Can We Colonize Mars?

Amidst rising global nuclear tensions, SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk is calling for drastic action. He wants humans to colonize Mars—stat.

An MIT team designed the Redwood Forest, a series of forest habitats inside open, public domes.

“It’s important to get a self-sustaining base on Mars because it’s far enough away from Earth that [in the event of a war] it’s more likely to survive than a moon base,” Musk said at the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas last Sunday.

But what’s required to successfully colonize Mars?

An MIT team designed the Redwood Forest, a series of forest habitats inside open, public domes.

It may sound crazy, but “the colonization of the Americas would be a reasonable analogy,” said Jim Pawelczyk, an associate professor of physiology and kinesiology at Penn State and former astronaut who flew aboard the NASA STS-90 Space Shuttle mission. “Think of Jamestown. It was not a good place to be—it was kind of failure. But these would be plant-the-flag kinds of approaches.” Small outposts on Mars, he said, are a more realistic goal; full-scale settlements are at least another century away.

Though Jamestown was a messy failure, it was still founded in Virginia, a relatively benign environment compared to Mars. Antarctica offers another, perhaps closer, analogy. When humans first wandered the frozen terrain in the late 19th century—during what’s charmingly known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration—they built modest research stations. Ever since, scientists and other brave adventurers have set up camp at those sites, but no one’s established a permanent colony. There’s no reason to, and the technology necessary to do is not yet on the horizon. The same goes for Mars—outposts, Pawelczyk said, could get the balling rolling.

“Turning an outpost into a colony depends entirely on human biology…and this is an area we’ve barely begun to explore from a research perspective,” he said. “So maybe [outposts are] not going to sustain the species genetically, but they’re going to sustain the human spirit.”

According to the MIT team’s design, each habitat would connect, through underground tunnels, to the others—creating a city of 10,000 people.

Of course, we’d have to get to Mars in the first place. To do so, first we need to consider the basic problem of radiation in the form of cosmic rays and solar activity. Such high-velocity particles ravage human cells, and the most violent among them can pass through the hull of a spacecraft. We don’t know yet what kind of effect such levels of radiation could have on the body—the eyes, the brain, and so on—after a few months or years. “We’re really in our infancy when it comes to understanding these things,” Pawelczyk said.

NASA has been researching the effects of the space environment on humans aboard the International Space Station (ISS), but the ISS is scheduled to be decomissioned between 2024 and 2028. George Lordos, a PhD candidate in aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, was part of a research team that won first place in the graduate division of a NASA design competition for their project, MARINA, the Managed, Reconfigurable, In-space Nodal Assembly. It’s basically a space station on steroids—a commercial entity (replete with luxury hotel rooms) that would allow different space-based companies to exchange products and services. It could also help turbo-charge a mission to Mars.

“NASA has to decommission the International Space Station [ISS] between 2024 and 2028,” Lordos said. “But right now, it’s taking up about $4 billion per year. If the ISS can be replaced [by MARINA], NASA could become a customer of that station,” saving NASA several billion dollars, he said.

Lordos says that the new station could also help reduce the bottom line when it comes to setting our sights on Mars.

“[MARINA] would greatly increase the number of flights between Earth and low-Earth orbit, which would lead to ‘learning by doing’ for the rocket launch operators,” Lordos said.

Lordos also worked on a related MIT project called the Redwood Forest, which imagines what a civilization on Mars would look like. In the team’s model, humans would live inside golf ball-shaped dome structures containing forest habitats fueled by local Martian resources like water ice, soil, and the Sun.

Redwood Forest’s opalescent domes would obscure a series of underground tunnels that would link each dome to the others and protect residents from meteorite impacts, radiation, and extreme changes in temperature. MIT postdoctoral student Valentina Sumini, who has led the interdisciplinary team effort, says they’re now working on a scale prototype of the dome structure.

“I hope to see this [kind of mission] happen in my lifetime,” she said.

Given that Mars already has a lot of what we would need to survive—water ice, carbon dioxide, and dry ice, which could serve as potable water, oxidizers, and fuel—it’s not such an absurd fantasy.

While we could explore ways to use crevasses and other features of Mars’s topography to our advantage, too, the linchpin of life on the Red Planet will always be technology. “We are a technological species, and that’s what has allowed us to adapt our environments to our bodies,” Lordos said.

Pawelcyzk says we’d need to bring lots of energy, for one. “The best-evolved approach to get a lot of energy in a small package is a small nuclear reactor,” he said. On top of that, we’d need to bring six to ten metric tons of consumable supplies per person.

These hurdles might seem insurmountable, but Lordos says it’s important to bear in mind the progress we’ve already made. Take SpaceX’s reusable rocket program, for example.

The company SpaceX has been working since 2011 to make its rockets partially reusable, unlike previous orbital rockets.

“This capability of landing a rocket and reusing it is totally transformational,” Lordos said. “It will be just like when the railroads opened up the West in the United States, or the Tall Ships opened up the New World for the Europeans.”

Lordos believes we’re living through such an event.

“[Reusable rockets are] going to open up the space frontier,” he said. “We’ll no longer be a one-planet species.”

And that’s a natural extension of what humans have always sought to do.

“It’s always about what’s around the corner,” Pawelczyk said. “The sense of exploration is innate. If it wasn’t innate, we wouldn’t have spread across the world.”