So far, 2021 has felt emotionally the way one feels physically at the eighteen mile mark during a marathon. We’ve packed an awful lot into five months, but it hasn’t been all bad. For example: NASA is now flying a helicopter on Mars, and believe it or not, that speaks to the present and future of the cleared workforce, and has implications for your next job.
THE CHALLENGE OF MARS
You might have noticed that NASA explores Mars all the time. They are not doing so because it’s easy—just the opposite. To get from Earth to the Martian surface, the Perseverance spacecraft had to slow from 12,000 miles per hour to 0… in seven minutes. At Mars, its head shield slowed it over four minutes to 4,000 mph. Three minutes before landing, a supersonic parachute deployed, slowing the spacecraft further, to 1,300 mph. The heat shield then dropped away, and the chute was able to trim the speed even more, now a mere 200 mph.
One minute before the spacecraft landed, the back shell and parachute were released, and a “skycrane” fell forward before firing up a ring of retrorockets. Seventy feet from the ground, it was now four miles per hour, and less than 20 feet above the surface, the package was now floating at zero miles per hour. At that point, the lander lowered a rover stowed beneath it using a tether. When the wheels touched down, its job was done. The rover cut its tether, and the skycrane blasted away lest it crush or drag Perseverance.
Oh, and the computer had to do this all on its own, using only its electronic brain. Because of radio signal travel times, NASA engineers on Earth had no control over the rover. The spacecraft flew 300 million miles and had to land on another planet in a spot about the size of the Vegas strip. Once the spacecraft coursed at Mach 16 into the Martian atmosphere, NASA engineers would not know whether the whole thing landed gently, or created a new, $3 billion hole, until it was all over. Even at the speed of light, it takes seven minutes for the signals to make their way.
IT ONLY LOOKS EASY
The landing was a success. NASA does not explore Mars so often because it is easy. Exploring Mars, in fact, is incredibly difficult, and yet at this very moment, the United States has two nuclear powered cars rolling around up there, three satellites in its orbit, and a stationary seismometer bored into its surface. And now a helicopter in the air—a stowaway onboard Perseverance. Those are just the active missions. Meanwhile, the agency hasn’t put an atom on the moon since 1972, arguably a much “easier” landing (for extremely difficult values of “easy”) because it is an airless body, and a spacecraft can touch down with propulsion alone.
So, no: NASA isn’t exploring Mars because it is easy. Nor is the agency exploring Mars because it is interesting. Relative to some objects in the solar system—Venus, which is Earth’s evil twin, like our planet in almost every way except for its surface temperature of 900 degrees; or the frozen moons Europa and Titan, both of which might harbor life in their interior oceans; and the ice giants Neptune and Uranus—Mars is jaw-clenchingly boring: barren and brown. Neither is NASA exploring Mars simply because it is the planet next door. Venus is closer and mysterious, and NASA hasn’t launched a mission there since 1989.
ROBOTIC WINGMEN ARE THE WAY OF THE FUTURE
The reason why NASA explores Mars is because those robots crawling on, drilling into, and flying above its surface are doing more than science for science’s sake. Those robots are human precursor missions. Every dollar spent on a robotic mission to Mars buys down risk for when astronauts press boot prints into Martian dirt.
Which is what makes the Mars helicopter so interesting. It is a glimpse of the future and the present. The Ingenuity helicopter on Mars is a pathfinder mission. It is hard now to imagine any rover or human mission ever again that will land on Mars without a helicopter or two in tow, designed to get a bird’s eye view of the terrain and help with navigation. Every astronaut expedition to traverse the Martian wasteland will have a flying robot team member to keep them safe.
THE JOBS YOU WILL GET BECAUSE OF MARS HELICOPTERS
A little closer to home, what NASA is aiming to do with scout helicopters is precisely what the Air Force is presently doing with its Skyborg program. Last week at Tyndall Air Force Base, engineers flew a Kratos UTAP-22 Mako high performance drone for over two hours, unaided at any point by human beings. The plane is equipped with a robot brain, and its flight was a stunning success. The idea is to develop eventually a fleet of autonomous aircraft that can fly alongside human-piloted fighter jets in particularly harrowing combat situations, and do everything from draw fire to gather advance reconnaissance imagery of the ground. Skyborg aircraft will even learn from their missions.
We are witnessing the ascendance and integration of autonomous “wingman” robots into larger teams, which is the sort of future that science fiction has been promising since the 1930s. On Mars and on Earth, aerospace engineers, computer scientists specializing in artificial intelligence, and roboticists are changing the way we wage war on this world and peace on another—and they are only getting started. Ingenuity and Skyborg are proofs-of-concept. Now that those concepts are proven, look soon for the Air Force, Space Force, NASA, and the big aerospace contractors to go all in on this technology. This is a paradigm shift of the first order.
STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING AND START APPLYING NOW
If you possess any of those skills, you are looking at a gold rush the likes of which we haven’t seen since “cyber.” Even if you aren’t skilled in those critical areas, but are interested in learning, there is still time to acquire the necessary education and get in early on the way everything will be done going forward. We have talked previously about the many educational opportunities that exist for working professionals. (See: 10 Online Degrees at Traditional Universities, which includes such undergrad and graduate degrees as aerospace engineering, computer science, computer engineering, and electrical engineering.)
If you already have the credentials, the ClearanceJobs database lists more than 50,000 available jobs—many of which work on the very projects discussed above. Drones? Check. NASA space missions? Check. Skyborg? Check. At least one of those jobs has your name on it. Decide whether you want to watch the future happen, or if you want to make the future happen? I don’t know anyone who regretted working on the Apollo program. Here’s your chance to do the same thing on Mars.