In February, NASA’s Mars Rover Perseverance touched down, becoming the sixth American-made robot to land on the Red Planet (but the first with its very own tiny helicopter). Perseverance’s Twitter account—the perfect avatar for pure discovery thanks to the rover’s high-resolution dash-cam—provides an engaging first-person travelogue and, unlike most other things on Twitter, is worth a bit of your time. Like countless others, I’ve taken the Perseverance’s landing as a much-needed prompt to learn more about our barren celestial neighbor, which has been a source of intense cultural fascination for over a century and, more recently, fodder for would-be real estate developers.
If you’re looking for an abbreviated deep-dive into this topic, there is no shortage of material. In Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk webisode “Terraforming Mars,” he dissects the feasibility of making the Red Planet habitable, and thus making humankind a two-planet species. Writer and—this detail has to be noted—founding editor of This Old House Stephen Petranek delivered a highly engaging 2018 TED talk, “How Will Humans Live on Mars?” And, of course, one cannot go without citing the world’s current patron saint of overindulgence, Elon Musk, who in 2017 unveiled SpaceX’s plan to build a city on Mars and, in the process, undertake the arduous task of terraforming it for human habitat.
Apart from the lack of oxygen and any heat-trapping greenhouse gases (the atmosphere is mostly CO2, but at a state only 1% the thickness of Earth’s), there are noteworthy similarities between the planets. Mars rotates approximately every 24 hours, it’s tipped on its axis, there are polar ice caps, and there is clear evidence that water once flowed on the surface. All of that seems promising on its face, but even with the most drastic interventions, using a range of technological measures that don’t yet exist, the years it would take to make Mars’ atmosphere habitable numbers in the thousands. In order to properly terraform at an accelerated rate, as Musk and others intend, that level of geoengineering would involve releasing a few dozen Industrial Revolutions’ worth of carbon and methane, as well as somehow manufacturing the millions of years of natural evolution needed to convert that carbon into breathable oxygen. (To say nothing of the logistics involved or the inevitable disputes that will arise from other nations with viable space programs.)
Colonizing space has been the periodic obsession of governments, industrialists, and artists alike for decades. It’s not hard to realize why. What grander objective is there than conquering the infinite? It’s Manifest Destiny without a compass.
Hilton Hotels’ plan to build a Lunar Hilton, presented to the public in 1958, one year after the Russians launched Sputnik, was equal parts visionary and impractical. Nonetheless, the idea, as well as the brand that birthed it, would go on to assume new life in popular culture, most notably as the Hilton Space Station 5, featured briefly in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Artist Davis Meltzer’s 1969 painting Future Moon Colony depicts a vast U.S.-led operation on the lunar surface, including mining, an observatory, and a network of subterranean dwellings. Even Foster + Partners got in on this, rendering a 3D-printed prototype Moon Village, commissioned in 2015 by the European Space Agency (ESA). Practical or not, such examples merely set the stage for our next obsession in the cosmos, which is some 55 million kilometers away in a good year. For example, there’s the sleek-looking Mars City Design program, a scientist and artist consortium that bills itself as the “global leader in the field of Marschitecture.” The U.A.E. wants to build a colony on Mars by 2117 and they commissioned Bjarke Ingels to design their Mars Science City, which, not coincidentally, looks a lot like Abu Dhabi encased in a biodome. AI SpaceFactory’s MARSHA, the winning submission in NASA’s 2019 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, is undoubtedly innovative on a number of fronts, not the least of which is its use of a basalt composite as building material, extracted partly from Martian rock. But is all this simply red meat for the futurist set, more eye candy to add to the canon of the unbuilt?
For a moment, let’s ignore the planet’s poisonous soil, frequent dust storms, low gravity, thin atmosphere, and the fact that people on the surface of Mars would be subjected to 50 times the solar radiation they experience on Earth. The earliest stages of Mars colonization and the so-called Marschitecture that will follow are by no means set in stone, but the field manual is well under development, and it’s getting bigger with each passing year. The domed farms and caterpillar-shaped communes and vast solar arrays have all been digitally rendered to guide our imaginations, showing us what it might be like to play Minecraft on another planet, only with a bit more design flare. Elon Musk’s planned colonization and mining operation is now a matter of public record. The U.S. Space Force is an actual thing, and, yes, Mars is on its itinerary. Given all that and more, if the writing on the wall is to be believed, we’re headed to Mars, and in due time we’ll turn it into a second Earth.
Manifest Destiny, right? When Musk was asked point blank as to why such an operation should proceed, he responded, “To become a multi-planet species.” That is a poor answer, and, frankly, it’s egomania disguised as historical imperative. When humankind looked to the moon more than a half-century ago, we saw infinite possibility for expansion (and a hotel). Now, as we look to Mars with fresh eyes, courtesy of Perseverance, it’s having the unintended consequence of bringing our attention back to Earth, all deforested and thick with CO2 concentrate. “The day we have the power to terraform Mars,” Tyson once remarked, “we will have the power to turn Earth into Earth.”
There is a cruel irony to the fact that we have become so accomplished at changing our climate by accident that in order reverse the damage done, we must first master the art and science of deliberate climate change. Transporting humans to Mars and building a small city may well be a glorious endeavor—and one worth celebrating, particularly as new technologies emerge that make it ever-more feasible—but it is hardly an imperative. We’re supposed to be explorers; first, however, let us reckon with our history as plunderers.
“Now there is one outstandingly important fact regarding Spaceship Earth,” Buckminster Fuller once wrote, “and that is that no instruction book came with it.” Unlike the race to the Moon, when humankind’s reach felt boundless and beyond reproach, our utter deterioration of the natural environment, depletion of resources, and shortsightedness regarding development, mobility, and sprawl has obliged us to wrestle with some pretty awful demons of our own creation. This is nothing new. For far too long we’ve made worthy attempts to boil down this reckoning into teachable lessons and pop folklore (think The Lorax or WALL-E), all the while cranking up the air conditioning six months out of the year and erecting needle towers in which no one lives. The technology that has brought us to Mars throughout the years with increasing efficiency and clarity is a testament to humankind’s ingenuity, timely or not. The designers and deep-pocketed pioneers who have conceived a literal new world of the unbuilt is likewise a testament to our collective imagination.
We should keep going, keep traveling, keep innovating. Companies like AI SpaceFactory and SEArch+ should be praised (and funded) for their efforts. But it behooves us now, especially as we prepare to emerge from the pandemic and see a consequent uptick in our carbon output, to practice that same level of ingenuity and imagination within the bounds of our home planet, and possibly complemented by a set of instructions. This outlook is not without precedent. “It might seem megalomaniacal to make a master plan for [Earth],” wrote Bjarke Ingels in May 2020, when promoting his firm’s Masterplanet initiative, “but we’ll be 10 billion people in 2050, so we have to design for it.” Relative to what others in Ingels’ field and beyond are planning for Mars, it’s stunning how quickly megalomania can be reduced to sheer pragmatism.
Featured image: This Foster + Partners-designed habitat is 93-square meters and constructed from regolith, the loose soil and rocks found on the surface of Mars.