Mars has been the next frontier for humans since astronauts first bounced around the moon in 1969, and while we work on rockets that will get us to our red neighbor, scientists are thinking hard about how to build a sustainable colony on Mars. What would we need to bring to survive? That’s the question NASA is asking the public through a new competition. The challenge asks for written submissions detailing what astronaut-explorers will need to colonize a new planet–and the space agency is offering a total of $15,000 in prize money, to be split between three winners.
The competition’s prompt is broad, but so are the challenges facing planet colonization: NASA lists “shelter, food, water, breathable air, communication, exercise, social interactions and medicine” as potential topics areas for participants to tackle. And since there’s only so much space and weight on the rockets that will propel humans to Mars, NASA is pushing for innovative solutions–not just solutions available today, but solutions from years in the future when those Mars rockets will be ready.
“We’re not going to get humans to Mars until at least the mid-2030s, and the world is going to change by then,” NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan told Fast Company in a recent interview. “So how do we make sure that the path we’re choosing has enough flexibility, so that as technology develops we can adapt what we’re doing? That way, if someone figures out how to do something much better, you can adapt without starting from square one or making costs go way up.”
Though a manned Mars mission is decades away, NASA is making significant progress toward that goal now. Mars rovers and orbiting probes are feeding information back every day, and NASA’s Orion astronaut capsule is inching closer to space readiness, Stofan says. And while NASA battles governmental budget cuts, it has been turning to private companies and international partners to fill the gaps. But other countries do not need much of a push to collaborate on a mission to Mars, says Stofan:
“With the mission to Mars, the whole world wants to get involved,” Stofan told Fast Company. “So we actually have 13 different space agencies from around the world working on the global exploration road map. That helps us because we don’t have unlimited resources. And it’s a benefit to all the other countries that want to participate.”
Just as turning to the international community makes the journey to Mars an international mission, NASA turning to the public for Mars colony ideas makes the project a collective effort.
“Every time I give a talk,” Stofan told Fast Company, “I ask the audience—especially if it’s kids—how many want to go to Mars. At least half raise their hands. I don’t think there’s going to be any shortage of volunteers.”