Martian Lessons for Taking Care of Earth

By: Richard (Rick) Davis, Laura Ratliff, Logan Brown, Bob Collom

When we embark on the first human expedition to Mars, we will not just study that planet–we will improve our ability to care for the Earth, too. Sending scientists to the surface of another world will help us piece together the details of Earth’s climate and geological history, which can help inform its future. Yet, going to Mars will not be easy. The challenges of limited space and supplies on the journey to the red planet and the harsh conditions once there will force us to design systems that make the most of limited resources. In addition to scientific knowledge and development of new technologies, the perspectives we gain from exploring Mars may help us realize the interconnectedness of humanity and change the way we see our own planet. In going to Mars we won’t leave Earth behind; we will better equip ourselves to take care of challenges back home.

Mars Will Teach Us About Earth

Much of the water remaining on Mars is underground or frozen in glaciers. Although covered in dust, the composition of Martian glaciers may be quite like these earthly ones. Credit: NASA

We can better understand the processes that shaped early Earth through comparison with similar processes on other planets. Mars, the only planet we can put scientists on in the near future, holds well-preserved records of its past, making it a strong option for that second comparative data point. These records also detail its changes from an Earth-like planet several billion years ago, with liquid oceans and a thick atmosphere, to the frozen world it is today and can give us insights into paths that Earth may follow in the future.

Astronauts will be essential for complex scientific investigations like ice coring on Mars. As shown here, drilling ice cores in Greenland is a hands-on task. Credit: Reto Stöckli, NASA GSFC.

While robots will accompany them, humans are best suited to lead the next step in Martian science.  Investigations of records and global climate would benefit from the human ability to apply intuition and expertise to changing circumstances and handle complex machinery. For example, scientists could enable us to see a million- or billion-year record of Mars’ climate by collecting ice cores, long cylinders of ice that tell the history of the planet in their layers much like tree rings tell its age. The delicate processing of these ice cores makes their extraction a task best carried out in person. A human presence on another planet will allow us to better understand our first planet’s past, present, and future.

Mars Will Revolutionize Our Resourcefulness

Astronauts travelling in a Mars transit vehicle such as this one will have to be intentional about how they use, reuse, and recycle materials during the long journey. Credit: Boeing

In designing systems to operate far from Earth, we improve the technology to reduce our footprint on this planet. Transporting people and materials to Mars is expensive; it takes massive amounts of costly rocket fuel to get into space and to the Martian surface. This limits the mass of potential Mars transit vehicles and ensures they will be stocked only with critical items. During the months-long journey, astronauts must be intentional about their use of supplies onboard in order to make them last. This attention will continue on the Martian surface. Mars’ harsh, austere environment lacks many of the resources that humans rely on, and it will not naturally recycle those that we bring, as occurs with Earth’s water and carbon cycles. In Earth’s benign environment we can afford to discard materials like food, water, and plastics and to rely on non-renewable energy resources. Astronauts on Mars will not have that luxury.

Sometimes art imitates life. Energy on Mars could be delivered to astronauts through solar farms, similar those shown in “The Martian” movie. Credit: The Martian

While progress toward more sustainable living on our first planet is not contingent on a mission to Mars, the insights we gain could benefit the Earth. Travel to and life on our second planet present a unique design challenge – a harsh environment combined with financial, spatial, and material limitations – that requires the development of innovative technologies. New solutions intended for Mars can prompt the creation of technologies for Earth that propel us towards a sustainable, multi-planetary future. For example, we will refine life support systems, such as those that recycle urine into drinkable water and scrub the air of CO2 on the International Space Station; accelerate the development of alternative energy sources, with a focus on solar and nuclear; and invest in plastic reclamation technologies that would allow equipment and tools to be 3D printed from used plastics such as food packaging.

Mars Will Change Our Perspective

As seen from this CubeSat, the Earth and the Moon are barely visible. There will be a long stretch of time where our astronauts will see a similar view, with Mars slowly growing as Earth shrinks in the distance. Credit: NASA

Travel on Earth can open your mind to new ideas. Venturing out into deep space will be no different. Fifty-two years ago, the Apollo 8 crew became the first humans to see an earthrise ̶ our brilliant blue marble cresting over the barren lunar surface. There will be similar moments on our first human missions to Mars when, halfway between our two planets, both worlds are little more than colored specks outside the spacecraft’s windows. We can only imagine how the view from this previously unexplored area of space will affect our perspective. Floating in the black void will likely bring life’s fragility to the forefront of our minds. Perhaps we will rethink our Earth-based assumptions and our place in the solar system, but ultimately, we will only know the impact of that new perspective once humans experience it.

Taken on the first crewed lunar mission, this picture is a famous reminder of how small and fragile our planet really is. Credit: NASA

This isn’t a new idea; just as the earthrise inspired the astronauts who witnessed it firsthand, the images they took contributed to the environmental movement across America. Photos from the Apollo program sparked conversations around the care of “Spaceship Earth,” the imagery of our home serving as a reminder that it too is made up of interconnected systems with finite resources. Our efforts in space encouraged us to acknowledge our reliance on nature and each other and prompted us to act as better stewards of the Earth. A mission to Mars would likely amplify this effect.

Getting humans to that vantage point will bring about changes to the global mindset even before the first missions leave the Earth. It will take a global effort to realize a human Mars mission, through which we will learn how to share knowledge, organize multicultural working groups, and take advantage of every partner’s unique strengths. The lessons learned from collaborating on human missions to Mars will lay the groundwork for humanity to carry out other global efforts.

When we go to Mars, we will peer into the Earth’s past through Martian records and seek insights into our first planet’s future. The challenges of the mission will require creativity and ingenuity and will push us to develop technologies beneficial for both planets. We do not get a choice about efficient living on Mars, and we can adopt that same Martian grit to nurture Earth toward a better future. With humans on their way, we will gain a new perspective on our place in the solar system and on global collaboration, improving our ability to address other shared challenges at home. So, as we venture forth, we do so with our mind on both planets.