Will We Use Paper on Mars?
By Kevin Pickhardt | December 11, 2019
With a recently deceased rover, the discovery of massive amounts of frozen water and a Tesla Roadster zooming past, Mars has been all over the news the last few years. We’ve learned to listen when Tesla CEO Elon Musk sets an audacious goal, and with SpaceX, he has set his sights on starting a new civilization on Mars. The first phase (a cargo mission) is targeted for 2022.
As the CEO of a technology company specializing in print management software and services, I often contemplate the future of my industry and how print (and our general use of paper) is likely to evolve. I recently discussed this topic with some colleagues: If we successfully colonize Mars, what will come with us?
As we talked about whether we’d use paper on Mars, we realized we could substitute any number of things for “paper” in this scenario: Will we use plastic bottles? Tin cans? What disposable items might we actually need out there?
In the end, no matter how many different products and practices we apply this question to, we’re really asking one thing: Can we use the milestone of Mars settlement as an opportunity to reflect upon decisions we’ve made on Earth—and the ecological repercussions of those decisions?
What will we owe to this new frontier in terms of stewardship? American medical researcher Jonas Salk said, “Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.” As we decide what’s not essential for survival and progress on Mars, that awareness should help us ensure a more sustainable future here on Earth. These decisions—and our collective mindset—could dictate the quality of life for future generations.
New World, New Mindset
We humans have proven time and again that we rise to great challenges. But we too often politicize our current state and the path to progress. The good news is that our Mars initiatives are leveraging scientific leadership more so than political leadership.
This serves as a good reminder that humanity is one team, and striving to achieve this goal will likely lead to many scientific and technological advances that can benefit everyone.
It’s already happening: Recently, a group of researchers developed a new method to weld metal and glass, which could help solve the problem of manufacturing stable structures in the hostile Mars environment. Breakthroughs in carbon nanotube fibers could play a significant role in a variety of applications. As for energy needs, geothermal solutions will likely be critical to establishing a scalable settlement on Mars.
These are just a few examples of how advances made in pursuit of our new world can pay huge ecological dividends here on Earth. Meanwhile, NASA continues to work with several global initiatives and regions to spur international collaboration on the organization’s Journey to Mars project.
Maybe these Mars initiatives and related breakthroughs will help spur an ecological renaissance. There’s already a lot to be optimistic about. In fact, the number of cities worldwide that are fully committed to renewable energy more than doubled in just two years.
This brings me back to my original question and what it might mean for my industry in the near term—and long after Millennials have retired. There will almost certainly be 3D printing on Mars, but will there be paper documents?
With the digital devices of today, not to mention the future, it’s possible we won’t need paper for such things as instructions, entertainment, guidelines, reference, or creativity.
I’m no futurist, but I’ll bet you agree with that suggestion—and it might be wrong.
We Still Love the Printed Word
Even though it takes an alarming amount of water and energy to produce, mark up, and ultimately recycle a single sheet of paper, we have a curiously strong, enduring relationship with the printed word. Despite the costs, it seems we just can’t get enough.
Studies have shown that Millennials—who are often assumed to print far less than previous generations—are actually printing much more. The PDF was, in part, designed to reduce printed output, yet it’s one of the most frequently printed file formats when we analyze office printing habits worldwide. Meanwhile, paper products company Moleskine has experienced explosive growth in recent years, and many more print-based magazines have launched in the last decade than have been shut down.
The point is we like paper. Although we may not truly need it on Mars, it seems likely it will ultimately find its way there, at least in some limited capacity or in some altered form.
Whatever the case may be, the bigger question is this: Will other unnecessary habits that we take for granted here on Earth ultimately leak into our new frontier? Or will the lessons of the new world inform our progress back here on Earth? I don’t know the answer, but I’ll bet that I hope what you hope.
This article originally appeared on the Good Men Project >>