A Martian Space Station

7 June 2016


An artificial habitat orbiting Mars.

An artificial habitat orbiting Mars.


There may be more justification, in the short term, for building an artificial habitat in Mars orbit rather than Earth orbit. Before I discuss the reasons for this, I will give some background on the near-term prospects for Mars missions.

Landing on Mars in the 1925 German film Wunder der Schöpfung. Mars has long been the stuff of dreams.

Landing on Mars in the 1925 German film Wunder der Schöpfung. Mars has long been the stuff of dreams.

The Mars Race

It is, once again, an exciting time in space exploration. After decades in the doldrums, we are on the cusp of private industry commercial space exploration. Both Blue Origin and Space X have landed rockets on their tails, just like in early science fiction films, and with increased re-usability comes lower costs. Many other technologies are in development that may further lower costs, but right now we are already seeing private space technology companies with capabilities not possessed by the space program of any nation-state. This is remarkable and unprecedented. Partly this is a result of the exponential improvements in technology in recent decades, especially computing technologies, which in turn improve the performance of other technologies. Partly this is also the result of the concentration of wealth at the top of the income pyramid. I previously mentioned this in The Social Context of SETI, where I noted Yuri Milner’s investment in Breakthrough Listen, a SETI project. Billionaires are now in a position to personally finance enterprises once the exclusive remit of nation-states. With the funding available, only the motivation is needed.

It looks increasingly like a human mission to Mars will be realized by private industry rather than by a government space program. For space exploration enthusiasts, Mars is such stuff as dreams are made on. Mars is another world almost within our grasp. For all practical purposes, we have the technology to get there, only the funding has been lacking. As technology improves, becomes cheaper, and great capital is concentrated into the hands of a few, it becomes possible to undertake what was not possible just a few years earlier. The most visible figure in this recent spate of space activity has been Elon Musk of Space X, who has been explicit about his intention to develop rockets capable of human missions to Mars. In a recently announced time table, Space X may be able to mount a Martian mission in 2024, i.e., within ten years (this announcement was made at Code Conference 2016 in Los Angeles; cf., e.g., Elon Musk Is Sending Humans To Mars In 2024 by Evan Gough, 03 June 2016).

Musk has also been explicit that his interest is in creating an ongoing settlement on Mars. NASA plans for human missions to Mars cover exploration but not settlement, and their timetable is further in the future than Musk’s. It will be interesting to see if the model of the Space Race will portend for Mars what happened on the moon — once one side got there, the other gave up trying — or whether we will see multiple human missions to Mars, some purely for scientific exploration, and others bringing settlers with a plan to stay.

Wernher von Braun's mission design for Mars involved re-configuring spacecraft in Mars orbit for descent to the surface.

Wernher von Braun’s mission design for Mars involved re-configuring spacecraft in Mars orbit for descent to the surface.

Martian Extraplanetary Infrastructure

With the possibility of multiple human missions to Mars, and with a population of settlers on Mars, the need and uses for Martian extraplanetary infrastructure becomes obvious. The crucial piece of the puzzle of Martian extraplanetary infrastructure would be a Martian space station. By a Martian space station I don’t mean something like the International Space Station (ISS) now orbiting Earth, though this would be better than nothing, to be sure; I mean an enormous Gerard K. O’Neill style space habitat, such as an O’Neill cylinder, a Stanford Torus, or a Bernal sphere. Such an artificial habitat could serve a variety of functions in Mars orbit.

We have all heard that any Martian settlers would be dead within a few months’ time from suffocation and “starvation, dehydration, or incineration in an oxygen-rich atmosphere” — cf. the widely discussed MIT study An independent assessment of the technical feasibility of the Mars One mission plan – Updated analysis, by Sydney Do, Andrew Owens, Koki Ho, Samuel Schreiner, and Olivier de Weck. The MIT analysis concludes that Mars settlers would not be self-sufficient and so their survival would require continual re-supply from Earth. Part of this analysis hinges on what technologies are “existing, validated and available.” Needless to say, technologies can advance rapidly given the necessary expenditure of resources upon them. The analysis does not address how quickly innovative technologies can be brought online, and it is important to understand that the MIT report does not argue that human self-sufficiency on Mars is impossible, only that there are problems with the Mars One mission architecture.

Many of the shortcomings of the Mars One mission architecture, or the shortcomings of any other proposed mission to Mars (Mars One is the most detailed proposal to date, so it has received the most detailed criticism), could be addressed by a large, self-sustaining artificial habitat in Mars orbit. We should expect that the settlement of a sterile and hostile environment will be a difficult undertaking, but we could make this difficult undertaking much less difficult with the resources that might be needed positioned nearby, in orbit of Mars.

With large enough mirrors to capture sunlight, the interior of an artificial habitat even at the far edge of the habitable zone in our solar system would be able to concentrate sufficient sunlight for electrical power generation, growing crops, and the maintenance of comfortable conditions for residents. In orbit around Mars, an artificial habitat could provide a steady source of food produced under controlled conditions (under perfect greenhouse conditions, and far more amenable to control that any environment initially set up on the surface of Mars), before large scale food production is possible on the surface of Mars itself. The industrial infrastructure and processes necessary to maintain the lives of early Martian settlers could probably be maintained in orbit more cheaply and more efficiently than on the surface.

Some other considerations for Martian extraplanetary infrastructure include:

● Martian dirt It would be cheaper and easier to lift Martian dirt off Mars than to lift dirt off Earth in order to begin large scale agricultural production in a large artificial habitat. Having an artificial habitat in orbit around Mars would make it relatively easy to transfer significant quantities of Martian soil into Mars orbit. Using Martian soil for farming under controlled conditions, moreover, would provide valuable experience in Martian agronomy.

● Gravity A large artificial habitat in orbit around Mars could provide simulated full Earth gravity. This could be very valuable for long term settlers on Mars, who may experience health problems due to the low surface gravity on Mars. Settlers could be rotated through an artificial habitat on a regular basis. This would also be an opportunity to study how rapidly the human body could recover any lost bone mass, etc., after living in lower than Earth gravity conditions. It might also be valuable to experiment with slightly more than Earth gravity to see if this can compensate for extended periods of time in lower gravity environments. On an artificial habitat, simulated gravity can be tailored to the specific needs of the crew by spinning the habitat faster or slower.

● Way Station A Martian space station would also be a stepping stone for human missions farther along into the outer solar system. With all the resources necessary to preserve the lives of Martian settlers, such a way station could also serve to preserve the lives of deep space travelers. This would also provide an opportunity for space travelers to experience time “planetside” before and after missions into the outer solar system or beyond. The first human mission to the stars might be launched not from Earth, but from Mars orbit, or from similar habitats even more distant in the outer solar system.

Martian extraplanetary infrastructure could prove to be one of the greatest investments in space exploration ever made. We will likely have the technology to build a space elevator between the Martian surface and Mars orbit before we can build a space elevator between Earth’s surface and Earth orbit. Linking the Martian surface directly with Martian extraplanetary infrastructure will make possible economic opportunities that will not yet be available on Earth when they are available on Mars, with consequent economic growth likely integral with growth in science and technology. This will drive forward the STEM cycle more rapidly, and it will happen first on Mars.

Another planet awaits us...

Another planet awaits us…

The Martian Future

The first stage of an interplanetary civilization will be a human civilization that spans both Earth and Mars. In going to Mars, we will learn a great deal about living and working both in space and on other words. This knowledge and experience is a necessary condition of establishing the redundancy that human beings, our civilization, and the terrestrial biosphere require in order to overcome existential risks that could mean our extinction if we remain an exclusively terrestrial species.

The human future on Mars, then, is an essential element in expanding human experience so that we are not indefinitely subject to the planetary constraints native to planetary endemism. We need to experience the Martian standpoint in order to develop both as a species and as a civilization, and then to go beyond Mars.

After interplanetary civilization will come interstellar civilization, and we will need to begin with the experience of Mars, our planetary neighbor, in order to take the next step on to more distant worlds. The way to ensure the initial success and eventual expansion of an interplanetary civilization within our planetary system is through the construction of an artificial habitat in Mars orbit. One such artificial habitat could mean the difference between the life and death of the earliest settlers, and, in the long term, the success of these earliest settlers on another world will mean the difference between life and death for our civilization.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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project astrolabe logo smaller

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