by Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman

What would it feel like to live on Mars?

The New York Times is giving us a glimpse of that reality by offering regular video of the HI-SEAS (Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) project. For eight months, a six-person crew is living in isolation, with their only contact with the outside world coming through e-mail (taking 20 minutes from beginning to end, which is how long it would take to communicate from Mars to Earth). As the Times describes it, “The focus of the study is the effect of extreme isolation on team cohesion.”

When we think about humans potentially living Mars, most of us think about the practical questions: How would we shield ourselves from radiation? How would we get water? What would happen to our bones in lower gravity? But in reality, the psychological questions are even harder.

Rebecca Boyle on FiveThirtyEight phrases it this way in her piece “The Earth in a Suitcase“:

For travelers to Mars, the physical size of cargo is of utmost importance, so this question could help planners narrow down the packing list to the bare minimum. But it reaches for a deeper answer, too: Ultimately, what matters most? It turns out this is just as hard to answer for Mars as it is from the theoretical perspective of a marooned islander. Shelter, food and water are just the beginning; humans need Maslow’s entire hierarchy.

We humans are social creatures, and Hillel’s dictum, “Don’t separate yourself from the community” isn’t just a commandment. It’s a requirement for our well-being. And one line from Pirke Avot could help us navigate the isolation, conflicts and interpersonal challenges that will inevitably arise.

The line is this: “Make yourself a teacher, acquire yourself a friend, and judge every person favorably.” (Avot 1:6) Those three ideas are crucial for living on an isolated wasteland.

  1. “Make yourself a teacher”: For a colony to survive (or even thrive) on Mars, everyone would need multiple skills. Even more than that, people would need to learn how to solve problems on the fly, since most of these challenges would be unprecedented on Earth. Just read or watch “The Martian” and you’ll see how much improvisation would need to happen. So if you can find someone who has knowledge, patience and dedication, you’ll be more likely to be able to get through whatever Mars throws at you.
  2. “Acquire yourself a friend”: If you’re going to be spending several years with a handful of people — and no one else — you want to get along with them. You want to like them. You want to enjoy spending time with them. Someone with multiple Ph.D.s is worthless if they drive everyone else up the wall. But if you can find joy and connection with your crewmates, spending all your time with the same handful of people might even be fun.
  3. “Judge every person favorably”: Most of us have had roommates, or spouses, or people we lived with for an extended period of time. Conflicts arise; the question is how we deal with them. They will be much worse in an enclosed space, with no other comforts of home, on a weird sleep schedule, and eating strange food. Assume good intentions, and try to let go of as much you can.

As it is, those guidelines are pretty valuable here on Earth, too. Think about how our society would be if we all strove to learn. If we all tried to connect. And if we all assumed the best, rather than the worst, of each other.

That’s why a trip to Mars will inspire us for decades to come — not just because it would be an incredible adventure, but because it would remind us of how we could act here on Earth. We would have to think about what it would be like to be totally isolated from other people, to have to decide what “matters most” for what we would bring, and to have to solve seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

And if we end up creating a colony on Mars, while Jewish wisdom won’t help us figure out how to get the air we’d need to survive, it just might give the psychological guidance we’d need in order to thrive.

(This post first appeared on My Jewish Learning’s Rabbis Without Borders blog).