What Will It Take to Move to Mars?

The marketing blurb for ”Moving to Mars”, an exhibition at The Design Museum in London through February 23, invites viewers to “learn how rethinking daily life for a zero-waste, clean energy-powered civilisation might help future generations on Earth.” The new 220-page Moving to Mars: Design for the Red Planet (The Design Museum/Artbook D.A.P.) expands the show’s Martian scope, revealing mankind’s quest to inhabit the red planet as a grandiose, centuries-long exercise of imagination that is now taking shape in design prototypes with proposed target dates in the next few years—or decades, depending on whom you ask.  

The curators funnel this panoply of ideas into book chapters with action-verb titles—Imagining Mars, Arrive, Survive, Thrive—and chock full of artwork ranging from ancient drawings to futuristic renderings. (The latter include 2018 concepts by the design firm Hassell for the NASA 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, shown above and below.) As a progression from otherworldly dreams toward pragmatic design, this collection shows what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Concept by Hassell for NASA 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, with an outer shell utilizing “the planet’s natural regolith,” 2018.

All of which prompts the question: Why bother? Has life on our own planet become so tenuous—think climate change, rising sea levels, rapidly melting ice caps—that we should resort to the proverbial Final Frontier, in an atmosphere that doesn’t even support life? Or is visiting Mars an earnest, almost mythical, quest to explore the great unknown? What’s the driving force: hope or fear? Either way, the collected work makes a few things clear:

  • The desire to visit our planetary neighbor has for centuries held a mystical sway over human imagination
  • We’re a long way from visiting Mars, much less settling there
  • We’ll still learn and grow from the design challenges

Poster for Belgian edition of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, 1906; cover for Amazing Stories Magazine, 1927.

The book’s Imagining Mars section surveys people’s past impressions of the planet, long before science and photography revealed its inhospitality to living beings. “The idea that there might be intelligent life on Mars,” Mike Ashley writes in his intro, “came into focus with the observations of [astronomer] Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877,” whose illustrations of dark and light areas across the planet’s face included what he called canali, or “channels” (something natural), which was mistranslated in English press as “canals” (something built). The ensuing speculation that there might be intelligent life there led to pop-culture depictions of Martians as sinister threats to humankind, as H.G. Wells exploited in his 1897 novel The War of The Worlds (above left), a tale that created widespread panic when Orson Welles read it aloud on CBS Radio in 1938 and listeners mistook it for a news flash. While World War II gathered steam, the public was on edge about alien threats, even from space.

As the 20th century progressed, “Mars came to be viewed as an alternative, more idealised Earth,” Ashley notes. Then reality set in. Humans finally saw real pictures of the planet’s rocky surface in fuzzy fly-by shots from Mariner 4 in 1964, then in much sharper, on-the-ground views from the Martian rovers Sojourner (which landed in 1997) and Opportunity. “By the start of the twenty-first century, the accumulated scientific evidence showed a Mars that looked, to all intents and purposes, like a barren wasteland, dotted with craters, deep valleys, high mountains … and evidence that there may once have been rivers and lakes,” Ashley writes. “Yet the possibility that it might at one time have supported life remains a tenacious hope.” Indeed, NASA has just released a map indicating where ice may lie below the surface—based on data from its Reconnaissance Orbiter—to feed hope of finding future landing sites and places to extract water. 

Orion capsule rendering, 2018.

We now know not only how univiting the red planet is, but also how hard it would be to make the trek. “Mars is about 1,000 times farther away from Earth [than the Moon], an extraordinary 250 million miles,” Stephen Petranek points out in the Arrive section. “It would take eight months to get there, as opposed to the three-day trip to the Moon.” It’s hard to imagine astronauts weathering eight months in the cramped quarters of NASA’s Orion Crew Module (above), designed by Lockheed Martin to replace the Space Shuttle and currently in contract for projected missions to the Moon in 2024 (and, potentially, Mars after that). The Orion represents our most advanced rocketry to date.

But joining NASA in the Martian space race is Tesla founder Elon Musk, whose SpaceX exploratory venture centers around the Starship rocket system and its accompanying boosters, still in development. Both tireless optimist and reluctant realist, Musk has promised to comfortably transport humans to Mars “in our lifetime”—yet he admits the first Starship passengers will have nothing waiting for them. “Our goal is [to] get you there,” he recently told CNBC, likening SpaceX’s mission to “trying to build the equivalent of the transcontinental railway. A vast amount of industry will need to be built on Mars by many other companies and millions of people.” 

SEArch+ (Space Exploration Architecture), Mars X-House exterior, 2019.

And then, what types of buildings would be best suited for Mars? This question lies at the heart of the 3D-Printed Printed Habitat Challenge, organized by NASA and a host of industry partners, which yielded several of the design prototypes in the book. The winning entry of the contest’s Phase 3: Virtual Construction, submitted by the team SEArch+/Apis Cor, is called the Mars X-House (above). This design “fuses structural, safety and programmatic factors into a complex whole,” writes Fred Scharmen in the book’s Survive section. “These functional factors are, of course, of utmost importance in this distant, hostile environment … where unprotected exposure to the exterior is fatal.”

Indeed, the fact that Mars is unlivable permeates the book’s final sections, which delve into sartorial spacesuit advances, closed-loop life-support systems (such as the Biosphere 2 experiment in Arizona), and the latest in indoor food-farm and air-purification technology. All impressive stuff, but it indicates that a fully integrated system for living in space is far from reality. It’s one thing to send robots and rovers there, another to sustain human life. 

The book’s final spread: SpaceX renderings of Starship and Mars settlements (2018); illustration of Mars terraformed (2017).

Then what? Toward the end of the book, there’s a fascinating conversation between writer/curator Justin McGuirk and Kim Stanley Robinson, author of The Mars Trilogy—Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, a utopian science fiction series that uses design “as a way of making speculative ideas concrete,” in McGuirk’s words. “Mars—if humans get there at all—is most likely to remain a scientific outpost for the foreseeable future, much like Antarctica,” McGuirk notes. “The twin tests of survival and discovery lie at the heart of Mars’s appeal.”

In the interview, Robinson tempers his own visionary hopes with pragmatism, calling Musk’s travel projections “a kind of boosterism” at one point. “Mars will continue to present us with a really difficult landing problem,” he says. “We still only have a 50 percent success rate for landing robotic landers. We’ll want better for human landings.” As for building cities on the red planet, “that might be three thousand or ten thousand years from now, which would be fine,” Robinson says. “By that point … we will have to have learned that Earth is always the one and only center of the human story, and our only long-term viable home.” He concludes: “[Mars] is there to make our own life on Earth seem as strange and tenuous to us as it really is. Once we get that angle of vision, we might be more careful with Earth. I hope so.”

All images courtesy of The Design Museum.


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