The terrifying reality of actually living on Mars

The first spaceships that could carry humans to the red planet are being developed now, but we need to discuss accommodations once we're there.

Robert Rodriguez/CNET

Elon Musk hopes to have a metropolis a million earthlings strong on Mars by mid-century, complete with everything from factories to breweries. But before anyone can swill down a Martian IPA, we'll first have to deal with the myriad ways the red planet can kill a person.

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If you were teleported to Mars with just basic camping gear, you'd eventually die of radiation poisoning or cancer. But you'd freeze to death long before then, most likely on the first night when temperatures dip to Antarctic levels. Before that, you'd suffocate trying to breathe the atmosphere made up of mostly carbon dioxide. But before even that, the very low atmospheric pressure on Mars would cause your blood to literally boil, regardless of the outside temperature. 

In short, camping out there will require much more than pitching a tent. 

Fortunately for aspiring Martians, humans have spent a lot of time thinking about how to live on a relatively inhospitable planet millions of miles away from Earth. Ideas have ranged from big bubble cities to underground bases -- one of NASA's latest concepts even involves Martian homes made of fungi.

While Mars may be preferable to closer options like Venus with its boiling heat and toxic atmosphere, or the moon with zero atmosphere and space stations lacking gravity, it's still a problematic environment.

"You would fizz to death," the SETI Institute's Pascal Lee explains in the video below.

Full Video - Astronauts on the Moon and Mars: Getting Ready with Dr. Pascal Lee

Full recording of Astronauts on the Moon and Mars: Getting Ready with Dr. Pascal Lee. Facebook Live - November 21, 2019. SETI Institute senior planetary scientist Dr Pascal Lee discusses the what, why, how, when, and who of our return to the Moon and future journeys to Mars.

Posted by SETI Institute on Friday, November 22, 2019

On Earth we never worry about going full soda, thanks to our very friendly atmosphere and helpful magnetic field. But on Mars we'll need to create infrastructure to solve the problems our planet handles automatically.

And of course, we also have to develop ways to extract the water and oxygen we need to survive from a Martian landscape that has hidden them away in pockets of ice, soil, rock and extremely thin air.

Easy peasy.

However, Lee and others who have cataloged the many ways to die on Mars do not see them as insurmountable hurdles. In fact, there might be one ready-made solution for living on Mars that's viable from the moment humans arrive for the very first time.

Just stay on the ship.

Living in the parking lot

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This futuristic render shows a collection of Starships hanging out on the surface of Mars. Elon Musk and Space envision astronauts initially living out of the spaceships while constructing a more permanent human settlement on the Red Planet.

SpaceX

The first people to arrive via a SpaceX Starship will likely live and work out of the landed spacecraft in the beginning.

"[Starships] are very valuable on the surface of Mars," said Paul Wooster, the company's principal Mars development engineer, in 2018 at a Mars Society convention. "You'd actually be having most of the ships stay and you'd be operating using the various systems on them to support the activities there."

Living in the ship after arrival isn't just a SpaceX idea, though.

The Mars Society, founded in 1998 to advocate for exploring and setting up a human presence on Mars, has its own "Mars Direct" plan. It also suggests traveling to Mars in habitats or "habs" that could then be used to set up a base on the surface once the earthlings arrive. 

The habs could be connected together, in much the same way that modular buildings are trucked around on Earth and quickly hooked together on site. 

"We could have people on Mars by 2030 and a permanent manned base by 2040," Zubrin told me in 2018. 

Besides bringing their own shelter to start, Martian pioneers must also pack the right tools to harvest materials from the rugged landscape in order to build a more permanent crib.

"Very little that pertains to living on Mars in the early years will involve off-the-shelf equipment and supplies from Earth," writes Stephen Petranek in his book How We'll Live on Mars. "Almost every tool or device in use on Mars will need to have been carefully thought out."

Building from scratch

For the long term, a basic modular camp like the one Matt Damon struggles with in 2015's The Martian may not offer sufficient protection from radiation and other dangers, especially in the case of a powerful solar flare aimed directly at Mars.

Radiation shielding doesn't need to be high-tech. A barrier made up of water or certain plastics can work, as can simply going underground.

Former NASA physician Jim Logan estimates putting our fragile, fleshy bodies behind or beneath about 9 feet (2.7 meters) of Martian soil should suffice. Zubrin has also suggested using thick bricks made from Martian regolith to construct shelter, adding a uniquely medieval castle vibe to the more traditionally sleek and futuristic vision of a Mars outpost. 

Old lava tubes and underground caves are also ideal places to shelter, both early on and in the case of emergencies like major dust and solar storms that can sometimes spread across the entire planet. 

In the absence of other options, 3D printing technology offers another alternative for creating custom structures. NASA held a 3D printed habitat challenge in 2019, with New York's AI SpaceFactory (which bills itself as a "multi-planetary architectural and technology design agency") winning the top prize for a system that built a lightweight but strong structure using autonomous robots requiring almost no human guidance.

Going underground or behind thick walls isn't exactly great for the agriculture that's going to be essential to sustain any presence on Mars, however. 

Mechanical engineer Andrew Geiszler suggested at the 2015 Mars Society convention that geodesic glass domes could be the answer. Mars provides all the raw materials needed to create glass, plastic and metals that can then be turned into dome homes.

"Ultimately we're going to need to use native materials. It's very feasible. They're there for the taking."

The glass dome structure has been popular in visions of Mars settlements going back decades, including in some recent renderings from HP's Mars Home Planet concept challenge that asked designers to draw up plans for a city on Mars.

This leaves the question of exactly where on Mars is best to establish a presence. None of the above is possible without access to water, which we need to create oxygen, grow food and produce fuel and other raw materials. So finding precious H2O will be a top priority along with shelter from the elements when choosing a site. 

Water has been found in Martian soil, in trace amounts in the air, and in significant amounts near and below ice deposits. Moving to the edge of a Martian ice cap would likely be too cold and windy, but the planet also offers intriguing craters and canyons that provide a certain amount of shelter, building materials and water from deposits of ice or possibly even springs. The remarkable Valles Marineris, a massive gorge eight times longer and four times deeper than the Grand Canyon, is one place often suggested as a dramatic second home for hardy humans. 

Time to Terraform

Maintaining all of the necessary life support systems on Mars will be quite an undertaking, which is why Musk and others have a long, long term vision of expanding the habitable bubble we construct on Mars to eventually encompass the entire planet. 

The concept is often referred to as terraforming, and would involve changing the planet's environment to be more earth-like. Musk notably proposed nuking Mars' poles to release massive amounts of greenhouse gases to warm the planet, although he's also amenable to massive solar mirrors. 

Other methods involve importing methane or ammonia to kickstart the greenhouse effect. Regardless, such a project could be a centuries-long initiative.

"Terraforming will be incredibly expensive, and it may take a thousand years before humans can walk the surface of Mars in an environment not unlike what one finds along the west coast of Canada," writes Petranek. 

That kind of long-term thinking may be required for humans to become truly multi-planetary like Musk hopes. But first, we've just got to figure out how to make it through the first night on Mars.