George Hatcher: Mission to Mars
George Hatcher is an avionics engineer at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, U.S. He works on electrical systems of uncrewed rockets. He also studies planetary science at the University of Central Florida. Working for NASA is a dream come true for George. He’s aspired to be an astronaut since he was three. He’s one of 100 finalists in the Mars One Project, which aims to create a human settlement on Mars.
Q: Tell us about Mars One and its mission.
Mars One is a nonprofit Dutch organization which is based in the Netherlands, and their stated goal is to start the first permanent human colony on Mars. And they would like to do so with existing technology and [send] crews of four every two years when Earth and Mars align, and slowly build a colony, four people at a time, from a pool that’s taken from the entire world . . . The astronaut application is open up to everyone over the age of 18 who has access to the Internet and could pay a nominal fee based on the country’s GDP . . . It was a sliding scale, so that it was a fair application fee for everyone. And they really want it to be a representative sample of humanity, so male and female, all countries, all backgrounds, all races.
Q: How did you get involved with Mars One?
Well, I have my ear pretty close to the ground when it comes to space exploration . . . I don’t remember if I saw it or someone forwarded me the news that there was an organization that was taking astronaut applications for a one-way Mars mission. But I became aware of it like in 2013, and I waited until the last day to actually send my application in. You know, I had to talk to my wife a lot about it, because of the one-way aspect of the journey . . .
But before we got married, you know, in the process of getting to know each other and talking about what our goals were for this life and our compatibility, I told her that there were people, even individuals within NASA (not NASA as an organization) . . . that had floated the idea of a one-way trip, just because it’s so much cheaper than a return trip. So I knew of the existence of [a] NOCO mission (NOCO standing for no one is coming home), and told her about that before we got married. She [said], You know, if that’s something that you’re so set on doing, if the opportunity comes along and it is a one-way mission and you’re willing to do that, then let’s just have kids first and then you can go . . . She said . . . It cannot hurt to apply. Mars One gives you the option to back out at any time. You don’t have to sign any contracts that you’re definitely going to go, and who knows? So you’d have to wait and see what happens.
Q: What inspired you to want to go?
I remember being captivated by space exploration when I was very young. I had a little space man set . . . I remember there were little plastic astronauts with orange visors. It was modeled after the Apollo mission. And it had a little crane that I could put them on just to move them around, and I dreamed a lot about the moon . . . I was very interested in space. My parents sent me to space camp when I was in sixth grade, and I was able to get a scholarship, because they couldn’t afford to send me, and that was when I learned about Mars as the destination for humans in space that made the most sense after the moon. You can’t go to Venus, because even space probes that we have sent there have been crushed under the intense pressure of the surface. It’s over 700 degrees Fahrenheit . . . I’m still excited about space exploration. I still think that humans need to get out there.
Q: How long would it take to get to Mars?
The travel time to Mars depends upon the propulsion technology that you use. By Keplerian dynamics, taking the Hohmann transfer ellipse is the least energy path between the earth and Mars, and that’s typically about nine months. So you do a high impulse burn, and . . . escape Earth’s gravity . . . and then you coast the rest of the way. And you conduct the burn at the exact moment that you need to at the appropriate trajectory, so you just coast in a giant ellipse on the way to Mars, and you use Mars gravity—and maybe even Mars atmosphere—to help you capture into orbit around Mars, or go for a direct injection. But it’s the better part of a year to get there.
Q: What do you think you’d miss most on Earth?
[Laughing] Earth itself. Everything about it . . . Thinking about what it would be like to live on an airless frozen block, you know, tens of millions of miles away from everything that sustains life as we know it for the rest of your life, really puts you in a mood for appreciating everything that this planet has to offer. You know, every breath you take, every step you take at one G instead of 3/8 gravity like exists on Mars. Anytime you can go outside unshielded without a spacesuit and look up at the sky—even it’s blue, because there’s so much material there—and know that the only thing between you and the lethal radiation from the sun is this atmosphere and this magnetosphere from our wonderful iron core . . .
Right now, I’m standing outside. I could step out of this shadow, go over here and stand in the sunlight, and I’m looking directly at the sun. And the only thing between me and that sun, that nuclear furnace, is this atmosphere. The only thing between me and space is this atmosphere. And there’s a magnetosphere that makes the atmosphere possible. You can’t do that on Mars. I mean, you’re directly exposing yourself to all these harmful bits of radiation . . . There’s a vacuum on the surface. So there’s all the physical aspects of the fact that your body has evolved over billions of years to take advantage of this paradise planet. But then beyond that, it’s all the things that we build upon, all the aspects of human civilization, every single interaction that you have with other people, with family and friends, the things that make life worth living, the enriching society that gives us purpose and moves us forward day-to-day . . . The real question is, what would you not miss? You would miss everything.
Q: When people are selected to go on the Mars One mission, will they consider how they’ll work together as a team, or do they just expect everyone to figure it out how to work together?
That would be a disaster if you were going to try to expect people to figure it out. I mean, we’ve got plenty of examples. When we first started cramming humans into submarines and keeping them under water for six months at a time, that you really need to make sure you’ve got a well functioning team before you subject people to confined spaces and intense life-risking situations for long periods of time. That maybe is part of where NASA got its standards for minimum capsule size and maximum mission duration for the early stages of space flight. And NASA has built on that information through experience as well.
But the interesting thing about Mars One is that it takes on a slightly different tack than NASA does. And it necessarily must, because NASA always intends to bring people back. It’s because it’s a government organization, and it’s taxpayer funded, they are sensitive to public opinion. And public opinion is not really behind, you know, what their perception is, which is marooning people on this other planet . . . I don’t see it that way, but I understand why a lot of people do see it that way. It really boils down to, do you understand the rocket equation? Do you understand how much money it’s going to take to put humans on Mars? And if we want to see it done this century or in our lifetimes, the kind of sacrifices that are going to be made? . . . When you eventually build up to a critical mass of people on the surface of Mars . . . then you actually can start talking about the benefits of Mars, and you can start talking about quality of life. And you can start to talk about . . . the greater intricacies of society being present there . . . Mars having its own culture.
But Mars One’s tack for selecting astronauts is predicated on their mission model, which is one-way. So instead of going after the kind of credentials that NASA does, whether it’s being a military test pilot or being a distinguished . . . Ph.D-holder in a hard physical science field, and being at the top of your discipline, and having incredible experience, and standing out among 7,000 of the most qualified U.S. citizens in existence, Mars One says we want people who have the psychological fortitude to live in a small place for the rest of their lives—who are adaptable, who solve problems, who roll with the punches, who basically are unperturbed by all the things that could possibly go wrong, and who work very well in teams, get along with other people, have a kind demeanor and a forgiving attitude . . . The qualifications are much more—I don’t want to say softer—but they deal much more in interpersonal skills than they deal in degrees and jet flying experience.
Q: How would you grow food there, and what kinds of food would you eat?
There is a long-term goal for the colony to be self-sustaining. But you need to reach a certain number of people before that can happen, because there will be people who are farmers that live on Mars, and that’s their job, is to keep everybody alive through growing food. And I know that Mars One and the very intelligent consultants that they have working on the project know that you’re not going to reach self-sustaining level with 4 or even 8 or 16 or 24 people, especially when you yourself would be the ones who are developing the technology through trial and error. The first several missions are going to be bringing enough supplies with them—you know, ready-made food . . .
You have to have the food survive not only the nine-month journey to Mars, but then all the time it’s going to be sitting on Mars, waiting for someone to eat it without going bad and maintaining its nutritional value. So it’s going to be a lot of resupply missions, because every two years, they are going to be sending a new crew of four, and with them you’re going to be bringing a lot more supplies . . . spacecraft and structural spares and consumables—you know, stuff to eat. But there will be a push to have a certain percentage of the Martian diet be self-grown vegetables, probably hydroponically, probably with artificial lighting, probably in an inflatable habitat covered with Martian soil to protect from radiation, and to gradually increase that percentage of fresh vegetables and herbs and whatever else to be grown economically in the diet of the settlers . . .
Q: How will you communicate with Earth?
Earth communication will be through all the different ways that we’ve developed to communicate long distances on Earth—you know, radio transmission. It’s going to be some frequency of light, so some wavelength of electromagnetic radiation sending signals between Earth and Mars, the same way we send signals between Earth and Mars now, which is all the rovers that we have on the surface and all the satellites that we have in orbit.
The interesting thing is, it’s so far away that the speed of light starts to become an issue. Even light itself cannot travel instantaneously between earth and Mars. We’re spoiled by our Moon mission, because the moon was only ever about four light seconds away. But Mars is anywhere between—I don’t know this quote, but I think the average time delay to Mars is around 20 minutes. So you will record a video or an audio message, and once you’re finished recording it, you’ll send it to Earth. It will take 20 minutes to get there. Then they’ll have to take the duration of the message to read it. Then they’ll have to take the duration that they need to compose a reply, and then they’ll need to send a reply back with 20 minutes to get to you, and you’ll have to watch it. So from having the conversation, even if that conversation is hello and a reply of hello, you’re talking about a 40-minute conversation for two words.
Q: No emergencies can be taken care of in that communication.
The level of isolation will be the greatest in human history. And there are people who in the past have been isolated enough from civilization that it was effectively as difficult as the Mars One project . . . It’s what they are going to have to deal with, given the exploration level. So you’re talking about people taking wooden ships to the North Pole, or trying to find the Northwest Passage, or exploring Antarctica and making it to the South Pole with sleds, or people who were the first to go places where there were months . . . of travel to reach these remote areas, and there’s no human that can rescue them. The precedent has been set for people being self-sufficient and encountering emergencies in remote locations and surviving. But there’s also the precedent for emergencies cropping up and being un-survivable. I don’t know if you were to aggregate all the dangerous expeditions that have been mounted, what percentage were survived and what percentage were complete, but it’s not a hundred percent.
Q: In the movie The Martian, the characters face one disaster after another. How do you handle problems under pressure?
I don’t know if it’s prudent to admit this, but I tend to function best under pressure. And that’s kind of borne out by my study technique and my deadline technique. I usually wait until the end until the pressure is, not insurmountable, but almost just so, and I do it all at the last minute whenever it’s possible to be that way. Obviously, you can’t do dissertation research that way. And I’ve kind of mellowed out as time has gone by and learned how to slowly and methodically plod towards goals instead of saving it towards the end. But I do tend to be able to pull things off at the last minute. And that’s what I’ve been doing since high school really, since first encountering hard deadlines.
So when it comes to emergency situations, you train as much as you can, and this is the model that NASA follows. You just train it to death, and you understand your systems that keep you alive like the back of your hand and kind of have a long experience of gluing things together and making do. A lot of it has to do with growing up on a farm and driving old cars and fixing them yourself and being an engineer—you know, and working with mechanical systems. I’ve always loved taking things apart and putting them back together or improving things. Home ownership is a lot of it. You don’t have the money to fix something and you’re like, well, I’ve got to find a way to make this work. So, you know, rigging the AC system, or building a lean-to shed on the side, or turning the lawn mower upside down and getting it to work, or sharpening the blades yourself. So there’s definitely that experience base there, and I would bring that approach to emergencies on Mars. But hopefully get years-worth of training beforehand.
Q: What’s your best guess about when the mission will be ready to go to Mars?
I think that the latest first release for Mars One is that they would be shooting for the 2026 departure window at the earliest. So that would be an arrival in Mars on 2027 . . . My eldest child will be 14 in 2026, and our second child will be 12. So if I am not a member of the first four-person crew, I will not be heartbroken . . .
When I was younger, I wanted to be first. I remember taking the dot matrix printer and printing out a sheet of paper that I hung in my bedroom that said George Hatcher’s goal to be the first person on Mars. And I wasn’t being particularly feminist with that statement when I used the word “person” instead of man. I was thinking, well, if I say man, then a woman can go first, and then I won’t be first. So as time has gone by, I’ve kind of given up on the idea of being first. And I look to Neil Armstrong for inspiration on that, because it’s an inconceivable amount of pressure. I mean, I understand to a degree why he became a hermit after he came back from the moon, because everybody on earth wants a piece of you. And it’s an enormous weight to take on, to be the first one. I think if Mars One was acceptable—and they are the first—then it will be manageable to be the first one to put a boot print on Mars, because they don’t ever have to come back to Earth and face the thundering hordes of reporters and individuals and requests . . .
But given the fact that I’m a Bahá’í now, and I know that the first crew will be two women and two men, it would be important to me for my vote—if we’re going to take a vote of those four people as to who is going to be first out—it would be important for my vote to be one of the women to go first. I think it’s time for us to demonstrate to all humans the equality of men and women . . . And I think it would be an important gesture.
Q: What would be the most important skills you would need?
The most important skill for a Mars One mission you know, in all honesty, I think it would be interpersonal relationships . . . The manner in which you conduct yourself with your fellow human beings, because these are your de facto family for the rest of your life. And not only are you in a confined space for the rest of your life, but your lives are in constant danger. So resolving conflict is probably the single-most important skill for a current settler of Mars. You need everything going on between you and the complex interpersonal relationships you have with the three other crew members, and then all the new people that keep arriving—you need all that to be sorted. It needs to be ironed out. That needs to be well functioning so that you can deal with all the other problems that you’re going to face . . .
Forbearance would be incredibly important. An ability to quickly forgive. You really need to be selfless. You would need to put your crewmates before yourself. And it’s important to be kind to them in all circumstances, because the last thing that you want to do is breed ill will. You don’t want it to turn into an atmosphere like a prison, because it will effectively be a prison . . .
The only way for you to turn it into a home—into a place where you would want to live—is to act as if it is not a prison. So that’s going to involve, you know, going out of your way for your crewmembers. Not just maintaining your own responsibility, but cleaning up after yourself and taking care of the duties that you’re assigned, but also being there for other people, you know, learn how to listen, help other people work through their problems, put their needs before your own. In the back of my mind, and I can’t remember it [the quote], but to paraphrase, it would be something to the effect of happiness lies in the helping of others. So you’re going to want to stay happy if you’re going to be living there the rest of your life . . . Being of service to your crewmates, I think, is how you have to do that.
Q: What are three things that most people don’t know about Mars or about traveling in space?
Well, it’s incredibly far—like really, really far away. This is a planet that’s about a third the diameter of Earth, and yet when you look at it with the naked eye at night when it’s in your sky, it just looks like a reddish star. So far away, something the size of a planet just looks like a point of light. But I think that what most people might not know is what the reality is going to be like of being on the surface. We know that Mars has very ephemeral weather. There are clouds. There are dust storms. There are changing seasons. And it has a waxing and waning of the carbon dioxide on the poles, depending on the time of the year.
But what I would really want to impress upon people is that the environment on the surface of Mars is effectively a vacuum . . . And it’s also incredibly cold. The warmest that it gets at noon on the hottest summer day at the equator is around 60, 65 degrees Fahrenheit . . .
If you’re going to be in the very small latitudes, it can get very warm close to the surface. But you would think, oh, you can go barefoot on Mars. No, because if you took the boot off your spacesuit, then your blood would boil because the pressure is so low. So you’re not going to be going barefoot on Mars any time soon. But your boot could feel kind of warm if you stuck it into the soil as you walked around near the equator. But Mars One settlement site is probably going to be in the middle latitudes, because you want a balance between how much sun you can get for your solar panels and how much water ice you expect to be in the soil . . . The water ice is more as you go towards the poles, and the sun is more as you go towards the equator . . . They’re going to strike a balance there . . .
It probably won’t get as warm as 65 degrees Fahrenheit at the Mars One site. And the other thing is the 3/8 gravity. It’s a complete unknown as to whether or not the human body can adapt to 3/8 gravity long term without serious health effects, because we know there’s serious health effects with microgravity, like people who float in orbit aboard the ISS. They have to work out two hours a day just to slow down the rate of degradation of bone and muscle loss. And in addition to that, there’s so much extra pressure inside their head from the fluid shift, because the gravity is not pulling the blood down into their legs, that a certain percentage of astronauts experience permanent vision damage from the extra pressure behind their eyeballs . . .
We have years of experience of living in space. We’ve had a continuous human presence in space, thanks to the space shuttle and ISS since the year 2000 . . . It’s been 16 years now that there’s not been a moment that’s passed that there has not been a human in space continuously. But going to Mars, there’s no way for us to really simulate 3/8 gravity . . . The humans that we send to Mars, if they are going to be there permanently, it’s going to be like, good luck, guys. Hope 3/8 gravity is enough to keep you healthy. If it’s not, you better work your buns off every day in the gym . . .
It’s not just the layperson that doesn’t know things about Mars. The scientific community and very smart humans in general don’t know how the human body would adapt to Mars long term.
Q: In the movie The Martian, the main character listens to music and watches old TV shows. What would you bring with you for fun?
One of the great things about when you think about what is your life going to consist of, what’s your free time going to consist of, there’s no place to go and hang out besides the Martian living room. You don’t have people that you haven’t seen in awhile that you can go visit, and you can’t travel to a tropical island. The great thing is that we live in the digital age, so all the way the media can be digitized and beamed to Mars. You can’t stream it obviously, but they can beam it there. And then you collect it and tape a local copy. And so movies, music, and books and television shows—like really the life that a lot of people lead when they go home from work and plop down and kick on the Netflix—is not going to be much different from the average day for somebody who has settled in Mars. As long as all the life support systems are working well and you’ve got the opportunity to do that.
So, yeah, I would definitely catch up on all of the classic literature that I have heard so much about that I have not had a chance to read because of my career and all the education that I’ve tried to get to improve my chances of doing NASA’s astronaut corps, which is very stringent. So there’s a lot of great Russian authors that I’d like to read. I want to read a lot of the classical Greek work, you know . . . I could spend the rest of my life delving into the literature that has served as the foundation for a lot of modern culture.
Q: Is there anything else you want the kids to know before we stop?
Well, you know, I’ve been—it’s funny that we would have this interview today, because there’s an article that was just up today about how the space shuttle is a failure. [The shuttle program was George’s work area before the program was shut down.] And I think that, I don’t know. I would just like to share that I don’t think that looking back on something with hindsight and judging the decisions that people made and the things that people did is entirely productive. So I would say to the kids . . . Don’t listen to the haters . . . Don’t give too much credence to the naysayers, because there are going to be a lot of people out there that, for whatever reason, are going to be discouraging. So whatever it is that you are pursuing, whatever it is that you feel like is your calling, do not be discouraged.
Q: How did you like the movie, The Martian, and overall, did it portray a realistic idea of what it would be like to be on Mars?
I loved The Martian. In fact, my wife so highly recommended the book that I read it before seeing the film, and I haven’t made time to read a novel in years. While I prefer the scientific detail of Andy Weir’s written work, I applaud the filmmakers for so skillfully paring it down to two hours. I was glad the humor made it through to the screen, and the cast was brilliant.
The Martian is without question the most realistic depiction of human exploration of Mars to date. What Gravity did for low Earth orbit, The Martian did for Mars. Weir really did his homework, and it shows. You don’t see NASA using many Hollywood movies to promote their work, and they went all in for this one, giving the filmmakers red carpet access to experts, plans, and facilities, and then heavily promoting their own exploration plans with tie-ins during the movie’s premiere. NASA even acknowledges that Ridley Scott and his crew got most of the details right.
It will likely be years before another film portrays humans on Mars so authentically. When they do, they would do well to show just how pitifully weak Martian dust storms are in the barely-there atmosphere of Mars. They will have to invoke CGI [Computer-Generated Imagery] or use parabolic flights to properly showcase human locomotion in 3/8 gravity. And the easiest improvement will be to show Martian sunsets as they truly are: blue, not orange. But it will be a tall order to do all that with a plot that is simultaneously as accurate and plausible as that of The Martian.
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