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Mars colonists face psychological hazards

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Anyone planning on filling out an application form to join the first manned mission to Mars might like to read the small print first. Past research suggests that would-be colonists would face psychological pressures that could be intolerable for most humans.

The audacious Mars One plan is for a one-way expedition to Mars to launch in 2022. After seven months in space the colonists will settle permanently on Mars, conducting research, adapting to the conditions and, not least, starring in a reality TV show beamed back to Earth.

Initially there will be three colonists, expanding to 23 after ten years. Those figures already set the alarm bells ringing. Have their experts never heard of the saying "two's company, three's a crowd"? There are concerns that financial pressures might compromise the scientific integrity of a project that already seems very hazardous for the health of volunteers.

Experts have questioned the credibility of the very commercially-minded project. Applicants are required to be "resilient adaptable, curious, trusting and creative," although there might be cynics wondering whether the authorities will throw a few wild cards into the mix to ensure healthy TV ratings.

Psychology experts identified the pressures that will assail the colonists as fourfold: social isolation, permanent indoor confinement, loss of privacy and a shortage of effective mental health therapy. TV viewers will have noted how quickly celebs begin to lose their grasp on reality after a few days in the jungle; a lifetime on a distant planet under constant surveillance is likely to have a far more severe impact.

Without a breathable atmosphere and with surface temperatures of minus 60, Mars is a hostile environment, compelling colonists to spend all their lives in close proximity to each other. Sartre's maxim that "hell is other people" might turn out to be the colony's most appropriate motto.

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