What to do on Mars?
Life on Mars, what would it be like? A lot of science fact and fiction has been written about Mars, regarding the reality, politics, economics and technological feasibility of going to Mars. But let us assume that we have made it there and the first manned Mars mission is taking its first steps upon the red soil. To survive beyond a flag-planting, boot-print, Kodak moment, what must we do to maintain a presence on Mars?
The current mission scenario envisions an unmanned habitat module (hab) and fuel-making plant (an Earth Return Vehicle ERV) being sent to Mars first, followed many months later by astronauts in another hab. As explained below this allows less weight to be carried in fuel and other resources as they would be produced on Mars. Once on Mars, the astronauts would be there for around 18 months before returning to Earth, when Mars is once again closest to Earth. There will be a lot to do to ensure that those 18 months are productive enough to encourage further missions and eventual colonisation.
Mars will not be just about science and exploration, it will be a way of life. So just like the frontiersmen of old, Martian voyagers would have to learn to live off the land, getting to know the area and what resources are available. How? Part of this would have already been accomplished by the first ERV. The air of Mars is high in carbon dioxide and reacted in chemical plants with liquid hydrogen brought from Earth would yield high amounts of methane for fuel, with oxygen and water by-products. The fuel, air and water would enable ERVs, rovers, habs and other appliances to be powered and re-supplied. This brings down costs and ensures efficient resource use.
More water would be available in areas just below the surface and perhaps in deeper aquifers, ready to be pumped out. Mixing the water with regolith would enable bricks to be made in order to build sheltering structures, probably semi-subterranean in nature, to offer pressurised facilities and also more protection from harsh radiation and temperatures. Martian elements and minerals are as ubiquitous as they are on Earth and so with the right technology could be used to build anything on Mars. Light and flexible materials, including glass, could be used to build greenhouses for food, maybe with hydroponics units. Human ingenuity will sustain Man on Mars.
With manned and robotic rovers, currently being tested and built by universities and other companies for competitions, the future colonists could be more mobile and set up small frontier stations for stop-overs, scientific experiments or bolt-holes from dust storms. The first Martian colonies will not be stationary outposts, but hustling-bustling staging posts. Fuel, food, travel and shelter would be taken care of and be more sustainable as wholly Martian industries with minimal re-supply from Earth.
So what on earth shall we do on Mars once the initial mission has succeeded? With logistical problems anticipated and overcome, colonists would be able to move out and explore and in safer conditions than any explorer before them on Earth. This would be due to the substantial amount of data and maps from rover, telescopic and orbital missions. Mars' surface area is about the same as all of Earth's continents put together and without any oceans obscuring the landscape, precise geological images and maps could be produced for any explorer/prospector to use. This would apply for all latitudes, even the north and south poles, which are ice covered. It would remain to be seen if old territorial patterns arise again or if new models for Martian land management could be established for a fairer land distribution system.
Not only will there be professional and private astronauts and colonisers, but the big driving force would be commercial ventures seeking new avenues in resource mining, virtual-tourism, adventurism and extreme sports, and other businesses, such as law, education and medical jobs. Martian commerce would be vital for its own and Earth's economy in terms of trade and new employment opportunities. These commercial factors may also include any moral obligations in searching for indigenous life before any large scale terraforming projects began. Though this process will take centuries to complete just to allow humans to breathe through a light mask and wear a lightweight spacesuit. Such moral dilemmas may prove distracting, yet entirely welcome if non-terrestrial life is found on Mars. So before bringing a little piece of Earth to Mars, we would have to make sure that no one was at home first.
With further settlements up and running, with commercial industries finding their way, the stage would be set for the next phase: full colonisation. In the last half of this century, pioneers will find their way to Mars to live a hard life, creating a new home for humans. Their children will be the first of a new generation born on a new world, granddaughters and grandsons of Earth, though maybe unable to return, depending on theirs and their children's weaker Martian physiology. The social aspect of Martian newborns may be tremendous as it will define what it means to be human or indeed Martian.
Going to Mars would be a Generational Mission of the 21st Century, guaranteeing a feel-good, can-do factor in accomplishment and pride at the birth of a new human civilisation. Mars will not be a one-trip mission, but a prelude to a whole new way of human life. Mars will not be a dead world for there are resources waiting to be used to sustain us, to help mankind grow and expand. We are ready for Mars. Let's go!
Zubrin, R. 1996. The Case For Mars. London: Simon & Schuster.