Tomorrow's engineers need to look up... literally

Gillian Forde Gillian Forde
Buildings Structures Practice Leader, Western Australia & Northern Territory
14 May 2019
5 min read

In 1968, American ecologist Garrett Hardin coined the famous term: 'Tragedy of the Commons'. It was the idea that mankind is essentially unable to meet the challenge of upholding a world in healthy balance when it depends on some form of altruistic behaviour that would favour the common good. Unfortunately, Hardin has been proved right – over 50 years later with global warming breathing hot on the backs of our hard-pressed humanity in concert with dwindling resources, the Marxist principle of "to each according to his own needs" has proved dangerously subjective.

However, even with such accurate insight to foretell today's cataclysmic crunch, Hardin failed to predict that the world's population would be sitting just shy of 8 billion today. With waters overfished, arable land shrinking in acreage, polar caps thawing, and an ozone layer at risk, we face a growing predicament: The human appetite is biting off more than it can chew.

So, assuming that resource paucity is inevitable, we need to think outside the box. If the demand side of the equation is a runaway train and cannot be addressed in time, perhaps we need to expand our supply of resources through the colonisation of space. And who better to navigate this creative journey than the engineer?

The possibility of cosmic real estate is approaching rapidly, with the engineer poised to pioneer the process. Standing on the forefront of technology and science, with skills designed to forge solutions for wicked problems, engineering could and should provide the platform on which to build our species' survival. It is entirely likely that our next chapter as a species is written in the stars – but the engineer will begin that tale here on earth.

All odds against it

Space colonisation has pricked the interest of governments and organisations for some time, although it has really come to the fore in the past five years since Tesla's CEO Elon Musk invested his own fortune to fast track its reality. SpaceX is Musk's response to a crisis in need of quicker solutions. If we are going to offer humanity a second chance, argues Musk, we have to create an earthly escape hatch, and revolutionise space technology so that life on Mars can be sustained.

Despite the formidable leaps forward made by SpaceX in the years since its founding, Musk is still keenly aware of the challenges facing life on the red planet. With only 1 per cent of the earth's atmosphere at ground level, Mars is a cold, unforgiving, and virtually uninhabitable rock located at an average of 140 million miles from Earth.

With a severely diminished magnetic field to fend off space's harsh radiation, prolonged exposure to charged particles from the sun would annihilate an unprotected inhabitant. The plausibility of extracting and desalinating water in an uncontaminated state is also in question.

And if it's not the conundrum of supplying food and water, it's the daily forecast that calls for a 3-month, sun-snuffing dust storm and atmospheric pressure low enough to boil your blood. Last but not least, don't forget about the trip that takes roughly 9 months to reach your destination.

Altogether, the prospect of terraforming Mars seems extraordinarily difficult and reserved more appropriately for the stuff of science fiction.

Never say never

But science fiction is fast becoming fact in today's evolving world of science and engineering. Companies like Space X are constantly considering the viability of improved space vehicles in which to traverse the void.

Aside from their own SpaceX Dragon capsule, in 2020 alone, four other spacecraft – the ExoMars rover (European Space Agency); the United Arab Emirates Hope Orbiter; Japan's H-2A rocket, and China's Orbiter Rover – will make the 54-million kilometre journey to Martian soil so that the possibilities of sustaining life can be explored more thoroughly.

NASA's own 2020 Rover is scheduled to launch specifically to study elements such as weather, wind and radiation that will determine the technologies needed for possible human occupation in the future.

The race to space is the world's ultra-competition. With only a handful of elite organisations and nations possessing the resources and knowledge to participate. For those institutions willing to invest resources, there are endless opportunities for ingenuity and imagination.

Will it not be likely that our own labs and research facilities could build the solutions to living in the stars, right here on earth? If so, it would also be likely that our technologies and combined skills would coalesce to create the structures and robust habitats for space colonisation, even before colonisation took place.

With magnificent ongoing discoveries in materials analysis, robotics, three-dimensional printing and virtual reality, the engineer can spearhead unprecedented design and construction, and shape the prospects of celestial habitation.

Picture this

Picture this: from the comforts of an office in Perth, a fleet of versions of the Curiosity Rover are remotely controlled with extendable arms and a host of necessary tools and printers, capable of converting surface material into printable habitats that are airtight and strong enough to endure the rigours of space. From our labs on earth, solar powered 3D printers are sintering lunar or Martian regolith (the soft layer of material covering both celestial bodies' surfaces) into the walls of these lunar structures.

Since NASA's 2020 Mars mission successfully launched its MOXIE experiment in 2020, the task of turning Martian carbon dioxide into pure oxygen has been outsourced and scaled to some of STEM's finest engineers and scientists on earth.

VR has been used as a powerful tool to simulate an extraterrestrial experience, enabling its users to immerse themselves in the reality of dust, heat, cold, light and pressure on celestial bodies elsewhere.

Advancement in 3D printing has allowed for the code to be cracked on most space innovations, and improvements in robotics have enhanced the chances for success exponentially.

No doubt about it, it's a scenario that seems impossible from where we stand. But if Garrett Hardin was right after all, 'impossible' may be a word we cannot afford to use. Humanity's ascent to the stars may one day be the only direction we have left open to us.

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Gillian Forde
Written by
Gillian Forde

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