In his 2015 State of the Union Address, President Obama said, “I want Americans to win the race for the kinds of discoveries that unleash new jobs—converting sunlight into liquid fuel; creating revolutionary prosthetics, so that a veteran who gave his arms for his country can play catch with his kids again. Pushing out into the solar system not just to visit, but to stay.” And NASA is leading the way for this push with plans to send humans to Mars in the 2030s. Recently, NASA announced that they plan to dedicate up to $30 million over the next five years to support university-led research institutes to more rapidly develop two game changing capabilities needed to make this happen: ultra-high strength, lightweight materials and bio-manufacturing for deep space exploration.
Visiting other places in the solar system will be hard; staying will be even harder. The energy required to escape Earth’s gravity makes it imperative to get maximum value out of every gram we launch, find ways to use the materials that already exist in space, and re-use as much as possible. Reducing the mass by developing new, ultra-high strength, lightweight materials won’t be enough: these new materials must also function under harsh conditions not found on Earth, including extremely low temperatures, wide swings in temperature, intense cosmic ray radiation, and micrometeorite impacts. And because the consequences of failure are so high, any new materials must be extremely reliable.
There are many promising new technologies for creating the kind of materials needed, such as composites incorporating carbon nanotubes. But, historically, it has taken decades to develop, optimize, test, and qualify new materials for use in space. For example, although carbon nanotubes offer potentially transformative mechanical, electrical, and thermal properties, manufacturing products that live up to that potential has been difficult. If we are to journey to Mars in the 2030s, new materials will have to be developed and rigorously tested for use in space much faster.
Fortunately, President Obama’s Materials Genome Initiative (MGI) launched five years ago this month can help NASA slash the time and cost needed to develop advanced materials by combining experimental and computational approaches. As described in last week’s announcement, NASA plans to support a university-led institute to develop ultra-high strength, lightweight structural materials using an MGI-inspired approach, integrating advanced modeling throughout the entire materials development lifecycle.
Developing new materials to take to space is only one part of the solution. We also need to find innovative and efficient ways to manufacture (and re-manufacture) needed supplies using the materials on other planets. That is where the second topic in NASA’s announcement, bio-manufacturing, comes into play. To be affordable and sustainable, future long-duration missions to Mars could use organisms that can turn the carbon dioxide of the Martian atmosphere, supplemented with other available resources such as mission wastes and planetary materials, into food, nutritional supplements, pharmaceuticals, building materials, fuels, plastics, and various other chemicals.
NASA is particularly interested in using biological manufacturing methods in space because they offer the possibility of creating many different products using simple raw materials. Moreover, new biological engineering techniques are rapidly emerging with the potential to design custom microbes and plants from which needed supplies might be sustainably harvested, ranging from fuels to food.
If you are a familiar with the book or motion picture The Martian, you may recall that stranded astronaut Mark Watney spent much of his time on excursions attempting to collect material previously delivered to Mars from Earth, locally sourcing only carbon dioxide and soil. Although the story might not be as interesting, if he had the new materials and bio-manufacturing methods on Mars that NASA is setting out to develop, he might not only have enjoyed his Mars visit more, but chosen to stay.