The challenge of building a settlement on Mars is daunting, but it's beginning to feel less alien every day. While plans to get us there have multiplied as additional nations enter Martian orbit — private aerospace firms have also set their eyes on the Red Planet.
The quest to settle Mars is on, but what are the obstacles to building a Martian colony?
NASA's moon to Mars pathway
NASA's Artemis program will put humans on the surface of the moon for the first time in decades by 2024 — with aims to establish sustainable exploration by the end of the 2020s. Much of what the agency learns from living and working on the moon will prepare it for the "next giant leap" of humanity: landing astronauts on Mars.
The Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion are crucial to NASA's aims to explore deep space beyond the moon. While there, astronauts will test novel instruments, tools, and equipment to advance human interests on Mars. It's here the agency will unfold new human habitats, technologies, and life support systems to inform the pursuit of building self-sustaining outposts far away from Earth.
Sometime in the future, NASA plans to send humans to Mars. But for now, the agency is still in the preparation stage — sending robotic exploration missions like the Perseverance rover to develop the technology to sustain a human presence on the Red Planet.
SpaceX's Starship to land on moon and Mars
CEO and Founder of SpaceX Elon Musk aims to use the Starship rocket to launch what are easily the most ambitious plans for colonizing Mars. He wants his company to mass-produce Starship — which is designed to ferry up to 100 people.
"Building 100 Starships/year gets to 1,000 in 10 years or 100 megatons/year or maybe around 100k people per Earth-Mars orbital sync," tweeted Musk. And by "orbital sync," he means the period during which Earth and Mars are nearly aligned, with a minimum transit time.
In other words, Musk envisions unspeakably large fleets of Starships departing in these periods every 26 months. "Loading the Mars fleet into Earth orbit, then 1,000 ships depart over ~30 days every 26 months. Battlestar Galactica..." added Musk in another tweet. The ideal operational life for Starships would be 20 to 30 years.
Elon Musk's 'million person' mega-colony
The goal, of course, is to build a gigantic colony on Mars and effectively turn humanity into a multiplanet species. According to Musk, this is why he founded SpaceX in 2002, and also why he has raised unconscionable sums of money.
In 2017, Musk claimed his Starship ambitions for Mars could allow a city of one million people on Mars within the next century. A year ago, a Twitter follower of Musk's asked him: "So a million people [on the Red Planet] by 2050?"
Musk's succinct reply: "Yes."
Obviously, this is easier said than done.
Full colony architecture still lacking for SpaceX
However ambitious his plans for Mars, it's not irrational to question the timelines Musk has tweeted. Neither he nor NASA has developed concrete, proven plans of how to build domes on Mars under which humans could breathe and live.
While somewhere near the poles of the Red Planet is the ideal location for building a permanent settlement, SpaceX hasn't announced or possibly even developed the architecture for building a self-sustaining habitat on Mars.
Moving back a step, Starship itself has yet to be tested in outer space (though this could happen later this year), let alone on the moon or Mars. But once there, it should be able to take off without a booster rocket — provided enough rocket fuel is stored on Mars (which everyone is still figuring out how to create on the Red Planet).
Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin
In 2019, the other tech billionaire and founder of Blue Origin declared his plans to colonize space — beginning with the moon.
"We're going to build a road to space," said Bezos during a press conference in Washington, D.C., according to an ABC News report. While the current Amazon CEO wasn't sure how to build them, there are "certain gates, certain precursors" to colonizing space, and Bezos wants Blue Origin to lead.
"It's time to go back to the moon, this time to stay," said Bezos during a long and imprecise monologue about space. But considering the early stage of his aerospace company, it still looks like Blue Origin is trailing behind SpaceX.
'Space Hotel' to study human biology in sub-nominal gravity
The Orbital Assembly Corporation recently announced plans to design and build a habitable "space hotel" in low-Earth orbit — with at least two prototypes to simulate generating artificial gravity up to the level one would feel on Mars.
The completed project — called Voyager Station — will serve as a luxury space hotel, but also as a scientific orbital platform where researchers can experiment and study the effects of sub-nominal gravity on human bodies.
Challenging logistics of building space station in Mars orbit
"We have lots of data in zero-G, we have lots of data on 1 G, but what about in between?" asked Shawna Pandya, medical advisor for OAC, rhetorically. "In a seminal 2017 paper from Nature called Artificial Gravity — agencies came together to analyze how the human body would react to partial-Earth gravity."
"We offer solutions to these questions in a place that's as convenient as low-Earth orbit," said Pandya.
One day the company of NASA veterans could build a similar platform in orbit of Mars — and create a waypoint for weary pilgrims of the Earth-Mars transit. But it still needs to test its concept of robotic construction in space, develop a way to transfer a space station to Mars, or build one from Martian resources.
China wants to carve a piece of Mars for itself
China recently put a spacecraft in orbit around Mars for the first time — called Tianwen-1. The craft will detach a lander, which will attempt a landing on Mars and send a rover out onto the Martian surface.
However, the reason China's government gave for the country's interest in Mars suggests it may have bigger plans for the Red Planet: "If we do not go there now even though we can, then we will be blamed by our descendants," said Ye Peijian, senior aerospace engineer and head of China's lunar exploration program, according to The Daily Beast. "If others go there, then they will take over, and you will not be able to go even if you want to. This is reason enough."
While China has yet to develop (or perhaps, share) concrete plans to colonize Mars, it seems the concern that other entities or nations could limit the country's ability to do so in the future serves as motivation to try.
Russia's plans for Mars delayed several times
Russia has proposed several plans to put humans on Mars — from the now-defunct Soviet Union's plans to launch a six-cosmonaut crew to live on Mars for 900 days in 1975, to Russia's 2002 aim to land humans on Mars by 2015, and then another announcement in 2018 with aims for a 2019 landing on the Red Planet.
Despite these repeated announcements and delays, Roscosmos — the Russian space agency — maintains that Mars is the most preferable planet to colonize. "The studies of the Sun show that it is getting hotter while the temperature on Venus and Mars is growing slowly and this is one of the reasons why Mars looks, perhaps, most preferable today from the prospect of terraforming," said Roscosmos' Executive Director for Long-Term Programs and Science Alexander Bloshenko in a TASS interview.
However, Russia still needs to develop (or share) plans for traveling, landing, and living on Mars before it can think of terraforming. And while it has adamantly disagreed with ideas (like Musk's) about terraforming the Red Planet with nuclear explosions — the idea of terraforming itself is still highly theoretical, and could take centuries.
Full colony architecture still needed to settle on Mars
The United Arab Emirates also recently put a spacecraft in orbit around Mars. Called "Hope," it's the first step in a very long-term plan for the Arab nation to recruit and send astronauts to Mars. The mission — called Mars 2117 — will purportedly involve both Earth-bound and interplanetary steps. But judging from the name of the mission, it will almost certainly not be the first entity to land on Mars.
There are many plans to settle Mars, from nearly every space-faring country and private entity. But the architecture to build a human colony on Mars is still in the very early stages for all of them — with SpaceX the sole entity actively performing test launches on a vehicle designed to make a landing. But until a new generation of space-worthy habitats, resource infrastructure, means to generate rocket fuel, and a proven landing vehicle are concrete realities, it's difficult to say for certain when humans will be ready to colonize Mars.