Mars. A landscape where everything wants to kill you. A place where life once was, but not even that could survive its harsh conditions.
For any trip to the red planet, humanity would need to bring everything they needed to survive with them. These resources would have to be used and consumed, and then used again and again, taking the meaning of sustainability to a whole new level.
A colony on Mars has gone from the far fetches of science fiction to a major talking point in the space exploration debate in recent years, with private companies now starting to take over from governments in regards to feeding our need for exploration.
SpaceX, a company widely regarded as the key player in all things spacefaring, plans to start sending supplies to the red planet in December 2022, then launch a manned voyage in 2025. If SpaceX carry on at their current pace, Elon Musk, the CEO, will be sending people further than we have ever been before.
Why Mars? Why bother? Musk’s motivations are driven by the growing fear that a future global catastrophic event that could damage or end human life on our planet. With a Martian colony of around a million people, the estimated number required for it to be completely self-sustaining and independent of Earth, this colony would be able to carry the banner for mankind. Our thirst for knowledge is another motive, the wealth of information sent back from the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers already on the Martian surface would be dwarfed by a manned mission that would be able to perform experiments in real time.
We may have over 50 years of experience under our belt, but Mars is a whole other ball game compared to low Earth orbit (where the International Space Station or ISS is based) or the Moon. The dangers of being exposed to high levels of solar radiation for months on end, and the psychological effects of being confined in small spaces are two of the main worries for the trip there.
Things don’t get any easier after touchdown, the obvious danger is the thin CO2 atmosphere with no oxygen to speak of, along with freezing temperatures outside of any habitation we manage to set up. Along with this, Martian dust will cause problems similar to that of Lunar dust, which corroded equipment and caused the Apollo astronauts to suffer from ‘lunar asthma’.
The list could go on and on, but one more risk to consider is that of living in micro gravity for extended periods of time. Scientists don’t really know what the effects of this are, but they hypothesize that astronauts could arrive on Mars, weak, brittle-boned and possibly blind, not to mention that they may not be able to return to Earth and its much stronger pull of gravity if a solution cannot be found.
As you probably know, there’s not a lot on Mars. Scientists have found a high enough amount of ice that we could mine it and use the water, but other than that, we’re going to need to bring everything we might potentially need with us. We might need items such as oxygen or building materials again once used, so the processes involved are going to have to be sustainable. Not just for a three day mission to the moon, or a six month mission on the ISS, but for at least a minimum of a generation down on the surface of Mars.
Plenty of technology is going to need to be developed for this kind of feat, similar to that of the space race which saw NASA invent a whole load of technologies that have now found their way into our everyday lives. These include satellite TV that we enjoy thanks to around 200 unmanned satellites originally sent to orbit for tests and experiments. Among many other medical advances, artificial limbs are another invention which we wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for our want to put a man on the moon.
Along with entertainment and medical advances, sustainability featured heavily on NASA’s technologies to develop. Out of NASA has come the water purifier, which was invented to supply astronauts with a regular supply of drinking water away from the earth but is now used in under developed parts of the world where water supplies could be contaminated. Along with this, solar panels have been developed extensively and are used as the main source of power for the Martian rovers as well as numerous satellites and the ISS.
Many technological advances undoubtedly came from putting a man on the moon, but with continued funding the aim of putting a man on Mars could lead to inventions beyond anything we can imagine. If you combine this with the fact that sustainability is going to be key for a colony that is independent of Earth, Elon Musk’s goal of creating a sustainable Mars could provide the rest of us with ways to create a sustainable Earth, and possibly save it from the devastating effects of continued global warming.