During the Republican primaries, then-candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich promised a moon colony by the end of his second term and flights to Mars by 2020.
Gingrich’s interest in a space colony was treated with healthy skepticism, but it posed a question worth ruminating. If someone asked you to pack your bags to live on Mars tomorrow, assuming that food, shelter and transportation were provided, what would you bring?
We asked NASA architects and space-colony specialists to offer their advice.
Bret Drake, deputy chief architect of NASA’s Human Spaceflight Architecture Team, points out that it could take almost a half-year just to arrive at a new home on Mars, so you’ll need to select articles carefully.
“The things to bring from Earth will have low mass and high value,” says Gary C. Hudson, president of the Space Studies Institute in Mojave, Calif., a think tank focused on space exploration and energy. In other words, access to a space colony doesn’t come cheap, so it’s important to bring things that are significant but don’t overstuff a cramped ship.
“The cost per pound to deliver cargo to a space settlement might be anywhere from a few hundred dollars per pound to a few thousand,” he says. “At that tariff, few things will pay their freight,” with the exception of a few irreplaceable items such as these.
“Like migrants on Earth in the 19th and 20th centuries, people will bring the minimum they can,” says Jon Clarke, director of field research of Mars Society Australia. These personal pieces include physical mementos, clothes, pictures and items with personal, religious or cultural meaning.
“Children might bring their most favorite toys (and) older people marks of achievement, reminders of those they left behind,” Clarke says. Yes, your child’s Superman costume will be joining you on your deep-space journey.
Cost: Whatever you’ve already spent.
First aid, education and a physician
Specialized tools and supplies for business and personal use will be highly prized, Hudson says. Communication with Earth may be necessary for income or education.
Clarke points out that children might rely on remote learning, much as rural Australian youngsters do today. Families may need specialized services, including midwives, lactation consultants and pediatricians, Clarke says. Some of these services might be virtual, so a laptop and emergency medical tools might be required. If the colony is small, bring your own heart surgeon and stent, or be prepared to go without.
Cost: Between a few dollars for bandages and textbook supplies to thousands, or millions, for your own personal physician.
Favorite seeds and foods
Bring your green thumb to deep-blue space. Seeds for flowers, ornamental plants and specialty fruits are fantastic bring-alongs, Hudson says.
Feel like a banana or a bowl of raspberries instead of freeze-dried foods or space-station slop? You won’t find fruit growing on Mars or the moon.
Pick today’s plants well, and sow those seeds in the hydroponic future of tomorrow. “Seeds are light, and they make more of themselves,” Hudson says.
And don’t forget to bring plenty of your favorite trail mix. No one’s bringing you more for many moons.
Cost: Current prices for seeds range from $1.25 to $5. Heirloom and organic varietals are more. A box of 72 bags of trail mix is about $50.
Photographic and video equipment
Deep space isn’t just for the adventurous explorer but the artist as well. Take a photo of the sun rising on Mars, and post it to your “spacebook” timeline.
Drake at NASA forsees an “immersion type technology,” in which it’s possible to take photos on your moonwalk or moon-rover excursion, then beam them back home to share with others. Like the underwater photography equipment of today, space-ready, high-tech gear may need to withstand a G-force beating.
Cost: Between $100 to $1,000 for a camera, possibly more for one that can photograph in free space.
Hopefully, a space colony home would offer inhabitants many opportunities to “get out, explore and enjoy,” Drake says. You might throw on a spacesuit or hop into your lunar Lamborghini.
NASA would not comment for the record on the official price tag on a spacesuit. “It’s a complex piece of machinery,” Drake says. Essentially, it’s a self-contained spacecraft, but Drake says the price may go down if suits become mass-produced.
Hudson says that spacesuits might be leased rather than owned. “They might be as uncommon as diving suits are in the general population on Earth, for example,” he says. “Better views would be found by looking out of a cupola-type widow, such as was recently installed on the ISS (International Space Station).”
Cost: From $5 million to $25 million for one suit, according to Hudson.
You probably won’t be going to a movie theater or hanging out in a gravity-free bowling alley and will need to bring along your own amusements. E-reader devices, video games, and music and films (downloaded to your device pre-trip) will be de rigueur.
If you’re within satellite reach, you may be able to pick up Earth’s “Dancing with the Stars.” Which films would Drake bring along? “The classics,” he says, “‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek.'” Of course, if you’re in space, you’re getting that at work.
Cost: $5 to $60, depending on the movie, song or video game.
Hudson believes that more effort and research is required, and soon. “If we don’t embrace this challenge, at some point our civilization will stagnate here on Earth and could face a future extinction event similar to that which has happened to many species, many times before in our history,” Hudson says.
Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky, Russian space pioneer, once said: “Earth is the cradle of mankind, but one cannot live in the cradle forever.”
Much of this is theoretical. Space travel is far too dangerous today to consider bringing children and the family pet to a space colony on Mars or the moon. Still, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, on its first commercial mission, completed a voyage to the ISS in May.
To put space travel into historical perspective, Drake points out that he recently saw a mother and child riding a bike in Death Valley. It’s an area that received that ominous moniker as a result of 19th-century pioneer deaths.
“People are actually enjoying a place that was once considered very harsh,” he says. Who’s to say history can’t repeat itself — in space?