Despite the disruption of so many aspects of life on Earth caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, our nation and the rest of the world continue to be enthralled with, and fully engaged in, the exploration of Mars. Indeed, not one, not two, but three international robotic missions were launched toward Mars this summer. Two of those missions, one from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the other from China, launched within four days of each other (July 19 and July 23, respectively), and the United States successfully launched its Mars 2020 rover on July 30th.
America is also planning to send astronauts back to the moon later this decade, followed by sending humans to Mars in the 2030s. Such missions to the Red Planet have the potential to discover whether life ever existed on Mars and will also seek to determine whether humans will be able to live, work and establish a permanent presence on that planet in the future.
There are many reasons that are given for humanity’s efforts to explore Mars, ranging from the philosophical to the practical, such as humankind’s instinctive passion and need to explore, our innate need to push our boundaries, to answer fundamental questions about our place in the universe or as an alternative home. What is often overlooked, however, are the resulting economic benefits, and the potential new markets that would be created, from such an ambitious undertaking.
In many cases, these are being advanced by the work of major corporations, which employ innumerable people. But just as often, the innovations come from the work of small businesses that are located around the country (and the world). In fact, such innovations and contributions to our economy by companies large and small are already happening (and have been happening for many years). Actual space exploration work is not only being conducted by NASA and by the large aerospace companies but also by small businesses and entrepreneurs, machinists and pipefitters, colleges and other entities.
The launch industry is but one example. It requires a highly educated and skilled workforce from many different fields and employs thousands in high-paying jobs. This is highlighted in the recently released NASA Economic Impact Report – 2019, which showed that NASA generated over $64 billion in economic output in 2019 resulting in well over 300,000 jobs.
What must be made abundantly clear, however, is that getting humanity to Mars is not solely within the purview and responsibility of large rocket companies. Such companies are clearly essential in achieving this goal. But to send humans to Mars and return them safely – and to create a sustainable human presence on Mars – will require far more than just launch vehicles. It will also require a vast network of expertise and contributions from small, medium and large companies and extraordinary innovation in new technologies (each of which will also be applied to improve life on Earth), that are ordinarily not associated with space exploration.
Small businesses, for example, played a central role in designing and building instruments on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and its Curiosity rover, which touched down on the martian surface in 2012 and is still exploring today.
Some of the new technologies and innovations that will be required for future human activities on Mars include:
Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS) will need to be greatly improved, both in efficiency and reliability, over what is currently available as we reach further into space. Through innovations designed for Mars, many lessons (and products) could be applied to commercial, private residential or laboratory environmental systems.
Water conservation, reclamation and production is required for a sustainable human presence on Mars. Mars is an arid planet, but there is significant water in the martian regolith and below the surface. Technologies and procedures for extraction, reclamation, and even production of water on Mars will be beneficial on Earth, particularly in arid regions.
Artificial intelligence (AI) has been making major strides in the last several years for terrestrial utilization. But such advancements will probably play a crucial role in our efforts to send humans to Mars. Mars is so far away that it often will take 10-20 minutes for a communication from Earth to reach Mars — and another 10-20 minutes for a reply to reach Earth. Because of this time factor, crews going to Mars will need to be far more self-sufficient and have systems that are smarter and able to help self-diagnose, and in some cases, fix problems that develop with mission systems.
Remote medicine: When astronauts are on the surface of Mars, no emergency medical evacuation will be possible. In addition, as mentioned before, there will be significant delays in direct communication with Earth because of the distance between the Earth and Mars. To remedy this, new methods of utilizing telemedicine and the utilization of intelligent systems (AI) could be the difference between life and death. As these systems are perfected, they could have a tremendous benefit to medical treatment around the world and – as the COVID-19 crisis has shown us – during times of pandemics and quarantine.
3D printing is already being utilized on the International Space Station. This technology will be indispensable for manufacturing space parts, but it may also be used to print food and even human organs if the need arises. As such innovations are made to address the unique situations that exist and may arise in space, these benefits will almost certainly be applied to products here on Earth.
Agriculture is critical to space exploration. For humanity to viably live and work on Mars (or anywhere else away from Earth), we will need to learn how to grow food away from the protection of Earth. In doing so, the processes and technology that would be developed could also be applied to the agricultural and food production industry here on Earth.
Cell grown meat is another technology that could get a substantial boost as we attempt to solve the challenges of living on Mars. While it is extremely unlikely that large animals would be transported to (and could thrive on) Mars at any time in the near future, astronauts and settlers would be able to have fresh meat if this technology could be applied to the deep space and martian environments. Several companies are now creating cell grown meat that in many cases is indistinguishable from meat obtained through traditional methods. Advancing this process for utilization on Mars could enhance and accelerate the market for this type of non-traditional meat production on Earth.
National and international morale: Space exploration has a unique power to bring people together and inspire the world. As such, when people are optimistic about the future, it usually has a positive impact on the economy. Space exploration is also a human endeavor that transcends partisan politics, nationality and ethnicity, gender and economic class. In an age where we have little to no agreement on so many issues, space exploration is a unifying force that all of us can count on.
Rick Zucker is vice president for policy at Explore Mars, Inc. Chris Carberry is CEO of Explore Mars, Inc., and author of “Alcohol in Space.”