How Will Mars Be Colonized?
Michael James Scharen
November 11, 2021

Reposnse to a Quora request regarding just how the colonization of Mars might take place.

Colonization of Mars should proceed, if it proceeds at all in organic fashion without governments being involved. They would only screw it up while enslaving everyone else on Mars. As for a road map, each company or organization forging ahead would have their own priorities. Be that as it may, there are common elements to be tackled and, as on the American or Australian frontiers, there will be voluntary cooperation. First and foremost is the fuel situation. This is the greatest hindrance to getting to Mars and getting back safely. SpaceX will have to refuel at least 6 times in Earth orbit and perhaps that is why they went for such a large payload with the Starship and a speculated follow on of the Starship 2.0. If constructed as planned she would be twice the current combined height of 400 feet and diameter of 30 feet for the SuperHeavy and Starship. Such a capability should allow larger spacecraft to be assembled in orbit in addition to ferrying fuel and cargo. Doubling the size also lowers the ratio for the dry mass of the ship compared to the payload she can carry, making the vehicle more efficient and profitable.

Though I am assuming the trip to Mars will be possible in the Starship with adequate life support and supplies, the craft would not have a lot of room left for fuel to land with an appreciable amount of supplies and equipment. The ship also has to take off again or a smaller ship would need to be able to get people off of the surface for some time until a base was close to self sustaining — with the ability to manufacture fuel. Larger craft — assembled in orbit as mentioned above — should be built for interplanetary shuttling only (no landing, but able to be refueled in space). The initial Mars habitats and facilities must also be built as modular assemblies or from kit form which fit into the holds of the cargo haulers moving them from Earth to orbit, in space and back down to Mars. The Angry Astronaut (YouTube) has made a good case for settling Phobos or Deimos for use as a staging area where landing is not needed. In another video, he also notes that at times a slingshot trip around Venus could allow for greater frequency than the now 26 months between launch windows.

Fig.1 -Dramatic rendering of a SpaceX Starship entering the Martian atmosphere. The thin atmosphere will still provide substantial braking and heating for the craft.

As for practical trips to and from Mars, really, nuclear engines make incredible sense. Nuclear-electric ion engines do not provide a lot of thrust and can only be used in space, so the overall safety issue is negligible for those on the ground. The fuel could be transported to reactors built in orbit. Though their thrust is not high, it can be kept up for weeks or longer, rather than the few minutes one gets from powerful chemical rockets. Chemical rockets will still be needed in space as one can not always plan where one needs to go and if large amounts of thrust are required, then chemical power would deliver. Estimates have been offered for a trip to Mars in only 6 weeks with nuclear engines! For planned, efficient transportation, this is hard to beat. It took the early sailing ships 6 weeks to cross the Atlantic. Furthermore, accommodations for crew and passengers for centrifugal artificial gravity could be forgotten for 6–8 weeks in space — making the spacecraft cheaper and more efficient. Personally, I do not believe people would tolerate 8–9 month trips in free fall. The toll it takes on the human (non-astronaut) body is immense and unpredictable.

One could go on and on about spacecraft design needed for colonization all day. On the Martian surface, habitats will be required and these will be on the surface by and large at first. Preferably these will be located near convenient lava tubes for expansion of he settlements later on. Dirt covers are adequate for radiation shielding, though they should be up to a meter thick. The surface is exposed to both electromagnetic and ionizing particle radiation from space. The atmosphere takes out some, but it is very thin compared to Earth’s at <1% pressure — almost entirely CO2. Though it might take a little prospecting, the settlements need to have access to water. There is water under the surface of Mars, maybe not in large amounts, but it is there. There is video of the alluvial sands boiling with water. This water, no doubt, is extremely salty. Others may correct me, but it seems that if salty water were piped into a vacuum chamber then the water vapor could be collected readily from the boil off with very little added heat. Other probes have detected many clay/water deposits that are not terribly deep. Myself and others have suggested that the Vallis Marineris should provide ideal first colony sites. This is the Grand Canyon of Mars — as long as the continental United States is wide. Obviously, it is an ancient watershed. As such, we can see alluvial flows throughout and this is where water should be sought — just as we would in a desert on Earth.

In my books, The Gifted, and The Serendipity Factor, I describe water and mineral processing on Mars as well as the use of concrete. Concrete actually cures better in a vacuum as the excess water rapidly leaves the mix. Water, of course, is necessary for life, for growing food, and so many other purposes. Getting useful amounts of water from this ancient and disappearing briny mix could be a challenge but one that must be overcome if there are to be any settlements at all. No one, as yet, has achieved a fully sustainable Biodome on Earth, let alone another planet. With respect to life support as noted, very modular materials for the build-out of large structures is a must. Humans cannot live in inflatable eggs and the shells of spent Starships alone for extended periods of time. This is how axe murders happen.

Oxygen and carbon may be separated from the CO2 atmosphere. Hydrogen and oxygen may be separated in water. Oxygen is needed for breathing and for rockets in large quantities. I’m skeptical of the production of oxygen in large enough quantities for rockets, but this could be overcome. Hydrogen may be combined with carbon to form methane. These too, I write of in my books, but not to bore anyone — only to immerse the reader into the world of Martian pioneers.

The soil must be cleaned up if it to be used for agriculture. The Martian regolith is chock full of perchlorates — which are very toxic!. This danger was conveniently left out of The Martian as Mark Watney scienced the s#*t into his potatoes grown in deadly red sand. This followed a ridiculous storm with no basis in reality! A Martian storm would have about a much force as someone hitting you broadside with a single piece of printer paper. There are plenty of dangers on Mars to be dealt with without making up absurd events which could never happen, but that is Hollywood.

Fig. 2 - KiloPower units being developed by NASA. The disk at the top is a heat radiating baffle for the cold ends of Stirling engines in the middle . An enriched Uranium core at the base is utilized for generating heat.

What was likely accurate from The Martian was the use of nuclear power, though his backpack sized generator was a bit small. NASA is developing what they call KiloPower units. These are low-level fission powered units with a core the size of a paper towel roll made of slightly enriched Uranium. Heat pipes run through the core leading to the hot ends of six Stirling cycle engines for generating electricity. Right now, one unit only puts out around 10 kw or enough to run a few average homes. Larger ones are in the works. These are very safe but still have the problem of disposal or reprocessing of fuel (also described in my books). Another very promising method of power production is a solar-Stirling combination which uses the heat of concentrated sunlight from parabolic mirrors focused onto the Stirling engine(s). These are currently in production, though their use does not seem to have caught on as much as the environmentally unsound solar panels.

All of the technical details are fine and good, but we have to remember that it will be human beings going to Mars — not mindless drones like robots or worse — citizens. As such, there will need to be places to unwind, such as pubs, game rooms, gymnasiums, musical venues or all manner of entertainments. These must be encouraged by folks like Elon Musk who appreciates very hard work but who is also putting a bar atop of his Starship assembly bay. These we leave to the colonists who will be endlessly creative. Imagine having your first Red Planet Ale made from genuine Martian alluvial spring water! Not to give too much away, I have a few such places in my books, and hit most of them in the last work to date, Treason. The names of these illustrious establishments include The Harsh Mistress, Mark Watney’s, The Martian Princess, and I think you get the general trend.

So to conclude, I will say that Mars Colonization will likely proceed, but it needs more visionaries like Elon Musk to bring it about. He is proof that people want to be inspired and live a in a fashion where creativity and individual as well as team effort amount to something. Let’s hope that his vision is catching for real. To gain a true foothold will take from 50 to 100 years unless we have more Elon Musk’s around and those are a rare commodity, indeed. There must be spiritual and financial incentive for making such goals a reality. Wanting to be free of the hypocrisy and violence most people call civilization will be the greatest driving factor. People will suffer any manner of hardship in order to be free and have a place to call their own — without Big Brother and/or the Taxman.