What if we all trained to go to Mars?

This post is part of a series of articles, blog posts, and short briefs produced by EXPLO Elevate focused on supporting schools’ virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

by Moira Kelly | President, EXPLO Elevate

I’m seeing the cracks. We’re in our 9th week of home seclusion in the Age of COVID. Schools are shuttered for the rest of the year. Businesses not on life support are wheezing. 

Much of how people are doing depends on their circumstances.  Has your household been infected with the virus? Do you still have a job? If you do, do you have young children at home?  Can you get any work done? Do you have a yard that allows you to get out a bit?

Life is different for those with their health, some money, and a bit of space, but even in these privileged groups, some are not faring well. Some are paralyzed. Others are having meltdowns.  Some are mired in ruminating about what has been lost.  Friends. Freedom. Control. Simply living day-to-day has become a tremendous challenge.

And then there are those who seem to have found some extra spark in this odd time. They are seizing moments and opportunities here and there. It might be cooking more.  Planting a vegetable garden. Learning the guitar or coding.  They are calling old friends. They are spending more time with family and enjoying it. Kids and parents going on walks.

And speaking of kids… they are on an adventure with their teachers in emergency remote learning. It’s a bumpy ride in many places, hard as everyone tries.  Identifying morphological roots of unknown words, solving quadratic polynomials, analyzing the roots of the War of 1812 … these just don’t seem that important in a time like this.  As a card carrying champion of the liberal arts, it pains me to say this. But we can’t give up.   The kids need to learn something. So, I’ve been noodling on what might be more important.

I started thinking about when we’ve taken on big challenges. As a nation. I didn’t have to go very far. I was a child at the height of the space race. I have a trunk in my attic that contains my NASA patches and pins. Those astronauts … they seemed to be able to take on anything that got thrown at them. For a long time, I attributed their McGyveresque skills to engineering degrees and no doubt that training played a big part. But heck, not all engineers would make good astronauts. So I wondered what it was that makes someone a good astronaut.

Today, NASA no longer has a lock on the astronaut market.  There are others dangling space suits in front of courageous souls. Mars One is aiming to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars. They’ve spent a lot of time figuring out which characteristics are needed for someone to travel to a hostile planet 34 million to 112 million miles away (depending on the day) and set up shop. Oh, and it’s advertised as a one-way trip. The characteristics they seek are non-negotiable.  It’s the engineering degree that’s negotiable.

Five Characteristics of an Astronaut


  • Your thought processes are persistent.
  • You persevere and remain productive.
  • You see the connection between your internal and external self.
  • You are at your best when things are at their worst.
  • You have indomitable spirit.
  • You understand the purpose of actions may not be clear in
  • the moment, but there is good reason—you trust those who guide you.
  • You have a “Can do!” attitude.


  • You adapt to situations and individuals, while taking into account the context of the situation.
  • You know your boundaries, and how/when to extend them.
  • You are open and tolerant of ideas and approaches different from your own.
  • You draw from the unique nature of individual cultural backgrounds.


  • You ask questions to understand, not to simply get answers.
  • You are transferring knowledge to others, not simply showcasing what you know or what others do not.

Ability to Trust

  • You trust in yourself and maintain trust in others.
  • Your trust is built upon good judgment.
  • You have self-informed trust.
  • Your reflection on previous experiences helps to inform the exchange of trust.

Creativity / Resourcefulness

  • You are flexible in how an issue / problem / situation is approached.
  • You are not constrained by the way you were initially taught when seeking solutions.
  • Your humor is a creative resource, used appropriately as an emerging contextual response.
  • You have a good sense of play and spirit of playfulness.
  • You are aware of different forms of creativity.


This seems to me like a good list for someone headed to Mars … or for someone sheltering in place for months on end. It strikes me that someone who possesses these characteristics could be the kind of person who could help the world address Global Warming, come up with a good public policy response to a novel virus, or pop back up after losing everything in a storm, a fire, or an earthquake. This is someone I want on my team. As my neighbor. As my mayor.

I want people with more AQ. Call it the Adaptability Quotient or the Astronaut Quotient. I’m happy with either one. But I want more AQ in the world.

I want people with more AQ. Call it the Adaptability Quotient or the Astronaut Quotient. I’m happy with either one. But I want more AQ in the world. I understand that parabolic equations played a key role in bringing Apollo 13 back to earth, but it’s a mistake if we think it was only STEM that allowed the Houston mission control team to respond to Jack Swigert’s announcement, “Houston, we have a problem here” in a way that helped Odyssey get back to earth.

My EXPLO colleague Sam Osborn was a Mars One astronaut candidate. Sam is an unusual fellow. In a given week you might find him writing a philosophy article for an academic journal, coding an app, building a boat, or running across a mountain range. I asked him about AQ and going to Mars. He said, “Mars One was after 4 astronauts that would live on Mars for the rest of their lives. So the Adaptability Quotient part of the equation was larger than workplace performance, it bundled in factors like spiritual endurance, sacrifice, and intentionality in life and death. That was a fun thing to poke at in college parties at the time, but was, and still is, pretty compelling thinking for me.”

I have to admit that it’s pretty compelling thinking for me, too. Right now, most of us are engaged in some sort of sacrifice because we are trying to play our part in saving ourselves and our fellow citizens. We’re sacrificing for the common good.

I know I need to spend more time building my own astronaut skills. But I’m also going to be diving into how we can make school a place — whether face to face or online — where we’re building the muscles to make the journey to Mars or its equivalent here on earth.

Sometimes Mars is closer than we think.