What's your opinion on Mars One? I'm extremely skeptical that they can achieve their roadmap or anything close to it, do you share this skepticism? If so do you think they're mostly finished at this point (ie the project will fade into obscurity) or do you think the Mars One group will achieve something significant in the future?
Moss: Having looked over the Mars One plans I must say I am also highly skeptical, but hesitantly so, because you never know what can happen. Humans are remarkable, and entrepreneurs are among the most remarkable of humans because they see what does not yet exist and believe they can make it exist. They have tremendous faith and self-confidence, and although I haven’t met Bas, having heard him speak I’m convinced of his genuine and well-meaning intentions. I have met and interviewed Arno Wielders (Mars One CTO), who is also a Mars Society member, and there’s no doubt these guys are on the level, at least in spirit. It is not a scam, despite what click-hungry web “journalists” would have you think.
The architecture has some good features. Not returning to Earth enables a range of optimizations to be introduced, greatly reducing the mass to be launched to Earth orbit and to be delivered to Mars, which significantly reduces cost and thus increases viability. However, I consider it incomplete.
Mars One’s approach is that they themselves will not do any engineering. They are merely providing the high-level vision, while engineering and manufacturing will be outsourced to firms who will produce the hardware necessary for the missions. However, this strategy can only work if the architecture is already rock solid.
Another key element of their philosophy is that the mission will be assembled from existing technology, i.e. (to quote them) “No new technology developments are required to establish a human settlement on Mars.” It is highly questionable whether this is possible, depending on your definition of “technological development”. For example, spacesuits for Mars (marssuits) will be required, and these do not currently exist. Will not the design and manufacture of these suits constitute technological development? Other examples include the rovers to support the mission, vehicles to transport astronauts and supplies to Mars, the living units, EDL system for capsules, ECLSS, communications satellites, and so forth. These will all need to be developed, so to say that “no technology developments are required” is simply bollocks. However, that’s arguably a question of semantics. Let’s assume for now that they will have all the time and money necessary to produce the hardware on which the architecture is based.
The intention is that the Mars One astronauts will live on Mars in living units, which are space capsules similar to the SpaceX Dragon capsule, except larger, with a diameter of about 5 meters. The Dragon has a diameter of 3.7 meters. So, there are a few problems with this. SpaceX and Mars One are not currently in business together (as far as is generally known), and Musk has his own plans for establishing a colony on Mars that do not require Mars One. It is therefore unlikely that SpaceX is currently planning to develop a 5 meter variant of the Dragon.
There are only a few scenarios that could play out from here:
- SpaceX join up with Mars One and begin developing the 5 meter capsule. How they would fund this technological development (not to labor the point) is another question. Keep in mind we are yet to see a 3.7 meter Dragon land on solid ground on Earth, let alone a 5 meter one on Mars. But this would be the best possible scenario for Mars One.
- Another company, e.g. Boeing, offers to develop the required capsule for Mars One. This would be significantly more expensive, as it would require them to exceed the engineering that SpaceX has already done. Without a major injection of funds this would also push the Mars One timeline out even further.
- Mars One decide to use the 3.7 meter Dragon for the living units instead. This would probably be an acceptable compromise, but would have significant knock-on effects for the architecture, reducing the volume and mass budget available for the inflatable habitat, furniture, ECLSS and food production systems, energy systems, etc. It would mean fewer astronauts per living unit; perhaps 2 instead of 4. This is perhaps the most likely scenario.
Assuming that the challenge of providing the living units and landing these on Mars is solved, the next difficulty is positioning them and connecting them up. Mars One have said that this will be achieved using multipurpose rovers, which will be sent out in advance of the astronauts in order to scout out a good site, deploy solar panels, and things of this nature.
The capsules will not be landed in their exact final position and orientation, which is most likely because the thrusters used in landing will kick up a lot of dust and dirt, which could damage nearby hardware, in addition to covering any solar panels that have already been deployed with dirt. Therefore, Mars One are planning to land capsules up to 10km away from the base, and tow them into position with the rovers.
This begs several questions. Mars One say that the rovers will be “capable and powerful tools”, each with a robotic hand and a trailer that will be used to tow the capsules. The problem here is that a Dragon capsule weighs about 4.2 tonnes empty and each will carry up to about 1.9 tonnes of cargo, for a total mass of around 6 tonnes each. A fully-loaded 5 meter capsule would be significantly heavier. We don’t know the size of Mars One’s rovers, but they will need to be fairly sturdy to somehow lift a 6-tonne mass onto a trailer, tow it across up to 10 km of rocky ground to an exact position, unload it, and connect up the necessary hoses and cables. This aspect of the architecture seems like pure fantasy; but, who knows, there may be engineers associated with the project who have a very clever way to achieve this. Perhaps two rovers working together could do it?
Each living unit will contain an inflatable habitat extension, possibly in addition to all the furniture, equipment, electrical wiring and plumbing which is to be assembled inside of it. This also seems difficult to imagine. The inflatable habitat is not a thin plastic shopping bag. Aside from being able to contain at least half an atmosphere pressure (the minimum required for health and safety) against a near-vacuum, the inflatable section’s walls must be thick enough to support a covering of dirt. It is hard to imagine such a thick-walled bag, large enough to expand into a volume of 1000 m3, squished into a capsule along with all the fixtures and fittings. Perhaps these will be carried in the supply capsules. Note, however, that the living units must include an airlock for EVA.
Another question about the habitat is: plumbing? Where is the latrine? How will it be emptied, what is the recycling or disposal plan for the waste, what about the smell, etc.?
The astronauts are not supposed to have sex with each other on the mission. To send mixed-gender crews of intelligent and healthy young TV stars to another planet and expect them not to get freaky is wishful thinking at best, particularly if they start brewing their own alcohol, which is virtually certain if any Australians, Americans, Canadians, Brits, Irish, French, Spaniards, Germans, Italians or Russians are included in the mission.
One of the most important aspects of the mission plan that seems to have not been fully examined yet is the astronauts’ nutrition. Even assuming that all other nutritional needs are satisfactorily met, a purely vegan diet is known to be deficient in certain essential nutrients such as vitamins B12 and D. Vegans on Earth typically require supplementation in order to compensate for these deficiencies.
It has been suggested that crickets could be grown in the habitat, as a source of protein and B12, but it’s hard to imagine sharing close quarters with 1-3 other people and hundreds of noisy crickets; or, for that matter, going through a daily process of grinding up a new batch of protein powder each day. Perhaps they could synthesize B12, which researchers on Earth have only just figured out how to do, but this would require lab equipment, the space to use it, and considerable scientific expertise. B12 is made by bacteria in the lower intestine, which is why it only comes from meat, and why some vegetarian animals eat their own shit; so they get enough B12. In the face of chronic B12 deficiency the astronauts could also do this, but since they will probably already be feeling depressed due to lack of sunlight, living in a smelly cave, being (on average) 225 million kilometers away from everyone they have ever known and every place they have ever been, and not being allowed to shag each other, they would probably rather die. Hence, the most likely solution to the B12 problem will be supplementation, which means sending sufficient quantities of pills or injectables to Mars. This can only be a temporary solution, however, due to the disparity between the available money and mass budgets and how long people generally like to live. This places pressure on the settlers to somehow develop a local source of B12 as soon as they can.
The food system to be used by Mars One involves growing hydroponic crops inside under LED lighting which only produces photons with frequencies that plants utilize, i.e. blue, red and infra-red. Growing plants indoors using LED lighting seems inefficient, and inconsistent with other aspects of the architecture. To provide the astronauts with air and water, Mars One are making use of local resources such as the gases in the Martian atmosphere and water frozen in the ground. This is called ISRU, or In Situ Resource Utilization, and is much more efficient than shipping everything out to Mars from Earth. This strategy underpins most modern Mars missions. However, Mars One are not planning to directly use the free photons from the Sun in order to grow food, but rather, to first convert them into electrical energy using solar panels, then convert that electricity back into photons with the LEDs. To me this seems inefficient.
The habitats have no windows. Yes, that’s right. The astronauts are going to spend 90% of their lives effectively living in a low-gravity cave, surrounded by technology, body odor, and danger. From a psychological perspective this seems to be one of the most serious oversights. If I was on Mars, I would want to wake up each morning and look out on that glorious, planet-sized vacant lot. It might get boring after a few months, but it would be much better than never being able to see Mars without actually going EVA, which has a high barrier in terms of suiting up and passing through the airlock. Having no windows also means wasted energy in terms of the lights needing to be on inside all day. Mental illness could be significantly more likely in a habitat without windows; far worse than ordinary Seasonal Affective Disorder. Perhaps on a short mission it would be acceptable, but not for the rest of your life. Having no windows and no sunlight coming into the hab also means no vitamin D, since it won’t be present in their diet. They may get a little sunlight through their helmet on EVA, but considering the small area of skin exposed, the small amount of time spent outside, and the fact that sunlight intensity on Mars is about 40-50% of Earth, this will hardly be enough to be healthful. Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with sore bones, muscle weakness and depression, among other things. Consider that the Mars One astronauts will already be at risk of musculoskeletal problems due to living in a reduced gravity environment, and depression, additional adverse affects associated with vitamin D deficiency are ideally avoided.
Here’s what I would change about the Mars One plan:
- Modify the architecture to use the 3.7 meter Dragon. This may require reducing the crew size per living unit to 2 or 3, but it will be much quicker and cheaper, and arguably the only way to make the plan possible within anything like the proposed timeline and budget. It also might bring SpaceX in as a partner which would be incredibly valuable.
- Forget about moving the capsules once landed and forget about connecting them together. Where they land is where they stay. Astronauts can move between the living units by walking (or driving) the intervening distances in suits. This means each capsule would need to include its own self-contained life-support system, which might be very difficult.
- Include many windows along both sides of the inflatable section of the living units.
- Send additional capsules containing inflatable greenhouses, rather than attempting to grow food inside the habitats. Design the food system to directly use sunlight rather than, or in addition to, LED lighting. This will make it possible for the environment inside the greenhouses to be optimized for plant growth. It would also mean going EVA to get food, but humans have a lot of experience with this, generally speaking.
- Design the food system as an integrated aquaponics system in which fish and plants grow symbiotically. This will provide a significantly better nutrition profile in addition to a means of disposing of food scraps and vegetable waste (i.e., the fish will eat them). A fatty fish with edible bones such as salmon will provide – especially if they eat the bones and livers – long-chain fatty acids, all essential amino acids, minerals such as calcium, zinc and iron, and vitamins D and B12, all of which would be lacking in a vegan diet. Anyone can learn how to scale and fillet a fish, and they have the non-trivial advantage of being delicious, and salmon can be eaten cooked or raw. There is also the psychological benefit of having animals to care for.
- Include several ATVs and ideally at least one long-range pressurized vehicle. This will greatly increase the territory that the astronauts can explore and thus the science return, preventing them from becoming extremely bored, and making it easier to travel between the living units and greenhouses if they aren’t all gathered in one location.
Mars One certainly aren’t finished yet. However, as much as I would love for them to succeed, I do not think they will unless their plans are majorly revised and they get a serious injection of capital. Having said that, they have already achieved something significant, which is to cause virtually the entire Earth to not only take human missions to Mars seriously, but to take private human missions to Mars seriously. It has also exposed considerable interest in the global community in going to Mars despite the risks, which is useful information for future entrepreneurs.
Becoming multiplanetary represents a massive quantum leap in our evolution, and Mars One have done a lot to raise awareness of this tremendously historical transition. Whether they succeed or fail, whoever tries next will benefit from what they have done.
Primary galactic cosmic radiation bombards the surface of Mars because its magnetic field is too feeble to turn high-energy charged particles aside, but most colonization plans envision human-constructed habitations on the surface. How much work is being directed toward finding subsurface features (lava tubes, sinkholes) which can provide radiation-hardened locations for long-term habitations? (and perhaps a word about popularizing both the risk and subsurface habitation to address it).
Moss: The radiation risk of Mars missions is not as serious as many would make out. There is less than half the radiation on the surface of Mars than there is in interplanetary space due to half being blocked from underneath by the planet itself, and the atmosphere serving to block some from above. Plus, the solar radiation at Mars is only 43% that at Earth. However, you are right, without a magnetosphere or ozone layer, the radiation environment on Mars is somewhat more extreme than on Earth.
The most popular method of providing additional radiation protection on the surface of Mars is to shelter below a layer of dirt or rock. A few people have been looking at this. Gus Frederick has investigated the use of lava tubes as habitats on Mars, and Martian lava tubes were also the topic of this year’s Space Apps Challenge. The Mars Foundation developed two concepts for Mars settlements, named the Hillside Settlement and the Plains Settlement. The Hillside Settlement is created by burrowing into the side of a mesa; the Plains Settlement has a deep tray filled with regolith above the habitat modules. Both of these concepts are way early exploratory missions. Mars One are planning to cover their inflatable habitats with “meters” of dirt, although how practical this actually is remains to be seen. Missions based on Mars Direct or Mars Semi-Direct often show the hab’s roof covered in sandbags, which is practical, and much easier than trying to place the hab in a cave or lava tube. In the mission architecture I describe in The International Mars Research Station, the surface habitat is based on a Bigelow B330 module, which will supposedly provide radiation protection equivalent to or better than the ISS.
I am not aware of any major work being done by NASA with regard to locating lava tubes, caves or sink holes for locating a habitat. This may partly be due to the difficulty of locating a suitable structure from space, as uncollapsed lava tubes are difficult to see from above, or it may simply be a matter of priorities. Early human missions will be targeted at locations offering maximum science return, and only require temporary habitation solutions. Considering the investment required in locating suitable structures, inspecting them for structural integrity, and constructing or moving habitats inside, lava tubes are probably more suited to permanent habitation, and this will not be a requirement for several decades.
The radiation level in LEO is also about half that in interplanetary space, i.e. similar to that on the surface of Mars. Thus, despite some people’s concerns about radiation on Mars, astronauts on the ISS, some of whom have spent more than a year in LEO, have already demonstrated that humans can tolerate radiation doses similar to what astronauts on Mars will experience.
The greater risk will be during the trip out and back, which emphasizes the importance of short trip times in a well-shielded transit habitat.
It is arguably inconsistent to be pathologically concerned about the radiation risks in space missions while simultaneously tolerating so many carcinogens in our air, food and water. In fact, it may even be the case that going to Mars lowers your risk of cancer due to the astronaut’s air, food and water being much cleaner and containing fewer carcinogens than what we are habitually exposed to on Earth.
What's the point?
I don't mean this in a cynical, "why do anything," sort of way, but what exactly is the objective? Glory? No breathable atmosphere, no native food source, little to no natural resources, high radiation, and likely a very shortened lifespan as a consequence. Not to mention social isolation. Most explorers come back, and most migrants travel for a better life, so it seems like you are doing this wrong.
Moss: There will always be people who wish to see beyond the horizon, which is a good thing, otherwise we might all still be living in Africa; or, more accurately, most of us may never have been born at all; in fact, without adventurers we may have died out thousands of years ago. Aside from the fact that biological organisms will always expand into every niche they can, just as surely as gas will expand to fill a container, there are obvious benefits to expansion. The migration of humanity to new lands stimulates scientific discovery and innovation, which, due to communications and transportation, benefits everyone. Countless inventions are produced by people living on the frontier. Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes, and the challenges of living on the frontier have stimulated all manner of innovation, as have the challenges of living in space. Mars will be the same. We don’t know what we will find there, but there’s no question that living on Mars is already leading to new technological innovation as we ramp up to make the leap. Thus, just as people living everywhere benefit from inventions developed on the frontiers in America and Australia, and those produced as a result of the space program, the people of Earth will benefit greatly from the inventions produced by humans settling Mars.
Consider how America, founded as it was on principles of freedom and self-realization, has benefited all humanity. Electricity, automobiles, air travel, the internet, and many other inventions fundamental to technological society worldwide, were developed in America primarily as a result of its culture of innovation, optimism and ballsy self-confidence. This culture is still very much alive and well today, as evidenced by the thousands of new startups pouring out of Silicon Valley, NYC, Seattle and elsewhere every year. Imagine what we can achieve on Mars by building a society incorporating the very best aspects of Earth culture, based on liberty, equality and science. Space is the new frontier, and the frontier is always a zone of tremendous creativity, driven by a feeling of true freedom, inevitable resourcefulness, and the sharpness that comes from living on the edge. Mars has the significant benefit of being extremely resource-rich, offering an abundance of metals, water and carbon with which to construct countless new settlements and technological marvels of which we can now barely conceive; inventions that can be shipped back to Earth to benefit everyone else.
Another common answer to this question is survival. Every now and then, Earth gets hit by an asteroid large enough to wipe out most life on the planet. Although this tends to happens less frequently over time, as Jupiter and the Sun mop up the leftover rocks, there are still hundreds of thousands of them in our Solar System and another large impact will almost certainly happen again sooner or later. Human expansion into space will stimulate the development of two main strategies to help us protect ourselves against this eventuality.
For starters, we will learn how to work with asteroids, including mining them as well as pushing them into new orbits. Therefore, whenever the next extinction-level rock swings into a collision course with Earth, we’ll hopefully be able to deal with it.
However, if we cannot – for example, if it is larger than what are capable of shifting or breaking apart at the time – then it will be advantageous to have settlements on other worlds. In my opinion it would be very difficult to wipe out all human life on Earth, because humans are so resourceful and tenacious. Even if the sky is blacked out by dust and ash from the impact and most plant life dies off due to lack of sunlight, humans would find ways to survive. Nonetheless, having a population on Mars (and ideally many other worlds) provides a backup plan for our species; the genetic and memetic equivalent of storing your most precious files in the cloud. Mars offers more potential for creating an independent branch of humanity than any other world we know of, due to its proximity, favorable temperatures, 24-hour day, and abundance of all the elements necessary for life and technological civilization. The more Earthian organisms we can implant there, the better.
Going to Mars will affect humanity more positively than anything else we will ever do. It will inspire generations of young people to continue and broaden their education, particularly in the highly valuable STEM topics, much more than Apollo ever did. It will also bring the people of Earth together psychologically, as humanity begins to perceive itself not as a species of many lands, but as one of many worlds. It will produce remarkable new inventions, especially related to resource utilization, life support, communications and transportation, which can be exported to Earth for everyone’s benefit, as our planet’s population grows to ten billion and beyond, and we expand into deserts and oceans, and underground. Technologies and strategies developed for terraforming can be exported to Earth to help heal the environmental damage caused by the industrial revolution. New systems developed on Mars for planetary self-governance and global resource management can be exported to Earth, transcending outmoded political and economic systems. Technologies and systems developed on Mars, and the experience gained by settling Mars, will lay the technological and cultural foundation for expanding Earthian life to countless other worlds; worlds around other stars that are capable of supporting our kind of life, which we will soon begin to discover.
Not everyone who goes to Mars will want to come back to Earth, just as many Europeans who traveled to the Americas and Australia did not want to return to Europe. They came from cities that were filthy, crowded, aggressive and classist; places where it was hard to get ahead. It was worth the significant cost and risk associated with migration. The new lands offered wide open spaces, clear skies, and new opportunities for leadership and creating fortunes and dynasties. Mars will be the same. Enough people will want to go and live on the frontier to make it worthwhile. Even if it’s not for you, it is impossible to prevent adventurers from seeking adventure.
Lunar Space Elevator
Decades ago, Jerome Pearson produced detailed plans for a lunar space elevator for NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts, seeking to enable lunar mining and lower-cost access to water in space. Since any human missions to Mars would benefit from (if not outright require) large amounts of water (either split into propellant and oxidizer, used as radiation shielding, or even just for life support), do you feel that construction of such a device would be a net benefit? Why or why not?
Moss: I do not see any reason to build a space elevator on Earth, Luna, Mars or anywhere else, because I believe (hope) we will soon see the emergence of antigravity a.k.a. gravity propulsion technology. This will be a superior means of transporting anything into space. I realize most space enthusiasts are focused firmly on rockets and are somewhat dismissive of gravity propulsion, consigning it to the same bin as UFOs, conspiracy theories and Apollo-deniers, but, frankly, if gravity propulsion is possible then we owe it to ourselves to pursue its development diligently, as it could dramatically lower the cost and difficulty of getting into space and thereby open up the space frontier just as surely as air travel opened up Earth.
Setting aside for the moment the controversial question as to whether various national governments already have this technology but keep it secret for military reasons, the work done by people such as Podkletnov, Puthoff, Brandenburg and many others suggests gravity propulsion may be possible, and that we will ultimately develop practical applications including spacecraft. The advent of this class of vehicles, which I estimate/hope will be between now and about 2050, should make both rockets and space elevators obsolete.
If I’m wrong, then space elevators are a good solution, once we work out how to economically manufacture suitable materials. However, there are enough researchers interested in gravity propulsion that I believe it’s more likely to be developed sooner. In my opinion more funding should be made available to develop this technology as a priority, as its advent would offer many benefits to society.
I believe the most likely way we'll actually have any impact on Mars is via genetically engineered microbes, as we've recently seen Darpa has mentioned. This, at first blush, seems harmless, Mars is already dead. But given the increasing evidence that Mars and likely many other celestial bodies have in the past and maybe even at the present microbial life on them, and that it's extremely likely all of the planets in the solar system routinely trade biological materials via asteroid impacts. It seems that logical to assume that Biological Tera-forming of Mars is also Biological Tera-forming of Earth.
In short, the Bugs we design here, and send there, will eventually come back to haunt us. Do you have opinion on this? I love science, and want us to use it to our benefit. But I'm not ignorant to the fact that nature has the uncanny knack of turning our best intentions to ashes in our mouths.
Moss: It’s by no means certain that Mars does not harbor any LAWKI. Life can be found everywhere on Earth where there is liquid water and all the necessary elements; thus, because Mars does have all the necessary elements for life, if liquid water was present on the Martian surface there would be a strong likelihood that biological (as in, water and carbon-based) life would develop. Conditions at the surface of Mars can sometimes support liquid water, but only rarely. However, there’s quite a lot of water on Mars, and underground, where temperatures and pressures are higher, there could well be aquifers harboring chemotrophic microorganisms.
If life exists on Mars, then it may have already reached Earth via panspermia, as you say. If so, has it taken root here, and, if so, has the effect been positive, negative, or nothing? Earth is covered in life, which means the answer must logically be either positive or nothing. If any genetically engineered microbes migrate from Mars to Earth, the risk of them traveling by impact debris, landing on Earth, and flourishing in a way that has a devastating effect on Earth’s biosphere, is minimal. For starters, most species would not be able to survive such a trip due to the extremes of temperature and radiation; although, to be fair, this is exactly the type of organism we would engineer to survive on the surface of Mars. Any organisms hitching an interplanetary ride on the surface of a rock would most likely die, although perhaps they could survive if encased within the rock; or, they would simply die of old age, as the trip time by this route would be on the order of millions of years, a period most likely be longer than the life of the organism unless it was somehow able to cryogenically hibernate.
Panspermia by this means is not the real risk. The real risk is that organisms will travel by spacecraft, in protected conditions, with trip times of just a few months, reducing, over time, to days.
Just as all kinds of plants, animals, fungus and bacteria migrated between continents on human-operated boats (and now, planes), such will also be the case between Earth and Mars. On Earth we have customs controls to restrict species migration, but this is hardly water-tight and almost completely unenforceable across land borders. It will be the same between Earth and Mars in the future, with the frequency of species migration events increasing with interplanetary travel and trade. While measures may be taken to prevent the unauthorized transportation of macroorganisms between planets, any number of microbes will be able to hitch a ride in exported goods, food, on boot soles, or on or inside human bodies.
We already have innumerable case studies of what happens when foreign species enter new ecosystems. Sometimes the effect is nothing; the organisms cannot find a niche, cannot reproduce, and die out. In Australia, however, we have several well-known cases of catastrophic effects. The introduction of the influenza virus, for example, was disastrous for the indigenous inhabitants. Cane toads, brought into the country to control cane beetles, with no natural predators have become an ugly pest. Similarly, rabbits, brought into Australia for sport hunting, are now in plague proportions in some parts of the country. Domestic cats gone feral have wiped out many species of marsupial, lizard and frog. (But none of these come anywhere close to the most destructive invasive species in Australia – can you guess which it is?)
The data suggests, however, that introduction of new species to an ecosystem, while the results may be unpredictable, are never absolutely catastrophic, which is to say, the ecosystem as a whole survives. Populations of various member species may ebb and flow, but the biosphere itself persists. I very much doubt that anything we will engineer for Mars could have truly calamitous effects on Earth. Perhaps one possible scenario would be something like what is happening now with soybeans, corn and other GMO crops, with more resilient engineered variants displacing the originals as they spread into new areas. However, even this is unlikely. Regardless of the mode of transport, organisms from Mars will have either evolved or been created for Martian conditions, which are very different to Earth’s, and hence they will be at an evolutionary disadvantage compared with native Earthian species. It seems unlikely they would flourish to the point of displacing native species to any great degree.
There is one species far more devastating to ecosystems and responsible for more extinction than any other, and I think you can guess which one it is. It’s precisely the same one we are planning to spread to Mars and beyond. This could be a problem for extant Martian life, if present.
How much infrastructure needs to be there first?
by Dr. Spork
Some people think that we should send someone to Mars as soon as possible, even if they can't do much before they return home. Simply leaving a human bootprint would be worth it. Others think that unmanned missions should first build up enough Martian infrastructure to support human "colonists" with a reasonable level of comfort. Only then should people be sent. Where would you put yourself on this continuum? What sort of activities should Martian astronauts be able to do before you would think the expensive trip there was worth it?
Moss: I am surely of the latter camp. Mars is not going anywhere. We shouldn’t delay, but we also shouldn’t rush in where angels fear to tread. We should send humans to Mars as soon as possible, but within the boundaries of safety and well-considered strategy. A series of unmanned missions to build up infrastructure on the surface and in Mars orbit such that a human crew can spend 1.5 years on the surface, perhaps not with a reasonable level of “comfort” but at least a reasonable level of safety, is essential.
Short missions to Mars do not make sense. If it was in any way practical to visit Mars for just a few days, such a mission would be comparatively simple and light, and could be sent fairly soon, without too much infrastructure installed in advance. However, due to Mars’ orbit, mission durations totaling 2.5 years, including a 1.5-year surface stay, are more practical. To sustain a human crew on the surface of Mars for this period of time requires significant investment in infrastructure, including satellites to provide 100% communications uptime with Earth, reliable ISRU systems capable of producing sufficient water, air, electricity, and rocket propellant for the mission, and surface habitats and vehicles. Everything they need for the mission needs to be set up and tested before the crew even leave Earth, including a fully-fueled return vehicle.
As for what activities Martian astronauts should be able to do, the main thing is that they should be able to work outside as much as they want. Considering they are going to Mars as explorers, field scientists, and representatives of humanity’s adventurous spirit, they need to be working outside a lot. Therefore they need very robust, lightweight and maneuverable suits, long-range pressurized surface vehicles, and good cameras, tools and instruments.
You may be surprised to hear that I do not think we should go to Mars next. Despite being a passionate Mars settlement advocate, it’s my considered view that we should first conduct a new series of lunar missions, far surpassing what was achieved with Apollo. The intention would be the addition of some basic infrastructure elements to the lunar surface including habitat modules and pressurized surface vehicles analogous to what we will need on Mars.
The positive benefits of this strategy will be include development of the public and private space sectors, technological innovation, improved confidence in human missions beyond LEO, more capital being made available for space projects, and practice missions similar to the human Mars missions.
While it’s true that Earth provides useful Mars analogs, these pale in comparison to the Moon in terms of value, as the Moon offers real danger, real science and exploration, and real issues of space and surface transportation, communications, life support, dust, radiation, human factors and so on. The great advantages of the Moon over Mars is that we can go any time, trip times are short, there’s virtually zero communications lag, and missions can be of any duration. We should be planning, right now, a series of lunar missions ranging in duration from weeks to months, to be conducted over the next decade by an international consortium of space agencies, as preparation for the considerably more ambitious human Mars missions. Doing this will be significantly more valuable than continuing to operate the ISS because of the degree to which it will inspire everybody, particularly students, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs. We’ve seen LEO, people! Let’s go somewhere new. If Mars is still too far, the Moon is right there.
The immense benefit of practicing for Mars missions on the Moon is that you get the Moon. The Moon is greatly undervalued; it’s an absolute goldmine to the visionary space entrepreneur. Mars may have more potential for supporting life, but from a business perspective the Moon is currently a much better proposition. It can be done sooner, for less money, with higher return. In the current entrepreneurial climate I think it will not take many publicly-funded missions to inspire a slew of private lunar ventures, which will open up the Moon, expand the space industry and economy, and significantly improve the state of the art in space technology. This will effectively set the stage for human exploration and settlement of Mars.
How long till boot on surface of Mars?
Given Apollo level funding and political will (from the US and other involved nations), what do you think the major steps to getting to Mars will be and how long do you think it would take to actually put a man on Mars?
Moss: It is difficult to estimate a time frame as we are currently going through a period of major global change which may significantly affect funding available for space. Exponential growth in world population combined with increasingly intense weather events will place pressure on food and water supplies, diverting attention away from “luxury” topics such as space and towards more immediate survival concerns. Therefore, I suspect the amount of both funding and political support available for Mars will decrease in the near future, although I could be, and I hope I am, completely wrong. It will rebound eventually, however, because of people like us, and because, despite whatever else changes, technologically consistently improves, which means getting into space will inevitably get easier and cheaper.
However, I realize this is not your question. The main area of technological development necessary is transportation, as this represents the most expensive aspect of the mission; hence why almost everyone in the Mars community hopes that SpaceX will be successful in developing reusable rockets, which will reduce the cost of space travel by 1-2 orders of magnitude, and why I hope gravity propulsion vehicles will be developed soon. Another important area of research is in the suits. The new generation of space suits, which are mechanical counter-pressure (i.e. skin-tight, like SCUBA suits) are much more comfortable and flexible and can be worn for longer periods than the current gas pressurized suits. However, some considerable investment is needed in this tech to make it ready for Mars.
Development in materials science is also important, particularly 3d-printed nanostructured materials, which will make it possible to manufacture space hardware stronger than steel but with a fraction of the mass, thus lowering launch costs. Items of ISRU hardware that can make breathable air, potable water and methalox propellant from indigenous Martian resources need to be developed and tested on Mars. We also ideally need to place communications satellites around Mars and possibly also the Sun in order to provide 100% connectivity with Earth.
Thus, if we are truly intent on sending humans to Mars, in my view we need to shift the focus of Mars missions away from science and towards engineering. At the moment the engineering is serving the science; we need to reverse this, using what we now know about Mars to develop and test the technologies needed for survival. We need a series of technology demonstration missions that prove each piece of equipment in the critical path of the mission, including transportation, communications and ISRU. To achieve all of these things will require significant investment in terms of time, money and human resources; however, it will greatly contribute to our success. Apollo missions 11-17 would not have been the successes they were without Apollos 1-10.
For 25 years people have been saying Mars is only 10 years away. In my book I set a more realistic timeline of about 20 years before boots on Mars; 10 years for building the consortium and developing the technology on Earth, plus 10 years for uncrewed precursor missions. If I had my druthers, as mentioned, a lunar program would precede the Mars program, however, this does not necessarily mean pushing the timeline for Mars further out, as the technological evolution and general enthusiasm for space stimulated by a lunar program would significantly amplify interest in, and funding for, Mars.
In reality, with the global environmental, geopolitical, economic and moral situations being what they are, it’s really anyone’s guess how the next few decades will unfold. Having said that, we should not wait; we should try our guts out to get there as soon as we can. The benefits of settling Mars are truly immense. Really, it’s up to us. We cannot wait for anyone else to do it for us. We are the space generation. The more we think and talk about it, and develop our plans and designs, the sooner it will happen. So, let’s keep talking, thinking, drawing, calculating, sharing and dreaming.
Why Mars instead of building in space?
Why colonize Mars instead of just building colonies in space? It seems to have many disadvantages and hardly any advantages. It's incredibly far away. You still have to deal with a large gravity well every time you want to come or go. You can't create artificial gravity on Mars, so you're stuck with 38% Earth gravity. We don't even know if humans can be healthy long term living in such low gravity. Colonies in space seem as good or better in nearly every respect. About the only advantage Mars has is access to raw materials, but space colonies could mine those from asteroids or the moon.
Moss: Mars has several distinct advantages over colonies in space.
As you say, the main one is its abundance of raw materials, including all the elements necessary for life and technological civilization, including metals, carbon, water, nitrogen and more, which you cannot say about the Moon or asteroids. This is not a minor advantage, it is a HUGE advantage. Space colonies could, and indeed, will, mine asteroids and the Moon for materials, but this is orders of magnitude more difficult than just digging up as much iron and silicon as you want from the back yard. Besides, some essential elements, for example, nitrogen, may not be available from these places, and would thus always need to be imported from Earth, Mars or elsewhere.
The raw materials available from asteroids and the Moon will mainly be of use to people living there.
Mars provides a land area equivalent to the land area of Earth, which is a huge platform on which to build. In free space you have to build the platform first, using resources that need to come from somewhere else. Until we have mining facilities on the Moon and asteroids, this place will be Earth, which is a much deeper gravity well. Due to the massive cost, there would be severe limits on how much “land” can be created in this way, constraining the possible population and scope of activities.
To compare Mars and space stations is really comparing apples and oranges, as Mars has orders of magnitude greater potential. Mars is a world with the potential to become home to millions of people. It may even be possible to engineer its environment such that it can host an uncontained biosphere, which cannot realistically be claimed for any world in our Solar System, at least with our current scientific understanding. The value of such a thing would be inestimable. A large city in space may potentially contain perhaps thousands of people, and one or several ecosystems, but these would all rely on complex life support technology requiring constant maintenance. An uncontained biosphere, however, thrives on water, sunlight and dirt; no human effort required.
Living on Mars may be challenging, but much will be familiar – land, horizon, Sun, moons, wind, clouds, dirt, and so on. Eventually, with a little warming, rain, snow, lakes and rivers will appear. People can explore the surface in buggies and trucks, or fly over it in balloons. It has fascinating geomorphology – caves, valleys, mountains, craters, dunes and more – all with their own character and history. Mars speaks adventure! It’s the frontier, where we will experiment with new ways of living together. Surely this cannot compare to living in an extremely expensive technological container floating above Earth, most likely subject to Earth’s laws and antiquated systems.
Mars is really not far away; a quick look at a map of the Solar System shows how close it really is. It’s only far away compared to how far we currently travel. But this will change.
It’s true that we don’t know if living in 38% gravity long term is healthful, but since we know living in microgravity is certainly not fatal, it’s reasonable to imagine that people will adapt. There should be more than enough gravity for the body to be able to orient itself, and to maintain sufficient muscle and bone to remain functional within that environment.
We will probably build cities in space, because enough people want to. However, it may be very expensive to live there. Elysium had it right; space stations will probably be a home for the super-rich.
Surfacism - why Mars and not Venus?
by Luminary Crush
There are actually some compelling reasons to go to Venus first including cost and transit time but also more human-favorable gravity, greater protection from radiation and possibly the only other place in the solar system which currently offers temperatures and atmospheric pressures close Earth norm - albeit only at a 30-mile altitude. So, why not cloud cities on Venus?
Moss: A cloud city on Venus would be even more difficult to build than a space station in Earth orbit, so the previous question’s answer applies even more here. You cannot get the raw materials to build such a city from Venus, because mining operations on the surface would be extremely difficult due to the high temperature and pressure. Therefore, the materials would need to come from Earth, the Moon or asteroids, and the cities would need to be constructed in space, which would limit their size. Note, too, these cities cannot have any exposed metal, which would be corroded by the sulphuric acid in Venus’ atmosphere; neither would any visiting ships, for example, supply ships. This would present an engineering challenge.
These cities would need to be shipped out to Venus and lowered into the atmosphere at the right altitude. Due to the difficulty of engineering, and cost of fabrication and shipping, if such a thing was ever created it would most likely be home to a few planetary scientists who wanted to study Venus. The population could not expand without adding more cities at great expense. In any case, not as many people will be excited about living in sulphuric acid clouds.
Mars, on the other hand, has the potential to host millions of people and a planetary biosphere.
One of the more interesting aspects of Robinson's books to me are the socio-political ones. Specifically, the fact tha Mars was a new place, with initially a very intelligent population, it came to be a place to rethink society and economics, in often painful ways. Also, there were attempts due to resource pressures on earth, of using it as an escape valve for human populations, which it could never completely be.
Assuming we ever make it to Mars, do you see it as a likely spot to foment revolution? Do you see a presence there as being able to relieve or change issues here on earth? How so?
What do you see as the primary reason we should go to Mars? I agree we should and have my own reasoning, but I want to know yours.
Moss: The primary benefit of settling Mars will be its effects on humanity as a whole. It’s an historic, evolutionary-level venture, which will do much to bring humanity together. There will be a sense of “we achieved something truly great”, which is why I am so strongly I favor of an international mission; so the “we” will not refer to the US or China or whoever, but humanity as a whole. Either way, it will herald a new frontier, and a new age of human exploration and scientific and technological achievement. It will induce strong feelings of optimism and inspiration in a world that greatly needs them.
Perhaps the most compelling reasons for going to Mars will not become fully apparent until decades or even centuries have passed. Every time humans have expanded into new territory it has presented opportunities to review our values. Mars will cause us to re-examine our ideas about economics, politics, morality, sex, health, education, food, resources and more; i.e. virtually every aspect of society. Geography has a profound influence on culture, as any traveler can tell you. Thus, Mars, because of its extremely different geography, living conditions, and the characteristics of its population (i.e. scientific adventurers), will inevitably produce a very different culture.
This will affect Earth in a similar way that the creation of new nations (the US being the most obvious example) has affected the rest of the world, particularly if the new society embodies values that the rest of the world generally agrees with, or that prove themselves over time by producing happier, healthier, more prosperous people. We may imagine that the Martian society will be formed from the very best elements of Earth’s political and social systems, incorporating values of equality, tolerance, rationality, freedom, fairness, compassion, universal health care, sustainability, free education and communications, and so forth.
As an example, consider that Martians may be highly reliant on genetic engineering for optimized food production, planetary engineering (terraforming), and possibly reproduction (self-directed evolution). Thus we can expect to see great advancements from Mars in this field, not only with regard to the science and technology, but also policy and regulation, which is sadly lacking on Earth. The same can be said about robots (technically the first inhabitants of Mars), which will share Mars with humans and other Earthian organisms, and evolve alongside them. Mars, being basically an enormous sandpit with no wildlife to disrupt, is the perfect place to play with interesting and capable robots of every shape and size. They will mine, build, make, plant, carry, and do almost all other physical work on Mars, because, let’s be honest, it’s so frickin’ cold outside. Imagine how the evolution of robotics technology on Mars will benefit Earth.
It may be that the Martian nation evolves as a single planetary society from the beginning, and due to the ubiquity of communications, a common language, and a single planet-sized continent, never fractures into competing tribes. The formation of a planetary government on Mars, including associated systems for planetary environmental and resource management, could be highly instructive in the formation of a similar world government on Earth.
Planetary engineering of Mars for the purpose of terraforming will produce advanced computer simulations of planetary systems, and a suite of strategies for influencing and controlling atmospheric constituents and pressure, surface temperatures, climate, and thus the biosphere. On Earth, where the effects of climate change will escalate until we are forced to enter a more proactive regime of regulation and planetary repair, this effort could eventually be greatly aided by planetary engineering techniques developed on Mars.
These and other similar feedback effects can be summed up as what I call “reflective planetary evolution”, as the evolution of Mars will reflect back on to Earth and pull it forward as well. It will similarly drive evolution of societies on the Moon and elsewhere. Of course, every world will affect all the others, just as all nations affect each other on Earth now. However, Mars is unique in its immense potential, and the unfolding story of Mars will drive considerable evolution throughout the Solar System. Indeed, the historical foundation laid down during human settlement of Mars will echo throughout millennia of future human history as we expand to other worlds throughout the galaxy.
This, I believe, will be the primary benefit of settling Mars.