By Meadhbh Hayden, Behavioural Researcher at Ogilvy Change


With the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy into space, complete with a Tesla Roadster, it might be easy to think that human life on Mars is becoming an inevitability and that we can begin the preparations for living life in space. But even if we develop the technology to get there, what does behavioural science have to teach us before we begin our transition to life away from planet Earth? Looking to the research that has been done with people in extreme environments can give us a sense of what might lie ahead.

Social pressures:

Humans are social creatures who struggle in environments of confinement and isolation. Early research on groups living in Antarctica over the winter months found that the major stressors are not the physical environment, for example the cold or hardship, but the challenge of adjusting to a new group, the ‘sameness’ of the surroundings and the lack of sources of emotional fulfilment.

When NASA asked 20 astronauts to keep diaries while they were in space they found that isolation, confinement and other stressors affects crew morale and health, even though the actual conditions on the International Space Station were not as bad as they had originally anticipated. However, stints on the space station last only six months, whereas a round trip to Mars is anticipated to take 520 days.

Emotional state:

Putting humans in extreme environments can lead to emotional pressures that impact our ability to complete tasks. For example, a 2008 study looked at the emotional state of Everest climbers at the base camp, including measuring their anxiety on a 22-point scale. They then compared this to what altitude the climbers reached. While 64% of those surveyed reached the summit, unsurprisingly those who reported being calmer made it higher up the mountain. For every point decrease on the anxiety scale your odds of reaching the highest point increased by 25%.

Locus of control:

Whether it’s skydivers or cliff jumpers, one thing that those who have voluntarily participated in and survived life threatening situations is that they have, or have developed, an internal locus of control. With an internal locus of control, a person believes that they have the ability to influence events and outcomes around them, taking responsibility for their own, controllable actions. These people can push themselves to the limits and seek independence to a greater extent than those with an external locus of control.

Cross cultural issues:

Despite the Space Race beginning as a Cold War rivalry, today’s space missions, including the manning of the International Space Station, regularly involve multicultural crews. Early international missions revealed many issues including communication and mission management between crew members and differences in personal hygiene habits and food preferences. When questioned by a doctor about his red hands after returning from a Soviet mission where he was a guest, Czech pilot Vladimir Remek said, “well, in space, whenever I reached for this or that switch, the Russians cried ‘Don’t touch that!’ and slapped me on my hands.” Such cultural differences can lead to critical problems if difficulties emerge on-board that need to be dealt with quickly.  

Many of these challenges have been overcome previously with interventions such as pre-mission training programmes, keeping up contact with family and friends and creating a positive team environment. However, it remains to be seen how it will play out as we aim for the Red Planet.



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Stuster JW.  Behavioral Issues Associated with Long-Duration Space Expeditions: Review and Analysis of Astronaut Journals Experiment 01-E104 (Journals): Final Report. NASA Technical Memorandum; 2010. 

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Douglas, A. (2011). Psychology of space Exploration. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 9(780160), 883583.

Brymer, E., & Oades, L. G. (2009). Extreme sports: A positive transformation in courage and humility. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 49(1), 114-126