Writings - Meaningful Open Source for Mars Colonization

Niek Sanders, December 2021
NASA Mars Image

Elon Musk's IAC 2016 presentation proposing a Mars transport system was inspirational. My first two thoughts afterwards were "let's do this!" and "how can I help?". (The third thought was "wow, some of those audience questions sucked").

Mars colonization is worthwhile, but an absurd amount of work needs to be done. Casey Handmer sketches this in How To Industrialize Mars. Open source projects could support this endeavor with talented labor: lots of skilled engineers are also space nerds. Yet there doesn't seem to be a way to meaningfully contribute at this time.

Technology will continue its progress, irrespective of those dreaming of space. To support colonization, we must identify needs that don't naturally occur as part of this broader development Where do we get a free ride from general advancements and where is an impetus needed? For example, it's unlikely that a system to deliver megatons of cargo to the Martian surface will be developed spontaneously. It takes a SpaceX with the will, means, and ability to make that key piece happen.

Many projects are out of reach because they require extreme specialization or large amounts of funding and equipment. Mostly autonomous ice mining operations are on the "need" list, but how could generalists move this forward? A similar issue arises with anything related to life support.

Annotating data sets for training machine learning algorithms is deceptively alluring. It seems to meet the criteria of need and feasibility. But the current ML revolution in industry has already created an ecosystem of labelling contractors and annotation tools. It has become a problem that's easily solved for trivial amounts of cash compared to an overall colonization effort.

Software holds promise because of its low barrier to entry. Building large systems is hard and even billions in cash is no guarantee of success. But what to build given the universe of existing software? An ERP-like system for managing an entire colonization effort is one possibility. But is an independent project likely to get used? How do we figure out requirements in the face of so many unknowns?

Opportunities might be found in the Mars Society. The Mars analog research program could be leveraged for testing software ideas too. Outreach and lobbying, while not personally interesting to me, definitely have their place is enabling colonization.

So far the litany sounds depressing: lots to be done but no clear way to help. I have the sketch of an idea which I'll write about in the future. But for now, I will leave this an "identifying the problem" type of post.

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