Martian Civilization

by Paul Gilster on February 17, 2017

What kind of civilization might eventually emerge on Mars? Colonies of various kinds have been examined in science fiction for decades, but as we close in on the possibility of actual human arrival on the planet, perhaps in the 2030s, we can wonder how living on a different world will change the people who eventually choose to call it home. The prolific Nick Nielsen likes to take the long view, arguing in the essay below that while there are contrasting definitions of civilization itself, we may yet learn through experiment and experience how a ‘central project’ emerging from local conditions may define the future of colonies on other worlds. Human history offers guidance, but it may be that a successful Martian colony will see its position as a gateway to the exploration of the Solar System. You can follow Nick on his Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon site, as well as his Grand Strategy Annex.

by J. N. Nielsen

Mars 5

Settling Mars


Suppose that one or several planned large-scale missions to Mars come to fruition over the next few decades. Perhaps the first mission or missions are temporary scientific visits that endure a few weeks or months and then Mars is left vacant again. Even if it is only a handful of individuals temporarily on Mars for a few weeks or a few month of exploration, the camaraderie unique to these early Mars missions will be the first intimation of a distinctively Martian social milieu.

Beyond the transient exploration of a scientific mission, the vision of several Mars mission planners includes settlement, and these plans, if realized, will mean that eventually there will be large numbers of human beings living and working on Mars. We may see a patchwork of multiple settlements and multiple temporary scientific missions, existing side-by-side, each pursuing their own ends in their own ways. Some of the early explorers may chose to return and to remain, their lives having been touched and irrevocably changed by their initial encounter with the Red Planet.

In the case of an ongoing human presence, the numbers of human settlers will grow, eventually also they will become self-supporting and self-sustaining. Whether or not they formally declare their independence, they will be independent for all practical purposes. Given these eventualities, at some point we will need to recognize that an independent and distinctive Martian civilization exists. At what point in its development would we recognize a Martian civilization? What will be the character of this civilization?

A lone explorer on Mars by Alberto Vangelista

Image: A lone explorer on Mars by Italian digital artist Alberto Vangelista.

A Martian Perspective

In the classic science fiction film Forbidden Planet there is a striking scene early in the film in which two characters discuss the color of the sky, and one says, “I think a man could get used to this and grow to love it.” Will Martian settlers get used to the red skies of Mars and grow to love it?

Whether or not they love the red skies of the Red Planet, these red skies will be a fact of life on Mars no less than the red sands under foot. These Martian facts of life will collectively shape a distinctive Martian perspective, and a Martian civilization will grow out of a uniquely and distinctively Martian perspective. In What will it be like to be a Martian? I have already discussed that there will be something that it is like to be a Martian (borrowing from Thomas Nagel’s famous formulation that there is something that it is like to be a bat [1]), and in The Martian Standpoint (and Addendum on the Martian Standpoint) I discussed the emergence of a distinctively Martian perspective.

This perspective will be marked by properties in common with terrestrial civilization (such as being human) as well as properties not shared with terrestrial civilization (living life under a red sky, being able to pick out Earth in the night sky, having to wear a pressure suit outside, and so on). Most of that which is in common with terrestrial life will pass unnoticed, but the differences will be prominent in the minds of Martian settlers precisely because the differences will stand out against the background of unnoticed similarity.

Mars itself, its gravity, its weather, its seasons, the length of its day and coolness of the sun in the sky, as well as the adaptations that the settlers will have to make in order to live on Mars, will become selection pressures that will shape the social life of these communities. An individual human being who experiences what it is like to be a Martian, and who, as a consequence of living on Mars, has a Martian perspective, will be an individual participating in a community, all of whom are experiencing what it is like to be a Martian and to have a Martian perspective. Pride in being first on Mars will be mixed with equal parts homesickness, and, just so, every aspect of human moral psychology will find itself tested by the tension between old and new. From this dialectic will emerge an outlook unique to Mars, the Martian perspective, and this Martian perspective will inform all aspects of social life, from the most intimate introspection to the most public debates on what kind of society the Martians should build for themselves.

As the Martians go about building the economic infrastructure of Martian civilization, an intellectual superstructure will come into being in parallel with the built environment, and infrastructure and superstructure will be inseparably joined by the central project of Martian civilization, which at first will simply be the attempt to build a self-sustaining and self-supporting human presence on Mars. [2] What form the central project of Martian civilization will take after this initial goal is achieved cannot now be known. Martian society will be sufficiently small that it could be comprehensively motivated and unified by a central project, and the population of Mars will be sufficiently self-selected for scientific acumen and practical ability that whatever central project naturally grows out of the combined exertions of this population is likely to be as distinctive as the self-selected conquistadors who came to South America and the self-selected Puritans who came to North America.

Earth and Mars

A Tale of Two Planets: Terrestrial Civilization and Martian Civilization

Civilization on Earth has already passed through many stages of development, and it is at least arguable that at least some terrestrial civilizations have reached maturity, but a nascent civilization on Mars, while an heir to these mature traditions of terrestrial civilization, would be an entirely novel enterprise. The Martian civilization will be a new civilization, and as a new civilization it will begin its social development at its inception; it will not be a mature civilization of long-established institutions, but a tentative experimentation in institution building and in ways of life possible on Mars.

When a civilization originates in a given historical epoch, that historical epoch is expressed in that civilization, so that the civilization of classical antiquity expressed the world of the ancient Mediterranean Basin and the civilization of medieval Islam expressed the world of seventh century Arabia and the civilization of the industrial revolution expressed Enlightenment era northern Europe. Martian civilization, coming into being in the twenty-first civilization, would emerge from a radically different social context than any of these previous civilizations, and so it would express a radically different world than civilizations of the past. Martian civilization, then, could be a new civilization in more than one sense. It would also be a civilization de novo.


Image: Workshop of Filippe Maëcht and Hans Taye. Constantine Directing the Building of Constantinople. 1623-1625. Wool, silk, gold and silver. 484 × 480 cm (190.6 × 189 in). Philadelphia.

De novo civilization

For quite some time I have been planning to write about the possibility of what I call de novo civilization, i.e., civilizations that are newly constituted, but are distinct from those civilizations with which civilization began on Earth. The earliest civilizations in the world—the West Asian Cluster (Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, etc.), Mesoamerican, Peruvian, Chinese, and Indian civilizations, at a minimum—were all de novo civilizations, originating as something entirely new in the history of the planet. These original civilizations might be called “founder” civilizations, as they were the founders of all civilizations to subsequently follow.

Descended from these “founder” civilizations were a greater or lesser number of subsequent civilizations—depending upon the principles we adopt to individuate and therefore count civilizations—that were derived from the founder civilizations through descent with modification, through idea diffusion, through allopatric speciation, and so on. By identifying de novo civilizations as new civilizations distinct from this small, finite class of founder civilizations, I am suggesting that a new civilization can come into being through a new foundation (or a re-foundation) of some existing civilization. What particularly interests me most are those civilizations that “suddenly” come into being as the result of some relatively rapid historical change. Martian civilization would be such a de novo civilization arising from a new foundation.

The best example I can offer of de novo civilization is that of Byzantium. The Byzantine Empire is typically identified as becoming a distinct entity sometime between Constantine’s foundation of Constantinople (on the site of the earlier Greek city of Byzantium) in 330 and the reign of Justinian during the sixth century AD. Constantine spared no expense in furnishing his new Christian capital city, endowing it with art and sculpture essentially looted from other much older cities. An urban proletariat was even imported to populate the new metropolis. Eventually Greek speaking, and eventually Orthodox in its Christianity, Constantinople and the distinctive Byzantine civilization over which the city presided had inherited the traditions of Roman civilization, and as the city grew in size and influence there was no “breakdown” of trade or communication that isolated the region. When the last legal emperor of the western Roman Empire, Romulus Augustulus, surrendered control of Rome to the barbarian king Odoacer, the imperial insignia were sent to Constantinople for safekeeping. Thus Byzantium, still in touch with its parent civilization, nevertheless speciated and became its own distinctive civilization, different from Rome even while continuing to self-identify as Roman.

So it will be, I think, with Martian civilization, which will become its own distinctive civilization even while continuing to self-identify with essential elements of terrestrial civilization. The selection pressures upon terrestrial and Martian civilization will be so markedly different that the speciation of Martian civilization from its parent terrestrial civilization is nearly inevitable, although there will be ongoing commerce, communication, and conflict between Earth and Mars. Martian civilization will emerge as a de novo civilization even in the absence of a rupture between Earth and Mars; the transfer of some portion of terrestrial civilization to a human population on Mars will be sufficient for a new foundation of civilization, even if this is not what is intended.

V. Gordon Childe

Image: Prehistorian V. Gordon Childe at Skara Brae, Orkney.

V. Gordon Childe’s “urban revolution” on Mars

One of the most influential accounts of the origin of civilization is that of V. Gordon Childe, and, ironically, it was not explicitly cast as an account of civilization, but rather of the “urban revolution,” i.e., the origin of cities. [3] There is a vast literature on Childe’s “urban revolution” and it has become a commonplace among archaeologists, especially those archaeologists formulating theories about the origins of civilization, to employ Childe’s ten criteria for the urban revolution as a definition of civilization: something is a civilization if it possesses most of the items on Childe’s list. [4] Subsequent prehistorians have tinkered and tampered with Childe’s model, but for the most part it remains intact and continues to influence archaeological thought about civilization even today.

While Childe does not himself assert that the properties he identifies as characterizing the urban revolution constitute a definition of civilization, he may as well have said so, as this is the lesson that has been taken from the paper. In so far as “urban revolution” implies the revolutionary appearance of many cities, the lesson is justified. A rough characterization of civilization could be a network of cities actively engaged in cooperation and conflict with each other. [5] We see this pattern clearly in Mesopotamia, in Mesoamerica, in the Indus Valley, and will probably find it wherever civilization independently emerges.

Following this example, when there are a network of settlements on Mars actively engaged in cooperation and conflict with each other (as in the suggestion above that Mars may be a patchwork of settlements both temporary and permanent), we could at that point identify a Martian civilization. As Martian civilization grows, it will unify itself as a planetary civilization, all of which evolves under the uniform physical selection pressures of the planet, just as terrestrial civilization has evolved under the uniform selection pressures of Earth. On Mars, communication between regions of the planet will be nearly instantaneous, as is communication on Earth today, and the immediate neighborhood of Mars, its satellites and space stations, will also be a part of this instantaneous communications network. Mars will have its own internet, which will presumably be updated on a regular basis, much like a backup system where Mars and Earth each back up the other. Martian social media will be dominated by “Martian issues” just as terrestrial social media will be dominated by terrestrial issues.

MARS from the Moon PHOBOS by Jack COGGINS

Image: Mars may come to be the origin of a spacefaring civilization. (Mars from the Moon Phobos by Jack Coggins, 1951).

Two planetary civilizations projected onto the cosmos

A planet is a natural unit for civilization, which I have expressed elsewhere by saying that planetary civilization is the natural teleology of civilization. [6] Beyond the scope of a planetary civilization communication will experience relativistic delays that become longer the more distant the parties to the communication. There will be communication between Mars and Earth, of course, but of a stilted and somewhat awkward variety, as there will be trade, probably a trickle of luxury goods (rather than staples) as once slowly moved along the Silk Road tenuously connecting the ancient east to the ancient west. Communication and commerce, however, will underscore rather than unify the natural planetary units of Earth and Mars. Exactly what is communicated and what is traded (as well as what is not communicated and what is not traded) will define a system of meanings and values, and these systems will be different on Earth and Mars. [7]

We can always formulate a more comprehensive conception of civilization that includes both terrestrial civilization and Martian civilization—presumably this more comprehensive conception will be “human civilization” as this conception will of necessity be based on those properties shared in common between terrestrial and Martian civilization—much as we can today speak of a planetary civilization that encompasses the many regional civilizations that have grown together as human transportation, communication, and commerce networks have come to integrate the planet entire. Perhaps this more comprehensive conception of civilization could also be called a de novo civilization. With planetary civilization converging on totality, the next stage of emergence in large-scale social organization will be the interaction of these distinct planetary civilizations—the civilizations of Earth, Mars, the moon, and elsewhere, including clusters of artificial habitats.

The expanding scope of large-scale social organization, from a network of cities involved in cooperation and conflict to a network of planets involved in cooperation and conflict and eventually a network of planetary systems engaged in cooperation and conflict, define stages in the development of a cosmological civilization. The civilization that we may yet build within our own solar system will be a model in miniature of an interstellar civilization in which it is a network of planetary systems engaged in cooperation and conflict that defines large-scale social organization. In this context, the different between terrestrial and Martian civilization may become significant.

In the settlement of the New World it is interesting to note the difference between those regions settled directly by European peoples and those regions settled not from the Old World, but from earlier settlements. Thus while New England was settled by Puritans from England, the Carolinas were settled by Caribbean planters. [8] Sugar cane was such a lucrative crop that every scrap of available ground on the Caribbean islands was planted in sugar cane plantations, but these plantations in turn needed to be supplied with foodstuffs and building materials, and so the Carolinas were settled in order to produce the sustenance and material goods required by the export-oriented monoculture of sugar plantations in the Caribbean. [9] The cultural differences between these regions persists to the present day, and is likely to continue to persist into the foreseeable future.

It would be reasonable to expect that a similar pattern will reveal itself in the settlement of the solar system, with some colonies being established directly from Earth, while other colonies may be established by Martian and Lunar settlements, once these latter have reached a sufficient state of development that they can mount outward colonization efforts themselves. [10] In this way, the characteristic differences between terrestrial and Martian civilization will be perpetuated throughout the solar system, and perhaps even throughout the galaxy, and may persist long after any rivalry between Earth and Mars is politically relevant.

But will it ultimately be terrestrial or Martian civilization that leaves the greatest imprint on the universe? The fact that Martians will have already made the leap from Earth to Mars, representing the first spacefaring diaspora, and the likely disproportionate scientific and technological knowledge and expertise in the Martian population to come, will predispose Martians to a central project for their civilization based on spacefaring. Once the Martians have assured their survival and independence, the solar system will be at their doorstep. Mars is the perfect base for a spacefaring civilization, with the lower gravity making the construction of a space elevator easier than on Earth, and being positioned close to the asteroid belt Thus even if a scientific and spacefaring civiization does not fully emerge on Earth, social conditions on Mars may be more favorable to such a development.



[1] Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?” The Philosophical Review, LXXXIII, 4 (October 1974): 435-50.

[2] I sometimes define civilization as an economic infrastructure joined to an intellectual superstructure by a central project. I regard this formulation as tentative. Mass societies may be too large and too diverse to be defined by a single central project, so a mass society may have several central projects, but no single, dominant project—or it may have no central project at all. Prior to the advent of mass society, regional civilizations (not yet having converged on planetary scale) were almost always strongly marked by a central project, which almost always was soteriological or eschatological in nature.

[3] V. Gordon Childe, “The Urban Revolution,” The Town Planning Review, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Apr., 1950), pp. 3-17. (Careful observers of the Indiana Jones films will notice that the archaeologist protagonist of the films cites V. Gordon Childe.)

[4] In brief, Childe’s list includes, 1) extent and density of settlements, 2) division of labor, i.e., craft specialization, 3) surplus value transferred to social elites (which might also be called “capital accumulation”), 4) monumental architecture, 5) social stratification, 6) writing, 7) science, 8) art, 9) trade, and 10) prioritizing residence over kinship. I briefly touched on Childe’s conception of civilization in terms of the urban revolution in my talk at the 2015 Starship Congress, “What kinds of civilizations build starships?” in which I also gave an exposition of my understanding of economic infrastructure and intellectual superstructure (cf. note [2]).

[5] Above in note [2] I said that I sometimes define civilization as an economic infrastructure joined to an intellectual superstructure by a central project; I also sometimes define a civilization as a network of cities bound by relationships of cooperation and conflict. I regard all of these formulations as tentative; the definitive definition of civilization has yet to be formulated. The definition of civilization in terms of a network of cities is obviously a practical characterization that could be established by means of archaeology; a definition of civilization as a central project linking infrastructure and superstructure is much more abstract, and for the same reason it is much more likely to be adaptable to unforeseen developments in the future.

[6] The assertion that planetary civilization is the natural teleology of civilization may be true for only one historical stage in the development of civilization (I explored this idea in Counterfactual Suboptimal Civilizations of Planetary Endemism and Addendum on Civilizational Optimality). It could be argued that the natural extent of a civilization grows over time, so that the earliest manifestation is a city-state with a surrounding region, then an empire, then a regional civilization, then a planetary civilization, then a system-wide civilization, and so on.

[7] These systems of meanings and values constitute part of the intellectual superstructure.

[8] Similarly, in South America Chile was settled for purposes of supply rather than monoculture export.

[9] New England also came to rely on export-oriented monoculture, but of tobacco rather than sugar, especially the “tobacco colonies” of the Chesapeake Bay region. While Caribbean islands were not large enough both to produce sugar for export and to produce their own food, there was sufficient land in New England for both export and staple crops.

[10] It is to be expected that most if not all of the earliest settlement enterprises will be financial failures, if historical analogy holds: “Many early colonial adventures—like Cartier’s voyages, the Panfilo de Narvaez expedition, and Raleigh’s Guiana and Roanoke projects—were characterized by gigantic losses. By the end of the 1620s every single English colonial company had failed both financially and organizationally, and every single early French trading company had been dissolved; by 1674, the Dutch West Indies Company had gone bankrupt for the first of two times.” (A Companion to the Literatures of Colonial America, edited by Susan Castillo and Ivy Schweitzer, p. 64)


{ 110 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeff Wright February 17, 2017 at 14:35

Now for us to build the canals


Brett Bellmore February 17, 2017 at 16:18

I would think a lot of this depends on whether there’s a terraforming effort, and how extensive it is.

Currently the surface of Mars is quite inhospitable. No magnetic field and a thin atmosphere implies high radiation levels. The thin atmosphere provides very little protection from meteors. And the air pressure is too low to breathe even if pure oxygen, but enough to carry dust. More of a sour spot than a sweet spot.

The easiest way to deal with all of this is to go underground. Tunnels, or maybe vaulted structures that are later buried. All the resources are available underground, minerals, water. In some areas there might be significant geothermal heat as yet.

If you want a fictional depiction of life on Mars, maybe Campbell’s “The Moon is Hell”.

Now, terraforming could provide Mars with a radiation shield, by actually constructing a large superconducting loop around the equator. Warming the planet could release enough CO2 to allow survival with just an oxygen tank and rebreather, and make simple inflated domes full of breathing gas practical. Creating a breathable atmosphere outside domes would require finding a source of inert gas to dilute any oxygen to survivable levels while maintaining a decent pressure, and lowering the CO2 level initially generated by evaporating the poles, perhaps by tying it up in vegetation.

Bringing in planetary quantities of inert gas would be a very time consuming process, it might actually be easier to engineer a biosphere that relied on CO2 as a dilutant, but for humans that would involve some huge biochemical changes.

I’d assume that, given the time to accomplish terraforming, the Martian culture would be shaped by life in tunnels and domes. They might not consider complete terraforming necessary, and be content with the creation of a planetary magnetic field and a thick enough atmosphere to eliminate the need for pressure suits.


Nick Nielsen February 17, 2017 at 17:15

I haven’t addressed terraforming in the above because I assume that, if a terraforming effort is undertaken on Mars, this will only affect human beings on Mars in the very long term — hundreds of years at the shortest scale of time, and more like thousands or tens of thousands of years. (I would, of course, like to write about terraforming in some detail.) I think long before that we will have the technology for ultra-light pressure suits that won’t be much more cumbersome than clothes, and a radiation shield such as you mention might be possible in the near- to mid-term. So while a part of Martian culture will be shaped by underground tunnels, I don’t think that it will be all that long until greenhouses on the surface are realistic.

Should an early Martian civilization get started, and then a terraforming effort is understaken later, Martian civilization will undergo a long but dramatic transformation as the mode of habitation on Mars changes. Martian civilization at the end of the process will be very different from Martian civilization at the beginning of this process. (I believe that Kim Stanley Robinson has treated this theme in his novels.)


jim moore February 17, 2017 at 16:27

What set of products and services will Mars provide the people of Earth to justify the enormous cost of trying to set up and maintain a civilization on Mars?

I don’t see anything that valuable on Mars.


Nick Nielsen February 17, 2017 at 17:07

When the New World was settled no one knew that sugar and tobacco would become export crops, and, as noted, almost all the early settlement efforts were financial disasters. Eventually, however, money was made.

Maybe Martian strawberries will taste absolutely incredible. We don’t know until we plant strawberries in Martian soil. Or it might be the Martian civilization itself that is valuable — the particular attitude of its people, and how they go about solving problems.


Michael February 17, 2017 at 17:51

‘I don’t see anything that valuable on Mars.’

How can you say that? we have not even started looking!


DCM February 18, 2017 at 18:29

Right. Wait’ll we’ve been living there a century.
Alas, I will never know the nature of Martian civilization. However, I have the satisfaction of knowing what it looks like there — which when I was a little kid was thought unlikely to happen before 2300 or so.


Daniel Suggs February 17, 2017 at 20:10

noun, ( often lowercase)
1. additional territory considered by a nation, especially Nazi Germany, to be necessary for national survival or for the expansion of trade.
2. any additional space needed in order to act, function, etc.

” … in order to remain healthy, species must continually expand the amount of space they occupy …” Friedrich Ratzel


jim moore February 20, 2017 at 11:47

Ok, I guess you are saying Mars is for Space Nazis.
(oh and Fred Ratzel is a Nazi who doesn’t know the first thing about biology or ecology, so quoting him does you no favors)


Paul Gilster February 20, 2017 at 15:02

Friedrich Ratzel was a geographer and ethnographer who published a commentary on Darwin. I don’t think we can blame him for the Nazis subsequent abuse of his term ‘lebensraum,’ as he died in 1904, and the later misuse of the term is generally blamed on a Swedish political scientist named Rudolf Kjellén. But I’m not sure why we’re talking about Nazis in the first place.


Daniel Suggs February 21, 2017 at 15:17

Sorry, guess maybe I should have struck the Nazi part. I was only showing the definition of the concept.
” … in order to remain healthy, species must continually expand the amount of space they occupy …”
Seems a good reason for why we will go there and beyond.


Paul Gilster February 22, 2017 at 9:42

No problem, Daniel — I figured that was what you meant.


Bill Osberg February 18, 2017 at 14:00

The most valuable service a Martian civilization would provide is to back-up the civilization on Earth. Indeed this is Elon Musk’s primary motive for going to Mars. Another service is the opportunity for continued expansion, something that is rapidly coming to an end on Earth.

Both of these are impossible to do on Earth, and I would think they are worth quite a lot.


DCM February 19, 2017 at 5:18

Yes, that’s right.


Hop David February 19, 2017 at 12:44

“Providing a back up for human civilization” is worthwhile but it isn’t a revenue stream.

Would be colonists suffer from the Home Depot syndrome. At Home depot it’s so easy to get PVC pipe, duct tape, grow lights, solar cells, etc. that we forget these things come from a planet wide infrastructure. Mining, manufacturing and transportation infrastructure that has taken millennia to establish.

It would likely take many decades or even centuries for a Martian civilization to become self sufficient. In the interim they need revenue streams.

The biggest obstacle to Martian civilization is Step Two in the South Park Underpants Fairy business model.


Alex Tolley February 19, 2017 at 16:07

It would likely take many decades or even centuries for a Martian civilization to become self sufficient. In the interim they need revenue streams.

If we couple the human colonization with the autonomous robotic approach this may take a lot less time. A local human population would also remove the latency issue for human intervention as well.
A Vision to Bootstrap the Solar System Economy


Hop David February 20, 2017 at 1:53

Autonomous robots? I don’t see that coming for awhile. I do see semi-autonomous robots with features that mitigate light lag latency. For example, the collision avoidance that many self driving cars exhibit. I did my own article on tele-robots Who Needs Humans. In that article I’m on the same page with you in that onsite humans remove the light lag latency. Also improves the bandwidth (immersive telepresence and robotic dexterity would take some bandwidth). Human on site can also maintain the robots.

But why would we send robots to build infrastructure on Mars? What is the profit motive? I see entities like Planetary Resources and Deep Space doing R&D to send robots to NEAs.

But I see light lag latency and bandwidth as a big obstacle unless the NEAs are parked in lunar orbit. Then light lag latency is 3 seconds, bandwidth from a comparable power source is thousands of times greater than a body a few A.U. away. And if we want to send humans, trip time is 3 days and launch windows open constantly.

There are also entities that hope to build infrastructure on the moon. These would have similar advantages to rocks parked in lunar obit: short trip times, frequent launch windows, low light lag latency and better bandwidth.

Profitable lunar or asteroidal mines are also a long shot. But they seem more likely than profitable Martian mines and industry.


Alex Tolley February 20, 2017 at 12:41

I was trying to suggest a way around the “Home Depot” syndrome. Robots extracting and refining feedstocks for printers might get you past that problem to bootstrap the colonists towards a [post] industrial civilization.

I tend to agree that profit is likely going to be the main motivator, but let’s not forget there are other reasons to emigrate to new lands. Will there be religious/political colonists scraping together the money to by an old SpaceX ITS ship as the Pilgrims did with the Mayflower?

While I would probably prefer living in a comfortable space city, teh lure of adventure and challenge is part of human nature. If transport was cheap, I could see people living ina city in orbit around Mars, taking trips down to the surface, much as we go to national parks today. And just as there are extractive industries near those parks, there will ne operations down on Mars to acquire the materials needed to support the orbital city so that it need not be a full recycling system.


Astronist February 17, 2017 at 17:12

In 2007, Charlie Stross wrote: “Mars is … well, the phrase “tourist resort” springs to mind, and is promptly filed in the same corner as “Gobi desert”. As Bruce Sterling has puts it: “I’ll believe in people settling Mars at about the same time I see people settling the Gobi Desert. The Gobi Desert is about a thousand times as hospitable as Mars and five hundred times cheaper and easier to reach. Nobody ever writes “Gobi Desert Opera” because, well, it’s just kind of plonkingly obvious that there’s no good reason to go there and live. It’s ugly, it’s inhospitable and there’s no way to make it pay. Mars is just the same, really. We just romanticize it because it’s so hard to reach.” In other words, going there to explore is fine and dandy — our robots are all over it already. But as a desirable residential neighbourhood it has some shortcomings, starting with the slight lack of breathable air and the sub-Antarctic nighttime temperatures and the Mach 0.5 dust storms, and working down from there.”

Charles Cockell has made the same point, comparing Mars with Earth’s Arctic and Antarctic, which, although vastly more hospitable and easier to access than Mars, have not yet spawned new civilisations.

Clearly, these criticisms of Mars settlement must be convincingly addressed before we are ready to speculate about what kind of civilisation might arise from Mars settlement. I’d appreciate it if Nick Nielsen would share his thoughts on this!

Oxford, UK


Brett Bellmore February 18, 2017 at 9:24

But it must be considered that the reason Antarctica hasn’t been colonized isn’t because it couldn’t have been. It’s because major nations couldn’t agree on how to parcel it out, and so just declared it off limits.

If you tried to colonize Antarctica, soldiers would show up to evict you! That’s the only reason there aren’t thriving colonies there already, as there are plenty of resources to support an economy.


tchernik February 19, 2017 at 13:57

Indeed. Give free way to human motivations (like greed) and even those remote places would be full of oil rigs and settlements around them.

Antarctica’s lack of settlements are due to the conscious choice of politicians and nations to not allow any such development, formulated in a time when such choice had no impact for them.

Now we are just locked in the status quo.


Patient Observer February 18, 2017 at 9:48

One reason Mars may hold attraction is because of its remoteness.

A more earthly example is the lure of Alaska for many (if only in dreams) is that the difficulty in reaching assures few will follow. The lure of the Gobi desert could also be high in other parts of the world as well – just not for most Western Europeans or Americans

There are many easy-to-reach but otherwise difficult places to live in the US for example but there is no lure. Again, its the difficulty of reaching a given place that contributes to attraction for many.


Brett Bellmore February 19, 2017 at 9:58

The problem here is that you’re not looking for “Further than the corner 7-11″ remoteness. You’re looking for “Too far away for an existing government to bother asking what I’m doing.” remoteness. You’re looking for “Out of sight, out of mind.” And, there’s no longer any place on Earth that’s THAT remote. That’s what Mars offers.

But the problem with Mars from that perspective is that Mars is large enough that it’s going to end up colonized by competing groups, and obviously so. So the real lure for the sort of people who’d be driven to colonize remote places is actually the asteroids and comets; Most of them are small enough that you’re not likely to get the same body hosting competing groups. (Ceres being a likely exception.) They also offer the prospect of your colony firing up some sort of propulsion system, and buying ever increasing remoteness.

For this reason, I don’t think Mars is going to attract the loner type colonist, or the eccentric minority group type colonies. I anticipate Mars being more a company town/gated community sort of environment, culturally. NOT the wild West.

The people who want to colonize so they can engage in unfettered cultural experimentation, or not have to deal with larger society asking what they’re doing, are going to go for the asteroids and comets. Mars is going to be a rather conservative place in that regard.

Might end up a place where tech billionaires get to try out THEIR ideas, though. Which is actually kind of frightening; Much as I like Musk, I’m not sure I’d find a society designed by him very pleasant.


Alex Tolley February 18, 2017 at 13:52

With all due respect to Charlie and Bruce, they miss te key point. Mars is a new place unfettered by existing territorial ownership and laws. Only the Chinese could relocate there and there is no reason for them to do that if they want to get away from China’s rule.

The oceans are the only international territories on Earth. This is what is attractive to “seasteaders”.

Mars represents a new frontier for humanity and I have no doubt that some people would accept the hardships in exchange for that freedom from Earth’s nationalisms.


DCM February 18, 2017 at 18:32

People have certainly crossed and lived in the Gobi since the Ice Age or before. One of them conquered most of Eurasia less than 1000 years ago.


Nick Nielsen February 19, 2017 at 15:19

Hi Stephen,

I’m not sure whether I should try to respond to you comment with comments of my own, or write another entire essay, as these are all very involved questions. In fact, I’ve heard these questions before, and when I was asked the question about Antarctica being easier to settle than Mars I responded in “The Human Future in Space” (

Everything you have quoted and everything you have said is correct in a narrow sense, but the big picture is entirely left out. It takes time to give an adequate exposition of the big picture, so I’ll think about whether it is helpful to pursue this further. For the time being, I will simply observe that the settlement of Mars will not take place in a social or technological vacuum — we have to take a synchronic perspective in which easier access to space, cheaper technologies, and the ability of small, well-financed groups to undertake space exploration and settlement will all play a role.



Astronist February 20, 2017 at 19:02

Nick, thanks, I found it. Your point about timescales is an interesting one.



Tim February 25, 2017 at 2:23

“As Bruce Sterling has puts it: “I’ll believe in people settling Mars at about the same time I see people settling the Gobi Desert. The Gobi Desert is about a thousand times as hospitable as Mars and five hundred times cheaper and easier to reach. Nobody ever writes “Gobi Desert Opera” because, well, it’s just kind of plonkingly obvious that there’s no good reason to go there and live. It’s ugly, it’s inhospitable and there’s no way to make it pay.”
There is one conceivable way it could pay. A private colony (like the Mars one group or Musk’s ambitions) could declare itself once established as a sovereign independent entity. the colonists’renounce their native countries citizenship; this frees them to not be bound by any earth law, regulations …TAXES!. They would be the ultimate tax shelter; rich people would invest in the “Bank of Mars” technically as a donation. The colonists would re-invest the money back on earth (like any bank) and support the colony off the returns while paying the shareholders (donors) back on earth tax-free interest. Only the bank of mars (the colonists) and the shareholders would know how much money they were making; no way the IRS would. They can’t “audit” a legally independent entity (the mars colony). The 1967 Celestial bodies Treaty forbids any gov from claiming sovereignty over any heavenly body. Like the Cayman Islands on steroids. The one thing of value an off-world colony would have of immediate value (unlike the Gobi desert) is its independence (if privately established) from any earth government. The ultimate in freedom; an attractant to would be colonists as well; no “extradition” treaties with earth to catch tax cheats (like Bernie Madoff) who decide the relocate.


Abelard Lindsey February 17, 2017 at 17:15

Binding Multiples.


Geoffrey Hillend February 17, 2017 at 17:30

Colonies on other planets will always remain science fiction. As a teenager I read Imperial Earth by Arthur C. Clark and I loved it. The story took place in the future when there was indigenous human colonists on Titan. It was very inspiring. According to Newton’s law of universal gravitation, Titan has a surface gravity of only 0.138g or fourteen percent of Earth’s gravity. Mars has a surface gravity of 0.38g. Unfortunately, there would be mutations in human bone morphology due to nature adapting to a weaker gravity as the result of many generations of people being born on these planets with much lower gravity. Even the gravity on Venus which is 90 percent Earth’s gravity could be a problem. Consequently, these Martians could never return to Earth since their bones would be too fragile as the result of being physiologically adapted to the weaker Martian gravity. These Martians would have long thin bones and would look different than us.

These problems also are important for space travel since the weightlessness of outer space causes health problems for space travelers. Muscle mass loss and bone mass loss are the result of zero gravity. This problem can be removed by spinning the spacecraft to produce artificial gravity. If the spacecraft is fast enough then, long term exposure will not be a problem.


Mauldred February 21, 2017 at 11:37

What about a spinning base? We might well end up building the final Martian cities in the shape of a giant rotating torus, magnetically levitating above a superconducting ring, furnished with inclined floors and rotating constantly to simulate a terrestrial gravitational force. This was actually considered by BTE-DAN from, who is a strong supporter of gravity wheels:

Unless of course Sonny White or his successor discovers a way to create artificial gravitational warp fields and we can line the entire base with q-thrusters, but I would not bet on it at the moment.


Geoffrey Hillend February 17, 2017 at 17:32

Of course we will still make bases for short terms living on Mars.


Geoffrey Hillend February 17, 2017 at 17:49

The only colonies on other planets will be Earth twin exoplanets, but not in this solar system.


Neil S February 17, 2017 at 18:19

It might be easier and cheaper to engineer humans to live, if not in Martian conditions, in conditions more easily attainable on Mars. Then the question “What is human?” would of course come up. Let’s hope people are more accepting when it does than they are now.


James Stilwell February 17, 2017 at 18:55

Living in the Mars gravity well at 62% of earth’s gravity will decondition the entire human body…degrade it…and until the gravity problem is resolved as it relates to 1000’s of settlers living on Mars…1000’s of scientists living in a giant space wheel orbiting the Moon may offer the next best human civilization…until an Earth Two is discovered and can be reached in one human lifetime…faster than light travel would change all of this…it might happen…an interstellar civilization could hardly exist when 500 years might be required to merely communicate one radio message one way between two or more worlds…


Michael February 18, 2017 at 6:46

‘Living in the Mars gravity well at 62% of earth’s gravity will decondition the entire human body…degrade it…and until the gravity problem is resolved as it relates to 1000’s of settlers living on Mars…’

Mars has ~38% the gravity of earth and we can build gravity wheels on the surface or inside mars to simulate earths gravity.


Brett Bellmore February 19, 2017 at 10:17

Not as easily as we could on the Moon, or any other airless body; Really large scale centrifuges have to be moving pretty fast, and doing so in air is problematic. For instance, a 1 g centrifuge 1km in diameter would have to be traveling about 70m/s. And that might be small enough to cause people motion sickness, larger centrifuges would be even faster.

No, I think the Martians will probably elect to just get by with Martian gravity, *if* the long term health effects aren’t awful.

And that’s what really bugs me; Planning colonization without having any real knowledge of the health effects of partial gravity. It’s long since time we put up a partial G research lab in orbit, to find out how much gravity people really need to remain healthy.


Nick Nielsen February 19, 2017 at 15:29

We could also build 1G rotating habitats in Mars orbit, or, better, build them in Earth orbit and send them to Mars full of people. I wrote about this in “A Martian Space Station” (

Also, it should be observed that the gravity problem can also be viewed as strongly selective conditions: most people will experience a degradation in their health due to low gravity, but it is likely that there will be at least a small number of persons for whom low gravity is not a problem. Individuals naturally tolerant to low gravity will have a natural advantage on Mars. In the long term, this will lead to the speciation of a Mars-exclusive population, but I think that any Mars-exclusive population will be a small minority in comparison to populations that travel between planets and non-planetary habitats.


Michael February 19, 2017 at 16:46

We don’t need the gravity all the time just when working, it would be easier to sleep on the Martian surface/underground and then work in the earth ‘g’ wheels which would be a lot smaller.


Joe February 17, 2017 at 21:32

When I read about ideas to settle or colonize Mars, I think of a similar place: Antarctica. Unlike Mars, Antarctica has normal gravity, breathable air, and is protected from radiation by the Earth’s magnetic field. And even though Antarctica is cold and dry, it’s a whole lot warmer and wetter than Mars. It’s also far easier to get to than Mars and cheaper to develop.

And yet despite all these relative advantages, there are no permanent colonies or settlements on Antarctica. (Permanent scientific bases with revolving crews don’t count.)

So if Antarctica is too harsh an environment for anyone to want to live there, the odds of humanity ever living on Mars are extremely low.


Brett Bellmore February 19, 2017 at 10:20

It’s not the harsh environment, it’s the Antarctic Treaty, which prohibits colonization. At this point, nobody expects that if you colonize Mars, soldiers will show up and remove you, which is what would happen if you attempted it on Antarctica.


Joe February 20, 2017 at 21:06

Antarctica was discovered around 1820, almost 200 years ago. This was long before any treaty banned colonization. It was also during the 19th century, when all major European powers where founding colonies all over the world. And yet nobody thought Antarctica was worth colonizing. I don’t see anything to change that point of view in the 21st century.


Astronist February 20, 2017 at 19:06

There’s a city with a third of a million people north of the Arctic Circle. The capital of Iceland is within a few hundred km of the Arctic Circle. That’s a good starting-point.


Geoffrey Hillend February 17, 2017 at 22:39

The problem with engineering humans to adapt to Martian gravity is not possible. Such an adaptation goes against the design limits of our bodies and organs which were designed for Earth’s gravity. In other words you’ll only get a something physically worse. It’s better so keep us the way we are. The good news is we don’t need to adapt to it since we have the intelligence to make technology which will eventually make living on Earth unnecessary like space stations, FTL interstellar travel as James Stilwell mentioned.


Gabriel Thelen February 18, 2017 at 1:05

Fantastic piece Nick, well done! Thank you. The promise of Mars is so great and vital to the survival and flourishing of humanity! Bit of pseudoscience creeping into the comments above. Martian gravity will not be a problem (find me one scientist who has any evidence that it will be!) and the radiation issue is greatly exaggerated. I expect going underground will be useful in some situations, but I suspect a large portion of the Martian civilisation will make use of a network of large, transparent geodesic domes.

I totally agree that Mars will be a key driver behind humanity becoming a truly spacefaring civilisation, as the advantages Mars will enjoy in this respect will be legion, but also, it will keep terrestrial civilisation united and looking outward. Mars will keep Earth civilised. Mars will be good for Earth just as North America and Australia have rejuvinated and enriched Western civilisation. And yes, Mars is an excellent springboard to the asteroid belt.


Brett Bellmore February 19, 2017 at 10:29

You are certainly NOT a mechanical engineer. I assure you a large transparent dome on Mars, with it’s current atmospheric pressure, and the lowest long term survivable internal pressure, would be a huge engineering undertaking. The cost would be terrifying compared to buried vaults and tunnels. Ten pounds per square inch, say? Even over a 500ft dome, the force would add up to 150 thousand tons.

That dome of Musk’s is insane from an engineering perspective, and I’m sure his own staff has told him that. Even if you were going to build a giant dome, (Which is a bad idea from a standpoint of redundancy and failure resistance.) you’d likely bury it under many yards of dirt to oppose the air pressure, and then just use edge to edge display panels to pretend it was transparent.


Daniel Suggs February 18, 2017 at 12:43

While I’m sure we will colonize Mars and learn to live there successfully, I wonder if that might be the only planet we ever colonize? Mars should be followed by huge wheel stations with simulated gravity, farming, mining of captured asteroids, and manufacturing. Once we are capable of living safely and comfortably in a station, why would we want to move back down into a gravity well?
I think we will build more, bigger and better habitats and move them about the solar system. Large hollowed out asteroids, spinning merrily through space and spreading everywhere out to the Kuiper Belt.
Barring discovery of FTL in the meantime, of course.


Joe February 18, 2017 at 23:25

Why not just build the huge wheel stations first and avoid the energy needed to land on and launch from Mars?


Brett Bellmore February 19, 2017 at 10:33

Mars has the potential to be terraformed in a modest period of time, (A hundred or so years, optimistically.) to be a shirt sleeve and respirator survivable environment, which could then endure long enough without constant maintenance to bridge a fall of civilization. That’s it’s big appeal: A second location where humanity might survive civilization collapsing long enough for it to rebuild.

Everywhere else (Except Earth.) requires civilization to remain functional in order to be survivable.


Jer February 18, 2017 at 14:22

Compelling and comprehensive piece but I am not convinced that pre-industrial history has anything to offer as analysis or precedent for ‘new’ martian civilization:
– we are as culturally different from pre-industrial people as they were from pre-agragarian foragers in the sense of not being self-sustaining generalists nor tribal-minded individuals (at least in the mid- to long-term). We prefer to have daily conversations/ collaborations with those 1000s of miles away over our neighbours -and- embrace a hyper-specialist inclination.
– we are culturally embracing a post-nationalism (despite recent politics) and a pre-‘post-scarcity’ self-interest system that would not create the type of exclusively-academic, exclusively-nationalistic, nor exclusively-corporo-industrial type of ‘bare-bones’ settlements that many would envision despite the likely idea that a few countries/industries may want to create a beach-head.
– as an international community we tend to embrace a hyper-preservationist, over-redundant, and over-planned approach to grand new adventures. The result is lack of spontaneous development and entrepreneurial mind-set at the start (witness: Antarctica).

So, with these in mind, what type of individuals, communities, and cultural identity could result? Easy. Overly-idle millionaire-adventure-philanthropists and remote-work-adventurers who seek a short-term work/ play/ investment opportunity which would then likely pivot into a long-term living/ working arrangement utterly different than the original mission. These individuals would be completely self-sufficient yet be caught in large-scale dealings with other entrepreneurs, larger interest groupings and, to a lesser degree, interests back on Earth. Perhaps the closest analogies would be silicon valley start-up techno-visionaries (business minded but involved in the daily work) now and the Railroad General Managers from the late 1800s who followed/ managed the railroad progress and technical issues but did not mingle with the workers or Board of Directors. The result would be a scattering of self-sustaining land compounds and orbital outposts. There would be no culture per se, but more of a loose assortment of work/ play associations. The only common interest would be in travelling/ transporting to/from Earth. Few civilizations are less romantic than this but even fewer are as dynamic, productive, and innovative.


Nick Nielsen February 19, 2017 at 15:43

I agree with most of what you say in regard to the short- and mid-term, but when costs of space travel come down and access to orbit becomes routine, other classes of persons and enterprises will find that Mars and non-planetary habitats offer an opportunity for them previously not available. As I said in a comment above, Mars settlement and eventually Mars civilization will not occur in a vacuum: there will be spacefaring and settlement and habitats and industry on the moon and in Earth orbit, in addition to the legacy civilization on Earth.

In regard to historical analogies, which a couple of comments have mentioned, the trick is to sift out the essentials of history due to human nature from the historical events due to mere contingency, including the contingencies of terrestrial geography and topography. So terrestrial history will have much to teach us about the human future beyond Earth, but it is not the case that every lesson of terrestrial history will be applicable to extraterrestrial history. Human nature will follow us into space until we artificially alter ourselves or enough time passes that space exploration and settlement has a selective effect and we continue our evolution under changed selection pressures. As long as human nature persists, what terrestrial history teaches us about human nature will remain relevant.


James Stilwell February 18, 2017 at 17:41

Living in 62% less than earth’s gravity deconditions the human body. Putting an underground gravity wheel for 10,000 people on Mars sounds like quite an undertaking. I suppose when Earth reaches 20 billion people we will have no choice but to get it done. Birth rates may go down but they will eventually reach 20 billion people sooner or later.


Andrei February 19, 2017 at 7:04

I think you’re correct there, and that is the main reason any Mars colony never will be especially large. (Sadly I think you’ll be right on the 20 billion also, and that might lead to the breaking point for our planet as well.)


Geoffrey Hillend February 18, 2017 at 18:12

Quote by Gabriel Thelen: “Bit of pseudoscience creeping into the comments above. Martian gravity will not be a problem (find me one scientist who has any evidence that it will be!) and the radiation issue is greatly exaggerated. I expect going underground will be useful in some situations, but I suspect a large portion of the Martian civilisation will make use of a network of large, transparent geodesic domes. ”

Find one scientist who believes that Martian gravity will not be a problem for many generations of people being born on Mars. I don’t think you will. Any scientist will agree with what I have said. One does not have to be a scientist to corroborate an idea but just have knowledge of the science behind it which are based on clear rules and limitations. Therefore anyone can corroborate this idea but not without knowledge of the science and how an idea fits into an invariant system; There are conservation laws which are absolute and invariant principles which are the same everywhere in the entire universe. These allow scientists or anyone to make predictions of what will happen.

Before making a snap judgment that something is pseudo science without really understanding it, I suggest you do some research on the subject to support your opinion.

As I have said before, many generations of humans being born on Mars will result in bone mutations which will make these people have less or handicapped physical capabilities which is why I don’t think anyone will go alone being part of a Martian colony or any other planet in the solar system colony that will cause genetic mutations in their children.


Geoffrey Hillend February 18, 2017 at 18:33

Of course I don’t agree with the Martians are coming and theyre human paper. The human Martians would have much weaker bones since the DNA would adapt to the weaker gravity and not the breaking of bones since the weaker bones would ONLY be a problem when they returned to Earth and faced a stronger gravity since bones would not know how to adapt to a stronger gravity that did not exist in it’s indigenous environment.


Andrei February 19, 2017 at 7:02

I am sorry Geoffrey Hillend, but that is not how genes work at all.
It require selection for a change to happen, and since there’s no other selection going on than the kind that happen due to human stupidity.
The human species is only in a very slow – long term decline as a species. (Due to random chromosome damage and introduced damage to the DNA we sometime cause ourselves.)


Alex Tolley February 19, 2017 at 13:02

Andrei, you are forgetting genetic drift, which will be important in a small colony.

As for the current human population, there is evolution going on, but the drivers are more social than physical. On top of that, you will have technology driven changes through genetic engineering, which will increase the possibility of change. Humans may either recover a lot of the genetic diversity we have lost, or we may even speciate if isolated populations have enough time to change on their own.


Andrei February 19, 2017 at 15:59

You’re absolutely correct about genetic drift.
I did not mention that since I tried to keep my reply short and only addressing the basic fact that even though complex, DNA is a passive molecule, and do not ‘adapt’. =)

There certainly is a social selection going on.
But that is not ‘evolution’ instead it’s one of the underlying reasons for that same genetic drift.

In the end you might be right, the persons that might be selected will be extraordinary in one or several ways, both for learned skills, but perhaps also for having a lower risk of developing life threatening cancer or other maladies. Not to mention they need to be less affected by living part of whole of their lives in lower gravity. If any genetic therapy is added to that – they might indeed be considered as a new human species.

Genetic diversity is extremely important to preserve, both among humans and other species. We’re facing the Antropocene, a human made mass extinction. We need to do what we can, because we don’t know how bad thing will turn out to be. One reason for this suggestion, or the website as a whole – is to have a second leg to stand on in case of a worst case scenario play out in the end.


Gabriel Thelen February 18, 2017 at 22:41

Humans will adapt to Mars. Of course they will be affected, and unless a Martian does a great deal of physical work, he will not be as strong as a terrestrial human. No big deal.


ProjectStudio February 19, 2017 at 0:13

The Expanse, now in its second season is doing a fair enough job (for a TV Scifi series) describing the emergence of both Martian and a ‘Belter’ civilisations. Weak bone structure for most – exposure to earth gravity outside a water tank is a form of torture – while the elite are supplemented from birth with special treatments so they can travel to earth and survive.

People will go out for the resources and opportunities to be found there. Some will stay and adapt.

It’s likely Antarctica will become more settled in over the next century as global temperatures rise. Plentiful fresh water one of the chief resources.

One of the things Mars has that Antarctica does not – a regular day/night cycle. Part of what makes Antarctica so harsh is the long winter night.


Alex Tolley February 19, 2017 at 12:57

Antarctica is so cold that people stay indoors most of the time. So electric lights create that day/night cycle if you want it.

Unless the Antarctic treaty changes, there won’t be any colonization of that continent. If all the glaciers on the continent melt, then I suppose there is no value to the treaty anyway, its purpose obsoleted.


Albert A Jackson February 19, 2017 at 23:00

The Expanse is great fun, the best realization of 1940s and 1950’s Solar System science fiction space opera I have ever seen … homages of Heinlein , Asimov and Clarke everywhere. Indeed seems the Martians are starting to emerge more this 2nd season.


Richard February 19, 2017 at 1:54

The value of the new colony will be extremely hard to predict. There’s the obvious “human backup” that Musk talks about. But there may be all sorts of far more simple attractors: think about the increasingly ludicrous extreme sports on Earth and the attempts to set records when all the important stuff is done: highest mountains, visiting the poles, circuimnavigation. For the adventure-lovers Earth is about done.

On Mars all that will be new. It will attract the ultra-adventurers. The footage that comes from it will be new and unique. The new colony will appear vigorous, adventurous, brave. The low gravity will add to their apparent super-human feats.

That may all sounds like a bad reality show but I think it shouldn’t be underestimated in how it will set the tone and image of the new colony.

Added to that the colony will also need to be creative and self-sufficient in many technical areas. Free of huge industrial, corporate, bureaucratic and regulatory systems the new colony will be able to develop and deploy far faster. Again this will show them as leaders and innovators.


Phil February 19, 2017 at 3:12

I wont add to either side of the argument except to say that I would like to know how much protection the remnant Martian crustal magnetic fields might offer to settlements built in the right place. I think at their strongest they are a fair percentage of the Earth’s field strength?



Michael February 19, 2017 at 11:20

We could give Mars a powerful magnetic field again by placing two superconductor loops at the poles, it is very cold there so superconductors will work quite well. If they are then given enough power they should reach through the planet and connect up to form a much larger field of protection. I am not sure if the created field will be powerful enough to draw in iron containing dust in the atmosphere to darken the ice near the poles and sublime the polar ice caps though.


Alex Tolley February 19, 2017 at 16:13

Do you have some numbers to describe such a system – mass, power, field strength?


Brett Bellmore February 20, 2017 at 11:12

Well, here’s an analysis for Earth, discussing the possibility of augmenting our field during a magnetic reversal:

Mars would likely be easier, being somewhat smaller. The current requirements are not outrageous, it could take a considerable period to charge up the coils.


Michael February 21, 2017 at 4:47

Brett thanks for the link, I was not aware of this document. Mars has a much smaller physical size, further way and we don’t need such a huge field that we have around the Earth. I would have thought it would have been much better to build two coils around the very cold poles as it would require much less digging and cooling requirement. It is a surprisingly small amount of power required, giga-watts, to set up and megawatts to maintain and the power can be delivered by a staged MHD quickly and easily. We could add more power if there is CME aimed towards the planet if needed. These fields could also be used to gather hydrogen/helium from the solar wind to produce water on dry vacuum worlds such as the moon and mercury.


Michael February 21, 2017 at 4:50

Forgot to add that the magnetic properties of the planet may aid the fields creation and permanence, Mars is cooler internally and so will be below the curie point for a fair amount.


Brett Bellmore February 21, 2017 at 13:12

No, building up the field if a CME is anticipated wouldn’t be feasible; The coils would have tremendous inductance, and store a huge amount of energy, you’d never be able to appreciably boost the field in time. And, if the coils were capable of holding enough field for an emergency like that, you’d just charge them up to that point to begin with; Maintenance power requirements aren’t much of a function of the field strength.

Polar coils would require much higher currents, given their smaller size, and with the field being more concentrated around them, could end up rendering a good part of the poles unusable.


Michael February 21, 2017 at 14:44

Each polar conductor is coiled up to make a multi turn construct and therefore carries the same current but delivers the same overall field strength as an equatorial one. As you state it may be better to have the field at max strength all the time than to change it. Now as for the high flux density the polar regions will be off limits just due to the temperature anyway.


Brett Bellmore February 19, 2017 at 17:40

The lowest temperatures reached at the Martian poles are low enough for the highest temperature superconductors we have currently. But the equator is a better place for the coils to be located, from an electromagnetic engineering standpoint.

There are passive heat radiating approaches which could probably cool the coil to cryogenic temperatures, and keep it there, involving materials with engineered heat radiating properties. They’d work even at the equator, due to Mars’ very thin atmosphere.

But we want to do something about that atmosphere. Releasing a feasible amount of “super greenhouse gasses” would heat Mars enough that the CO2 deposits at the poles would evaporate, and raise the atmospheric pressure to the point where you could walk around with just a breathing mask, and people could live in cheap inflatable domes instead of heavily built pressure vessels.

Doing that would interfere with passive radiative cooling of the equatorial coils, though, as that would rely on the atmosphere allowing heat to radiate away unimpeded. Maybe by then we’d have higher temperature superconductors. If not, well, keeping the coils refrigerated would be a minor expense for a planetary economy.

Think of the “atmosphere plant” in the Burroughs novels; The equatorial coil might end up with the same status in a real martian civilization.


Robert L February 19, 2017 at 13:18

A very interesting piece. I am not convinced of the relevance of Byzantium, which was part of the same geographical and political world as Rome; a better analogy is the UK and Australia, which was only reachable by a very long and dangerous voyage, and was a dauntingly alien and hostile world when you got there. The analogy is not particularly upbeat – the subsequent history of Australia is largely of cruel compulsory increases of population by deportation for crime in the 18th-19th centuries, and the export of unwanted orphans, and bribing voluntary colonists with cheap fares, in the 20th; in the 21st century when UK couples emigrate it is often a move desired more than one party than the other, and marriages frequently break down with one party wishing to return to the UK and with serious consequences over the custody of children. And Australia has surfing and beaches and is only 17 hours from the UK.

One cannot reasonably expect a Mars colony to be any more attractive as a living environment than the colony in the film Aliens (but without the aliens, of course) with nothing to do except mine raw materials, and science. Both those things can already be done to a great extent robotically, and genuine AI is probably in the pipeline. I am sure we will go to Mars, like we went to the South Pole and Everest and the Moon, as a kind of international sporting contest, but I am much less certain about setting up home there.


Alex Tolley February 19, 2017 at 16:17

There will be a lot more to do on Mars than mining. Just a few of the jobs are evident watching a scifi tv series like Deep Space 9. Distilling quality spirits and brewing quality beer for a start.

Mining might be the least important job, other than to extract water and basic feedstocks. Quarrying for building materials will probably be best done by machinery, the more autonomous the better.


Alex Tolley February 19, 2017 at 13:22

I thought that the surface radiation on Mars was well known to be damaging. A lifetime on Mars will result in exposure to GCRs of several orders of magnitude greater than on Earth. Living on the surface will require not only greater radiation resistance from our colonists (another Darwinian driver for long term evolution, Andrei) but also all the organisms we bring along, from our crops and even our microbiome.

To me, this suggests subsurface living. The best depiction of such Martian civilization I have read is Alexander Jablokov’s River of Dust.

I think it will be a lot easier to pipe sunlight down to the subsurface to avoid radiation as proposed by O’Neill with his space colonies or to illuminate artificially as we are already doing on Earth for indoor farming. I would bet on the latter approach as it is more flexible, and making solar collectors and LED lights should be quite feasible as a Martian industry.

Speculation. Elon Must has proposed creating fast boring tunneling machines to ease traffic congestion on Earth. The assumption is that this is another Earth technology that will allow vertical expansion and facilitate hyperloop construction. But what if the ultimate goal is to build underground living space on Mars? The masses would require his ITS Mars transport system to transport such equipment.

Mars: First Radiation Measurements from Planet’s Surface


david lewis February 19, 2017 at 17:14

The dreams of youth …. Alas, colonization of the red planet isn’t so easy.

What do we do for power? Solar? No, dust storms rule that out. Wind? Wind is more reliable on Mars, but sadly the atmosphere is less than 1/100 of that on Earth. Fossil fuels? I doubt it. Nuclear? How do we get a nuclear reactor there? And when we do, how do we refuel it?

Gravity? Sadly we don’t even know just how much we fragile humans need to survive and reproduce. And it’s not so easy to find out.

We could try to simulate such a rotating spacecraft on Mars via the use of trains running on a circular track, but how do we build it? What do we use to power a vehicle that runs at hundreds of kilometers per hour?

Agriculture? What do we do when a week-long dust storm destroys our crops?

The biggest obstacle though might be funding. We all know that the world isn’t going to just decide to work together, like rational beings, and toss 100-200 billion dollars a year at Mars research with the aim of future colonization.

In time we might build a robotic economy there (much as was suggested for the moon a few posts back). That would help, but until then colonization isn’t going to happen – much as I wish it were otherwise.


Brett Bellmore February 21, 2017 at 13:22

Probably orbiting solar power stations, as have been proposed for Earth. They’d be easier around Mars, as the synchronous altitude is quite a bit lower. (About 20,400km for Mars, vs 46,100km for Earth.) Rectennas would not be appreciably effected by dust storms, and the usual political/military issues, (Stationing multi-gigawatt orbiting death ray stations in line of sight of other countries…) aren’t relevant.

The Martian moons would be an easy source of material, assuming you didn’t just build in Earth orbit, and use the power to run high efficiency thrusters to get there.


Geoffrey Hillend February 19, 2017 at 19:18

With better space travel technology, heavy shielding can be used to block the cosmic rays, ultra violet rays etc. Humans can certainly survive a short term stay one Mars such as months and a few years, but I still think the idea of Martian colonists will always remain science fiction due to the ethics of it. Who is going to want to go along with a mad science experiment which is a Martian colony when it is completely unnecessary. Improved rocket science and space travel technology and orbiting space stations whith full scientific instruments and nuclear power will make long stays on the Martian surface superfluous.

I call a Martian colony a mad science experiment because there are too many unknowns to subject the human body. We don’t really know what the effects of a lower gravity will have on it’s birthing process and growth process. Will having a baby by a woman become more difficult due to bone loss etc. Will the baby grow wrong in the womb? What are the long term effects of having thinner bones or becoming taller on our organs? What if the life expectancy decreases in some way though the developmental process of bone growth from youth to adult? All admit this is not my field of expertise but I does not take much knowledge to see that people will not be lining up to become physically altered Martians in a Martian colony where that is not necessary. Experiment on monkeys or something. There is still ethics involving even that.


Michael Spencer February 20, 2017 at 9:45

Any cultural geographer will point out the silliness of a Mars settlement: how do our settlers generate the wealth needed to live? To purchase what they cannot create- for many decades? How do they pay rent, buy groceries?
Answer- they cannot. While it’s a topic too complex for comments let me summarize by pointing out that at the wrong end of a gravity well there are no exploitable resources. Mars will be like Antarctica, forever depending on the kindness of Terra.

True wealth will be found in mining and manufacturing ,all right- in the asteroids, where value added activities will expand locally and attract far off markets.

Just like settlements on Earth have done for countless millennia.


Alex Tolley February 20, 2017 at 15:32

How in the world do you come to this conclusion?

1. To pay for external goods and services that are needed, Martians can sell all sorts of informational goods, as well as martian objects, real estate, tourism….. the list is quite endless.

2. Once the colony is established and reasonably self-supporting, the economy runs just like any other economy, with tech colonists specializing and providing goods and services between the individuals and companies.

The assumption that the colony must be self-supporting financially isn’t a requirement either, as it could be financed by groups on Earth for their own purposes.

For all the failure modes of such a colony/civilization, economics does not strike me as a problem.


Michael Spencer February 20, 2017 at 16:12

First let me say that I am delighted to engage on a topic that has bothered me for a long time: is settlement on Mars (or anyplace off Earth) analagous to historical human settlement patterns?

And while you offer some intriguing ideas for export (I’d include computer srvices like programming and the like), I’m still envisioning huge amounts of external support for many decades. My thinking is that traditional human settlement depended on trade, agriculture, and cheap transportation; none of these apply to Mars. Even the most well-funded colonial attempts in the New World started farms and resource exploitation upon landing; none of these apply to Mars either. Historical settlements without benefit of funding or planning such as those of Mesopotamia, or indeed western central America, all depended on resources and transportation.

Even if they did find a revenue stream what sort of life will these Martians enjoy buried in the regolith?

Enthusiam for extra-terran civilization- an enthusiasm I share- has put the cart before the horse. Is there a ‘new paradigm’, as the kids like to say? One in which countless and endles dollars flow from Earth to Mars? In return for what, exactly? Martian rocks? OK, put me down for a few grams.

What else? Tourism? That’s become a bit of a canard- just look at how full ISS is now of tourists! Or all of the Bigelow Hotels on orbit, now full! Disingenuous, you say, there being very limited access to space and only through the Russians? Maybe. But I daresay that if there really were money to be made on Earth orbit the problems would have been solved by now.

And the problems of living in Earth orbit, gargantuan as they are, become miniscule compared to eking out a living in poisonous soil with a poisonous atmosphere subject to stunning tempratures- and radiation, too.

It’s been said by others that living in the deserts of Namibia is all but impossible even though there is clean air and water (after a fashion, but still). Farming? Trade? Nope. Indeed the Hawaiian Islands experience a trade deficit, not because subsistenace isn’t possible- it is- but who wants subsistence living?

Still, sign me up.


Alex Tolley February 20, 2017 at 21:57

We’ve had 2 posts on martian agriculture. I don’t recall any showstoppers. The arguments mostly revolved around which crops, possible animal husbandry and how best to grow crops.

Low cost space transport is a problem. Whether you buy it or not, Musk is claiming he can get the cost of a trip to Mars down to the price of median US house, and that includes a trip home if you cannot stick it. While I’m skeptical, I don’t see any inherent reason why costs cannot decline substantially. Reusability of the transport and frequent flights, just as with airlines is the key. Currently, it is a chicken and egg situation – tourists won’t go unless prices are low, but who will drive down those prices without a proven market. Some NewSpace companies are attempting the “build it and they will come” strategy. If a return trip to Mars was priced at around the cost of a year’s global travel today, I suspect there would be a lot of takers, as long as the flight was comfortable. And if the flight time could be reduced from months to weeks or even days, it would be a trip for the masses.


Robert L February 20, 2017 at 11:29

The idea that humans will physically evolve to cope with conditions on Mars is at first sight problematic, because evolution takes place over very, very long periods and because it depends on those less well adapted to the environment dying off before they reproduce in larger numbers than the well-adapted do; medical interventions will presumably greatly reduce this preferential mortality of the less-well-adapted, unless we are in a seriously dystopian environment. It is possible however that medicine will take the place of mortality, by forbidding reproduction by those who have maladaptations which look as if they are genetically determined. Indeed I think you would have to do this because of the ethical and practical problems of permitting the birth of those who are profoundly disabled (in the context of Mars, even if they would be absolutely fine on earth). In other words, compulsory eugenics – which most would regard as profoundly dystopian. Of course we know virtually nothing about how human reproduction would work on Mars, but either it won’t work at all (the more likely outcome, I would have thought) in which case you don’t have a society; or it would work for some but not others, and the state would have to permit it or prohibit it accordingly – in which case, dystopia.


James Stilwell February 20, 2017 at 13:23

Glad I could squeeze this in…Think of it this way…
Arthur C. Clarke wrote a beautiful little book called the City and the Stars, a wonderful story about an underground city of the distant future called Diaspar…Let’s supposed a huge underground cavern will be discovered on Mars, large enough for a thick forest of trees to add oxygen to the sealed cavern’s atmosphere, and large enough to include a 1,000 acre lake, and high enough for ten story buildings…Perhaps 10,000 humans will be brave enough to try living in the tough environment and on a rotating basis, and perhaps…Science being Science, we will make major advances in human physiology…and zoology…and botany…and the artilects…we may gain an important foothold on Mars and in maybe 100 generations the Earthlings slowly become Martian…Large heads on long thin necks, long hands and even longer fingers…they may have large eyes and no body hair but they will be as intelligent as anyone…
This is Diaspar II…
And in the meantime someone discovers the key to a faster than light engine somewhere along these 100 generations, from either planet…Wouldn’t you know it…And after all that hard work…this arm of the galaxy opens up and overpopulated overworked conflict-ridden Earth can finds its way back to sanity…you already know what over-population might do to earth…we need a ray of hope…and Mars is a lot closer in time than Alpha Centauri is traveling at a million miles an hour…I think it’s about 3000 years…


Charley February 20, 2017 at 15:11

It’s so wonderful to see so many thoughtful and mature ideas here on this particular topic. While I’m enthused about the idea of space exploration as the next guy, I also realized that there are limitations to what we as a living organism and as people can do in outer space. We’ve had too much Star Wars and Star Trek and fighting Klingons and so forth and so on, in which situations are treated as if they were extensions of living here on earth, rather than the horrendous difficulties that are actually out there.

People who go to Mars will undoubtedly suffered physiologically all sorts of bodily changes which would probably in the long run preclude them from ever coming back to their home planet, even for a visit. This will probably be even especially true after several generations of becoming adapted to the Martian environment. The bottom line here is that if this is going to be accomplished, it’s going to have to be recognized that the people who go and are going to set up a colony are going to be there to stay, and they won’t be coming back. That is, after all, the essence of being explorers is it not?

This is going to require a special dedicated human being who is willing to sever ties with home and realizes that their lives are now going to start their where their old lives have ceased to exist. Once that is realized I think then Martian colonies will be successful in that context. As for the infrastructure required to establish this colony just what exactly are they going to do as regards to money? It seems like they will have very little if anything to engage in trade with with respect to earth, except perhaps as a tourist destination. A case in point, will serve as an example here.

It’s been long touted the idea that nuclear fusion, if it is to result in a efficient energy system should use as its fundamental basis a isotope of helium called helium-3 as one of its fundamental input into the fuel cycle. But how many here are aware of the fact that there is even now attempts to produce nuclear fusion using very, very common materials which will produce absolutely no radioactivity and it is being pursued even now? I’m talking about fusion reactions which produce NO neutrons are radioactivity whatsoever and use as their input fuels ordinary hydrogen (has just one proton) like an ordinary water and boron in the form of one of its isotopes and when the fusion reaction occurs, it produces nothing but helium . Thus you put into the fuel cycle nonradioactive materials and you get nonradioactive materials out as well as energy. So why do you need to mind the rare isotope of helium, helium three, when you have plenty of hydrogen and boron right here on earth ? You can see here that there is very little monetary incentivizing which off world colonies could provide to earth as a means and a basis for sustained trade with their native planet.

It seems to me that aside from the asteroids which they claim will be great sources of metals. For example that the course can be utilized here on Earth, there really is not going to be any large-scale needs that Mars, for example, will provide us. And again as that emphasized in so many other places. Just where is this money going to be found to establish a colony on Mars that will not be self-sustaining ? Space will always appear to be destination for those who are simply adventuresome and wish to rough it out, rather than as a viable home away from home if you will. It would be far better for us to deal with an exploding population here on earth by in acting population controls, especially in Third World countries such that everyone can have a shot at a decent life for themselves and their children, then to export at the cost of trillions of dollars individuals to colonize distant worlds.


Michael Spencer February 20, 2017 at 16:20

I’d expand on your comments about the asteroids.

It’s true that the technology needed to expoit the asteroids- zero-G mining, minerals separation/ smelting, and robust, complicated in situ construction- are daunting. Yet even so these are problems that are within the realm of resolution.

Our efforts must focus on developing the ability to create wealth from natural resources, and we must eschew gravity wells. We must once and for all recognize that for space to be ours we must build space ships. And they must be built in space. It is a huge leap, a leap made all the more difficult by this mad discussion about ‘settling’ Mars or even Luna, a discussion that is pushing true exploitation to the right by dozens of decades. Lunacy indeed.

Our biggest single problem is crawling out of the gravity well. Once out we should stay out- until someone invents antigrav plating, one supposes :-)


George King February 20, 2017 at 15:20

Early on, a large part of the Martian economy may consist of performing research and exploration services for funders back on Earth. With the Martians in turn spending some of the credits earned by providing those services to purchase goods and services from Earth.

Our current capability to conduct research and exploration of Mars via remotely launched robotic craft no doubt pales in comparison to what could be done with humans on Mars.

At the very outset, humans potentially could oversee, trouble-shoot, and repair hardware that we’ve already sent there.

But once Martian industrial and tech capacity reached a certain point, we wouldn’t even need to launch fully assembled hardware from our gravity well to theirs. The Martians could fabricate the hardware from plans sent by interplanetary e-mail. Or perhaps even from plans developed in collaboration with Earth scientists incorporating the Martians’ own direct experience with operating on the planet.

Albeit, for a while, likely using an existing stockpile of prefabricated components for items/materials that could not as-yet be manufactured on Mars.

I would imagine that it’s just a bit easier to fabricate a sufficiently serviceable, e.g., robotic rover if one doesn’t have to design it to survive launch from Earth, then more than fifty million kilometers of deep space travel, and finally entry, descent and landing on Mars.

Certainly easier to upgrade or replace it if it’s mostly fabricated and assembled on Mars in the first place. Such that ultimate mission success or failure would no longer hinge on a one-only-shot piece of hardware being over-engineered to be robust to the nth degree.

In that vein, this Wikipedia piece suggests that many industrial raw materials potentially could be more or less reasonably available on Mars:

(Producing materials such as are produced currently by our petrochemical industry likely would be more of a challenge, absent some remarkable discoveries about ancient Mars.)

Martians would be able not only to facilitate obtaining science on the planet, but also to analyze that science as well. There’s no need for the complexity, expense, and delays of a sample return mission when you have staffed science labs right there on the planet.

The whole multi-year and expensive Earth-based process of research mission design, production of research hardware, placement of the hardware on Mars, analysis of results, and design of followup missions could be condensed into quickly executed pragmatic and interactive steps if done instead on Mars.

As the matter stands now, we’re locked in for several years to what we can do with hardware designed and sent years prior – subject to the occasional innovative retasking of hardware designed for a different application. And if we want to do followup based on what we learned with the current hardware, it then takes several years more before we can get followup hardware in place – assuming that the followup mission survives the budget axe.

On Mars, in contrast, material could be analyzed in a fully equipped lab and then any hardware design changes could be made and either old or new equipment put back in the field literally before a followup mission could get off the ground back here on Earth.

And put back in the field with current state-of-the-art design rather than years-old designs and technology from back at the time prior to the last launch window.

That enhanced capacity likely will have value back here on Earth.

And – as the author suggests – once the Martians have that research and exploration infrastructure up and running, it’s a natural extension from intraplanetary exploration to exploration and development out into the remainder of the solar system.

Mars would offer closer proximity to many objectives (including the asteroid belt), less launch and orbit escape energy requirements, and additional potential launch windows in comparison to Earth. All with human staff support on site in a Mars Settlement to oversee and conduct those complex operations. Potentially becoming a key cog in a developing interplanetary spacefaring economy.

If later generations of Martians (in whole or in part) do become adapted to the low-gravity Martian environment, perhaps that will additionally help make them better suited to tolerate the micro- and low-gravity environments encountered during such continued exploration and development of the remainder of the system.

(I would note that – in spite of our evolving in a one g environment – we nonetheless are capable of enduring and to an extent operating under multi g loads during, for example, launch and reentry without our purportedly “evolved for only one g” bones breaking from the increased loads. I would submit that there’s still plenty of science to be done before any final conclusions – positive or negative – can be drawn about the effect of long duration living in .38g on either the original settlers or later generations of Martians.)

With individual Martians specializing in the research and exploration service economy, the personal wealth that they generate then can flow into the local intraplanetary Martian economy. They will be paying for goods and services produced locally by other Martians instead specializing in such things as food production and preparation, health care, running honky-tonks, playing music in those honky-tonks, etc., etc., etc.

Throw in some “reality” and true reality shows for Terran consumption and some high-end Martian crafts such as jewelry to be sold for a dear price back on Earth and before you know it you have an economy.

I would imagine that the Martian economy initially simply could use Earth-based media of exchange associated with accounts maintained back on Earth. That certainly would be sufficient initially to facilitate interplanetary commerce. Arguably, all that you need is some way of tracking the exchange of value for goods and services, with the medium of exchange consisting these days basically simply of electronically stored information.

Ultimately, however, Martians would want to develop a real-time medium of exchange at least for local intraplanetary commerce. The time delays and occasional interruptions (during, e.g., solar conjunction) in communicating financial account information between Mars and Earth likely would become bothersome rather quickly as the local Martian economy grew and diversified.

Perhaps the local Martian currency – whether also in physical or instead exclusively in electronic form – could be called the tanpi, as an homage to Burroughs’ Barsoom.

Yes, yes, there are many hurdles yet to be overcome before a successful Mars Settlement becomes a reality.

But, no, it is not too early to discuss how that civilization potentially might evolve.


Ron S February 20, 2017 at 17:57

I just read the article and skimmed the comments. On that basis I will offer a couple of brief comments.

To begin, someone will discover and exploit a justifiable long-term basis for going to Mars first, not go first and then figure out how to make it workable. That is, the commercial/economic “business” plan comes first, on the basis of something that can be done with or on Mars better or cheaper and sustain that advantage over a long, long time horizon, inclusive of the high human and economic cost of going and staying there. Unless we devolve to a Soviet style civilization and 5-year plans (“Here are your orders, comrade.”)

Second, my expectation is that any species with the advanced capability of establishing and sustaining a civilization (not just a science outpost) on a barren planet would have absolutely no reason for doing so. I certainly cannot think of one, other than simplistic and unrealistic ones based on wishful thinking. I don’t say this with the intent to offend.


DCM February 21, 2017 at 4:54

It’s likely you’d have to go to Mars before discovering and exploiting a justifiable long-term basis for anything about it.
Hard to know. Columbus’ generation wanted a short, untroubled route for commerce with eastern Asia. His few European predecessors here weren’t part of any long scale enterprise, just wanderers and fishermen.

One reason might be the long term development of planetary scale engineering.


Andrew Palfreyman February 20, 2017 at 18:07

In a scant few generations, humans on Mars will be incapable of returning to Earth unaided by exoskeletar assistance. People prefer their options to remain open and so colonisation of Mars will not be popular. Rather, it does present an opportunity for short vacations.

It’s also an opportunity, after terraforming is complete (100-500 years) to establish a planet-wide Nature Reserve. Animals will be able to evolve in exotic ways, with a whole menagerie of surprising phenotypes.

Imagine, for example, leopards, thinned out and oversized, able to leap one hundred metres in a single bound. It might be quite wonderful.


Bruce Mayfield February 21, 2017 at 14:32

And these Martian leapin’ leopards would have an easy prey items: any newcomers from Earth.


Stephen February 20, 2017 at 23:45

The following forum states that the Soviets experimented with rats in lower gravity and found that gravity as low as 0.3 g to be sufficient to prevent serious health problems: .
Regardless, I strongly suspect Venus’ 0.9 g would bear no serious health risks but this sort of thing really does need to be seriously study. Perhaps people on a colonized/eventually caeliformed/maybe eventually terraformed Mars could wear heavy clothing to simulate higher gravity if it does turn out to be problematic.
Also, this may sound fanciful but has anyone considered something like this for the Moon and even Mars?: . The author Wil McCarthy seems to think that with enough technology we could pull something like this off. It would really be a great achievement of humanity if someday we could alter the gravity on other bodies. (Plus maybe a compressed Moon or Mars could hold in an atmosphere.)


Alex Tolley February 21, 2017 at 12:09

Clarke has pointed out the problems of wearing weight to simulate gravity. he makes fun of it in Earthlight.

Probably better is to wear some sort of elasticated clothing that forces the muscles to react against greater resistance. A lightweight exo-skeleton might also be an option. Such devices might solve the problem of bone loss, but not all physiological changes associated with lower gravity.

I’m skeptical of centrifuges built on gravity worlds. The engineering seems very formidable. I think they are more suitable for free space and for working on very low g, airless moons and rocks. If you are going to build huge centrifuges for thousands of people, it seems to defeat the value of living on a planet.


Michael February 21, 2017 at 14:51

We only need burrow through rock in a circle and lay an angled train track upon which a continue number of trains can run, no need for a huge structure as such.


Alex Tolley February 22, 2017 at 14:41

Snowpiercer going in circles? ;) How might you get off to go to another track or to the surface?


George King February 21, 2017 at 18:53

Supplementing (I believe) your points, medical research indicates that particular types of weight training can reverse critical bone density loss in aging humans here in our one g environment and thereby significantly help stave off osteoporosis.

The critical feature of the weight training is generating increased loads across the spine and hips. The specific recommended exercises include squats, deadlifts, lunges, and overhead press.

See, e.g.,

(The resistance-training equipment that I have seen developed for the ISS would appear to allow at least three of those exercises.)

One to two hours of targeted exercise within a 168 hour week in a one g environment achieved the increased bone density results noted in the research.

Not constant environmental exposure to an above one g load.

Not continually wearing the equivalent of heavy chain mail or some other contrivance to generate a constant additional ambient load on the bones.

Instead, again, one to two hours of targeted exercise within a 168 hour week achieved the result.

The article below, which was previously cited in the comments: (a) uses the word “might” liberally with regard to the possible effects of long duration stays on Mars; and (b) appears to rely upon research regarding bone density loss in functionally zero micro-gravity environments in conjunction with what living instead in a .38g environment “might” do to bones for original settlers and future generations.

For all we currently know, the otherwise possible deleterious effects of .38g on bone density may be fairly easily overcome by a few of hours of targeted exercise each week on Mars.

Without having to live in some engineering marvel of a reliable and resource-efficient (not to mention aesthetically pleasing) spinning habitat constructed on a planetary surface.

Without having to continually wear weighted clothing or other special material to avoid bone density loss.

We do not currently know where the cutoff point is – between functionally zero g (where most of our space biomedical research has been done) and one g – for bone density to not be sufficiently responsive to a reasonably practical amount of resistance training.

Perhaps the cutoff point is .75g, or maybe .50g, or maybe .25g.

We just don’t know, and can only speculate as to what “might” happen.

Unless, that is, someone has a cite to specifically applicable research that doesn’t merely attempt to draw inferences from research focused on functionally zero g conditions.

Absent specifically applicable research, it is not inconceivable that a .38g constant gravity load coupled with a reasonable amount of targeted resistance training might be sufficient to avoid bones withering away, even across generations.

The bones apparently already are hard-wired to respond favorably to comparatively brief increased stress loads.

Now, generally, one definitely can debate whether Mars is the best next destination, of all the possible alternatives, for human space exploration and possible settlement.

There does appear to be a strong impetus, however, in both the public and private sectors to go there, and fairly soon at that.

So much so that I do not believe that the GYATM impetus would come to an end in the private sector even if NASA once again was required by the politicians to instead long-range plan for yet another change-of-destination.

So, to me at least, yes, it is certainly time to consider how the civilization of a Mars Settlement (“colony” instead tends to imply to me a subordinate sovereignty) potentially might evolve.


Alex Tolley February 22, 2017 at 14:45

We might get some handle on the bone issue using tilted bed rest studies. The tilt would mimic Mars g on the bone and joints, and the light exercise regime could test its effectiveness compared to non-exercise controls. I presume we still have the facilities that were used for full bed rest to test zero-g effects, so the costs to test this should be fairly low and would make an excellent series of journal papers to compare with the earlier studies.


Michael February 22, 2017 at 15:58

We could just slow the whole train to a virtual stop via regenerative braking to make it more efficient at the end of a working shift. Or we could have a pod that is released to slow down and speed up again on a separate track with tunnels leading to the center and to other tracks.


Michael February 22, 2017 at 16:03

Power lifters have thicker denser bones and they lift for less than 5 minutes per day, the stresses are very high and force bone changes.


xcalibur February 21, 2017 at 6:32

The statements about civilization branching out and evolving under different selection pressures could be applied to space colonization in general, not just Mars.

I think gravity is a major issue. We lack data on the effects of long-term exposure to lower gravity. My intuition tells me that just over one-third g is not nearly enough, and that martians would be significantly affected over time, to the point of being unable to live on earth naturally. Venus’ gravity is 90% that of Earth, and I think that would be suitable for adaptation to 1g — of course, Venus has other major issues, to say the least.

This is not to say we won’t colonize Mars, I believe we will, but not to the extent of historical colonization of the Western Hemisphere. Operations on Mars will mainly consist of mining for metals and scientific outposts. I think people will primarily live in space stations using centrifugal force to approximate 1g, avoiding the entire gravity issue. Space stations will eventually become a new mode of life, with very different issues and challenges, and a sense of detachment from earth. I envision space stations as becoming city-states and trading hubs as we expand into the solar system. Maybe Martians will primarily live in a space station orbiting Mars, while scientific/economic pursuits are carried out on the surface.

Of course, space stations are much more vulnerable than a habitable planetary surface. However, they are *not* significantly more vulnerable than colonies on a hostile surface. Perhaps those surface colonies would have greater protection by burrowing underground, but many frailties would remain.

If we’re going to terraform a planet to make it habitable, I would favor Venus due to its gravity. But of course, its current condition would make that very challenging. We might have to wait until we reach other stars to start terraforming new habitable planets.

Terraforming to build a nature reserve strikes me as a very interesting idea. We could create a new Martian biology and ecosphere, contributing to the variety of life and providing it with greater redundancy.

Overall, space presents many opportunities. While this article made many good points, it is important to not have a narrow focus and consider the range of future possibilities.


Alex Tolley February 21, 2017 at 11:59

If you are going to mine on Mars you will be under the same handicap as earth, at the bottom of a gravity well. There is little purpose in it for bulk materials unless you are going to use them in that well. Otherwise, far better to mine asteroids. They are more accessible, have more readily acquirable mass and are in a better place for use by a space living civilization.


xcalibur February 22, 2017 at 2:19

I agree, asteroid mining will be the mainstay of space economy.

However, mining operations on Mars would be worthwhile under two conditions: 1) the planet contains a significant amount of useful metals that asteroids do not, and 2) we develop the technology to cheaply and efficiently escape the gravity well. I don’t think we can rule this out yet.


Alex Tolley February 22, 2017 at 14:51

A Martian space elevator is certainly possible. But what sort of unique Martian minerals could there be? We haven’t found any on the surface with our brief robotic forays.


xcalibur February 22, 2017 at 15:35

I don’t think the presence of unique resources is likely, but it’s a possibility. It is more probable that Mars has minerals that are also found in asteroids, but in such greater quantities that it would justify mining operations. If not, there would still be scientific outposts and such. It remains to be seen — we need more data.


Geoffrey Hillend February 21, 2017 at 17:24

I agree with the mining of asteroids, the S and M types. It’s easier to get the metals because of the low gravity.

Terraforming Mars is much too expensive and impracticable with our technology at this present time. Mars also will not hold a thick atmosphere over a long period of time due to the low gravity and lack of magnetic field which is only one eight hundredth the strength of Earths. The solar wind with has a magnetic field build into it and as it flows past Mars atmosphere it creates an electric field that accelerates electrically charged gas atoms or ions out of Mars atmosphere: The solar wind strips the atoms of Mars atmosphere at a quarter a pound every second. We could have to continually replace the lost atmosphere but only over a long period of time.


Charley February 21, 2017 at 19:04

UAE wants to put 600,000 people on Mars within 100 years

The United Arab Emirates already succeeded in building a civilization in Earth’s hottest and driest climate. Now the nation has their sights set on the Red Planet.

The UAE recently unveiled an ambitious proposal to colonize Mars within the next 100 years. Named “Mars 2117,” the plan aims to build a city of 600,000 people with transportation, food and oxygen supplies. The settlement would be built by robots before humans arrive.

“The new project is a seed that we plant today, and we expect future generations to reap the benefits, driven by its passion to learn to unveil a new knowledge.” UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid said in a press release. Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, echoed the sentiment, saying that the UAE hopes to “serve humanity” with the project.

Rashid also shared mock-up images of the plan on Twitter, adding that Mars 2117 “integrates a vision to create a mini-city and community on Mars involving international cooperation.”

The plan was announced February 14 at the World Government Summit in Dubai.
The country is currently planning the world’s first-ever Islamic mission to Mars. Their unmanned spacecraft, “Hope,” is slated to launch from Japan in 2020.


Harold Daughety February 22, 2017 at 1:16

I think that farming in Mars soil first requires a soil sample. When I was young we raised mainly cotton and corn, with a garden and small plots for other foodstuffs. We had phosphates from Florida, Chilean nitrate of soda, potassium from some desert country, and the elements in the dirt under our feet. Cows grazing in the pasture and supplemented with corn and cottonseed meal gave us milk and butter. Hogs ate mainly corn and supplemental feed from various other agricultural products and in turn provided us with lard and pork. A hard life with imports from far places, and we rarely more than broke even. I cannot see it working. Maybe alga growing in our own sewage? Now that will draw the colonists!


DougSpace February 22, 2017 at 3:17

Click my website to see what it would be like to retire on Mars.

I believe that the initials private settlers will be, as Elon suggests, those who can afford and want to go. Amongst those who go will be a lot of retirees because they have had enough time to accumulate the wealth to purchase the tickets. These people, as aged, as they are will be very steeped in Earth culture. They will want to have as many of the amenities as possible that they are accustomed to. So, the large (perhaps inflatable) environments that the companies produce to attract them will be a lot like a large, indoor, retirement community. So, think about dinners, movies, spas, golf driving range, swimming pool, exercise park, etc. So, really, a lot like Earth except it is Earth indoors. Certainly the inhabitants will be aware of the outdoors, the color of the sky, etc. But, except for an initial period of touring the planet, their life will be their indoor community which will be a whole lot like life on Earth. Likewise, they week keep up on the news from their home planet and trends and technologies from Earth will make it to Mars. In short, at least from the start, the ‘civilization’ of Mars will be a lot like an exclusive retirement community on Earth.


Wojciech J February 22, 2017 at 18:48

As our world becomes more global and interconnected, it is getting harder to pursue unique models of government, economy and society.
For these reasons I believe Mars will be colonized(if it happens) by both religious and ideological movements seeking to pursue their life in isolation from others.
As first settlers and pioneers probably will be highly educated members of elites in time this might lead to interesting clash of cultures between original Mars citizens and next colonists.

I too believe that asteroids/comets/dwarf planets are better suited for colonization of Solar System and more efficient. They will probably be given priority.
Still, the image of Mars as a green fertile world, a second planet teeming with life is tempting enough that some groups no doubt will want to settle it.

I wouldn’t worry too much about our ability to adopt to gravity, soil, radiation-these are technical problems that can be solved by genetic engineering, terraforming and applied physics.

While space habitats and asteroid colonies are more efficient, Mars has something they lack. In habitats you will have to live in closely watched community, under surveillance as every action can have disastrous consequences for your group. And even in larger habitats the environment and surroundings will be controlled and predictable. A living planet offers more place to explore, more freedom, adventure and intriguing unpredictability than a closed space habitat.

So it might be that planets such as Mars or Earth will remain a favorite past time for some people settling Solar System. Others might see them from above with ironic smile, feeling it to be foolish to be exposed under open sky visible to everyone.


Gabriel Thelen February 22, 2017 at 19:10

Just would like to note that the Martian atmosphere is sufficient to shield from solar flares.
Regarding building an economy on Mars; Mars has all the elements required to build a civilisation.
Solar generation certainly has significant relevance on Mars; for reliability of supply, small nuclear reactors could initially easily be imported.
Once the Martian economy is up to the task, aerothermal energy is also promising.
Refer to ‘The Case for Mars’ by Robert Zubrin for a wonderful expose of how a Martian economy can be built from the basics upwards.


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