February 24, 2013
Mars Colony Premature Without Genetic Engineering

What would be the point of living on Mars? The cost per person to get there is probably in the hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars. The living standard would be incredibly low due to lack of atmosphere, little water, lack of trees and fossil fuels, lack of fish in oceans, lack of very large scale specialization of labor, and other factors. Mars residents would be dependent on Earth for scientific and technological advances for easily a century if not more.

We could not afford to ship a large enough starter human population to Mars to provide enough human population to enable the specialization of labor necessary to support a sustainable Mars civilization. Such a civilization would need large numbers of people doing scientific research, technological development, and creation of the large assortment of industries colonists would need. The needs are greater on Mars due to no oceans, no forests, little atmosphere, and little or no native life.

We have our industrialized nation living standards and can make progress due to specialization of labor. We can do specialization of labor because we have enough people that some can have very narrow specializations. Plus, some are smart enough to learn and do very advanced specializations. Even 100,000 people on Mars couldn't specialize much (at least by Earth standards) unless they were all geniuses and had lots of robot helpers shipped to them from Earth.

Which brings up another topic: There is one powerful way to lower the population threshold for getting a Mars colony to the stage of sustaining a substantial rate of innovation and labor specialization. Create more geniuses once we can do offspring genetic engineering. Then genius candidates for a Mars colony would be easier to find and they'd be able to assure their own offspring would be geniuses as well (no regression to a lower mean).

What else do we need to make a Mars colony viable? Genetically engineered plants and microorganisms that can produce a large number of drugs, other specialty chemicals, textiles, and building materials. The plants would be able to reproduce themselves. By contrast, the specialty chemical factories on Earth require a very complex set of supporting industries (e.g. semiconductors, assorted sensor makers, pump and valve makers, machine tooling makers) to build new chemical factories.

To summarize: A Mars colony needs people much smarter than the average Earthling. Plus, a Mars colony needs plants and microorganisms that can substitute for chemical facilities on Earth that require large specialized industries to operate them. The effect will be to lower the amount of capital and size of human population needed to create industries sufficiently advanced to support humans in such a difficult and dangerous environment.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2013 February 24 08:38 PM 

Dave in Seattle said at February 24, 2013 10:29 PM:

Many people have noted that the asteroids are better destinations than Mars. Asteroids are even targets of commercial space efforts now underway. While thinking about space is fun, I suspect that the most likely destinations for "colonization" in the next century are extreme environments here on Earth. Population pressures may force Asians and Arabs to settle desert areas while Whites may have to settle the Arctic.

Cluebat said at February 25, 2013 5:51 AM:

What happens when these colonies of super-genii turn their desires back to this big blue marble? Think the plebs will accept the frankenkids with open arms?

SOBL1 said at February 25, 2013 6:18 AM:

Couldn't we start with robots and have them set up a turn-key colony? The Japanese were supposedly spending several billion to set up a robot base on the moon, but we'll see if that gets started at all. It might make more sense to send robots first to set up basics, and wait for humans to cut down the travel time for the voyage and work on the geentic engineering you mentioned. With enough lead time, the gen-en could make the improvements you mentioned, and our space travel technology could be tweaked. If we could set up a capsule that simulated, at the least, Mars' gravitational force, it would reduce the muscle + bone mass loss that would happen in transit. I'd prefer these gen-en traits:

1. higher bone density
2. Slower rate of bone mass loss
3. mental stability

Why have genius crews if they can't handle the isolation? I'd prefer initial crew genetic engineering to be based on survival and handling the lower gravity as well as submariner type conditions. Not every person is fit for submarine duty and NASA consulted the Navy for psych profiles for astonauts. Whomever sets up a Moon or Mars colony would be wise to look for a similar profile or engineer their colony for mental stability. SARMs could make up for muscle mass issues.

I'm all for colonization with a long term view for the survival of the species. I'm fine if we start with a Moon colony but the 2 weeks of darkness adds problems despite being closer. Looking at the coming asteroid close shaves, this is a great contingency plan.

Brett Bellmore said at February 25, 2013 7:04 AM:

What we really need is self-reproducing industrial infrastructure. Replicators, whether Drexlerian or "clanking". Self-sufficient life in a place without a habitable ecosystem requires a much, much larger ratio of infrastructure to population than any human society has achieved, and is probably infeasible if that infrastructure doesn't largely construct itself.

Our industry is getting closer and closer to "closing the circle", and being able to manufacture itself. A sustained push to achieve this could probably give us replicators within several decades, and replicators would give us the universe.

On the biology front, the most urgent need is to build a variable gravity spinning habitat in orbit, to determine the minimum sustained G force necessary for health. We know 1 G is enough, we know 0 G isn't, we are clueless where the threshold lies between, and that knowledge is critically necessary to planing colonization anywhere that lacks Earth gravity.

Marcel F. Williams said at February 25, 2013 12:33 PM:

Mars has two valuable low gravity well resources for precious water and carbon: Phobos and Deimos.

Even if we attempted to minimize the environmental impact of mining on these two tiny Martian moons to less than 0.1% of their total mass, that would still mean that over ten billion tonnes of material could potentially be exploited. Water could be shipped back from the Martian moons to cis-lunar space by rocket or by catapults plus light sails.

Within cis-lunar space, the water from the Martian moons could be used to manufacture fuel for orbital transfer vehicles (OTV). Reusable OTVs could be utilized to transport damaged or no longer functioning satellites to manned Lagrange point repair stations. Later, the OTVs could redeploy the repaired satellites back to LEO, GEO, or GPS orbits.

OTVs could also be used to transport satellites launched into LEO to higher orbits for GPS utilization or to geosynchronous orbit for telecommunications utilization.

Water, of course, can be utilized for mass shielding space habitats from cosmic radiation and solar events. Water could be used to produce oxygen for space habitats. And, of course, humans living in space habitats also need to use water for drinking, washing, cooking, and growing food.

Mining operations on the Martian moons could be teleoperated by humans living safely in radiation shielded colonies on the Martian surface. So Martian colonies could be economically sustainable by mining, manufacturing, and exporting water from the Martian moons back to cis-lunar space.

Marcel F. Williams

LAG said at February 25, 2013 6:35 PM:

What would be the point of living on Mars? I'd say for the same reason it's a good idea not to put all your eggs in one basket. Unless you believe that the UN can effectively declare the Earth an asteroid-free zone.

Doug said at February 25, 2013 6:52 PM:

So much here to process.

Baby steps first. Crawl, stand, walk, run.

For one thing, we need to establish some stable bases on the Moon first. Find out what is actually exploitable and learn to actually do that economically. The moon is a superior jumping-off point for Mars.

We very probably at some point need a practical Earth-orbiting station, a la Kubrick's 2001 to serve as a routine terminus to the Moon.

Breed geniuses? I'm sorry, genius is just so over-rated. We should try for civil and moral and non-self-destructive first. It would be a greater achievement.

JayMan said at February 26, 2013 7:56 AM:

Fossil fuel would be a foolish choice for energy. (Then there's the issue of burning them with what? There's very little oxygen in the Martian atmosphere). Nuclear energy would be the obvious choice: fuel could be easily shipped from Earth if there is none available there.

Randall Parker said at February 26, 2013 7:11 PM:


You certainly get to the heart of the problem:

What we really need is self-reproducing industrial infrastructure.

Self-reproducing: You just described life. We've got lots of organisms of many species on this planet. They reproduce without our help. They should be our starting point toward making industrial infrastructure that can reproduce on Mars.

The great thing about seeds, algae, bacteria, and the like is that they are small and self-reproducing. We can afford to send many genetically engineered organisms to Mars once we've genetically engineered lots of organisms to be more useful to us. We can get them to produce most of the drugs we'll need. Also, they'll be able to make textiles for clothing as well as for creating structures.


Thanks for reminding me: We need genetic engineering to adapt our bodies (not just our minds) to life on Mars. We are a long way away from making that happen.

Dave in Seattle,

An asteroid could be steered into high Earth orbit to be mined to make structures in space and on the Moon's surface. We'd probably use robots for most of it.

Since the Moon and Earth's orbit are closer we can send up parts to keep robots working. We can use an asteroid in orbit in ways that will raise living standards on Earth. But anything that happens on Mars in the next 50 years isn't going to help us down here.

Brett Bellmore said at February 27, 2013 4:21 AM:

Who's BBartlog?

Admittedly, genetically engineered domed cities which grow themselves would have a massive cool factor, but I think we can probably close the circle on conventional industry faster than we can engineer biological thorium reactors or Niven's "stage trees".

But I think the first step to any of this is finding out how much gravity we really need to be healthy. That number has a huge impact on the nature of any colony design.

And while genetically engineering humans to not need gravity is a good idea, I'm betting it will be a major challenge. We evolved from single cell life in the presence of this gravity field. Lack of gravity seems to seriously effect embryonic development, for one thing. And we do kind of need that to work for a "colony" to be successful.

Nick G said at February 27, 2013 10:10 AM:


Isn't self-reproducing industry pretty close to a nightmare scenario in which nanotech "grey goo" or rampant AI eliminates humans?

Don't you think we should be very, very careful when we think about creating self-reproducing artifical organisms?

Brett Bellmore said at February 27, 2013 5:13 PM:

That would be self-reproducing industry without control. Frankly, we'll need some kind of self-reproducing machinery if we're ever to go interstellar; You're not going to turn out enough solar panels to enclose the Sun and power the antimatter factories by having workmen putting them together, you need to be able to produce gigatons of machinery per human for that kind of future.

Randall Parker said at February 27, 2013 8:33 PM:


Sorry, I got 2 commenters who are B.B. guys. I slipped a mental cog.

I think the energy costs of getting a big nuclear reactor's construction materials to Mars would be immense. Nukes are heavy.

What I'd like to know: could biological organisms concentrate the materials needed to make solar panels and lithium batteries on Mars? How much lithium is available there? Would it make sense to send the lithium and construct batteries there with it?

Agreed on the difficulties of engineering humans for Mars gravity. The challenge would be even greater for the much lower gravity Moon. This takes us back to my thread title: We need very extensive genetic engineering capabilities in order to support humans in colonies that are off this planet. I see no way to get around that.

Nick G,

Yes, I think self-replicating nanotech poses a threat to our existence. I'd rather we build a Mars colony that would not get wiped out by the same nanotech goo that might wipe out humans on Earth some day. We can create plants and algae that'll do what we need to settle Mars. So why not take that much safer path?

Engineer-Poet said at February 27, 2013 10:05 PM:
Nukes are heavy.
The thermal output of a typical water-cooled reactor is tens of kilowatts per kg of fuel.  The specific power increases as the reactor size goes down and fuel enrichment goes up.  Besides, not much else is going to produce full power during a month-long dust storm.
Agreed on the difficulties of engineering humans for Mars gravity.
Presumably, gravity (or the stresses it creates) creates some chemical signal which acts on a gene promoter.  It might be possible to amplify the sensitivity of this chain to compensate for lower gravity.  Or just add pseudo-gravitational stimuli, such as standing on a vibrating platform (or use vibrating insoles).

As for self-reproducing gear, 3-D printing may get much of the way there.  If you could print a factory which makes printers, you'd be able to expand very rapidly.  Such factories would still be reliant upon raw materials and energy, so they would be unlikely to cause runaway problems.

Randall Parker said at February 28, 2013 8:48 PM:


What's going to the cost per kwh for a nuclear reactor over its operational lifetime on Mars? Factor in the cost of delivery, parts, staff to operate it. I'm guessing its cost has got to be in the tens of dollars per kwh or maybe the hundreds or thousands of dollars per kwh.

Power during a dust storm: How about orbital solar panels that beam down the energy as microwaves? Will the microwaves just increase the energy in the dust? Or could a laser beam from the orbital solar panels deliver enough of the energy to ground-based solar panels thru the dust storm?

Alternatively, solar electric during the sunny period could be used to drive an unattended mining operation that would extract water and other compounds of interest from a large amount of soil. Since humans wouldn't be there a month-long halt to operations wouldn't kill anyone. Such an operation could be conducted for years until it extracted enough hydrogen and carbon to make (and store) liquid hydrocarbons. A small mining and manufacturing operation could make glass from

Could we use the very large day/night temperature changes on Mars to power closed loop steam engines? Mars dust storms even raise atmospheric temperature another 30C.

SOBL1 said at March 1, 2013 7:00 AM:

Randall , You probably saw this on Instapundit, but private guy trying to make Mars launch in 2018 for flyby. With roughly 18 months in space, we'd see the effects of long term space travel on a human body. This seems like a longshot to even launch, but it's something to track.


Engineer-Poet said at March 1, 2013 8:40 AM:
What's going to the cost per kwh for a nuclear reactor over its operational lifetime on Mars?
Divide the lifetime energy output by the cost of design, construction, launch, landing and setup and that ought to be close.

The beauty is that the energy output per kg is enormous, so the launch costs are relatively small.  As Rod Adams says all the time, a nuclear submarine runs for its lifetime on a fuel charge that will fit under a desk.

Factor in the cost of delivery, parts, staff to operate it.
Design something that doesn't need parts or staff.  Thermoelectric materials are getting better and better, so the best option in the near term is probably to build a long-life reactor core with a passive cooling system (liquid sodium with natural circulation?) going to thermoelectric converters and then radiators.  Heat pipes using carbon dioxide would be good for the radiators, they could be refilled from the atmosphere if they leaked.  That would give you electricity (and heat) with no moving parts to break or wear out.  If you could recover enough water, you could use steam to move heat for higher-temperature purposes.  Steam-heated habitats and greenhouses would work.

Another possibility is nuclear-grown food.  Electrolyze CO2 and steam in a solid-oxide electrolysis cell to make syngas, convert the syngas to methanol, then feed bacteria on the methanol to make animal feed (Pruteen).  Maybe you could farm fish and small mammals on the stuff, sustaining the food chain even if there was too much dust covering the sun to grow green plants.

Ronald Brak said at March 1, 2013 5:43 PM:

A reasonably simple way to get a constant source of energy on mars would be to run heat exchangers off the temperature difference between the surface and a few meters underground. Thermocouples could be used as they aren't likely to fail. Or solar PV could be used as the worst dust storms measured so far apparently cut sunlight down to 18%. This isn't good, as the dust storms can last for months, but depending on how things are set up it need not be disastrous.

Engineer-Poet said at March 2, 2013 7:18 AM:

How big are those temperature differences, and how much equipment would you need to get a usable amount of power out of it?  What would that cost to ship to Mars?  What do you do when changing weather sets the temperature difference too low to satisfy your needs?  EMWTK.

Ronald Brak said at March 2, 2013 7:07 PM:

Temperature differences are about 30 degrees celcius either way, which isn't much, but it is reliable. Low temperatures don't stop heat exchangers working, it just means the subsurface is warmer than the surface. A simple heat exchanger would have a 12 and a bit hour cycle, but it's possible to set them up to supply electricity constantly, although I doubt it would be worth the bother. Thermocouples might be used where failure is not an option, but I doubt they would be used for the main energy supply because they'd have an awfully long energy payback time. Apart perhaps from critical uses, I don't see why temperature difference would be used as an energy source. I think PV would be an easier option. I mentioned duststorms cutting light down to 18%. I should have mentioned that was 18% of daily insolation, and now that I think about it, it may not be quite that bad as that's from solar panels that have no way to remove dust from them. I presume some way to remove dust from panels will be developed, perhaps a mars roomba. Of course it may be more practical just to install more panels. There are a number of ways a mars colony could store energy, eg. heat, oxygen, food, etc. so energy storage might not be a big problem. Because of the cost of shipping stuff to mars they'd probably want to make as much stuff from local materials as possible and I think it would probably be easier to build solar panels or heat exchangers from local materials, or mostly local materials, than nuclear reactors.

Engineer-Poet said at March 2, 2013 7:31 PM:

Get down to brass tacks.  What's your mass budget per continuous kW(e)?

FWIW, the nuclear reactor core is probably the smallest and lightest element of the system.  It could easily be oversized and initially run far below its rating.  An additional set of heat exchangers to heat working fluid could be reserved for use with locally-built equipment for power generation or other purposes.

Ronald Brak said at March 2, 2013 8:27 PM:

EP, do you want me to get down to brass tacks on my presumption that they'll be using local materials? Sorry, there's no brass there. It's all speculation. Or do you want me to look up mass per kilowatt of solar panels for space applications, weights of lithium-ion batteries, and so on, as if it was all being sent from earth right now? Firstly, I don't feel like doing that at the moment. And secondly, if we send people to mars "right now" solar panels and radioisotope thermoelectric generators are what will be used as they are what's on the shelf and avoids putting all the eggs in a single basket. And thirdly, nuclear reactors might be just fine for mars. It all depends.

Engineer-Poet said at March 3, 2013 6:42 AM:

If you were going to send people to Mars "right now", you'd have no way to keep them alive under many conditions known to occur (such as dust storms).  You're not going to send very much in the way of RTGs because Congress, in its infinite wisdom, refused to appropriate money to produce more Pu-238.  RTGs are suboptimal anyway, because they have to be cooled all the time even on the launch pad.

Very small nuclear reactors have been built before; they can easily be built again.  Heck, updating the metallurgy for the Aircraft Reactor Experiment would give you a 2.5 MW(th) heat source in a roughly 5-foot cube.  Add some heat exchangers and a radiator and you've got a power system.  You can have additional HX's either for backup or for expansion, such as steam heat for habitats or greenhouses.

Ronald Brak said at March 3, 2013 5:44 PM:

EP, do dust storms stop thermocouples from working?

Engineer-Poet said at March 3, 2013 7:45 PM:

If your ΔT is 30 K, and a dust storm increases the ambient temperature by 30 K, what happens to your output?

Randall Parker said at March 3, 2013 8:32 PM:


Brian Wang did a piece on reactor weight and some new reactor design in 2008 that includes weight for conventional light water reactors:

Current light water nuclear reactor power plants have 36-51 tons of steel per MWe and 324 tons of cement per MWe. 600-800 times less weight for Hyperion UH reactor and probably at least 30 times more material per MWe over a full Hyperion reactor facility.

That's heavy.

Heat source: certainly useful. But electric power is needed too. Generators, lots of back-up parts, machine tools for doing repairs. It all seems like lots of weight to transport to Mars. I think we should wait 20+ years and then send robots to start building up infrastructure. The robots could operate off of solar panels and wouldn't need continuous power. The PV of 20 years from now will be lighter and have higher conversion efficiency.

Ronald Brak said at March 4, 2013 3:32 AM:

EP, In a dust storm surface temperatures drop considerably about 30 degrees celcius and so there is large temperature gradient between the surface and the subsurface. Generally speaking I would expect thermocouples to perform better during a duststorm than when there isn't one. Unless perhaps you are suggesting that colonists will die if a thermocouple stops producing current, in which case that sounds like bad design to me. And while no one's stuck thermocouples in the ground on mars, why do you think RTGs wouldn't work in a dust storm? The Viking landers were RTG powered and duststorms didn't hurt them. And if you think I can't build RTGs because of something the US Congress did, well I'm sure one of the other countries in my imaginary space program is up for it, if it turns out they would be useful.

Engineer-Poet said at March 4, 2013 8:23 AM:

Of course conventional reactor facilities are heavy; they're not designed to be shipped on aircraft, let alone spacecraft.  If the all-up Hyperion is 1/20 as much per MW(e), that's 2-3 tons of steel or equivalent.  Martian regolith can probably be substituted for concrete; in the worst case, fire up the electric plant unshielded and use electric kilns to make bricks and stack them with robots.  Once they're done stacking a shield around the reactor, they could continue making habitation domes and covering them with regolith for cosmic-ray shielding.

One of Zubrin's ideas is to ship the nuclear plant and everything else ahead and get it set up and operating by remote before any humans are launched.  If you can establish a working electric and heat plant 1.4 AU away from the nearest hands, keeping it going with people on-site should be a piece of cake.

Ronald Brak said at March 5, 2013 11:37 PM:

Randall, the USSR has sent quite a few rectors into space and the USA has sent one. To keep them as light and reliable as possible they all used thermocouples to generate electricity. The Russian Topaz reactor apparently massed about 320 kg and could produce 5 kw for 3-5 years, which is about 64 kilograms per kilowatt. The output of a reactor per kilo could be increased by dumping the thermocouples and replacing them with something more efficient, although that would increase the danger that something would go wrong, as thermocouples are about as simple as things can get.

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