Six things we can all contribute to that would help get humans established on Mars

When thinking about Mars, one of the big questions we have is trying to determine what we can do collectively or as individuals to help humanity achieve the aim of establishing a permanent human presence on Mars. For us at Milky-Way.kiwi this is particularly important because in New Zealand we don’t have a space programme and we have limited resources, but we still want to contribute. The natural inclination is to assume that governments will sort this out, as they can bring the resources and organise a country to achieve it. I think, generally, this is probably correct as it will be governments, multi-national efforts and private sector that ultimately achieve it. So then, what is there for the rest of us to do? What can the rest of the world do to ensure that we send the right people, with the right objectives? What is the role for those who are not in governments, not in a multi-national space organisations and not running a space related private sector company?

A bit of strategic thinking

We got to thinking about what a group of space enthusiasts could do to help humanity get to Mars. It’s worth thinking about the bigger picture and determining what is realistically achievable by non-government, common interest based groups. The group has to determine what they can contribute to that isn’t going to be duplicated elsewhere but will still make a material difference. They have to come up with a vision that encapsulates what is realistically possible. That vision comes from knowing what you could reasonably achieve and then developing a strategy to get there. Next comes knowing how to use the resources that the group has available to move ahead and develop a strategy to get the group to the vision.

The enormity of the task

When it comes to huge undertakings, things that require more than one country’s resources, then a lot of effort is required to bring together the common desires of multiple nations to get everyone going in the same direction. The question for getting to Mars is: can one country do it alone? Or is it something that would require a number of countries to cooperate on? My suspicion is that the US (with or without private sector help) and China have the potential to act alone on getting to Mars, but notwithstanding that, it would be good for cooperation to occur. One example I can think of where a huge undertaking was successful, is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), this required the cooperation of more than one country as it was too big of an investment for just one nation to do. It helped that there was a history of collaboration and an established multi-national structure to set the vision and develop the strategy. That way the national objectives of individual countries were met and resources could be sourced. The success also came from the wide network operating around the world that feeds on the research that CERN works on. This is not too dissimilar to how we would have to tackle a problem like getting to Mars and how a wider amount of participation could occur.

Getting the strategy right

Strategy is purely and simply the path you choose to meet some objective. In the case of establishing a permanent human presence on Mars, the strategy must cover how to get there, how to set it up, how to stay alive there, how to bring the resources together to even start with. The strategy for Mars is far more than just hoping on a rocket and blasting off into space. There’s a whole bunch of things that need to occur concurrently. Here’s a rough attempt at conceptualising the kind of things that would need to occur (there are lots of gaps!).

So in determining what the rest of us can do, we can take the above picture and cross off the stuff that is being completed by NASA, Roscosmos, China, ESA, SpaceX and others. A whole lot of huge, well resourced, organisations are looking at the problem of getting to Mars, there’s a range of heavy lift rockets getting built by SpaceX with the Falcon Heavy, NASA with the Space Launch System and China with the Long March 5. We already know a lot about Mars, and over time, government-led Mars reconnaissance programmes will ultimately feed the raw information used to determine the best place to land for any given purpose.

We can also cross things off the picture that are likely to be done by the big organisations. These are things such as selecting the crew for any missions to Mars, pre-positioning supplies, testing systems and building infrastructure. In thinking about this, it also strikes me that a valid role for the rest of the us could be in the design and building specialist equipment for bespoke activities on Mars, such as habitat building design and fabrication, medical equipment, communications and a myriad of other smaller things. So, here’s what we are left with:

This helps us get an understanding of the kinds of areas we we could all contribute to. So based on this, here are six tasks that could assist groups with thinking about how they might assist in getting humans to Mars.

What are we going to do when we get there?

This is when we decide if the mission will be about science, resource extraction, tourism, saving humanity or any other of the multiple reasons we would want to go to Mars, good and bad. Determining the kinds of objectives for any Mars settlement is a discussion that all nations should be involved in as it will set the scene for human use of the planet.

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Learn lots about Mars

The task of determining the best place to land is huge and requires a lot of academic resources across many different disciplines – this is something many can contribute to through astrobiology, geology, ecology, geography and a variety of other disciplines. The more we know about Mars, the more chance we will have of success when humans get there – whoever it is and whatever they will be doing. Understanding the resources for survival, the dangers and long term effects on people of lower gravity, for example, are all areas that we can contribute to. Many of these things are happening in research across the globe and collectively can be used to support a Mars mission. Another example is understanding food production, how might we grow food on Mars, what can we learn from what humanity already knows about food production. Again, a huge area that almost anyone can contribute to.

Select possible landing locations

This task fits in perfectly with understanding what we would do when we get to Mars and learning lots about the planet. Determining the location to establish a settlement is very dependent on what the reason for being there is. The various Mars orbiters and rovers over the last few years, have collected a huge amount of data, contribute to a massive understanding of the planet and analysis of the data can allow us to figure our ways to survive there. An example of this is the work being done to find lava tubes as a possible sheltered place for an early settlement. As we get closer to sending people there the amount of data and requirement to build understanding from that, will only increase, technology will help, but the cross disciplinary approach to understanding resources is going to come from a global effort.

Figure out what we have to take to Mars

What stuff to take to establish a settlement on Mars is another area that we all can contribute to. There are so many engineering, medical, social, science and resource areas involved in any Mars settlement that many different fields of research and academic disciplines can usefully contribute to an understanding of what we would need to pack for the trip. This could include what tools, software, food, clothing, construction or anything else that is beyond what astronauts already have experience in, but would need to take, to have a level of self sufficiency on Mars.

Identify the right qualities, types of people

There’s a huge opportunity to build an understanding of the types of personalities that could survive a highly dangerous and stressful environment like on Mars. A lot of work is already being done in this area through The Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) and also Concordia Station in Antarctica, to only mention a couple. This kind of work let’s us explore how people can live in confined space for a long time and what sorts of tasks they can do and what kind of equipment they need. Other groups have conducted similar activities and all of these are contributing to how we understand how humans react in the sorts of situations that might be encountered on Mars. As more research is done on this, we can build an understanding of the kind of attributes that would work well, and an understanding of the types of behaviours that wouldn’t work well.

Build a population of people with the right skills and qualities

Last but not least, this is building a better understanding of science in our community, getting students interested and inspired by space sciences, getting them to study science and getting people into research and helping build the science literacy of the general population. This is the chance for us to be more than spectators of the activities surrounding space and drive a generational shift that will reap the benefits in the years to come. We can do this through community groups, schools and supporting science programmes in the community. The more we have studying science, the more literate the community will be on science issues and, ultimately, the faster we can reach our goals and get to Mars.

People can do great things when there’s enough of us focused on a common goal. We have a lot of groups throughout the community focused on the many different interest areas around space. We should be realistic about what we can achieve and pick the tasks that we can make a difference on. The discussion here is not exhaustive and it is certainly not necessarily the answer, but offers an approach to think about how we might all contribute to a goal of getting permanently established on Mars.