Martian Motivation: Mars One candidates' grassroots education outreach program

Credit: Chris Casper :-)

Credit: Chris Casper :-)

The critics of Mars One focus so intently on the project’s budgetary and technological assumptions that they ignore the very real benefits the project could produce - whether anyone leaves Earth or not. The Mars One candidates’ self-organized outreach efforts already inspire students around the world to study science and show how the one-way journey to Mars could do so much more.

I spoke recently with several candidates about the work they are doing and how Mars One has let them make a difference.

Getting kids hooked on science

The very first school visit I did I was introduced to a nine year old kid with cerebral palsy. He was hyper-intelligent, fascinated with rockets, and I sat down for another hour with him. We talked about gyro stabilization for SpaceX’s Grasshopper rocket and this kid knew so much about rocket science and aeronautics.
— Josh Richards

It’s this kind of enthusiasm that teachers try to harness to set their students on a path to science and math related careers. Mars One’s astronaut candidates have found their new-found prominence lets them make science and math more relevant to the students. 

“As an undergraduate I trained to be a secondary school maths teacher,” Dianne explained to me. “I try to make the science and maths that they are doing in their lessons very real and let them see there’s an interesting application of it. It’s lovely to be doing things that have children thinking that maths actually has a purpose.”

“Every time I talk to a group of kids,” Chris said, “I leaven my enthusiastic presentation with some reality checking [of mission development]. I try to talk about the problems we have to solve in an educational way. We have to recycle our atmosphere, for example, here are the things that need to be true before we can do that successfully.”

Only the teachers’ agendas matter

Before jumping to the conclusion that the candidates talk to kids just to advance Mars One’s agenda, think again. It’s the teachers who have the agenda: to get their kids excited about the science and math they are already studying in the classroom.

“I recently went to an elementary school where they had paper cutouts of the planets all around the classroom,” Kenya recalled. “The kids had been studying the planets for about three months.”

The candidates often work with teachers weeks in advance so their talks become the capstone of an entire learning process.  Dianne explained that she tries “to have a good briefing with the head of science a few weeks beforehand. They’ll work with the students - doing self discovery, having discussions in the class - leading up to my talk. Then I receive very considered questions at the talk: not just the basics of what will you eat and how long will it take to get there.” 

Josh takes a similar approach: “I want the kids to know that I’m going to be there about three weeks before. The kids usually go this sounds amazing and they spend those weeks researching and developing questions. In a hour-and-a-half long session we only spend fifteen minutes max as a lecture and the rest of the time I’m answering questions.”

Chris told me that school kids “are more interested in what’s going to happen when you go to Mars and less about picking away at the technical details. Their reactions tend to be: What do you do once you get there? What if something goes wrong? Are you scared? And then inevitably there’s a question about how do you go to the bathroom!”

Josh laughed as he said “Kids have no shame! They will ask every awkward, uncomfortable question you could possibly imagine. Kids ask much more challenging questions!”

It’s the schools that reach out to the candidates

Interest swelled in February after Mars One announced the selection of its astronaut candidates. Teachers quickly reached out to the candidates with requests to speak to their students.

“A good deal of interest from education institutions are from our Mars One profiles,” Christian said. “Fairly quickly after the Mars100 were announced I got contact requests from individual students and schools. ” 

Dianne’s experience was similar. “When I was first shortlisted,” she said, “an old friend asked if I would have a chat with her primary school students. Since then I’ve spoken with dozens of schools and been involved with quite a number of activities to bring science to the youth community. I’m really thrilled to be able to do that.” 

“I was certainly doing [outreach] before Mars One,” Ryan said, “but Mars One has enabled me to Skype into schools all around the world. I look at my YouTube channel and do wonder. Something like 194 countries have seen my vids. I love being able to engage with a truly global audience.”

Grassroots outreach doesn’t come from the Mother Ship

All of this effort to visit schools is not the result of orders from Mars One. The startup company’s resources are stretched too thin for a formal outreach program. The candidates have assembled resources on their own with only limited support from the head office in the Netherlands.

“When I first made contact with Mars One,” Josh recalled, “they said right from the start that they couldn’t really help but if I wanted to champion it then by all means.”

“Mars One has been so flooded with requests for involvement with schools that they can’t deal with them individually,” Ryan told me. “We’re just trying to take on as much as we can as candidates. We’ve established a very in depth communication platform on Facebook with about 85 of the 100 candidates. We share resources, powerpoint presentations and the like.”

“The Facebook groups have helped a lot,” Kenya confirmed. “It's helpful to hear about everyone’s experiences when addressing certain topics and FAQ to schools.”

“There’s very little official from Mars One with regards to outreach,” Ryan added. “But they are always helping us promote our outreach. I definitely agree that it could be strengthened.”

Coaching the skills of public speaking - and engaging students especially - might be an easy place to start, Christian suggested. “There’s a saying in Denmark - viden gør ingen lærer - which roughly means it takes more than knowledge to make a teacher. I know I’m not the worst teacher because I’m enthusiastic but I do miss some of the techniques. When there’s more manpower behind the scenes at Mars One, the hiring of someone who knows outreach and can help with specific, practical tools, would be a welcome addition to the team.” 

Shortly after my interviews leadership coach Julian Bolster became a Mars One Adviser. He has already conducted at least one webinar with the candidates although it reportedly focused on media relations.

“They are becoming more and more involved now that we’ve signed contracts,” Josh said - an impression Kenya echoed in her comments: “More recently I feel like they’ve been in touch with us every week.”

Ordinary people inspiring the world

The candidates’ de facto outreach program could form the framework for a larger outreach campaign should Mars One get the financing it needs to proceed. All of the candidates agreed that the Mars One project’s audacious, inclusive, global nature would be inspirational to millions.

“In many ways,” Ryan said, “outreach is one of the most important aspects of my involvement in the program. So long as I know my involvement has made a difference and inspired someone to go into science, that justifies it more than anything else.”

“When you have something that spans ten years here on Earth,” Chris said, “and then N years on Mars - where N is large - you have the opportunity to talk to kids at a variety of different levels. We can talk about the value of space exploration in some shadow of the way Apollo did for people in the 60s and 70s inspire young people to pursue science and math careers.”

“One of the teachers said to me the other day students are 20% of the population but 100% of the future,” Dianne recalled. “Here’s Mars One, this unique platform that could keep kids excited about science and space.”

“A big thing for me,” Josh said, “is creating outreach that is age and sector appropriate at every level: 5-12 year old kids, 13-18 year olds, university students.” 

“It would be great,” Chris agreed, “to see resources put into ways students could use the idea of Mars One to learn about the science of Mars, the physics of getting to Mars, the chemistry and biology of sustaining human life on Mars.”

“I see a stronger engagement with students and with learning to be such an opportunity,” Dianne said. “The Mars One name won’t just disappear into a black hole for the next ten years while the final 24 candidates get trained. There will be the next call, the next intake for the next round of candidates. Imagine the impact that would have on [a student’s] life and how inspired they’d be to continue working in that area.”

It’s this potential that Mars One’s many critics overlook. In their zeal to pick apart the timetable and the budget and the technological assumptions, the critics ignore the benefits that a global, participative space project could deliver. 

The ordinary people who signed up for this extraordinarily ambitious project demonstrate that space exploration isn’t just for test pilots and astrophysicists. As Kenya summed it up:

We’re just normal folk that want to inspire people to reach for their goals and achieve their dreams.