October 04, 2011
Why Live In Small Habitat On Mars?

A story in Technology Review about habitats for Moon and Mars colonies and an accompanying slide show of NASA tests of inflatable space habitats brings to mind a rarely discussed issue on long term Moon and Mars missions: Why subject yourself to years of living in very close quarters? Imagine living in a small home with the ability to go out for relatively short periods of time and then only in a space suit. Well, that's too frustrating a scenario for me to subject myself to it as a volunteer.

Such confined spaces and stresses of Mars life demand a very mentally stable and low stressing crew. If NASA ever sends a crew to Mars (or even the Moon) for a long mission then the latest brain genetics research and neuroscience ought to be employed to screen potential crew members. Who is least likely to crack? Who is most likely to stay unstressed, happy, and productive? Surely many genes that contribute to cognitive function and also to stress responses will be identified in the next 10 years.

To prepare for an eventual long term space mission (and also find genetic discoveries useful to the rest of us) an organized effort should be made to gather DNA samples from many people who suffer emotional breakdowns, depression that shows up only in mid-life under stress, and other mental diseases that do not first manifest at younger ages. DNA sequencing, brain scans, and other screening of those who hit serious mental problems in mid-life could provide clues for genetic variants and brain attributes to avoid when staffing for a Mars mission.

Another point: A picture in the slide show with lettuce being grown brings up the question of relevance. Growing plants enough to make a substantial impact on diet requires a lot of space. Unless it is possible to deliver large inflatable hot houses the growth of food at a Mars base will at best deliver a bit of extra flavoring and variety. Also, how to power hot houses to supply enough light and heat? Nuclear power plants seem the only viable option since solar panels will weigh too much to send in quantity.

A question: How much Mars soil would need to be processed to extract a meaningful amount of oxygen? Suppose inflatable habitats spring leaks. How to make more oxygen to inflate them after they get patched? Is concentration of oxygen from the thin Mars atmosphere a viable option? Would it be necessary to put a Mars base near water at a pole to extract the oxygen from water?

Update: Even worse, no dogs. How big would a Mars habitat have to get before dogs would be brought in? How long after humans first set up a permanent Mars base until dogs are introduced? A habitat unfriendly to dogs is really a habitat unfriendly to humans. We've got a lot of shared interests with our canine companions. They enjoy fields and trails into hills as much as we do.

Since Mars mission of just a few years duration would obviously not create permanently inhabitable facility my reaction is why bother? What is the point of building something on Mars that can't develop into a dog-friendly community with excellent parks for running the dogs? We should not spend tens or hundreds of billions of dollars to put a habitat on Mars until such a habitat could stay continuously inhabited and grow to a size sufficient to support a substantial dog population and grassy parks. It is not worth the trouble to just go visit Mars. We visited the Moon over 40 years ago and haven't been back for a few decades. The experience was that unsatisfying. Another stunt trip, this time to Mars, is a waste of time and resources.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 October 04 09:52 PM  Space Colonization

PacRim Jim said at October 5, 2011 1:23 AM:

Build an underground shelter. Would protect against ionizing radiation, Klingons, and especially Wraith.

bbartlog said at October 5, 2011 3:03 AM:

Oxygen can be had from the iron (and other) oxides in the martian soil, if you have enough energy. As for hothouses/greenhouses, I think you'd need to use mirrors to roughly quadruple the amount of light incident on the plants; at that point (assuming mirrors external to the greenhouse) heat becomes just a matter of reasonably efficient insulation.
If you solve the greenhouse problem, the oxygen problem is solved by compressing CO2 from the thin martian atmosphere and letting the plants turn it into O2. I think replacing escaping water might actually be a bigger problem than the O2 at that point.

MORPHEUS said at October 5, 2011 7:43 AM:

we have bases on mars and moon since the 60ths people

please wake up u braiwashed zombies

they were built by the secret space fleet witch have electolevitic based propulsion systems since the


if anybody has any crtical thiking left take a look at this 2 articles

wake the f up


John said at October 5, 2011 8:11 AM:

In Philip K. Dick's 'Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch', people are conscripted by the U.N. and forced to live in tiny Martian habitats. Their lives are so sad and pathetic that they need drugs to hallucinate happy, normal lives.

Phillep Harding said at October 5, 2011 12:28 PM:

Go underground. I doubt there's enough sunlight to use for greenhouses, even with mirrors.

Exercise will be a bigger problem; sitting around is bad for the health. Use stationary bikes with generators to get back a little energy instead of simply wasting energy through heat friction.

Also get exercise digging more tunnels, though atmo loss might be a problem as the spoil is tossed out.

Engineer-Poet said at October 5, 2011 1:32 PM:

There's plenty of sunlight on Mars (roughly half of Earth normal, with lower cloud losses except during dust storms and more UV).

Getting oxygen on Mars is easy:  you take CO2 out of the atmosphere and grow plants on it.  Keeping a greenhouse atmosphere at 1% CO2 is easier on Mars than almost anywhere else; you just compress atmosphere up to greenhouse pressure, and you can harvest nitrogen and argon by discarding excess CO2.  There are lots of plants which thrive in low-light conditions and can be used to make oxygen even if they aren't directly edible.  Inedible plants can be fed to animals, or to insect grubs which in turn feed animals.  They can also be charred to make a carbon-sequestering growth medium for new crops, allowing the oxygen to be retained.

The big issue about Martian greenhouses isn't how you'll fill them, but how you'll enclose them.  It's much harder to make lots of plastic or glass than it is to grow plants.

Doug said at October 5, 2011 4:07 PM:

People will live in difficult places if they must or if that is the only way to survive. Thus, Mars a prison planet, or populated by exiles. New Australia?

Alternatively, what if riches of some sort could be obtained through a decade of service on Mars? Would you spend a decade or so working on Mars for enough money to never need to work again? Though I cannot imagine what might be there to actuate this scenario.

Finally, religious or political freedom is the ultimate incentive. Put up enough satellites to beam more sunlight to the surface, warm the place up, get some genetically supercharged lichens and other plants making O2 from CO2, who knows? maybe in a century or so, you could get rid of the pressure suits, and just use a supplemental oxygen source. An untouched world of resources to develop. The first lake or pond would be an unforgettable experience. Maneuver some asteroids or Phobos or Deimos into suitable orbits to be rest areas between Earth and Mars. They're just captured asteroids anyway.

Also, I'd think suitable sized craters would be ideal initial building sites.

Ronald Brak said at October 5, 2011 5:34 PM:

Very roughly 1 kilo of mars dirt should yield about 20 litres of oxygen. If the habitat is at earth sea level pressure that can be cut with nitrogen and/or argon from the martian atmosphere to give 100 litres. It is possible to skip dirt and plants to get oxygen directly from the mars air. Fill a container with mars air, shine an ultraviolet laser of appropriate wavelength into it to split the CO2 and use a material that works as an oxygen absorber to take up the oxygen released and then extract the oxygen from absorber. This is just one method, there could be much better ways to do it.

Randall Parker said at October 5, 2011 9:53 PM:


You make a great point. Okay, so how to build enclosures from native Mars materials?

Engineer-Poet said at October 6, 2011 8:24 AM:

Something I forgot:  Martian regolith contains perchlorates.  If these can be separated cheaply, they can supply oxygen without any further refining.

Robert Zubrin's Mars Direct analysis produced methane from CO2 and hydrogen as an experiment, but he didn't stop there.  I recall him mentioning ethylene instead, which is more easily liquefied, requires half the hydrogen and is the monomer for polyethylene.  The problem with LDPE in a Martian environment is short lifespan under UV exposure.  I'd suggest using soda glass as the top layer(s), with aerogel for insulation.  LDPE can be the flexible sealing material.

Recovering silica from regolith isn't something I can offer many opinions on, but it might be possible to perform the separation with water.  Quartz veins are deposited in other rocks by flowing water.  Could aqueous processing produce quartz glass directly?  I'd love to ask some geochemists about this.

David A. Young said at October 6, 2011 9:29 AM:

One of the main things I liked about Bob Zubrin's "Mars Direct" plan was that every trip left useable infrastructure hehind. Using such an incremental approach, the goals of the first phase of Mars visits would be to develop the techniques for in situ construction, and then delivery of the necessay equpment and personnel to actually build large structures (above or below ground, or both). Yeah...I'm talking specialized bulldozers and such. If we're not willing to put that type of effort into it, then there's little point in bothering at all.

And of course, this kind of thing will be quite impractical if we don't get launch costs down by orders of magnitude. SpaceX-type companies are going to have to succeed if such endeavors are going to begin anytine soon.

Joe said at October 6, 2011 11:13 AM:

Mars has essentially no magnetic field. This means that any habitation near the surface, such as a greenhouse, would be a very unhealthy place to work an extended period.

The gravity of Mars is .38 that of Earth. So far, low gravity tests indicate that this would be fatal to humans over time.

Big D said at October 6, 2011 11:26 AM:

The one downside of Mars Direct was that it left that infrastructure dotted all over the planet.

However, if you make one moderate adjustment to it--make the habs themselves into nuclear-powered RV-sized rovers (I think James Cameron, of all people, first publicly suggested this)--then it becomes possible to land every mission at one site on the planet, and then drive halfway across the planet as necessary for each mission's research goals (having RV-sized habs also means that if yours irreparably breaks down, NASA can drive an older one out to pick you up so you don't miss your launch window home).

This would concentrate the leftover supplies and material from each mission into a single growing base. Since each mission would be oversupplied to maintain a certain safety margin, this would make for a growing stockpile that could be used to bootstrap a shift from exploration to colonization.

Koblog said at October 6, 2011 12:09 PM:

Biosphere ( http://www.b2science.org/ ) showed pretty conclusively that you can't grow enough food in a closed earth-like environment to survive. And that was in the Arizona desert.

We are severely underestimating how wonderfully designed our earth is, how marvelous its atmosphere, how perfectly situated to our sun.

The latest screaming headlines are "earth-like planets found around many stars." Yeah, well, Mars and Venus are "earth-like planets" too, and they suck for humans. Just cause there's a planet doesn't mean we can live there.

rjschwarz said at October 6, 2011 12:11 PM:

I'd rather go to Phobos. You can still aerobrake off of Mars, the Delta V is far better, it's an easier target to hit with supplies, and it provides a base for further exploration on Mars or the asteroids. No you can't create your return fuel there but it wouldn't be hard to update Mars direct to have the fuel stuff land on Mars and send fuel into orbit.

Steven said at October 6, 2011 12:15 PM:

So far, low gravity tests indicate that this would be fatal to humans over time.

No, they don't. We only have long-term evidence for Earth-standard gravity and microgravity. We have no tests or evidence whatsoever that indicate whether long-term habitation in Martian gravity would be good, bad, or indifferent.

Foobarista said at October 6, 2011 12:26 PM:

from the "mars trilogy": if you can't build a dome over a crater and live in it (probably not doable now), find a big lava tube, possibly one with a "skylight", and seal off the ends (and the skylight). Lava tubes on Mars are like 10x the width and height of the earth's due to low gravity, so this should give enough room for a good-sized "open-air" community.

Tom Billings said at October 6, 2011 12:31 PM:

The most notable thing about those small martian habs is that there was not the least bit of *martian* material used to build them. NASA, once again, had to assume that all the prep work would be done inside someone's congressional district. Any other assumption has made it nearly impossible to get funding for space projects for 45 years, by now, and NASA has been well conditioned by its political masters.

The farther we go from Earth, the more critical In Situ Resources become for *any* viable stay times beyond a flags and footprints mission. But there are far fewer ways to put money in the right congressional ditricts with ISRU projects than with monster launcher projects.

Achillea said at October 6, 2011 12:35 PM:

"Build an underground shelter. Would protect against ionizing radiation, Klingons, and especially Wraith."

Never saw any dogs on Atlantis, though.

Ash said at October 6, 2011 1:09 PM:

I expect that we will eventually see new construction techniques that make things like domed communities living in far northern Canada and Alaska. Under the domes will be much warmer than exterior, making the winters more bearable.

Once that sort of thing begins to happen on Earth, communities on Mars will seem less absurd. But until then, this article has a point.

Put another way, until we see large-scale construction to make extreme environments on Earth more habitable, we won't see the same on other planets.

A. Lee said at October 6, 2011 1:11 PM:

There are many lower-order problems that need to be solved first before we can consider colonizing Mars. For example, resource development and extraction in Antartica, the Saharan desert, and the deep-sea floor. Or putting a resort hotel on a Himalayan peak, or in the Great Barrier Reef. All of these problems are currently unsolved, and unlike colonizing Mars, could give immediate economic returns. For the libertarian-types who want new societies, there may be some difficulties with creating politically-independent entities on Antarctica or on the sea-floor, but those difficulties would not be diminished in space.

The current problem with Mars exploration is that the cost, simply to maintain life, is exorbitant, and no economic activity on Mars could repay that cost. Even capital goods, like nuclear reactors or automated soil-refineries, have amortization costs. If the nuclear reactor lasts (an optimistic) 50 years, it will have cost over $1B to get there. Even assuming great strides in low-cost launch, it will cost at least $50M. Which means the colony would have to sustain $1~20M/yr of economic value to Earth just to justify the reactor. The only possible application is tourism, but the 3~6 month trip each way may be prohibitive. Unless there is an economic value to going to Mars, it will always be a government-funded science project.

Solve this problem first: Make the McMurdo Antarctic base economically self-sufficient. Develop systems to do remote resource survey, sell the results to governments and resource extraction companies. Add a nuclear power plant and use it to power the facility and insulated greenhouses. Figure out what economies of scale are needed to make the added greenhouse production outweigh the added consumption of the greenhouse upkeep and personnel. Add a resort wing for thrill-seeking tourists, if the economics pan out. Many of the problems of Mars colonization can be worked out on Earth, and if we can't get it to work here, it won't work on Mars either.

As for the Antarctic scenario, I don't find it far-fetched. Someone is eventually going to figure out how to make money in Antarctica, and then the gold rush begins.

LarryD said at October 6, 2011 1:18 PM:

"Another point: A picture in the slide show with lettuce being grown brings up the question of relevance. Growing plants enough to make a substantial impact on diet requires a lot of space. Unless it is possible to deliver large inflatable hot houses the growth of food at a Mars base will at best deliver a bit of extra flavoring and variety. Also, how to power hot houses to supply enough light and heat? Nuclear power plants seem the only viable option since solar panels will weigh too much to send in quantity."

So you expect to ship food from Earth instead?

Space for greenhouses will be allocated because they're necessary. We do it now in Antarctica, precisely because shipping in all of the bases foodstuffs is impractical.

But the greenhouse is not just part of the food supply, the environment of growing things is psychologically important as well.

Tcobb said at October 6, 2011 1:55 PM:

As far as making habitats on the moon and Mars goes, we might want to look at nuclear bombs. It was many years ago but I saw an article about underground nuclear tests. What they produced after the fact was an underground glass dome (it was really a sphere but the debris tended to fill it up halfway so it looked like a dome if you entered it) that was several hundred yards in diameter. Remove the radioactive debris and fill it with sand from the surface.

Make a close set of them and connect them by tunnels. Put a light source at the top of each dome and then pump in water, nitrogen, and CO2 and start plants growing. They proved with the lunar soil that primitive plants like ferns and liverworts thrived on such non-organic soils. Grind them up into compost and plant food crops and fruit trees. You can do it deep enough underground where the colonies are protected from solar radiation, but you could make enough area for living that wouldn't be that much different than for people who live on small islands, and you could do it fairly quickly.

Send a small set of people (or robots) to start the process. Send in the main set of colonists when the ecology in the inter-connected domes is stable.

A stupid idea? Perhaps.

Engineer-Poet said at October 6, 2011 3:26 PM:

I like the lava tube idea better than bombs.  You don't have to worry about e.g. the walls becoming unstable as the flash-melted material cools and ages.

Dropping a rock to make a designer-sized crater and building a dome in it out of sintered regolith is another possibility.  Loose regolith piled on top for radiation shielding would finish the job, and all you'd need is a simple dragline system.

HT said at October 6, 2011 3:41 PM:

All of this is nonsense. Mankind will never successfully live on Mars: too little gravity and too much radiation and too little livable space that over time will harm the inhabitants and their progeny. Do we want a society that grows up living under domes or, much more likely, underground to avoid radiation? Each generation becoming weaker as low gravity plays havoc on their physiques? The real answer is to strip mine the place to build huge space stations that are hundreds of miles long spinning at 32 feet per second per second to simulate 1x gravity. Such stations wouldn't come into place until after we've done the same thing with asteroids and possibly even the Oort Cloud. But Mars would have enough mass to build well over 1 Earth of inhabitable space, complete with oceans! The "roof" of the spinning cylinder would be higher than our present sky (you can also have one cylinder within another within another each spinning separately. The climate(s) could be controlled or left wonderfully wild with its own ecosystem(s) developing over generations. Each cylindrical world would develop on its own with most of our work really all about how to more closely simulate the magnetic fields that the wildlife would continue to need. Radiation? No problem, just point the station away from the sun and have dozens/hundreds of feet of rock between the end of the cylinder and the living space. Light can simply be re-directed from the sides. Hey, eventually launch one of those cylinders toward another star.

Ignorance is Bliss said at October 6, 2011 5:54 PM:

Tcobb said...

As far as making habitats on the moon and Mars goes, we might want to look at nuclear bombs. It was many years ago but I saw an article about underground nuclear tests.

You're thinking of 'The Wrath of Khan'.

Ignorance is Bliss said at October 6, 2011 6:11 PM:

So you expect to ship food from Earth instead?

No. We will need chemical processes to produce sugars, fats, or some other high energy chemical stock, further processed by by yeast, bacteria, algae, etc, to produce a well-balanced, if dull, diet. I'm sure there will be farming for spices and other non-essentials.

Phillep Harding said at October 6, 2011 7:41 PM:

Biosphere sacrificed utility for "pretty", and was doomed to fail as a habitat.

Phillep Harding said at October 6, 2011 7:50 PM:

HT, the Nivens solution (small "Ringworlds") ignores gyroscopic action. One end will not stay pointed at the host star as the station or ring orbits it.

Doug said at October 7, 2011 11:45 AM:

I'll drop back in for a second comment. Economics is the problem, not inadequate science. The commercial syndicates set up by the English to get rich by colonizing North America mostly went bust. North America was temperate, fertile, with forests full of game and fish in the streams, has a perfectly fine atmosphere and rivers and lakes full of water, and had diverse resource riches only needing to be found and exploited. The syndicates still went broke. Yes they made many mistakes, but it is the nature of humans to make nistakes. (Yes, I deliberately left that typo uncorrected. Sort of makes my point, I suppose.) Only governments are so inefficient at allocating resources as to throw wealth down evident sinkholes until some unlikely favorable outcome makes them look like heroes. If North America, in many ways the very best part of the New World, was only settled with great initial expense, initial suffering, and subsequent violent conflicts over extraction of too much wealth and bad and oppressive governance by the mother countries, then how much greater will be the obstacles to overcome with the Moon or Mars?

Start small (the Moon) with limited objectives and take baby steps. Learn lessons. Build competencies.

Randall Parker said at October 9, 2011 12:30 PM:


Doing stuff on the Moon certainly makes sense for trying out many technologies for use on a Mars base. But what I want to know: Is the Moon soil so different than Mars soil that technologies for converting Moon soil into structures won't map to Mars?

To put it another way: How exactly to convert either Moon or Mars soil into airtight structures?

MORPHEUS said at October 10, 2011 12:28 PM:

ken johnston nasa chief for all lunar photos for decades inclunding orbiters a;; apollo missions and after

do u give a sheat what he have to say?

if yes watch this


Domes on the Moon, Pyramids, and other structures, and NASA, in the name of security is not accountable to the public.

it just really bogles the mind how stupid people can be after reading the posta on this

i mean down right african toeds

check the faking video


Engineer-Poet said at October 11, 2011 10:05 AM:

^^^^^ Troll ^^^^^

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