On 20th July 1969, the Apollo 11 mission crew successfully landed on the Moon. Over half a century later, space engineers find themselves on the edge of entering another planet’s atmosphere in a quest to fulfil humanity’s most ambitious dream of a permanent life among the stars.
The increased popularity of sustainability initiatives coincides with the deteriorating condition of our planet; Yearly, over 390 billion tons of snow and ice melt from glaciers around the Globe, 8 million metric tons of plastic pollution enters the oceans, while warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 2001. Considering that the world’s population is expected to reach over 9 billion in 2050, embracing more of a sustainable lifestyle is no longer a temporary fad, but a long-term necessity. Leaving the Earth as the 21st century portrays it and inhabiting a different planet, such as Mars, would be an opportunity for the future to be translated into a new beginning for humankind.
However, the increased interest and availability of space explorations has both advantages and disadvantages. On a positive note, it can usher the way to extraordinary discoveries and innovations that can help us better understand our past and forecast our future. But at the same time, the diversification of space activities and the introduction of new players eager to turn humans into a ‘multi-planet species’ has the potential to aggravate many of the current sustainability challenges we are already facing on Earth. The vast amount of man-made debris that is populating the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is now largely recognised as a serious threat to current space activity which includes over 1,500 satellites that serve important functions on Earth, such as banking, weather forecasting or communications.
Video credit: Stuart Grey – Space debris 1957-2016
As design innovators, we are constantly keeping an eye out for the latest ideas that are capable of elevating human life in a sustainable manner. Can the technology available on Earth be used on a different planet and is that enough to make sustainable living possible in space? Today we take a closer look at how the concept of sustainability could be adapted to a potential life on a different planet and whether or not the environmental crisis we are currently facing is an issue that can only happen on Earth.
From Earth Reliant to Earth Independent
NASA believes that humanity’s expansion to Mars can be defined as a three-step process divided by increased levels of challenges known as ‘Earth Reliant’, ‘Proving Ground’ and ‘Earth Independent’. While the Earth Reliant and Proving Ground phases are based on technology and health research aboard the International Space Station, Proving Ground will see astronauts harvest, live and work on Mars.
Nevertheless, if people were to live on Mars, they would have to address an array of issues in order to acquire a lifestyle that is as similar as possible to the one on Earth. It might take them a very long time to turn Mars into a self-sustainable planet capable of growing crops given its thin atmosphere, low temperatures and constant solar radiations.
Bringing the global warming on Mars
Should we try to generate global warming on Mars in order to make life there feel less alien to humans? ‘Exactly!’ would say Stephen Petranek, TED speaker, award-winning journalist and author of ‘How We’ll Live on Mars’. Terraforming has frequently been depicted as a compelling option to turn Mars into a habitable place considering that releasing carbon dioxide trapped in the planet’s surface would thicken its atmosphere and, consequently, increase its temperature. Unfortunately, NASA-sponsored studies concluded that Mars does not hold enough carbon dioxide that could be put back into its atmosphere to warm it up. In other words, a scenario illustrating humans exploring the Red Planet without pressurised hubs and suits cannot materialise without the technology that goes well beyond today’s competencies.
A return to the basics
Currently, space explorers aboard the International Space Station have regular supplies of food delivered to them by cargo vehicles but that would hardly be the case for people living on Mars, since a one-way journey might take six to eight months. Astronauts living on Mars, also referred to as ‘marsonauts’, would need to make use of hydroponic greenhouses and regulated environmental systems in order to grow crops – a bit similar to what The Martian movie has taught us about space farming.
Image credit: IMBd
Life on the Red Planet would be a great accomplishment for humankind, but it would also turn the clock back. Suddenly, people would find themselves in a hostile environment where nothing seems familiar. Even the 20-minute communication delay (the amount of time it takes a text from Mars to reach the Earth and the other way around) would have a huge impact on people’s performances.
Whether for good or bad, limited technological distractions would help them get more work done. This is also what happened to Sheyna Gifford, Health and Science Officer and Crew Journalist for the NASA’s fourth HI-SEAS project – a social experiment that focuses on how humans interact and work in a place of similar resources to the ones available on Mars. She described her life within the sMars site on the Mauna Loa side of the saddle area on the Big Island of Hawaii, as ‘elemental’. ‘Our chief concerns revolve around sun, air, water and rock (…) and what we can and can’t do with those four basics in the right combination’ she continued. The project highlights the idea that if people are soon to board on a one-way mission to Mars, they need to prepare for it on Earth.
Image credit: HI-SEAS
Before we even board a mission to Mars we need to address the way spacecrafts are being used, mainly because they are hardly ever reused. Most of the space vehicles sent to space, apart from the 30-year Space Shuttle programme, were abandoned after completing their missions, which left behind a great deal of waste in the form of both material and economic resources.
The prospect of building reusable spacecrafts will reduce costs dramatically and inevitably make space travel more of a sustainable activity. As the latter becomes a matter of increased interest, a group of space scientists, policy experts and scholars established the world’s first Institute for the Sustainable Development of Space in Canada in order to address the climate impact of the former. Building on the principles of the 1967’s Outer Space Treaty, the organisation aims to offer a deeper insight into the principles and sustainability impact of space explorations to both national and international audiences.
Whether self-care on Mars will be translated into one’s ability to produce food, water, and warmth, it is also important to understand that a care for the planet itself will be mandatory. No nationality on Earth has complete ownership over outer space. It is shared among all the nations, which means that keeping it as unpolluted as possible is a collective responsibility.