Since humankind first laid eyes upon the stars, countless dreamers and philosophers alike have wondered whether life exists elsewhere in the universe, and whether we might someday expand civilization beyond Earth. These ideas have inspired popular stories such as H.G Wells’ famous The War of the Worlds, and the blockbuster movie The Martian starring Matt Damon. With all our modern scientific and engineering knowledge, alongside data from short visits to the moon and Mars Rover missions, the time has come to answer the age-old question: Can we live on the red planet?
A challenge this daunting raises a galaxy of questions. Landing on Mars is hard enough, but is it possible to get back? Can humans live sustainably on Mars, eventually terraforming it into Earth 2.0? Won’t it just be too cold? Data gathered from the red planet, compiled from photos, rock samples, surface scans, and temperature readings, have already answered some of the most pressing questions.
Living conditions on Mars would test the physical limits of any human visitor. Mars’ thin atmosphere consists almost entirely of carbon dioxide, and represents only about 1% of Earth’s atmospheric density. Mars air is therefore extremely cold (reaching -85°C at night) and unbreathable to humans, with the added problem of natural radiation levels that exceed Earth’s by up to 50 times. Gravity on the red planet is just 38% as strong as Earth’s, posing a range of other questions regarding potential bone and muscle degradation in such an environment.
Other challenges come from the surrounding terrain and soil. Toxic rock dust, called regolith, is evident among soil that otherwise contains the minerals necessary to grow plants. Flowing water is absent due to the low atmospheric pressure, but Mars does have ice-capped poles which can be melted to produce water reserves.
Without advanced life support equipment and protective gear, there is no possibility for humans to breathe or withstand either the cold or the radiation of the red planet, let alone maintain life. The environmental and gravitational factors alone are enough to destroy a person’s body. Lessons learned from past moon landings, and the experience of astronauts living on space stations, have shown the effects of claustrophobic and low-gravity environments on their cardiovascular system. Exposure to these conditions will quickly deteriorate an astronaut’s bone and muscle mass, disrupt heart activity and blood flow, and weaken their sense of balance. Much of this damage would occur before arrival on the red planet, as the trip itself would take around 7 months.
Each of these obstacles can be partially overcome through technology, particularly if several unmanned missions to Mars involve autonomous robots building essential infrastructure before human settlers arrive. Yet there is no way around it: For a few generations at least, life on the red planet would rival the toughest living conditions anywhere on Earth. Colonization of Mars is therefore technically possible, but only at a very high physical (and financial) cost.
For starters, we would need to build a habitable and sustainable base, including greenhouse farms, resting areas, sanitary and storage facilities, food production and preparation areas, water and air recycling systems, and a research facility. These oxygenated structures will, of course, need to be fully protected from the outside environment and atmosphere.
Additional necessities include the on-site production and storage of fuel, using the planet’s own natural resources. In theory, this fuel can be put towards a return journey for those who are ready to set foot on Earth once again.
Over the long term, a plan to terraform the red planet could give it a more habitable environment – eventually making Mars tolerant of life rather than hostile to it. Such an outcome naturally depends on all previous initiatives going well, which may be too much to hope for in the near future, since humanity has never attempted a project on this scale before.
Ready for launch?
Time will tell whether today’s Mars enthusiasts are still dreamers, or if we will actually pull off the greatest achievement in our species’ history. The US government has already announced its intention to begin colonizing the Moon, in hopes of developing an outpost for research and economic benefit. This project could make future space exploration easier, as a moon base could reduce deep-space radio interference while enabling travel from a zero-atmosphere launchpad under a weaker gravitational pull.
SpaceX hopes to carry out its first manned Mars mission by the end of the decade, with the company’s new Starship spacecraft also enabling the initial transport of materials and components to the red planet. Once the infrastructure is in place, humanity’s first-ever attempt at colonizing Mars can finally begin in earnest. Slow progress is to be expected due to difficult conditions, a scarcity of resources, and the fact that we’ve never done anything like this before.
Whether or not a self-sustaining city will ever be established on Mars, one thing is certain: The first visitors to this cold, dusty planet will endure extreme hardship, pushing them to the very limits of human survival. Their success or failure will likely influence our level of commitment to the entire project – whether we abandon the entire idea, or push onward toward ultimate success.