Getting Ready To Live Off The Land…On Mars

Building a permanent home on Mars has been a science fiction dream for generations. But many of these fantasies ignore one big problem:  How exactly do we create a Mars with all the comforts of home?

If the future of humanity depends on colonizing space, as Stephen Hawking has said, then Mars is a logical next step. But Mars is a barren, harsh environment, and right now, it costs NASA about $10,000 per pound to send supplies to space. That means any Martian colony would need to quickly become self-sustainable.

While we’re still a long way off from the extraterrestrial cities of Cowboy Bebop (let alone the barebones bases of The Martian), there are dedicated teams at NASA thinking about how Martian homes could survive without Earth’s help. As Jackie Quinn, project manager of the Resource Prospector Mission, says, the key is to look to history.

“I’ll often make people think back to their middle school or elementary school when they start learning about Lewis and Clark,” says Quinn. “They didn’t have to carry everything that they owned on their backs. They actually lived off the land when they were exploring.”

The Science Friday team got a chance to look behind the scenes at Kennedy Space Center in Florida to see how NASA will help future explorers live off the land—no matter how harsh or alien.

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A Life Robotic

Science Friday senior producer Christopher Intagliata and NASA engineers examine the underside of the RASSOR robot. Photo by Brandon Echter.

The "Swarmie." A fleet of these robots will simulate the behavior of ants to find resources in space. Video by Brandon Echter.

Science Friday assistant producer Katie Hiler operates a Swarmie robot. Photo by Brandon Echter.

A close up of a Swarmie, which currently includes some consumer electronic parts. Photo by Brandon Echter.

A rope made out of basalt. Making it is simple, says Rob Mueller, senior technologist at Swamp Works at NASA Kennedy Space Center. "You take the crushed rock [on the surface of Mars], you put it in a crucible, you heat up the crucible, you melt it, and you get lava. Then you take the lava and you pull it out in these little strands of glass. And then, you weave a rope out of those strands." Photo by Brandon Echter

A cube made of materials that can be found on Mars. Focusing on materials that can be found on the planet means that future missions won't have to bring supplies with them, says Mueller. "It means I can 3D-print a habitat on Mars without bringing anything from Earth. And that is a breakthrough for us." Photo by Brandon Echter.

The drill of NASA's Resource Prospector. This mission will hunt for resources, including water, on the moon. Photo by Brandon Echter.

"Water’s probably been [in the lunar regolith] for billions of years," says Jackie Quinn. "And it’s never seen light. It’s never seen sun." Once regolith has been collected by the Resource Prospector, it will be heated in this oven to find evidence of water. Photo by Brandon Echter

Meet the Writer

About Brandon Echter

Brandon Echter is Science Friday’s digital managing editor. He loves space, sloths, and cephalopods, and his aesthetic is “cultivated schlub.”

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