Tech Off to Space: Will Humans Rule the Universe?

Forget about Tony Stark and Howard Hughes. Give a huge welcome to the real star of modern space travel, Mr. Elon Musk. SpaceX are embarking on an interplanetary transport system with the direct intent to make humans an interplanetary species. CEO and lead designer, Elon Musk, recently gave an intriguing technical presentation explaining the potential architecture such a venture would need to succeed.

Tech Revolution to Space Revolution

The business of launching rockets to put commercial satellites into orbit has been growing of late. Emerging powers such as India have established themselves as major players. On June 22, India managed to send 20 satellites into orbit from a single rocket launch. At least one of the satellites is owned by Google’s many subsidiaries. India’s ISRO (space agency) successfully sent an unmanned space shuttle into Mars’ orbit back in 2013 around the same time as NASA’s Maven Mars mission.

In September 1, 2016, my countrymen (Kenyans) woke up to the exciting news that Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was visiting. Meanwhile, Mark’s pet project, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch, was making headlines of its own. The rocket caught fire during the fueling process a few days ahead of the launch at Cape Canaveral, FL. The investigations into the fire and subsequent explosion are ongoing, with claims of sabotage. Nevertheless, everyone is hopeful that future missions will be successful.

While this particular mission was intended to provide free internet access to Africa, there have been several other missions with even more ambitious goals. Tech companies in particular, have thrown in their hats into the space rush. With the billions of dollars at their disposal and R&D resources, we expect some of the things we have always held as fiction to come to fruition within our lifetimes. Things like affordable space travel, space tourism, intergalactic travel, formation of human outposts and colonies, and probably some interaction with extraterrestrial beings.

Million-Man Mars Colony

At the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, held on September 27, Elon reveals that his ultimate goal is to create a self-sustaining human colony on Mars. And the first move towards making that a reality is to establish a city of 1 million humans on Mars by the year 2060. Elon rightly sees man as an exploratory species that will never be satisfied with living only on earth and awaiting certain extinction. We are on the path of becoming a space-faring and multi-planet species with several outpost communities.

Current Challenges

So what’s stopping us from colonizing mars and any other planet we set our sights on? First, we have to look at the destination environment. We need a place with just enough sunlight, the right temperature, and the right length of daylight/nighttime hours. We need a planet or moon with an atmosphere. We need an abundance of nitrogen and oxygen for earthly plants and animals to survive. Finally, we need a planetary body with enough gravitational force. So far, Mars fits the bill quite nicely, with only a few tweaks to scale it up for our habitation.

Secondly, we have to look at the means of travel. Elon is looking at ways to create transport costs of $200k per person, which would translate to a 5,000,000% improvement. An all-methane fuel system using deep-cyro methalox, CH4/O2, and use of solar arrays can possibly create cheaper propellant options and enough energy from earth lift-off to mars entry.

Thirdly, we have to look at the skills and knowledge base of our first missionaries to mars. Where will we get the right mix of expertise to develop a new colony on another planet? We will need highly trained agriculturists to turn the barren planet into a vegetative haven. We will require engineers and environmental scientists to warm up the whole planet as its very cold temperatures are unsuitable for life as we know it. We will need to set up housing, streets, stores, and everything that a community would require at an outpost. Most importantly, we will need an effective communication structure that allows communication within mars, and between mars and earth.

Beyond Mars

So what next after colonizing Mars, assuming that will be successful? The way I see it, there are multiple opportunities for discovery missions and space tourism. As Elon says, the next viable options include planets within our solar system and moons/satellites orbiting around these planets. These include:

  • Jupiter
  • Enceladus
  • Europa
  • Saturn

What’s in It for Earth Dwellers

First, think of all the R&D benefits. The propulsion capabilities are enough to create transport solutions that can get heavy cargo anywhere in the world in less than 45 minutes. The mars vehicle’s raptor engines are capable of attaining a staging velocity in excess of 8,500km/h. Imagine getting prefabricated low-cost housing made in the US to a small impoverished village in a remote part of Africa within the hour. Or sending infrastructure materials from one continent to another, enough to build a few roads and bridges.

Earth dwellers will also benefit from expanded markets for their products. For instance, before Mars becomes self-sufficient they will need food grown and manufactured on earth. They will need machinery and equipment. They will need fuel and vehicle resources. And earth will continue being the center of innovation for the foreseeable future.

For fiction and non-fiction writers and other players in the entertainment and information/education industries, there are endless opportunities. We will see a huge consumer appetite for scripts and tales touching on life away from earth. Possibilities of extraterrestrial beings will be floated. Conspiracy theories will be woven. Leadership and political models will be redrawn. New frontiers will be sought, whether in reality or in our collective vivid human imaginations. Would you be a pioneer settler in Mars if offered the chance? Let me know in the comments section.

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