Save Planet Earth….By Getting To Mars! Why Space Colonization Is The Most Important Milestone Of Our Future

When it comes to space exploration and colonization, I often recall some old sci-fi movie from the 80s or 90s, where the aliens are always the bad guys who want to invade and devastate our civilization, before some hero saves the day. This time the aliens could be us, and the push could come from the need to save our own civilization.

Out of passion, personal interest, and a fundamental believe that software is at the center of any space mission, I have spent several years nurturing relationships and understanding the “space”. And now, I finally feel almost adopted by the space community — the smartest people on Earth, and quite possibly of the entire Solar system.

In early December 2016, I spent a week where I had the privilege to be a member of the judging committee to an event organized by NASA at its headquarters. The program, called “iTech”, is designed to highlight technology gaps that need to be overcome for any Mars journey and/or colonization, by seeking out innovators and holding a forum for these solutions to be presented.

It goes without saying that a well-organized event with all the relevant stakeholders always has a clear outcome: it speeds up the collaboration between entities, and increases the chances that small innovative teams can be “plugged” into larger organizations. Goal number one of the iTech program at NASA is to foster new technologies using a model similar to an accelerator.

Born from an idea of Kira Blackwell (NASA Program Executive), and fully supported by the Deputy Administrator, Dr. Dava Newman as well as the acting Chief Technologist, Dennis Andrucyk, iTech became the first milestone of a brave journey that the space agency embraced to accelerate and foster innovation instrumental to a successful (future) Mars mission.

First, after a rigorous technical due diligence, they selected ten great “startups” to present to a committee of judges, composed of several NASA technology experts, industry experts, and also people from non-traditional aerospace contexts like me.

Watching startups pitch is not a new game for me — after all, I’ve been in the hi-tech industry for decades, and spent the last few years in Silicon Valley (not only as tech executive but also as an angel investor and VC advisor), where startups fight every day for the best opportunities and the largest amount of VC money… But, to my surprise, I was completely blown away by the quality and technical depth of these magnificent ten.

First lesson I’ve learned? NASA definitely accelerates not only rockets, but also startups. Second, the biggest challenge for us to build a sustained presence on Mars is not rocket fuel, spaceship material, how to recycle water or oxygen (all important topics with several still unanswered questions), or how to help the botanist Matt Damon grow crops on Mars. The biggest challenge is simply human health beyond low earth orbit (LEO). To be more specific, space radiation needs to be solved before we send humans beyond LEO. For details on the health challenges humans will encounter with deep space travel I’ll refer you to the experts at NASA’s website https://www.nasa.gov/hrp/bodyinspace

Maybe sending robots is the right path instead… But radio communications (and light waves) take 3 minutes each way at the “Closest approach”, or up to 22 minutes each way at the “Furthest approach”. If you’ve seen the movie “The Martian” you know what I’m talking about.

In fact, seven out of ten startups at iTech were in the “Life Science / Bio-tech” industry.

It takes very smart people, like Dr. David Sinclair, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, to tackle these kind of problems. His company, Liberty BioSecurity, increases NAD+ (a vital substance present in our body) levels in cells to enhance our defenses against DNA damage caused by radiation. By doing that, LBS creates a perfect intergalactic explorer for space, built with a turbo DNA….or a super terrestrial on planet Earth capable of living more than 100 years feeling and looking like half his real age.

Aequor (which in my ancestor’s language, Latin, means “sea”), based in San Diego, over the last few years has synthesized more than 40 chemicals to prevent the ability of bacteria to form a glue-like substance called “biofilm”. Useless? Quite the opposite: the 17 bio-film-forming bacteria recently identified on board of the ISS, including in the water system, threatened the health of the crew while still within the LEO zone. But I couldn’t believe my ears when they shared what the impact of one of those bacteria could be here on planet earth, in regards to water sustainability and climate change for example.

Startups like these two, and others like InnaMed for example, who created a gateway to personalized healthcare leveraging a smart device that only requires few drops of blood to achieve what today will need an entire diagnostic lab, will help us get to Mars, but in the meanwhile, their solutions will tremendously help our life on Earth too. So if you are a startup and you believe you can have an impact in the next Mars mission, stay tuned for the second round of NASA iTech and make sure you throw your hat on the table (more details on NASA iTech web site www.nasaitech.com).

That’s why research for Space is vitally important for all of us.

However, these startups need money, and unlike their counterparts in Silicon Valley, investing money in space is still perceived as a very, very long term investment, and therefore a very unattractive bet for most VCs.

Despite that, I have tried my best to dissect their business plans, and again to much of my surprise, I realized that at least a good third of these ten could have a commercially viable product within a few years, if not less, which would help with funding, which would then help with the long term goal of applying these innovations to space exploration.

After all, one of the key questions any VC always asks before writing you a check is: What is the problem you are fixing today?

An example? Nobody on Earth, except for NASA, would pay to fix bacteria problems in the water system aboard the ISS. However, the same technology applied to dramatically improve desalination (in a world where water will be more and more scarce and precious) is a different matter. Aequor is currently working with a desalination plant in Southern California to test their technology and move to a massive implementation.

I look forward to see some of the highlights and outcomes of the iTech program at the next Space Symposium planned for next April 3–6 in Colorado Springs where I’ll be attending as panelist.

I was recently encouraged to hear what seems to be one of the first positions of the new administration around space exploration and more specifically on the Mars mission: NASA will have a greater role in space exploration, making me believe that the new administration has an ambitious plan also outside planet Earth. The previous administration enabled NASA to lay the groundwork for Mars missions — now it’s time to accelerate. Continued support (and focus) on the mission would ensure that a trip to Mars would become more feasible as 2030 nears.

Another very positive early message, probably recommended by our local valley VC tycoon Peter Thiel, is about pushing NASA to accept and foster more initiatives led by private and commercial sector, like Sierra Nevada Corporation, SpaceX, or Blue Origin in primis, but also from startups like the ones of the iTech program.

Hence…I am optimistic about the future: these amazing companies will solve problems on Earth, and doing so will help them find their way to build solutions to get to space, or the other way around. Not only some rich brave tycoons like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, but many others will start pouring money in something that will ultimately prove to be beneficial to all humanity… On Earth, and elsewhere.

To Mars and beyond!

Riccardo Di Blasio

About the author:

Riccardo Di Blasio is an Italian native, but American by adoption, executive in the hi-tech sector, with a passion for aerospace industry and space exploration. Based out of Silicon Valley, Di Blasio spent 20+ years in technology, with key executive roles at top technology companies like, EMC Corp. and VMware and as an angel investor and board advisor with several Venture Capitalist firms. Since 2012, he has been involved with several initiatives with NASA and is a member of NASA iTech judges committee. He is also currently involved with Silicon Valley startup Diamanti.com

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