Help Wanted: Make Life Better for Humans on Mars

Now that President Barack Obama is firmly behind the idea of taking people to Mars one-way to build a permanent colony, NASA is rapidly ramping up its support for the missions. And it wants your help.

A lot of folks missed it, but 11 months ago, on Jan. 24 this year, President Obama told Congress in his state of the Union address: “I want Americans to win the race for the kinds of discoveries that unleash new jobs…pushing out into the Solar System not just to visit, but to stay.”

The president functions as the chairman of NASA, an agency that falls squarely under the administration. That’s why presidents can make such a difference in the space program. Richard M. Nixon, for example, chose to build the horridly expensive Space Shuttle (135 missions at an average cost of $1.4 billion each) over the protestations of Wernher von Braun, who got us to the moon. Von Braun resigned after Nixon made that decision.

Although Mars appears to be little more than arid and dusty, its soil contains many of the building blocks of an advanced society, including phosphorous, iron, copper, and sulfur.

Von Braun wanted to go to Mars and insisted NASA could do it by 1985. Nixon sided with the military, which used the Shuttle 11 times for classified missions despite the fact that everything NASA does is supposed to be open and public (which is how the Soviets came to build an exact copy of the shuttle). The military soon tired of the Shuttle’s exorbitant cost structure, which was mostly its fault — the shuttle was made larger and more complex to satisfy military needs. NASA was left with the lemon of a spaceship and nowhere to go with it except low Earth orbit.

Now that NASA has gotten its long-awaited green light for Mars and finds itself in a race with a private space company — SpaceX — to get there, it is enlisting the help of the public for ideas about how to better utilize the resources we’ll find naturally on Mars instead of shipping resources to the Red Planet.

It will cost an estimated $100,000 per kilo (2.2 pounds) to get stuff to Mars from Earth. Mars is a thousand times farther away from Earth than our moon is. It presently costs about $10,000 per kilo to launch stuff just into Earth orbit.

Furthermore, every kilo of stuff we can make on Mars instead of shipping it there saves at least 11 kilos of rocket fuel and spacecraft weight.

That’s where you come in. NASA is running a challenge for ordinary citizens to help figure out how to use materials on Mars to make everything from habitats to spacesuits. And there’s more than pride involved: NASA has a $15,000 prize pool to give to the best idea generators. OK, it won’t buy you a new car, but if the first colonists on Mars can make plastic repair parts for their rovers because you figured out the process, you’ll definitely end up in history books.

The contest is called the NASA Tournament Lab In-Situ Materials Challenge. You can register and learn all about it here.

To your health and wealth,

Stephen Petranek
for The Daily Reckoning

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