“If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
So yeah. I’m fucked.”
So says Mark Watney, the main character from Andy Weir’s The Martian, one of the most entertaining books I’ve read recently. The story’s premise: a man left behind on Mars has to survive over a year on supplies meant to last weeks while waiting for NASA to organize a rescue mission. Weir’s technical writing about botany, chemistry, space travel and surviving life on Mars with such limited resources is heightened by the absurd stakes involved. Focusing on Mark’s daily tasks grounds the story, but also conveniently allows Weir to skip past the pesky part of actually getting people to Mars.
While The Martian might be light in those details, there are certain inescapable brutalities of a trip to – and life on – Mars. While the main character in Weir’s book is an astronaut fully equipped to deal with an extended trip on Mars while he waits to catch a ride back to Earth, our current reality is far different. You may have heard of the Mars One mission, whose stated purpose is to “to establish a human settlement on Mars.” As of now, the Mars One mission, which is openly billed as a one-way trip, had had 200,000 people sign up.
Or… has it? Elmo Keep reports on the mission’s fuzzy details in All Dressed Up For Mars and Nowhere To Go. Of the fuzziest details are these tiny questions: how will astronauts survive on the surface of Mars? What equipment might they use? How will we get to Mars? How will the trip be funded? Can a Big Brother-like reality show pay for a mission that entire governments can’t finance? And, if 200,000 people actually signed up, why is there no proof? Keep’s article is terrific, and a little heart-breaking.
Even more heart-breaking? Cold hard truths, like this Quartz article that confirms what you already know: the people going to Mars on a Dutch reality TV show will die. The first after only 68 days on the surface (assuming, again, that we can get people to Mars… our track record is spotty).
You already know there are many variables for space travel. Hell, there are many variables for my regular drive from Los Angeles to Sacramento (stop at the Grapevine for coffee? Stop at In-N-Out in Kettleman? Decisions, decisions). But I digress. SPACE. The final frontier. And frontier’s demand checklists. What will we need to bring? Some breathable air, for starters. Some exercise equipment (you’ll have to leave your Perfect Pushup on Earth). Some snacks for the road.
On the food frontier, Stephanie McPherson asks, “Could 3D-printing Food in Space Make Mars Travel Possible?” She notes that 3D printing’s most obvious application in space will be to create the spare and emergency parts, saving astronauts the need to have duplicate and triplicate parts of every piece in space, taking up … space… . Beyond that use, 3D printing may actually help to unlock the trip to Mars. One of the main problems with food storage, according to Anjan Contractor, an engineer at Systems and Materials Research Corporation, is that “Current food sources last for about 35 months. Just orbiting Mars and coming back takes five years. So food is a big problem.”
His company’s solution: dehydrated and deconstructed powdered food pods, which last decades, and can be used in their 3D printer. So far, they’ve made pizza, cinnamon rolls, and celery.
While 3D-printed pizzas and cinnamon rolls are all well and good for our future astronaut stoner space travelers, why should they have all the fun? “What If We Replaced Your Unhealthy Afternoon Snack With a 3D-Printed Healthy Alternative” Adele Peters wonders. It turns out that Dutch designer Chloé Rutzerveld’s has come up with a concept called “Edible Growth”, which would have a 3D printer “print a base layer from pasta or dough, filled with multiple inner layers of seeds, spores, and yeast. Within five days, the mushrooms and plants inside would grow into a tasty snack.” Beyond just printing snacks, this could have such immediate applications as “reducing the size of the supply chain and food waste” and reducing “food miles and C02 emissions.” A snack attack… On the world’s problems!
This innovative use of 3D printing (a process still fairly described as innovative, in and of itself) puts Rutzerveld squarely under the umbrella of the Makers, as described in Chris Andersen’s book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. Beyond 3D printing, he describes the importance of making, and how an army of hobbyists are charging forward into an open-sourced future of doing more ourselves, and doing it together. Andersen, the former editor of Wired, speaks of the importance of engaging small audiences and creating small test runs of products that, while not necessarily disrupting the supply chain as we know it, certainly suggests a welcome addition.
To be clear, 3D printing isn’t just for the tech nerds in basements around America who outfit their drones with armor and armaments, fearing the worst from AmazonSkynet. West African inventor Kodjo Afate Gnikou raised the bar for hobbyists everywhere with a 3D printer made from E-Waste called the W.AFATE. His printer, salvaged from junk parts (and a handful of new ones) only costs $100. The most pared down 3D printers in the US go for $299, but the more functional ones extend into the thousands of dollars. Here’s Gnikou himself: “My dream is to give young people hope and to show that Africa, too, has its place on the global market when it comes to technology.” Gnikou and the W.AFATE were part of 2013’s NASA International Space Apps Challenge in Paris, suggesting they use his printer to print 3D tools to colonize Mars. Funny how things connect, isn’t it?
On the note of one man’s trash being another man’s technology, non-profit Tech for Trade has created the Ethical Filament Foundation, an organization aimed at creating “an environmentally friendly and ethically produced filament alternative to meet the needs of the rapidly growing 3D Printing market” that believes they could “potentially open up a new market for value added products that can be produced by waste picker groups in low income countries.” Here I am, just getting used to the idea that I could 3D print my favorite snacks, and now I hear they’ll be 3D printing economies.
And as our world shrinks, from the spread of the simple beauty of ideas like 3D printing, it becomes even more important to continue our education and to dream of a life beyond our own planet. Jeffrey Marlow has taken this mission to heart, and is organizing a project called the Mars Academy which hopes to have Brazillian Favela Students Control a Mars Mission, with the working title “Kids control the darndest missions.”
Not to spoil any of The Martian for you, but international cooperation is as pivotal in fiction as it is in real life, kind of how NASA pays Russia hundreds of millions of dollars to send our astronauts to space. If you were considering funding the small price for the Mars Academy kickstarter, try framing it like an investment for international goodwill.
Besides, they’re giving out coffee mugs for $50 donations and above. If you’re like me, you’ll need that mug to try some of Mark Watney’s Martian coffee (spoiler: it’s hot water and a caffeine tablet).
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