The business of Mars’ mission is no doubt a serious one. The mission is enjoying billions of Dollars of investment globally. By Wednesday, March 26, 2015, there was news that NASA had announced more details in its plan for its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). ARM plans to test a number of new capabilities needed for future human expeditions to deep space, including to Mars in the mid-2020s. In addition, NASA also revealed it has increased the detection of near-Earth Asteroids by 65 percent since launching its asteroid initiative in 2012. For ARM, a robotic spacecraft will capture a boulder from the surface of a near-Earth asteroid and move it into a stable orbit around the moon for exploration by astronauts, all in support of advancing the man’s long journey to Mars. It is expected that ARM will provide an initial demonstration of several spaceflight capabilities needed to send astronauts deeper into space, and eventually, to Mars or even beyond. Robert Lightfoot, NASA Associate Administrator was quoted saying “The option to retrieve a boulder from an asteroid will have a direct impact on planning for future human missions to deep space and begin a new era of spaceflight.” NASA scientists carefully select asteroid for the mission based on certain characteristics, such as size, rotation, shape and precise orbit in the space. They have already identified three valid candidates for the mission: Itokawa, Bennu and 2008 EV5. The agency expects to identify one or two additional candidates each year, leading up to the mission.
Another interesting venture is the ability of ARM robotic spacecraft to test a number of potential capabilities needed by man for future manned missions. This includes advanced Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), a valuable capability that converts sunlight to electrical power through solar arrays and then uses the resulting power to propel charged atoms to move a spacecraft. This method of propulsion can move massive cargo very efficiently. While slower than conventional chemical rocket propulsion, SEP-powered spacecraft requires significantly less propellant and fewer launches to support human exploration missions, which could reduce costs. This is certainly a tall ambition.
While NASA Scientists are busy trying to send their first manned mission to Mars by 2020, there are people with “crazy” ideas of not only visiting Mars but colonising it and making it a second planet to be occupied by man within the next 40 to 100 years. A leading personality in this crop of adventurers is Elon Musk, the Chief Executive Officer of SpaceX. He is a co-founder, CEO, and product architect of Tesla Motors; co-founder and chairman of SolarCity; co-chairman of OpenAI; co-founder of Zip2; and founder of X.com which merged with PayPal of Confinity. As of June 2016, he had an estimated net worth of US$12.7 billion, making him the 83rd wealthiest person in the world by the recent ranking. As revealed by Wikipedia, in addition to his primary business pursuits, Musk has also envisioned a high-speed transportation system known as the Hyperloop, and has proposed a VTOL supersonic jet aircraft with electric fan propulsion, known as the Musk electric jet. Musk is not only in the club of world rich men but he is also a genius, at the age of 10, he developed an interest in computing with the Commodore. He taught himself computer programming and at age 12, sold the code for a BASIC-based video game he created called Blastar to a magazine called PC and Office Technology for approximately US$500. A web version of the game is available online.
At the risk of slight digressing, I have to mention that among the numerous projects, Musk pursued, the Solarcity is likely to be the most interesting to Nigeria. Musk provided the initial concept and financial capital for the Solarcity project, which was then co-founded in 2006 by his cousins, Lyndon and Peter Rive but Musk remains the largest shareholder. SolarCity is now the second largest provider of solar power systems in the United States. The underlying motivation for funding both SolarCity and Tesla is to help combat global warming. In 2012, Musk announced that SolarCity and Tesla Motors are collaborating to use electric vehicle batteries to smooth the impact of rooftop solar on the power grid, with the program going live in 2013. On June 17, 2014, Musk committed to building in Buffalo, New York, a SolarCity advanced production facility that would triple the size of the largest solar plant in the United States. Musk stated the plant will be “one of the single largest solar panel production plants in the world”, and it will be followed by one or more even bigger facilities in subsequent years. In June 2016, Musk’s car company, Tesla Motors, formally submitted an offer to acquire SolarCity.
Coming back to Musk’s colonisation of Mars, what is the most inspirational force making Musk to want to occupy Mars? It is the belief in extraterrestrial life. Although Musk believes “there is a good chance that there is simple life on other planets”, he “questions whether there is other intelligent life in the known universe”. Musk later clarified his “hope that there is other intelligent life in the known universe”, and stated that it is “probably more likely than not, but that’s a complete guess”.
It will certainly be an exciting prospect; sending real human beings to Mars to begin a new life on this red planet. Musk said it is a necessity that mankind becomes a multi-planet species in order to survive, as it is only a matter of time before an extinction event wipes out civilisation on Earth. That’s why, according to him, he is helping to spearhead an ambitious new project; “sending mankind to Mars”. He is planning to build a massive rocket with 42 engines that would send entire colonies to the Red Planet. The condition on Mars is certainly a far cry from that of Earth. The average temperature on the planet is negative 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and it doesn’t have Earth’s dense atmosphere, which is what results in the huge temperature fluctuations and massive dust storms. Similarly, Mars also lacks a magnetic field, which means there’s nothing to shield inhabitants from the intense radiation that is blasted out by the sun. Basically, living on Mars would be like living in a bunker after a nuclear explosion. Despite the envisaged harsh condition on the red planet, the prospective travelers will not undertake the trip free of charge! Trips to mars are estimated to cost about $10 billion per seat, although Musk is trying to drive that down to just $200,000. But the question is, why on Earth would someone wish to undertake this suicide mission? Musk thinks it appeals to some people’s sense of adventure. After all, America was founded by pioneers who braved some of the worst conditions imaginable first to cross the Atlantic Ocean to get there, and then to cross the entire country to the Pacific. Mars can be considered the next “New World” in that regard.
Musk and NASA are not alone in the competition for this rare adventure, there is group of prospective travelers to Mars called “Mars One”. The group is planning a one-way trip to the Red Planet by the year 2026. No traveling back and the missionaries must prepare to die over there. All missions to Mars will be massive — and expensive — undertakings. There is still a lot we need to consider, how to land heavy cargo on Mars and to protect people from radiation while traveling in space. Then there’s the life-support system on the planet itself. We need to figure out how to create habitats that have electricity, sanitation, clean air, and potable water. And what about food supplies and spare parts when things break down? In addition, the one way trip to Mars will take months to reach the destination.
While this Mars mission sounds bizarre, we must learn a lesson or two as Africans. We must invest more in science and technology to be able to conquer hunger, poverty, misery and bring hopes to the citizenry. It is the first thing that needs to be done before development of spacecraft technology in Africa.