For decades now, I have been a vocal and global advocate for creating a permanent human presence on Mars. It is a world that summons the very best of us all to make this lofty goal a reality.
For that reason I am pleased to learn of the plans blueprinted by space visionary, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai. The excitement that has been generated by the Mars 2117 Project is praiseworthy and historically significant.
Having farsighted goals is a hallmark of pioneering space exploration.
I know that first-hand, standing on the Moon in July 1969 thanks to US president John F Kennedy’s bold declaration to carry out a human lunar landing and a safe return to Earth.
Even today, for me, his 1962 pledge remains riveting: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
My Apollo 11 mission with my colleagues, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins, symbolised the ability of a nation to imagine a truly path-breaking idea, prioritise it, create the technology to advance the idea and then ride it to completion.
Now the destination some 55 years later is the red planet, Mars.
I am gladdened that the United Arab Emirates has Mars in its sights, not only moving forward on its own robotic Mars orbiter, Hope, but also establishing the first inhabitable human settlement on the planet by 2117.
Once again, this is an imaginative and bold vision.
Within the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute, based at the Florida Institute of Technology, I’ve been working side-by-side with spirited space thinkers on moving Mars into the mainstream – of masterminding a sustainable and evolving human presence on Mars.
My bridge-building plan that links Earth and Mars makes use of a concept I call Cycling Pathways for Exploration.
Crucial elements involve pathways of progressive missions to low-Earth orbit, cislunar space between the Earth and the Moon, asteroids, to Phobos – a moon of Mars – and eventually to the initial landing and ultimate permanence of humans on the red planet’s landscape.
We embrace the UAE’s like-minded vision to spearhead an international calling for a scientific consortium to hasten the day of humans setting foot on Mars and staying there. I salute the prospect of streamlining human efforts to explore and settle the red planet.
In addition, the UAE’s Mars vision is fuelling the minds of the next generations of space engineers, scientists and others to take on the future.
In America we call that Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics – simply put, “Steam” power.
Paving humankind’s road to Mars will not be easy.
In my view, a major challenge that must be faced early on in the establishment of a Mars city is how best to make it self-sufficient. Shipping from Earth to Mars the resources to reliably assure a human stay on Mars is prohibitively expensive. We need to “live off the land” by using local resources at the red planet: its water, soil and other assets, some of which, I am positive, have not yet been identified.
Another ingredient for success is building the Mars city on commercial foundations of a cislunar economy. That means utilising Moon-derived propellants. The best way to solve the problem of launching from the Earth is to launch off our neighbouring Moon.
We can’t kid ourselves. A sustainable civilisation on Mars is extraordinarily complex. There’s a need to think through almost every aspect of human society and redesign it for another planet. That said we also cannot ignore the problems of mental and social health of those pioneering inhabitants of Mars.
Creating a “lifestyle” on Mars demands space transportation, power production and food supplies, as well as construction materials to assemble a sprawling Mars city. That assuredly means tapping the attributes of both robotic and human skills.
I envision that the society on Mars begins as the most international endeavour ever conceived. But I do not think it will be long before the inhabitants lose their national identities and become Martians.
Meanwhile, I am keenly aware of the UAE space teams that are busily at work building and flying in a few years the Hope Mars orbiter. As the Arab world’s first spacecraft to the red planet it also serves as a pathfinder for human settlers of Mars.
Hope would arrive at the red planet in 2021 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE. The orbiter’s science task is to search for connections between current weather on Mars and that planet’s ancient climate.
As I see it, the Hope orbiter and Mars 2117 Project are steps forward to start tackling the many issues that need to be addressed.
Achieving over the next decades the scientific and technological breakthroughs to facilitate the arrival of humans to the red planet is indeed intimidating… but what’s a future for if not to dream big?
There is no grander endeavour that humans can undertake for generations to come than to make possible a permanent presence on another planet. To occupy Mars is a task like no other. This undertaking can unite the great nations of the world together in a purely peaceful way.
Setting sail to Mars, putting in place a thriving civilisation on that far-off world, is a quest unprecedented in history. It is time to place humankind on that trajectory. It is our rendezvous with destiny.
Read more about UAE’s space story
■ UAE space programme: all you need to know
■ Genes in Space: Competition winner wants to plant UAE flag on Mars
Buzz Aldrin is an international advocate of space science and planetary exploration. He will be speaking at the Aspen Abu Dhabi Ideas Forum this weekend