Space and Technology Review: The Race to the Moon and Mars

4,309 9 Loading

It’s an exciting time for space exploration. NASA, private companies, and several countries are all racing to colonize space. Soon we hope to become a multi-planetary species. But why?

This post explores why we’re racing to the Moon and Mars and who will get there and when.

This is Part 2 of our Space GGC Series focused on important issues facing us now:

Part 1: Our Home Among the Stars
Part 2: The Race to the Moon and Mars
Part 3: Asteroid Detection and Mining
Part 4: Finding Extraterrestrial Life

The following information was curated from excerpts of previously published Singularity Hub articles on space exploration. Though this series isn't intended to be all-inclusive, we hope collecting a few key developments and insights in one place will deliver a broader view on the field. Special thanks to Jason Dorrier and Sarah Scoles for their works quoted here.

SpaceX is testing technology to enable reusable rockets.

Image Credit: SpaceX

Why Spend Billions on Space? It’s Our Insurance Policy Against Extinction

“Why blow billions of dollars on space exploration when billions of people are living in poverty here on Earth?

You’ve likely heard the justifications. The space program brings us useful innovations and inventions. Space exploration delivers perspective, inspiration, and understanding. Because it's the final frontier. Because it's there.

What you haven’t heard is anything to inspire a sense of urgency. Indeed, NASA’s struggle to defend its existence and funding testifies to how weak these justifications sound to a public that cares less about space than seemingly more pressing needs.

Space exploration, according to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, is as urgent as easing poverty or disease—it’s our insurance policy against extinction. Musk says an extinction-level event would, in an existential flash, make our down-to-earth struggles irrelevant.”


Image Credit: NASA

Diversifying Our Planetary Portfolio: The Moon Is a Stepping Stone to Mars

“Today NASA has no plans to send humans back to the Moon. Instead, its space pioneers will shoot straight to Mars (and wave to the Moon as they pass it by).

Other countries, though, would like a chance to leave some dusty footprints on the Moon. And although some think another Moon mission represents a step back, solid reasons exist (beyond footprints) to do a lunar sojourn or two before heading for the Red Planet.

In October, Russia announced it wants to build a base on the Moon. And it seems likely ESA would team up with Russia after [a joint] recon mission to spool up that Moon colony.

At the National Space Symposium in April, the agency’s chief, Johann-Dietrich Wörner said, “It seems to be appropriate to propose a permanent Moon station as the successor of ISS.” He proposed that, like the space station, the Moon station also be international, with countries contributing people, talent, and resources according to their abilities.

But aside from money matters, going to the Moon doesn’t mean not going to Mars.

Europe, Russia, and China all plan to visit the Red Planet’s canyons and dunes sometime in the future. But going to the Moon is faster—in terms of trip planning and the number of times the crew asks “Are we there yet?” before arrival—and, because of that, cheaper.

Further, because the timescales and the budget numbers are both smaller, the missions are more likely to happen (maybe even on time). Also, going to the Moon is a stepping stone to Mars. Launches to Mars could actually take place from the Moon—a lower-energy feat relative to Earth launches due to the Moon’s lesser gravity—after the colony turns industrial (which is, admittedly, a ways off). And astronauts and engineers can learn how to build a long-term space settlement, which (turns out) no one has ever done before.

However, the more resources agencies invest in getting to the Moon (and staying there for long periods of time), the fewer they have left to allocate for a future trip to Mars, an expensive endeavor. And the general American attitude of “been there, done that” has something to it. We have been there. We may not have done all of that, but we could go try to do it somewhere else, farther away: on a new frontier.

That kind of novel, dreamy goal inspires people, and not without reason. We have the technological capability to figure out how to make a human Mars mission work.”


Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Who Will Become the First Martian? Collaboration May be the Key

“[Last September, NASA] reaffirmed its commitment to rocket humans to Mars by the 2030s. At the same event, however, they also delayed the first crewed flight of Orion, the space capsule they plan to use for the voyage. Called EM-2, this flight was once scheduled for August 2021. But because of new design changes, the mission will now have to wait until April 2023.

The agency said that the rain-check shouldn’t change the rest of Orion’s calendar, and the first no-crew test will still take place in 2018.

[Still] NASA is a big federal agency, and its engineers and scientists have to deal with budget constraints, government appropriations, piles of paperwork, and existing relationships with other big, cumbersome organizations like Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

And it’s the big-slow-cautious gap that private companies and nonprofit organizations are stepping into. “We want to go to Mars, too,” they say. And they bet they can do it better, faster, and cheaper.

Currently, SpaceX flies supplies to the International Space Station, but it plans to settle a colony on Mars. And [Elon] Musk (and his army of smart people who work really hard) might be able to do that. While the details of SpaceX’s Mars ferry (called the Mars Colonial Transporter) remain behind the company’s doors, Musk recently told Vogue magazine that his first astronaut-colonists should be headed out in about 10 years.

On the opposite end of the private path-to-Mars spectrum lies Mars One, a Dutch company founded by Bas Lansdorp. Mars One offers a one-way trip for six groups of four astronauts — chosen from the thousands who applied online. The selection process was to become a reality television show, with crews beginning training in 2016 for a launch in 2026, a timeline roughly on par with Musk’s. However, as a high-ranking applicant detailed in this Medium article, Mars One doesn’t seem to have the infrastructure or technology connections to back up their plan.

More moderate in their dreams, [Dennis Tito’s] Inspiration Mars Foundation first planned to send a two-person crew to fly by Mars in 2018, as a stepping stone like NASA’s asteroid plan.

But in February 2014, Tito pushed back the launch to 2021 and said he would need NASA’s Orion and SLS structures. While no plans exist between the agency and Inspiration Mars, collaborations like this may be the best way to get to Mars.

NASA, for instance, already collaborates with SpaceX for near-Earth projects. The two could join forces — combining the best of both organizations, like NASA’s attention to detail and safety and SpaceX’s willingness to experiment and act quickly — to get to Mars sooner with the smallest number of snags possible.

If all of these ventures succeeded, Mars might become crowded. But it seems likely that some combination of them will, in the coming decades, join forces — physically, intellectually, or both — to sum their individual strengths and to water down their weaknesses.”

That wraps up Space and Technology Review Part 2. Read Part 1 here and stay tuned for Parts 3 and 4.

Banner Image Credit: NASA

Megan North

Megan North

Megan is director of Content Marketing for Singularity University. Before moving over to the Digital Media dark side, she was known as the marketing engine at SU. She brings the same strength and stamina to Singularity Hub to create engaging learning experiences.
Megan North

Discussion — 9 Responses

  • Bradley Steeg February 12, 2016 on 4:26 pm

    Colonizing Mars seems inconsistent with a near term technological Singularity. If the Singularity happens in 2045 (ala Kurzweil) we won’t even need to be humans by 2050. We could simply modify our bodies to work better in space then take the trip. In which case, sending 2030 humans with 2030 dollars is a waste of cash. And if AI turns out to be the existential threat Mars certainly won’t save us.

    On the other hand, if we predict a technological stall and AI is pushed back a thousand years, then sure, make the Mars shot.

  • Bourjoi February 12, 2016 on 6:36 pm

    Yeah! Keep destroying earth and flee our destruction as fast as we can instead of terraforming the whole of it before it is too late. No wonder we need SETI. ;-))

  • Tom Riley February 13, 2016 on 6:02 am

    The best insurance policy for the human race is to simply build sustainable societies on Earth. Our current problems (population peaking, global warming, sea level raise, etc.) require us to achieve this goal within the next 34 years. No society on Earth will survive the 21st Century unskaved.

    The real question then is how things will be different, for good or bad. The singularity idea is calls for a large number of technical Black Swans that will simply pull our collective back sides out of the fire. We are currently betting our planet on our ability to innovate. That is a bold and daring bet.

    That said, there is a place for human space exploration from Earth in the 21st Century. But, we must deal with the 21st Century on its own terms.

    For example, designing sustainable settlements on the Moon or Mars, will teach us a lot about what sustainability really is.

    With the Shuttle and International Space Station, we proved that the old bureaucratic Apollo to the Moon NASA cannot work in the 21st Century, a lesson hard won. It’s approach is too top-down and too expensive. In the 21st Century you must create a mass, bottom-up space exploration program. I explore this approach in a short story:

    “The Big Moon Dig”,

    We can do this but not in an old 20th Century way.

    Tom Riley

    • Tom Riley Tom Riley February 15, 2016 on 7:41 am

      The other key problem that must be addressed for a settlement that is currently being ignored is radiation shielding.

      The only reasonable source of mass based radiation shielding is Lunar regolith. The Earth’s atmosphere provides mass based radiation shielding about equal to four meters of Lunar regolith. The Earth’s magnetic field provides some additional shielding but the effect only extends out to LEO. If you are going to be in space for longer than a few days, you must have shielding.

      There are two types of radiation danger: (1) Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) from the Sun, and (2) Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCR). The CME have high levels of radiation but it does not penetrate well. One meter of shield will do. Any site on the Moon, or on the way to Mars, can expect 0 to 5 CME hits per year.

      In comparison, the GCR penetrates very well, is at a constant low level, and is 24/7. One meter of Lunar regolith only makes the problem worse because of secondary radiation. We need four to five meters of shielding for long term residence.

      The atmosphere of Mars only helps a little, perhaps a 1/2 meter at best. The Mars magnetic field provides not help at all.

      The solution we are proposing is to dig long trenches and bury inflatable habitats deep into the Lunar surface. Any reasonable level of internal pressure will easily support the shield on the roof. For the Moon it is possible to recruit millions of Earth people to compete for positions as remote robot operators to dig those trenches.

      For Mars the diggers will have to be fully autonomous. We can learn what we need to learn on the Moon.

      Any human space exploration program that does not address the radiation shielding problem simply has not been thought through. The Mars mission ship in “The Martian” is a good example of this.

      I would certainly like to hear from the readers of this blog on this problem.

      Tom Riley
      [email protected]

      • Dan Vasii Tom Riley February 18, 2016 on 12:24 am

        Actually the settlements on other planets can easily be protected by burring them, just as you and other mentioned. The real problem is the ship that bring us there. The shielding has to be active and as light as possible, any mass added to the ship comes with an enormous cost in fuel. And the problem is even more difficult in the case of an interstellar ship, as the Sun is protecting us against Galactic Cosmic Rays, through its magnetic field.

  • Tom Riley February 13, 2016 on 6:04 am

    Also for the record, the United Nations Treaty on Space, to which the United States is a signature, requires:

    1. All measurements in space will be System International (called SI or metric).

    2. Never use the word “Colony” as it is so loaded with so much bad historical baggage that it precludes international cooperation. Just remember what we Americans thought of being a colony. Always us the word “Settlement”.

  • Tom Riley February 14, 2016 on 6:40 am

    You might not like this level of political correctness. Too Bad, So Sad!

    A “Colony” is under the political control of an empire. Colonies rebel. One of the earliest and greatest books on lunar settlement, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, is a story of rebellion of this exact type.

    A “Settlement” is locally automatous but may be under significant legal contracts to supply specific raw resources. The only raw resource currently reasonably proposed for the Moon is Helium-3.

    If you want space adventure consistent with the 21st Century and with international law then it will be a “Settlement”. What’s more there will be not rebellion loaming in the future. The worse than can happen is a nasty renegotiation of contracts.

    • Dan Vasii Tom Riley February 18, 2016 on 12:33 am

      I think is an issue of semantics. The bad connotation of the term ”colony” came after the Colonial Powers, like Spain, England, Netherland, invaded lands already populated by aborigens. There are no native populations on Moon or Mars that we know of, and if they are, they most probably are bacterial forms of life. So the problem is inconsequential.

  • Sine Arrow February 15, 2016 on 12:01 pm

    After Tom Riley’s contributions, this will seem a bit short, but I think it needed.

    It is about his fears for radiation.

    Both the Moon and Mars have lava tube caves in many places. The candidates already found have potential diameters between 10 meters and 5 kilometers, with lengths in the kilometer range. These will be well-protected from both CMEs and GCRs, and all secondaries when over 100 meters from the skylight entrances we are seeing.

    In addition, we can generate optical fibers from in situ resources to move the light we want into the caves to provide illumination, grow food, and power our devices. This will deeply lower the first settlement costs. Those, in turn, can provide the capacity to construct well-protected surface facilities, most likely out of ice shields on Mars.

    Lowering capital costs like this will be needed, to build the many different nodes of the economic network of the Solar System. The debate of Moon or Mars is fallacious in concept, when speaking of settling the Solar System. No single destination will be viable alone. Once multiple settlements are growing out from each other, then it will become unstoppable by political fiats. That is what we should strive for, in the face of those who desire that this be some sort of controlled and terminable expansion, whenever politicians find it inconvenient to their plans here.