In my view, it is absolutely vital that humanity ventures to mars, and sets up permanent civilizations on it, as soon as possible. A much larger proportion of our time, energy, resources and attention must be directed towards this. We have spent so long thinking and debating about whether we should do this, that we have lost focus on actually doing it. My reasoning is as follows: Humanity has always sought to explore and expand its scope and scale, and to broaden its horizons. I believe the best future for humanity is one where we are interstellar – a galactic species exploring all over the cosmos and uncovering deeper and more fundamental truths about the universe. The first step towards this is Mars.
We have had the technology to go to mars since the 1960s, and enough knowledge about the planet to do so since the 1990s. It is a tragedy, then, that we have not done so yet. Humanity has innovated remarkably quickly in terms of short-term convenience: The saturated industries of personal electronics and gig-economy services focused on transport and food have boomed, and seen massive growth, due to the fact that they makes humans’ lives ever so slightly more comfortable and easy. Yet, on bold, long-term projects, focus has dwindled. We have also managed to become territorial, isolationist and tribal, incapable of working together to achieve these goals that would benefit all of us. Humanity for too long has been motivated by fear of an enemy rather than by hope, or the desire to create a better future. We have been programmed this way over hundreds of thousands if not millions of years of evolution. We only ended up venturing to North America to escape religious persecution, and we only ended up going to the moon out of competition with the USSR. Humanity has been held back by this approach to doing things. And when we do act out of fear, the fear has to be tangible – we must be able to point at it – which is furtherly ludicrous. There is no imminent threat, with a name, a face, or a date, that will strike us if we do not do this – just as there was no tangible threat to justify preparing for a pandemic, or taking urgent climate action. But we must.
I will also add that, left alone, not only does progress not transpire, but humanity ends up receding. In 1969 we had the capacity to go to the moon, and yet 52 years later, there is no rocket today that can do the same. As early as the 1970s, we were in the process of developing Nuclear Thermal Rocket Propulsion (more on that later) which could easily have taken us to Mars or even further, in less amount of time, if we kept up that effort. But we did not. Some in the scientific or space communities have made the case that private companies cannot be leading the way in Space Exploration – that historically, governments have done so. It was, of course, a royal sponsorship that gave Columbus the ability to travel towards the Americas. But the nature of government has changed – much freer and fairer, and more democratic, but much more poorly disposed to taking long-term action. Politicians have become focused on delivering short-term, shallow victories that please people enough to win them re-election – not investing in long-term efforts that their successors will continue and eventually conclude. Therefore, I am convinced that companies and innovators in the private sector must lead the way on the settlement of Mars, and governments must get out of the way in allowing them to do so.
I will now lay out the broad strategy by which humanity should act relating to Mars. It is divided into Four stages.
In the first stage, humanity must send several manned and unmanned spacecraft to the red planet, in order to conduct research and set up a small permanent base. This stage should take between 6 and 10 years, and by the end of it, we should have a strong understanding of Mars from first-hand experience, have identified methods through which we can grow our species on it, have a base consisting of research stations, hubs for exploratory missions, and capacity for 50-250 people, and have laid the groundwork for the second stage.
This stage should be undertaken by companies, preferably several to create some sort of competitive motivation (it is unideal, but unfortunately the best motivator aside from fear). First, a company should send an unmanned rocket or two, which contains infrastructure and robots which can set the infrastructure up: infrastructure will include habitats, landing pads (risks cannot be taken with the landing of Astronauts), and critical life supporting infrastructure required for a human presence. Then, 26 months later, following the Mars Transfer Orbit, that company should send between 6 and 24 humans to Mars, a team composed of scientists and engineers. They will be tasked with exploring and navigating the area, taking geological samples etc, while also expanding the base (doing work robots cannot do) and expanding infrastructural capacities. Over the 4 years after this, the company should send several more crews of 12-64 people to vastly grow the base, live on Mars, and continue scientific research required before a larger population arrives. This is the 6-year plan, a best-case scenario. Multiple companies should follow this plan, with slight variation, and either have different bases but share data and knowledge gained, or have separate stations within one base.
For this stage, the only viable propulsion method that can be used is Liquid Chemical Propulsion, and I would add that Methalox is the best option from the range of fuels. Rockets should therefore take 6 months to arrive on Mars, and have the capacity to house at least 100 people (though will carry less, as room will be needed for Cargo). A 2-stage rocket would work, where the first stage landed back on Earth and took off again repeatedly. Given the nature of Stage 1, spacecraft will have to be either rapidly reusable or able to be used as parts of a base. The costs required to do this will be great, and therefore it is vital that companies with a focus on the long-term undertake this as opposed to governments which can lose funding or interest. Governments should be supportive and provide loans to companies if necessary, however.
The Base will not be a fantastic place to live – due to the effects of Low Gravity, individuals will have to exercise a lot each day not to lose bone mass – and the base itself will have to have either very dense walls, or be coated with Martian dirt, to block out harmful radiation. There will be a lack of windows, and except for missions, these settlers are unlikely to spend much of the day outside. This will not be the case for further stages, but short-term in-hospitability must be tolerated to make a comfortable future on Mars possible. These settlers will make use of Mars’ natural resources and materials as much as possible to reduce the amount needed to be brought from Earth, but food will be akin to what is consumed on the International Space Station. Energy should be sourced from a mixture of vast solar panel farms, and nuclear fission plants.
A company’s base will be governed by that company, through whatever means they choose, but in order to be on Mars, companies will have to sign co-operation agreements with all other companies.
In the second stage, humanity must begin to regularly ship vast sums of people to Mars, as well as bringing + setting up larger and larger cities and the necessary infrastructure required to support these people. During this stage, Mars will be reliant on funding from private and public sources, and companies will have to take the long view that investing in Mars will eventually create an entirely new marketplace, planet-wide, to do commerce in. In this stage, the process of terraformation will begin. This stage should last for 20-25 years, and by the end of it, a 4-12 million Humans should be living permanently on Mars, in 5-8 separate cities.
This effort could either be the carried out by a collection of large companies which have enough capital to do this, or by governments who can now see the benefit of doing so. However, I think the scenario where companies do this with government support, sanction and assistance is the one most likely to see it done well, rapidly and safely. It is important that no one company does this alone, and therefore has a monopoly on an entire planet, but several do so. Some technologies developed by government agencies should be employed, but most infrastructure should be supplied by many different companies – eg building infrastructure should be sourced from construction companies, communications infrastructure should be sourced from comms companies, etc, with the view that their services will be used on another planet and their profits will eventually grow. Catalysing and sustaining this stage will fall to those rare leaders who are motivated by making tomorrow better. Public interest is crucial to this stage, and campaigns to get members of the public to live on Mars will be vital.
I have concluded that the best form of propulsion for this stage would be Nuclear Thermal Rocket propulsion, which should restart development (by private companies) as soon as possible to have it ready for Stage 2. This would cut the time to and from mars by half. NTR Propulsion would only work for the second stage of a rocket that gets used outside Earth’s atmosphere, as the very low risk of a nuclear incident cannot be taken on the Earth’s surface. These rockets should have the capacity for several hundred people, but no more than a thousand, and hundreds if not thousands of them will need to launch every Mars Transfer Window. This still leaves the issue of low gravity. It was acceptable in Stage One for the early settlers to have to exercise to overcome this challenge, but when bringing millions of people, a different solution must be employed. This is why vast centrifugal force Artificial Gravity contraptions must be made, assembled in space. Rockets will leave Earth Orbit, shed their first stage, and dock with this contraption (one should be able to hold 8-12 rockets), and then the contraption should travel, rotating, to Mars, propelled by the NTR propulsion of all the rockets at once. Once in Martian orbit, the rocket’s 2nd stage should undock from the centrifugal contraption and make their way to a controlled landing on Mars.
There are two ways to house these millions of people on Mars, before terraformation has concluded – clearly, the lifestyle of the early settlers is unsustainable, and people would not go to Mars to live like that. One requires an unconscionable amount of innovation, the other requiring an unconscionable amount of effort. The effort way is to construct centrifugal cities, many miles in diameter, in which people would live except for short excursions outside. While terraformation is taking place, these would also have to be dense and thick to protect from radiation. While somewhat uncomfortable, earth-like environments could be created within them – forests and large greenhouses etc could be built within them, and they could be climate controlled. This would require considerable energy. Perhaps each centrifugal city could have a different environment. The other method is not currently within the realm of possibility, but it could be. People could live like they do on earth, on mars, if genetic engineering advanced to the point where humans’ DNA could be altered so that the effects of radiation and low gravity did not occur – bones could be made denser or more resilient, and cancer caused by radiation could be pre-emptively edited out of possibility. Biome cities could still exist, but people could enjoy existing in low gravity without fear of consequence.
Either way, vast energy will be required for this, and Nuclear Fusion would be the best energy source for Mars. Whether or not it exists in an economical way by then is far from certain, but if not, more fission and increased solar panels could suffice. Ideally, Mars would be a means of inspiring progress and innovation in all areas, from innovative new ways to design and construct buildings, to new transportation, to new forms of energy. Fusion would also greatly aid and speed up the terraformation process, so perhaps it is required. Food engineering would also be a great addition in this stage, as transporting/ looking after livestock would be, though possible, much harder than artificial food that emulated meat.
At this stage, it is still too early to establish a strong democratic system on Mars. Firstly, what would work in a small democracy would not work in a large one, and so it is advisable to wait until a larger, more stable population exists before establishing such a system. Second, in this stage, Mars is still deeply reliant on Earth, and a democracy might take independence-focused action that would cause Earth’s resources and support to dry up. Therefore, except for a bill of human rights and treaties focused on co-operation, companies would operate their cities as they please.
In the third stage, Mars must begin operating independently from Earth as a separate economic and political force – it must establish its own system of Government, create a thriving and multi-faceted economy which trades with Earth and supports its people, and must attract tens of millions of new residents every year. This stage should last for 30 years, and by the end of it, Mars should be a stable and prosperous planet with several civilizations, with separate economies, and in total around 1 Billion residents.
Responsibility for this stage would fall into two pairs of hands: first, the companies which provided infrastructure should open operations on Mars, and second, responsibility should fall to the people of Mars. Martians should create innovative technologies and form companies around them, begin creating businesses that serve their communities, and think of ways to generate a strong economic presence. Mars’ natural resources could be mined and sent to Earth in exchange for things that only Earth could provide, and technological breakthroughs should take place on Mars that can sold to Earth. Mars’ cities will grow based not on the efforts of Earth, but on the efforts of Martians, and so it is crucial that Mars gives itself a strong economy.
Governance ties in strongly with this, and this would be the stage in which a planetary-wide democratic republic would be set up. This would work in a similar state/ federal system to the US, though the federal government would have comparatively more power. I have some ideas about how the planet should be governed, and while I won’t reveal all of them here, I think some points are important to emphasise. First, there should be a fair society where people are not too poor to live, while at the same time ensuring businesses and innovators are unshackled and able to continue contributing to the economy. Second, several provisions to prevent political corruption will need implementing. Third, there will be a shared responsibility of Governance between the elected legislators and the people, directly, through direct democracy. Both the legislature and the people will be able to pass and repeal laws. Additionally, a strong elected executive leader of Mars will be required. Mars must combine the best governance systems of Earth, thought of through the centuries, while also devising new ones suited to a galactic era. Martians cannot become tribal or isolationist, instead working together with shared values and hopes.
Living on mars will need to become better than living on Earth in order to attract 1 Billion people to move. Genetic engineering should have advanced to the level where any bodily illness caused by being on Mars would be cured, and the Terraformation process must be, by this stage, well on its way to completion – which means rivers, forests, an atmosphere, etc have to be present on Mars. Through green technologies and environmental protection-focused societies, Mars will become a naturally beautiful planet. Cities built directly on Mars, not cased or centrifugal, will be built, and inspirational, futuristic megacities with innovative interconnectedness will be established. It will be a fantastic place to live – it has to be. Energy will mainly come from Nuclear fusion, or other forms of energy not yet imagined.
The effort to bring hundreds of millions/ a billion people to Mars will require spacecrafts vastly different to the ones we employ now. Large transportation vessels will need to be designed and constructed by companies, capable of carrying thousands of people safely, and will likely be powered by nuclear fusion or ion propulsion. Transport times from Earth to Mars must be less than 15 days, and spaceports between the two planets will need to be created in order to make it easier to go back and forth.
In the final stage, Mars should continue innovating and growing, but now as a stable and self-sustaining planet, it should no longer need humans to permanently relocate from Earth at such a large scale as it did in stages 2 and 3 – instead, babies should be born on Mars, and population growth should be steady.
It is hard to describe how Stage 4 will play out, as Martian society continues to improve and strengthen, and its democracy grows stronger. The people will determine their fate, and hopefully, Mars will be not the end of humanity’s venture into space, but just its beginning. New civilizations should stem from the success of Mars, on Europa, Titan, Enceladus, Ceres, and in floating Space Stations – then far into the future, interstellar travel to other systems will take place, and humanity will be Galactic. A Galactic government should unite humanity, and humanity should lose its tribality and fear. But all of this starts with Mars, and we cannot keep pushing the start date further and further into the future. It has to begin now.
Adam Safi Khan
31st January 2021