Space engineers needed: Nat Geo documents our mission to 'Mars'

In the new Nat Geo series ‘Mars,’ the technology, hardware and engineering have to be there, and, if that's the case, hold on tight because we are definitely going to Mars.

By Dave Perkon, technical editor

National Geographic Channel (NGC) is launching a new TV series, “Mars,” in November. The six-part miniseries brings together some of the best minds in modern science and innovation, illuminating how research and development are creating the space technology that will enable our first attempt at a mission to Mars. And it is leading the way, along with Elon Musk at SpaceX, in making engineering fun again for generations to come.

NGC and Academy Award- and Emmy-winning producers joined forces to create the series. “Brian Grazer and I, along with the guys at Radical, had this ambitious idea, which was to create a documentary about the quest to go to Mars but also bring it to life in a really dramatic and cinematic way,” says Executive Producer Ron Howard.

That's all I need to hear to watch the series. On top of that, I had a chance to interview Stephen Petranek, author of "How We'll Live on Mars," the book that inspired the series.

Disruptive innovation

"In my lifetime, probably the most disruptive innovation has been the Internet," says Petranek. "I think in my children's lifetime, the biggest disruptive innovation will be private companies going into space."

Musk has set up a company with only one purpose. That company is SpaceX and its only mission is to place a sustainable colony of people on Mars. That's why the company exists. There are others starting in this space, as well.

"A simple example of why this will be so revolutionary is that Elon Musk is hiring a lot of engineers, and he has a headquarters in Seattle, where he is planning the company that will launch thousands of communication satellites to be positioned around the world," notes Petranek. "In parallel, he will be creating reusable rockets. He will be able to launch satellites for far less than anyone else."

Private industry can reach out into space and take over what was once the government's domain due to the expense and technology involved.

Within 10 years, perhaps, you will be able to buy phone, video and data services from a single company, where now you pay several different companies to provide them.

"If Elon can make it work, from anywhere in the world, he can charge $10/month for it," continues Petranek. "It's doable, especially when he gets 2 billion people to pay it." That's quite the cash flow, and I now have an explanation as to why my Internet service provider won't upgrade my DSL line.”

It shows how private industry can reach out into space and take over what was once the government's domain due to the expense and technology involved. Petranek is convinced this will be the next true, big revolution.

"They are going to do it, and it will change everything about humanity," says Petranek. "For the first time, we will be a two-planet species—spacefaring. We will be able to live on Mars and will be able to change the planet to our liking. We have all the technology necessary and will be developing much more. Everything we do to survive on Mars and to return from there is based on finding it on Mars and making it, including the water, oxygen and rocket fuel. SpaceX will get us to Mars by about 2027, and NASA will keep us alive when get there. They're really good at doing that."

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Space engineer

Just think what happened when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969. "Everything stopped, everything changed,” says Petranek. “All of a sudden, everyone wanted to be an engineer, everyone wanted to go into space. But what really happened is humans saw that we could achieve anything we put our minds to. Imagine what the impact would be of going to Mars. It will be astounding."

All of humanity needs a goal and an impossible dream to think about, to motivate them, continues Petranek. "I think, if people around the world knew that there was a serious effort to go to Mars," he says, "when they see people land on Mars, survive on Mars, they will being to think that anything is possible. It will inspire a generation."

Engineering is really becoming interesting again. It's partly because of rocket engineers, system engineers and all the different areas of engineering that are absolutely essential to get a rocket into space, live in space and colonize Mars. It's a wide range of engineering. Those people are all highly sought after. All the people at SpaceX were not working there 10 years ago. There was no SpaceX. This is a brand new company with thousands of engineers, and they are swiping the best ones from NASA, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Aerojet Rocketdyne and many others.

All of a sudden, there is a big demand for good engineers in the United States, and engineering schools have taken note. "Space, getting there and living there, is the next big thing that future engineers should be thinking about," says Petranek. "The privatization of space will have an astounding effect on everyone. It will promote technology and technological jobs like crazy. Space will become a huge business." To see how it could happen, check out the NGC “Mars” six-part series this November.

 

Images courtesy of National Geographic Channel/Robert Viglasky

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