Next Big Thing

First Mars Olympics on the Horizon Oct 10, 2016

With the successful completion of the historic Rosetta mission that landed the first man-made satellite on an comet, attention is turning again to what NASA is planning to do next. This is nothing new and always becomes the discussion after such a momentous event.

After the first manned missions to the Moon, Thomas O. Paine, then Administrator of NASA, wrote this article for National Geographic. It was the most optimistic NASA has ever been.

“I believe that men will drive onward in the years ahead to Mars, to the moons of Jupiter, and to other new worlds in our vast solar system,” the Chief Administrator wrote triumphantly.

He went on to describe that within ten years, they would establish a permanent base on the Moon and within twenty years, they would land the first manned mission on Mars.

While the research into space exploration had already provided unmatched benefits for people right here on Earth, NASA made it clear that their primary mission was “to make space travel simpler, more reliable, and much cheaper.”

Administrator Paine laid out a clear, three-step plan. The first step of the plan was to design and construct a reusable rocket, that would be able to make hundreds of  trips to space, rather than just one. Unfortunately, nothing much has happened since.

If you check out the “what’s next” of the NASA website today, they are still trying to build that reusable rocket, 48 years later.

Even the section entitled “Journey to Mars” doesn’t mention anything about going to Mars anymore. It focuses on a mission to redirect an asteroid into orbit around the Moon, which, last we checked, wasn’t Mars.

Enter the new pioneers of space exploration.

SpaceX is a company that is changing the way that the world looks at space travel. Founded in 2002, its deliciously geeky CEO recently announced that they are well on their way to sending manned missions to Mars.

In the official announcement made Sept 27th, Elon Musk laid out the details of the new Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) that hopes to lower the ticket price to Mars to just $200,000 per person, the cost of a typical American home, within 2 decades.

When asked about how and where people will live once they arrive on Mars, he simply responded by saying that he intends to build a transport network, and that individuals and companies would decide for themselves what they would do once they arrive. “The goal of SpaceX really is to build the transport system. It’s like building the Union Pacific railroad.”

While this isn’t the first time someone said they intend to go to the Red Planet, but it does signal a significant shift so that people are actually taking it seriously.

Just days later, Blue Origins CEO, Jeff Bezos, hinted that their new heavy lifter could be used for deep space missions similar to ITS being developed by SpaceX. “When we have millions of people living and working in space, we want them to be able to go to lots of destinations,” he said. “Mars would be one of them. The moon would be another.“

And, if you get the feeling that a new private space-race is underway, hold on to your hats. On Oct 4th, Boeing weighed in when its CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, gave an inspiring speach reminiscent of Administrator Paine’s 1960’s optimism that included advanced transportation systems on Earth and a plan to begin shuttling people to Mars en mass. “I’m convinced the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding a Boeing rocket,” said Muilenburg to a packed house in Chicago.

There are no clear indications about who will win the new race, but the rules have been set – the first person to Mars wins. Other rule have been set by Mother Nature herself. As Earth and Mars orbit the Sun, the distance between them varies greatly. Most of the time, they are prohibitively far apart, but every 2 years, a launch window opens up when Earth the path from Earth to Mars is at its shortest.

This means that teams will line their spacecraft, like pedestrians at a crosswalk, waiting for the window to open. When the window open, the ships will quickly jump over to Mars’s orbit at the same time.

The regular cadence that this will create will act like a bi-annual Mars Olympics where each company can show off their progress since the previous cycle.

Not only are these headliners paving the road to Mars, they are paving the way for hundreds of other startup companies to fill in the gaps that are creating in their wake. Startups like Astro Digital, which provides remote sensing solutions here on Earth, are could easily adapt their technology to map and monitor the surface of Mars more closely.

In the end, the one big question still remains, “what will people do when they get there?”

The answer is simple, whatever they are doing on Earth. And, that may be just the point. Once access to Mars, and anywhere else in the Solar System, has been democratized, individuals will decide what they will do for themselves. Some may want to do research, others will want to be adventurous travelers in search of far-off fortunes. Others, may just be looking for a fresh start.

Ultimately, we don’t know what people will be doing on Mars in 50 or 100 years. In the words of Administrator Paine in 1969, “What surprises would the astronauts bring home from Mars? No one can say—just as no one can say what explorers eventually may find on the moons of Jupiter, or on Pluto.”