpret reality after just 96 hours of isolation. “None of us alive today on the face of this planet can say with any confidence that we understand the psychological implications of being on Mars in groups of 25, groups of 12 or in a group of four.”
  • And fiscally, NASA has spent billions of dollars to send a series of rovers to Mars. Mars One is a private spaceflight project.

“If they pull it off and they end up on Mars and the habitats all work and the people all live and they do a reality TV show and beam it back to Earth, I guarantee you I’m going to be DVRing that TV show,” Mahon said.
So would he go today? “Sitting here right now, my heart tells me that I would want to make that trip,” he said. “This is the future of the human race.”

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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