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What We Can Create on Mars

Mars contains all the materials needed to support not only life but technological civilization.

· 17 min read
What We Can Create on Mars
Photo by Photobank Kiev / Unsplash


We hold it in our power to begin the world anew.—Thomas Paine, 1776

Humans will soon be able to voyage to the Red Planet. That possibility opens up a truly grand question: What can we create on Mars?

I. Exploring

Mars is the decisive step in humanity’s outward migration into space. The Red Planet is hundreds of times further away than the Moon, but it offers a much greater prize. Indeed, uniquely among the extraterrestrial bodies of our solar system, Mars is endowed with all the resources needed to support not only life but the development of a technological civilization. In contrast to Earth’s desert moon, Mars possesses oceans of water in the form of huge glaciers and ice sheets, as well as frozen into its soil as permafrost. It also holds vast quantities of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen, all in forms readily accessible to those clever enough to use them. Additionally, Mars has experienced the same sorts of volcanic and hydrologic processes that produced a multitude of mineral ores on Earth. Virtually every element of significant interest to industry is known to exist on the Red Planet. With its 24-hour day-night cycle and an atmosphere thick enough to shield its surface against solar flares, Mars is the only extraterrestrial planet that will readily allow large-scale greenhouses lit by natural sunlight.

For our generation and those to follow, Mars is the New World.

Mars appears barren to most people today, just as Ice Age Europe and Asia must have appeared to early humans migrating out of our original tropical African natural habitat. Yet, by developing new technologies, new attitudes, and new customs, our ancestors were able to create the resources to not only sustain themselves, but flourish with ever-increasing prosperity across the entire planet. In doing so, they transformed humanity from a local biological curiosity of the Kenyan Rift Valley to a global family, hundreds of nations strong, spawning innumerable contributions to thought, literature, art, science, and technology.

Now the task before us is to multiply that triumph, by developing the technologies and ideas that will enable the birth and sustain the growth of vibrant new branches of human civilization on Mars, and subsequently on many worlds beyond.

The possibility of not merely exploring but beginning the settlement of Mars within our time has recently been made apparent by the advances in space launch technology demonstrated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company. After a 40-year period from 1970 to 2010 during which the cost of space launch remained static, the remarkable SpaceX team’s introduction of mostly reusable launch vehicles has cut launch costs by a factor of five—from $10,000/kg to $2,000/kg—over the past decade.

That has been an extraordinary achievement. But now, even as I write these words, SpaceX is taking steps to slash it by a further order of magnitude through the rapid development of a fully reusable two-stage-to-orbit methane/oxygen propelled heavy lift launch system they call Starship. The two stages together use about 5000 tons of propellant, but methane/oxygen only costs about $150/ton, putting total propellant costs per launch at $750,000. Starship will be able to deliver 100,000 kg of payload to orbit, and it expends no hardware. So only $7.50 worth of propellant—and no hardware—will be consumed for every kilogram of payload sent to space! That means that Starship could potentially cut Earth-to-orbit launch costs to under $100/kg—two orders of magnitude lower than those prevailing a decade ago.

The Starship’s methane/oxygen propellant is the cheapest of all high-performance rocket propellants. This is a critical feature. Propellant costs are not important for expendable rockets, because they are dwarfed by the cost of the hardware lost on each flight. But once rockets become reusable, fuel costs will matter as much as they do for airlines. The choice of a very inexpensive propellant combination opens the way for Starships to not only minimize launch costs, but to develop vast new markets, such as surface-to-surface transportation from anywhere to anywhere on Earth in less than an hour. As a result, its basic design is certain to be copied, and produced in large numbers and diverse sizes by many companies from many nations. This competition will drive down costs even more, and eventually result in a market for used Starship-type vehicles, offering spaceflight capabilities for every budget.

But there is another advantage to the Starship’s propulsion system. Its propellant is readily manufacturable on Mars. The system is designed to enable human missions to the Red Planet.

A Starship mission to Mars would begin with the Starship being lifted from the pad and fired out of the atmosphere with about one-third of orbital velocity by a booster stage called the Superheavy. The Starship will then separate from the booster and continue to orbit using its own engines, while the Superheavy returns to the launch site. Once it reaches low Earth orbit, each Mars-bound Starship will need to be refueled by six more tanker Starships, putting the propellant cost of sending a Starship to Mars with 100 tons of payload, including 100 passengers, at around $5 million. That works out to $50,000 per passenger—or less if part of the cost is paid by those shipping the freight. If SpaceX can increase the Starship production rate to one per week—they are already producing prototypes units at a rate of 1 per month—they can probably cut the cost of building a Starship to something in the $10 million range. (The very large booster first stage, called the Superheavy, would cost more, but, as Superheavies always return to the launch site the same day they take flight, only a few Superheavies would be needed to support a large Starship fleet.) This means that if passengers were charged $300,000 each—or $30 million total for a hundred people—that would be enough to pay for the Starship (the immigrants would be wise to keep it for housing), its cargo, and the launch operations and propellant to get it to Mars, with a handsome profit for SpaceX to spare.

Now $300,000 for a ticket to Mars, plus tools, provisions, and a starter apartment in a landed Starship is an interesting figure. It is the equivalent, in modern terms, of what it cost to travel from England to colonial America in the 1600s. At that time, a middle-class person could pay for his family’s one-way passage by selling his house and farm, while a working man could get his ticket in exchange for seven years’ working for room and board. Roughly speaking, that’s equivalent to what $300,000/ticket represents today. It’s a price that a sizable number of people could manage if they were willing to cash in their chips, pull up stakes, and take a chance on a new life in a new world.

In short, people will soon be able to get there. So, What will we create on Mars?

NASA is interested in exploring Mars for scientific purposes. That is a legitimate motive. The early Mars was very much like the young Earth: a warm, wet planet with a carbon dioxide- dominated atmosphere. We know from fossils and other biomarkers that microbial life appeared on Earth 3.7 billion years ago—virtually as soon as the planet had cooled enough to allow liquid water. But what we don’t know is whether the processes that led to the rapid appearance of life on Earth were a sure bet based on a sequence of natural complexification of molecules endemic to chemistry, or whether it was a one-in-a-trillion matter of freak chance. If it was the former, then life is everywhere in the universe—including almost certainly intelligent life, since once life gets started, evolution will take it in all possible directions. But if it was the latter, then we could be virtually alone.

We can find out the answer to this question by going to Mars. If life ever prevailed in the now long-gone seas of Mars, it will have left fossils behind, which could be found by human rockhounds. In addition, although the planet’s cold desert surface is hostile to aquatic microbes, survivors of such ancient life could still exist in reservoirs of geothermally-warmed liquid water that we now believe to exist underground on Mars. Human explorers could set up drilling rigs and bring up samples of such water. If the samples contain life, we will not only be able to detect it, but learn about its biochemistry.

Life on Earth exhibits great diversity, but it all uses the same system for recording and transmitting information from one generation to the next. Bacteria, mushrooms, pine trees, grasshoppers, crocodiles, and humans all utilize the identical DNA/RNA information system. In this respect biologists today are like linguists who are only acquainted with English, completely unaware of other languages, let alone other alphabets like Chinese, which employ totally different systems for transmitting thought. In short, they are completely ignorant of the fundamentals of their field.

But if we find Martian life, we can begin to deepen our understanding of life itself. We can find out whether life as we know it on Earth is what life is, or alternatively, is just one example drawn from a vastly greater tapestry of possibilities.

The implications of discovering an alternative biological information system would be beyond reckoning, and not just for pure science, but for new types of biotechnology that could revolutionize human existence in the twenty-first century.

In short, Mars is the Rosetta Stone for revealing the truth about the potential prevalence and diversity of life in the universe, something that thinking women and men have wondered about for thousands of years. The search for that truth is well worth risking life and treasure for.

As important as this search is, Mars is not just an object of scientific inquiry. It is a world with a surface area equal to all the continents of Earth put together, containing all the materials needed to support not only life but technological civilization.

II. Creating New Civilizations

The question of colonizing Mars is not fundamentally one of transportation. If we were to use a vehicle comparable to the SpaceX Starship now under development to send settlers to Mars on one-way trips, firing them off at the same rate SpaceX is currently launching its Falcon rockets, we could populate Mars at a rate comparable to that which the British colonized North America in the 1600s—and at much lower expense relative to our resources. From a technical point of view, the problem of colonizing Mars is not that of moving large numbers to the Red Planet, but of the ability to create and use Martian resources to support an expanding population once they are there. The technologies required to do this will be developed at the first Mars base, which may well be established for scientific purposes, but which will also act as the beachhead for waves of immigrants to follow. To reduce its logistics requirements, the first base will inevitably seek to develop techniques for extracting water out of the soil, for conducting increasingly large-scale greenhouse agriculture, for making ceramics, metals, glasses, and plastics out of local materials, and constructing ever larger pressurized structures for human habitation and industrial and agricultural activity.

Over time, bases could transform themselves into small towns. The high cost of transportation between Earth and Mars will create a strong financial incentive to find astronauts willing to extend their surface stay beyond the basic one-and-a-half-year tour of duty, to four years, six years, and more. Experiments have already been done showing that plants can be grown in greenhouses filled with CO2 at Martian pressures—the Martian settlers will thus be able to set up large inflatable greenhouses to provide the food required to feed an expanding resident population. Mobile units will be used to extract water from Mars’ abundant ice and permafrost, supporting such agriculture and making possible the manufacture of large amounts of brick and concrete, the key materials required for building large, pressurized structures. While the base could initially be comprised of an interconnected network of ships, “tuna can” habitats, or other flight systems, by its second decade, the settlers might live in underground-vault pressurized domains the size of shopping malls. Not too long afterwards, the expanding local industrial activity will make possible a vast expansion in living space by manufacturing large supplies of high-strength plastics like Kevlar and spectra that could allow the creation of inflatable domes encompassing Sun-lit pressurized areas up to hundreds of meters in diameter. Each new nuclear reactor landed will add to the power supply, potentially augmented by locally produced photovoltaic panels and solar thermal power systems. However, because Mars has been volcanically active in the geologically recent past, it is also highly probable that underground hydrothermal reservoirs exist on the Red Planet. Once such reservoirs are found, they can be used to supply the settlers with abundant supplies of both water and geothermal power. As more people arrive in steady waves and stay longer before they leave, the population of the towns will increase. In the course of things, children will be born, and families raised on Mars, the first true colonists of potentially many new branches of human civilization.

We don’t need any fundamentally new or even cheaper forms of interplanetary transportation to send the first teams of human explorers to Mars. However, meeting the logistical demands of a Mars base will create a market that will bring increasingly lower-cost commercially developed systems for interplanetary transport. Combined with the base’s own activities in developing Martian resources, such transportation systems will make it possible for the large-scale colonization of Mars to begin.

However, technical feasibility alone is insufficient to enable settlement of the planet. While the initial exploration and base-building activities can be supported by government, non-profit society, or corporate largesse, a true colony must eventually become economically self-supporting. Mars has a tremendous advantage compared to the Moon and asteroids in this respect, because unlike these other destinations, the Red Planet contains all the necessary elements to support both life and technological civilization, making self-sufficiency possible in food and all basic, bulk, and simple manufactured goods.

That said, Mars is unlikely to become autarchic for a very long time, and even if it could, it would not be advantageous for it to do so. Just as nations on Earth need to trade with each other to prosper, so too the planetary civilizations of the future will need to engage in trade. In short, regardless of how self-reliant they may become, the Martians will always need cash. Where will they get it?

It may be possible to export plentiful Martian deuterium (fusion power fuel) to Earth. An even more lucrative business will be exporting food and other necessaries to miners in the asteroid belt. Many Main Belt asteroids contain large amounts of platinum group metal ores far richer than any that exist on Earth. The development of inexpensive space flight will consequently open the way to an asteroid gold rush. But the surest way to make money off a gold rush is not to mine gold, but to sell blue jeans to gold miners. Because of its lower gravity and positional advantage, it will be about a hundred times cheaper to send supplies and equipment to the asteroid belt from Mars as from Earth. Anything the miners need that can be made on Mars will be made on Mars. What San Francisco was to the Forty-Niners, Mars will be to the belt.

In my view, however, the most important of all Martian exports will be patents. The Mars colonists will be a group of technologically adept people in a frontier environment where they are free to innovate—indeed, forced to innovate—to meet their needs, making the Mars colony a pressure cooker for invention. For example, the Martians will need to grow all their food in greenhouses, strongly accentuating the need to maximize the output of every square meter of crop-growing area. They thus will have a powerful incentive to engage in genetic engineering to produce ultra-productive crops, and will have little patience for those who would restrict such inventive activity with fear-mongering or red tape.

Even more significantly, there will be nothing in shorter supply in a Mars colony than human labor time. Just as the labor shortage in nineteenth-century America drove Yankee ingenuity to create a series of labor-saving inventions, the labor shortage on Mars will drive Martian ingenuity in such areas as automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Recycling technology that recaptures valuable materials otherwise lost as waste will also be advanced. Such inventions, created to meet the needs of the Martians, will prove invaluable on Earth, and the relevant patents, licensed on Earth, could produce an unending stream of income for the Red Planet. Indeed, if the settlement of Mars is to be contemplated as a private venture, the creation of such an inventor’s colony—a Martian Menlo Park—could conceivably provide the basis for a fundable business plan.

Martian civilizations will become rich because their people will have to be smart. They will benefit the Earth not only as fountains of invention, but as examples of what human beings can do when they rise above their baser instincts and invoke their full creative powers. They will show all that infinite possibilities exist, not to be taken from others, but to be made.

This is an important point. There are really no such things as “natural resources.” There are only natural raw materials. It is human creativity that transforms raw materials into resources through technological innovation. On Earth, land was not a resource until people invented agriculture. Oil was not a resource until people invented petroleum drilling and refining and machines that could run on the products. Aluminum was not a resource until the late nineteenth century, when technologies were invented to extract the metal from aluminum oxide. Until then it was just dirt. Uranium was not a resource until nuclear power was developed. Deuterium is not a resource now, but it will be once fusion power is invented. It is not the Earth, but people who have created all the resources that sustain us.

The Unconstrained Vision of David Deutsch
Sowell distinguishes between the unconstrained vision and the constrained vision.

Mars has no resources now, only materials. But it will have abundant resources once resource-ful people are there. All Mars really needs is people. But why would they move there?

III. Hiring Help

One reason people will immigrate is because of the labor shortage itself. Labor shortages may be tough for businessmen, but they are great for workers. Labor shortages mean high pay. While conditions in Colonial, frontier, and nineteenth-century America may seem harsh to us today, they offered—by comparison—fantastically high compensation and unprecedented opportunities to poor people from Old World Europe and Asia. So they voted with their feet, by the millions, to bet all their savings and risk perilous voyages, leaving behind all they had known to cross the ocean to a new world.

Men and women do not live by bread alone. If a Mars city is to succeed and grow, it will need to be a place that all kinds of people want to move to. Few will want to immigrate to Mars to live in dingy environs. A Mars base may only need to be functional, but a Mars city needs to be beautiful. If it is to succeed, it will need to pay ample attention to aesthetics. But it is not only physical beauty that makes a city joyful, it’s the opportunity it offers citizens to develop and exercise their full human potential. What social, political, and cultural forms might a city create to make it a land of wonders, dreams, freedom, and opportunity to draw millions of hopeful immigrants of every class and talent?

Martians will have to come up with clever technical, economic, and aesthetic solutions to the problems of designing a practical and beautiful Mars city-state. What will ultimately be decisive, however, is their ability to define a better way for humans to live together. Would-be colonists will no doubt differ on what the foundations of such a society might be, with candidates that seem reasonable to us today running the gamut from social democratic to libertarian. The Martians will no doubt conceive many more. Hence, there will undoubtedly be not one, but many Martian city-states created from alternative visions of what makes for a better life.

I see such diversity of possibilities as a great strength. Mars is big enough for numerous colonies, founded by a wide variety of people who will have their own ideas as to what forms of social organization offer the greatest scope to realize human hopes and full potential. Indeed, the chance to be a maker of one’s own world, rather than just an inhabitant of one already made, is a fundamental form of freedom, whose attraction may well prove to be the primary driver for many to accept the risks and hardships that settling another planet must necessarily involve. It is hardly to be imagined that human social thought has reached the final and best answers possible in the early twenty-first century. There will always be people with new ideas who need a place to go where the rules haven’t been written yet—a place to give their ideas a fair try. That said, not all of their notions will be workable. Some may prove impractical and cause the colonies that adopt them to stagnate or fail altogether. But sometimes a new path can lead upwards.

Whether they wish to or not, Martian cities will compete with each other for immigrants. The ones with the best ideas will draw the most people. This is why dystopian totalitarian space colonies controlled by villains who tyrannize their subjects by threatening to cut off their air will remain mere fictions. A successful extraterrestrial tyranny is impossible because no one would move there.

Again, the fundamental reality that will shape the formation of Martian civilizations will be the labor shortage. Martian cities will not be either willing or able to block the exercise of talent by creating artificial certification obstacles to job or profession entry, nor will they be able to throw people away, as we currently do when we stash our elderly in old age homes. Nor will they be able or willing to enforce prolonged childhood on adolescents by institutionalizing them until their third decade in schools. Rather than being shunned, immigrants and new arrivals of every kind will be valued and welcomed. The latter will most emphatically include children.

Mars needs children. That means Mars needs women.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britain and France vied for control of North America. France was the much larger power, with a population four times that of Britain. Yet while British colonists built real communities in North America, the French built fur trading posts. Consequently, British women were willing to move to America, but French women were not. As a result, by the time the struggle between the two powers reached its climax in the 1750s, there were two million English speaking colonists in North America but only 50,000 French. The outcome was inevitable, with results that shape the world to this day.

Mars will have its share of rough outposts. But only places that draw women will develop into civilizations, and the cities that attract the most female immigrants will outgrow the rest. How they will go about doing this will be theirs to devise or hit upon by chance. Suffice it to say, the status of women in the ultimately prevalent Martian societies is likely to be high.

Biological evolution occurs through natural selection. Human social evolution does so as well, except that innovations need not be arrived at randomly, but can be chosen, and if found successful, transferred and widely propagated by thought. This makes the kind of social experimentation that will occur on Mars a far more powerful force for progress.

In Space, Let Meritocracy Reign Supreme
Those who travel to Mars will not need to debate free markets, bureaucracy, or state control of the means of production. They will not care about the ethnicity or gender identity of their peers. They will be too busy figuring out how to survive.

The ideas of eighteenth-century enlightenment liberalism that America’s founders used to initiate their new republic were not original to them. On the contrary, they were well known to educated circles in Europe at the time. But those who believed in such concepts as government of the people, by the people, for the people, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and inalienable individual rights that stand above king, state, or church, were dismissed as impractical dreamers. It took a new beginning in a new world—a place where the rules hadn’t been written yet—to give these ideas a chance to show what fruit they might yield. America’s founders called their project a “noble experiment,” as indeed it was. To be sure, it did not produce perfect results, but it was the best the world had to offer at the time. And this experiment did well enough that millions of people voted with their feet to come to America to be part of it and help build America into a beacon of hope, a powerhouse of creativity, and a shining example to be developed further by and for all humankind.

There are likely to be many noble experiments on Mars. Some will fail, but others will succeed, leading their cities to grow, prosper, invent, create, and by example, set a new standard for the further progress of humanity everywhere.

We need to keep looking for something better. Those who search may find. What could be more important? In taking on the challenge of Mars, we hold it in our power to begin the world anew.

What a grand thought. What a grand opportunity. Let us prove worthy of our moment. 

Lightly adapted from The New World on Mars: What We Can Create on the Red Planet, by Robert Zubrin. Copyright © 2024 by Robert Zubrin. Reprinted by permission of Diversion Books.

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