Going Beyond Global: The Journey to Mars and the Ultimate Expatriate Experience

Categories: Global Mindset




Guest post by: Dr. Richard Griffith, Executive Director of The Institute for Cross Cultural Management at the Florida Institute of Technology

Our world faces many tremendous challenges that can only be solved through international collaboration. The stemming of geopolitical conflict, global climate change, and worldwide health crises all will require the pooling of intellect and resources across national borders. However, perhaps no challenge is greater than extending the reach of humanity beyond the planet Earth through the colonization of Mars.

Journey to the Red Planet

Traveling to Mars, our nearest neighbor is no drive around the block. A one-way trip to Mars will cover at least 33 million miles (53,108,352 km), and the effects of microgravity and radiation will take a tremendous toll on the physical health of the astronauts (Reschke et al., 1998). In addition, close proximity to others, stress and boredom, and the journey into the unknown will test the limits of the most resilient individuals (Kanas et al., 2009).

But like the explorers and expatriates on Earth, the trip to Mars will be just the beginning. The minimum time for a round trip to the Red Planet will be 1,000 days. Plans from space legend Buzz Aldrin and billionaire Elon Musk call for the permanent colonization of Mars, where some astronauts never come home.

When arriving on Mars, the first challenges will be disorientation and lack of sleep due to the lingering effects of microgravity. The astronauts are likely to then be overwhelmed by a demanding workload to establish safe and habitable conditions, and finally, will likely encounter the stress that arises from being isolated from family and friends and restricted social contacts due to a small crew.

Mars Astronaut vs. Earthly Expatriate

The symptoms experienced by Mars astronauts will look very familiar to those who have lived and worked abroad. The expatriate experience is often categorized by disorientation, sleep irregularities, homesickness, and lack of social stimulation (Ernst, 2016; Xu & Jordan, 2016). In many ways travel to Mars is no more than an extreme case of expatriation.

Earthly expatriates and Mars astronauts also share one of the greatest challenges of leaving home: understanding, predicting, and interacting with others from different cultural backgrounds. The Mars mission will undoubtedly be an international endeavor that utilizes the talents of a culturally diverse support team that will need to innovate and solve problems in real time to support the crews traveling to inhabit their new home. The crewmembers themselves will be culturally diverse, likely comprised of astronauts from Russia, China, Japan, the U.S., and other partner nations.

While the public messaging has suggested that overt conflict has not occurred on the international space station, stories from training suggest that international conflict is a valid concern. Judith Lapierre served as a health sciences specialist on Sphinx-99, an International Space Station simulation. She reported that cultural differences in interpersonal interactions between the sexes caused great tension and ultimately led to a fistfight that bloodied the kitchen area of the capsule (Lapierre, 2009). In my work with the Mars mission through the Institute for Cross Cultural Management and the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute, I have heard many stories of strong disagreements over cultural norms of food, smells, hygiene, and communication. These cultural stressors will be the new normal for the expatriate crew to Mars.

One of the top challenges reported by expatriates going on an international assignment is inadequate preparation for adjusting to a new culture,” comments Sonya Kaleel, expatriation expert and Senior Consultant at Aperian Global. “Many underestimate the emotional and physical impacts of transitioning to a new country. Having a process to assess the global readiness of assignees is one way to mitigate risks and ensure high-impact results.

About the Author

Dr. Richard Griffith
Executive Director of The Institute for Cross Cultural Management

Dr. Richard Griffith is the Executive Director of The Institute for Cross Cultural Management at the Florida Institute of Technology. Dr. Griffith provides coaching in global leadership and executive presentations, specializing in presentations conducted abroad. He is the co-editor of “Leading Global Teams”, “Critical Issues in Cross Cultural Management” and “Internationalizing the Organizational Psychology Curriculum”. He is the author of over 100 publications, presentations, and book chapters and has conducted funded research for the Department of Defense examining the assessment and development of cross-cultural competence. His work has been featured in Time magazine and The Wall Street Journal.


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