Mars! We know it as a barren, frozen wasteland 140 million miles away — hardly worth the trouble of getting there. Frankly, most of us don't give Mars much thought. Even stargazers find it's impossible to tell Mars apart from the surrounding celestial bodies in the night sky, unless they know exactly where to look.
But for a growing group of scientists, technologists and adventurers, Mars is the next frontier — a world just waiting to be explored. And regardless of what anyone thinks about the likelihood of humans thriving on Mars, they're hell-bent on getting us there.
So, even though there are (plenty of) technical difficulties we still have to solve before we arrive, and NASA's Mars vision is seemingly stalled in the water, outside support is growing among independent organizations and powerhouses like Elon Musk's SpaceX. It's quite possible we'll see humans on Mars in our lifetime.
Here's what it'll be like for the first people who set foot on the red planet.
Exploring the New Frontier
In the beginning, living and working on Mars will be a lot like scuba diving, James Green, director of NASA's planetary science division, told Mic.
"We've developed the concepts that we need to explore Mars by exploring our own ocean," Green said.
Like scuba divers, the first Mars explorers will carry oxygen tanks on their backs, wear specialized suits to deal with the pressure difference and peer out at the Martian landscape through a protective visor. And just like the first deep-sea divers, they'll travel to new areas in special vehicles, collect samples, take pictures and look for signs of life.
Building a Civilization on Mars
After field exploration, humans might set up semi-permanent and permanent settlements.
"My vision of a Mars settlement is an advanced tech version of life on the American frontier," Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, told Mic.
To Zubrin's point, the raw resources we need are already on Mars. We just need people there to start using them.
Most importantly, Mars already has water in the form of frozen ice caps, and there's evidence of underground liquid water, Green said. We can also create our own oxygen by pulling it out of the Martian air, he added.
Mars even has the raw material for building. The first settlers may start with a chain of pressurized dome-shaped habitats linked together by tunnels. But the planet is covered in metals, sulfates and minerals that coalesce into rock, just like minerals on Earth. That means we can gather up that material, feed it into a 3-D printer and produce pieces to assemble shelters and other infrastructure.
"A station on Mars will have 3-D printers everywhere in case something breaks," Green said. "All you'd need to do is download the drawings for X part on Y machine."
Mars is also full of underground hollowed-out lava tubes, which will provide a natural shelter when solar storms bombard the surface with radiation, Green said.
Eating on Mars
It won't be too tricky to set up greenhouses and start farming on Mars. We know from NASA's Curiosity rover that there's alkaline soil perfect for growing things like asparagus and beans, Green told Mic. Unexplored parts of Mars might hold acidic soil where we could grow potatoes, just like in The Martian, Green said.
Business on Mars
Once the necessities for survival are taken care of, Zubrin believes, life on Mars will encourage a spirit of innovation.
On Earth, regulatory organizations can often delay technical progress, Zubrin said, listing nuclear power and GMO crops as examples of where regulation has stifled progress and invention. But there won't be any regulation on Mars when the first people arrive. The first explorers and settlers will be too busy constantly inventing and trying out new ways to make life on the Martian frontier easier. And since eventually Mars will have to start generating income, the natural dominate export will be inventions, Zubrin says.
"They'll develop things like super-productive crops or advanced robotic technology or labor-saving technology which they will need for their own purposes," Zubrin told Mic. "Then they could license those inventions for use on Earth and use them to pay for imports."
As far as government goes, Zubrin thinks emerging colonies will form similarly to how states formed out of the original U.S. colonies.
"Mars colonies that find the best laws — they will attract more colonists from Earth," Zubrin said. "The others will wither and die."
Mars Could Change the Human Race
Exposure to radiation may be a concern for future Martians.
"Radiation on the surface of Mars is about the same as the International Space Station," Zubrin said. Exposure to such levels of radiation does increase one's risk of developing cancer, but ultimately it's less risk than smoking, he added.
But Mars could have an even more profound effect on humans. If the first settlements succeed, eventually children will be born on Mars. And astronomer Chris Impey thinks the Martian environment is different enough to give rise to a whole new subspecies of humans.
"They'll evolve physiologically quite quickly, because if the gravity is less — as it would be on Mars or the moon — then they will change," Impey said in an interview with NPR. "Their physical bodies will change even while they're alive. And then if they have children and grandchildren — then they'll change even more."
Turning Mars Into a Second Earth
If we want a permanent Mars settlement, some scientists and futurists have called for terraforming Mars — a process that involves polluting on purpose. Pumping greenhouse gases into the Martian atmosphere would warm up the planet over several centuries, and eventually make it more Earth-like.
Some scientists and futurists have called for terraforming Mars — a process that involves polluting on purpose.
Unlike Earth, "Mars could use some global warming," Zubrin joked. "Within a few decades you could raise the temperature on Mars by 10 centigrade, then a lot of carbon dioxide in the soil would outgas and thicken the atmosphere. Over the next century, you could raise it by 50 centigrade. You could have liquid water on the surface at that temperature and atmosphere pressure."
Eventually it would be possible to activate the water cycle on Mars and grow plants on the surface.
"We don't have to just bring life to Mars," Zubrin said. "We can bring Mars to life."