One of the most common questions I'm asked by kids and adults a-like is what I'd be learning if I'm selected as one of the 12-24 candidates who become full-time employees and start astronaut training leading up to 2031 - what are we actually going to be learning over the next 14 years? My standard response in interviews is usually "everything", before listing a bundle of different skill-sets that are both obvious (like repairing life support systems) and unexpected (like dentistry or politics).
The reality is a little more nuanced though. Our "training" will be mostly about developing and testing both the skills and mindset of potential Martian colonists. Mindsets develop over time and are harder to pin down, and I've written about it extensively elsewhere, but for the most part it's about putting people in Mars-like simulations for months at a time and testing how they respond to simulated terror and extreme boredom. Mars analogs like HI-SEAS, NEEMO, MDRS and Concordia are already intended to simulate some aspects of life on Mars for those inside as they test different equipment, protocols and themselves.
Before you even start a simulated Mars mission though there's a mountain of different skills you should have and things you should know, let alone what you'll need to know going on a real and one-way mission to Mars!
It may seem obvious but knowing what to do when one of your crewmates is dying is pretty high up on the "Shit you should know" list for a Mars mission. That said there's no point sending a crew of four plastic surgeons or obstetricians to Mars: you need four people who have first hand experience of what to when someone is bleeding out, having a heart attack and/or going into shock. You need to send people trained and experienced as paramedics to Mars.
With up to 20 minutes delay in communications between Earth and Mars you can't just call someone else for advice, the same way a combat medic can't wait for call a doctor to ask how treat to someone that's been hit in a firefight. You don't wait around for someone else to tell you what to do - you've got the experience to identify an emergency, know to do to increase someone's probability of survival, and act.
This isn't the refined perfection of aerospace engineering or complicated brain surgery - this is the instinctive and imperfect practice of keeping healthy people alive when bad things have suddenly happened to them by asking simple questions like:
- Can you stop someone else (including you) from being injured too?
- How do you stop someone bleeding?
- How do you get someone breathing again?
- How do you help someone having a heart attack?
- Where is the nearest AED? How do you use it?
- How do you help someone having a seizure without being injured yourself?
- How do you get someone's core temperature back to 37 degrees Celcius?
- How do identify and treat someone before or currently in shock?
- What equipment do you have available to do these things?
- What can you improvise what you need to do these things?
- Will you harm rather than help someone if you do something for too long?
Once you've stabilised someone to the point where they're not likely to suddenly die in the next hour, then you can start getting subject-matter experts on Earth to provide advice on longer-term treatment options.
The more emergency medical training and experience the crew has the more prepared they'll be to act if something goes pear-shaped. As an absolute minimum every crew member will need months if not years of intensive medical training, equivalent to a Combat Medic or Emergency Medical Technician.
At least two of the crew will need further training and experience in surgery. If you can train the entire crew to the level of a civilian expedition doctor or military field surgeon and give them all the experience to deserve those job descriptions on Earth, bonus! But your 2-day First Aid course isn't going to cut it on Mars: you need every single person on the crew to have the knowledge and first-hand experience to act immediately and expertly when someone on the crew has sustained a life-threatening injury.
More medicine? You bet.
Hyperbaric medicine is mostly associated with treating scuba divers for decompression sickness (aka "the bends"), putting them in a pressure chamber to redissolve the nitrogen bubbles in their blood and reducing the pressure slowly so they don't reform. Safe to say Martian colonists won't be scuba diving on Mars anytime soon, but given the pressure changes experienced by anyone using an airlock or a spacesuit on Mars they'll definitely need to know how to handle decompression sickness.
You can also use the increased pressure of a hyperbaric chamber to deliver oxygen to part of the body that may not be getting enough. Infected or non-healing wounds, gangrene, and burns all respond positively to hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Breathing enriched or pure oxygen long term can damage the lungs, and breathing it at pressure can even cause seizures, but it's also the fastest way to treat someone who's been poisoned by carbon monoxide or another gas.
You where it really sucks to have a fire? Somewhere small that recycles it's air and you can't escape from.
When flooding aboard the Canadian submarine HMCS Chicoutimi caused an electrical fire, the crew had it extinguished in 75 seconds. In those 75 seconds though nine of the crew suffered smoke inhalation, three badly enough to require airlifting to a hospital, with one dying during the flight.
When an oxygen generator malfunctioned on space station Mir, the fire it created burned for just 90 seconds. But trapped inside a space station with a fire hot enough to melt metal, the crew of six were forced to don respirators to protect themselves from the toxic gases released by the fire. Had the fire melted through the hull the entire crew would have been instantly killed.
It doesn't matter if you're 350 meters underwater in a submarine, 350 kilometers above the Earth in Mir, or 350 million kilometers away in a habitat on Mars, you can't just run to the nearest evacuation point and wait for the local firefighters to show up. You have seconds to fight it, and you probably don't want to use water - that's how the electrical fire on HMCS Chicoutimi started in the first place. Once you've fought it you still can't open a window and let the fumes out, so you'll need some other way of removing the toxic fire by-products produced by your life support system melting.
Again, we're not talking your 4-hour Fire Warden course, or even a 5-month career firefighter course. Sealed-vessel firefighting is complex, dangerous, and unforgiving if you fuck it up. The first people on Mars won't get a second chance if they do.
The majority of humanity can live quite comfortably without mechanical life support: the Sun warms the Earth while providing energy to plants, which add oxygen to an atmosphere that blocks cosmic radiation. Meanwhile Mars averages 86 million kilometers further away from the Sun, shows no evidence of oxygen-producing plants and next to no atmosphere. Humans are pathetically fragile compared to the environmental hostility of space so anyone leaving the planet needs to take their life support with them, and they know how to fix it when (not if) it breaks.
When you talk about space engineering, you might expect terms like Electro-Mechanical Engineering, Aerospace Computer Aided Design and Modelling or Power System Analysis & Optimisation. But if someone wants to drone on about Boyle's Law to me while I'm trying to fix a failing airlock, I'm going to push them into it. Perfect engineering solutions can be worked out by supernerds using supercomputers on Earth. On Mars we'll need people who will maintain life support systems so they're less likely to break, and be able to quickly repair them when they do. When the things keeping you alive stop working, you don't down tools and conduct a 6-month design review - you MacGyver the shit out of it, and figure out a better solution when you're less likely to immediately die.
That's not to say you won't study mechanical, electrical and systems engineering in depth; it's just that the focus needs to be on maintenance and improvised repair rather than engineering design. Do you need to know exactly how photons produce electron-hole pairs in the Cadmium Telluride semi-conductor in your solar panels? No... but you do need to know how to re-wire a faulty solar panel while wearing a clumsy spacesuit during a night EVA, fully aware that the sun will rise in rise in 20 minutes and you need every second of power those solar panels can give so the life support system can produce the oxygen you need. Knowing how to improvise a HF radio using a using a length of cable as an antenna to send a low-power message to Earth is far more important that being able to recite the bandwidth equation.
The folks on Earth designing the systems for Mars need to optimise for durability and ease-of-repair too. You can't land on Mars to stay using something made of aluminium foil and dreams like they did in the 60's on the Moon. You need ruggedised and easily-repaired systems like you see built for soldiers rather than the finely-tuned precision engineering you see built for pilots. Anything that is critical to keeping people alive - solar panels, air processing fans, oxygen generators, water processing systems, ect - needs to be designed to last, and is easily replaceable with interchangeable parts (eg. one size screw for every component) that are ideally 3D printed from materials found naturally on Mars.
Don't send the aerospace engineers who design rockets to Mars - send people like combat engineers who know how to solve engineering problems while someone is shooting at them, or commercial divers who fix problems underwater in the dark wearing heavy suits and gloves. It's the aerospace engineer's responsibility to make sure the problems are simple enough to solve when people's lives depend on it.
The only way to survive on Mars long-term is to become independent of supplies from Earth. You won't bring oxygen and water all the way from Earth when you can produce both from the Martian soil, so why rely on Earth to send food when you can grow it in that same soil too?
We're all painfully aware of how Mark Watney claimed "Mars will come to fear my botany powers" before growing poo-tatos in The Martian, but you really don't need to be a fully-fledged botanist to grow food on Mars: you need a crew trained in basic horticulture to maintain an edible garden. That's it. The world-class botanists and agriculture experts can stay on Earth and argue over which specific strain of Quinoa is best - the folks on Mars just need to know how to effectively grow, harvest, eat and recycle it; all in a 38% gravity environment where the soil needs to be washed to remove the perchlorates that will otherwise kill you.
Crops also produce and consume different gases, potentially changing how the habitat's atmosphere is processed. Knowing what gases plants produce or consume at different times of day and during different life cycle stages will allow those on Mars to reduce the load on their mechanical life support systems by using the plants as a "biological life support" system.
Geology & Astrobiology
Sending humans to Mars is ultimately about discovering more about the universe we live in while hopefully answering the age old question of "Are we alone? ". While not specifically critical to keeping people alive on Mars, training crews in geology and astrobiology means they'll be spot a yellow-brown patch under a rock on Mars and say "That's weird - lets send a picture on this back to the folks on Earth" with greater confidence that it is something unusual than someone who doesn't even know to look.
Having humans on Mars to physically turn over rocks will significantly increase our understanding of how Mars and the rest of the solar system formed, and may in time discover evidence of previous or even current microbial life. Maybe we'll find evidence of a second genesis in our solar system, significantly increasing the prospects of discovering intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy. Maybe we'll discover life started on Mars and arrived on Earth from there after an asteroid impact.
But we can't do that research if the people on Mars don't have the skill-sets to keep themselves alive in a confined, hostile and isolated environment. You don't want to spend a decade on Earth studying to become a world-class expert in botany or turbo-pump design, then be on Mars and not know what to do when an oxygen-generator bursts into flames and badly burns you or a crew-mate. You'll notice I haven't listed flying or aerospace engineering as a useful skills for Mars - that's because for the people actually living on Mars they won't be.
We don't need pilots or rocket scientists on Mars: we need paramedics, commercial divers, submariners, and maintenance/combat engineers... preferably who like gardening and licking rocks too.