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Is living on Mars really possible or just a far-fetched dream?

Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos might dream big about sending millions to Mars, the moon, and space habitats, but a new book wisely suggests: Take it easy, don’t be too adventurous. Kelly and Zach Weinersmith didn’t anticipate offering this advice when they started working on their book, “A City on Mars.” They originally thought they’d be creating a guide for the exciting era of space settlement promised by Musk and Bezos.

Zach Weinersmith shared in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast that during our four-year research project on space settlements, they explored it from every angle. Around two and a half years into it, their initial optimism about it being a desirable and likely possibility in the near term shifted to a more doubtful stance. It seemed probably unlikely in the near term and maybe even undesirable. So, it was a significant change, somewhat traumatic.

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Long-term health impacts of living on Mars

The Weinersmiths discovered that there’s very little research on the possible long-term health impacts of living on the moon or Mars. There’s absolutely zero research on how it might affect human reproduction and development. On top of that, the legal uncertainties about property rights in space could easily spark disputes, causing headaches for diplomats and military planners.

The concept of building settlements in space has been around for ages. Moon cities were part of Robert Heinlein’s “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” in 1966 and Andy Weir’s “Artemis” in 2018. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy from the 1990s and “2312” from 2012 also featured Martian cities. Physicist Gerard K. O’Neill delved into life inside a massive space habitat in his 1976 book, “The High Frontier.”

Space settlements have had their moment on TV, from the 1970s show “Space: 1999” to recent hits like “The Expanse,” “Mars,” and “For All Mankind,” which just started its fourth season this week. It’s not just a fictional fascination: Elon Musk aims for a self-sufficient city on Mars within 20 years, pledging his fortune to make it happen. Bezos, on the other hand, envisions millions of people living and working in space, even if it takes hundreds of years to achieve.

We’ve seen that there’s a significant interest in going to Mars. When the Dutch project Mars One invited people to apply for a one-way trip to the Red Planet, over 200,000 people showed interest, and more than 2,700 were keen enough to pay an application fee.

Even though that venture didn’t pan out, enthusiasts for space settlements, like Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin, are not giving up on the dream. In September, Zubrin shared plans to create a Mars Technology Institute focused on developing the tools and processes necessary for future settlers.

Delving into the reality of space settlements

The duo behind “A City on Mars” offers a fresh perspective on the topic of space settlement. Kelly Weinersmith, a behavioral ecologist, specializes in the dynamics between parasites and hosts. Meanwhile, Zach Weinersmith, her husband, is the creative mind behind the geeky comic strip “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.”

Back in 2017, they released a book titled “Soonish,” delving into emerging technologies like reusable rockets, space elevators, and asteroid mining. They were amazed by how certain technologies, like rocket reusability, became a reality rapidly while others, like asteroid mining, faced a multitude of complications.

Now, when it comes to space settlements, the Weinersmiths spent four years talking to experts and digging through research to figure out how close we are to establishing homes in space (or “spomes”) on the moon, Mars, or anywhere beyond Earth. In their resulting book, they dissect the common reasons given for building space cities and highlight several crucial issues that need addressing before humanity ventures beyond our planetary home.

Also Read: What is ISRO’s big plan to send humans into space?

Could there be legal issues for living on Mars?

Luckily for those future kids, there’s now some research happening. Just last week, Japanese scientists shared that mouse embryos were able to develop into early cell stages in zero-gravity conditions on the International Space Station. The experiment was praised as “the first study showing that mammals might do well in space” — a tiny move toward figuring out if mammals can have healthy offspring beyond Earth.

We’re not sure how long it’ll take to make sure humanity’s big jump to a multigenerational presence in space is safe. But that’s not the only challenge space settlers will face. A substantial part of the book dives into the complexities of international law, specifically how it relates—or should relate—to property rights in space.

Back in the 1960s, the US and the Soviet Union, among others, signed the Outer Space Treaty during the Cold War. It basically said no one could claim ownership of the moon or other celestial bodies. At the time, exploiting the moon’s resources was more of a theoretical idea. However, as commercial space ventures started taking off quickly, policymakers started reconsidering things.

In 2015, the U.S. government passed a law allowing American companies to mine resources from the moon, asteroids, or other celestial bodies without claiming ownership. Only a handful of other countries have taken a similar stance, and the Weinersmiths are concerned that a space land rush could easily trigger a conflict back on Earth.

Will there ever be cities on Mars?

Can we really build cities on Mars someday? The Weinersmiths lay out a plan to make it happen, but it’s no walk in the park, and it won’t come cheap.

Zach has a vision of constructing numerous closed-loop habitats for experiments, taking inspiration from Biosphere 2, where a research crew lived for two years in the ’90s. While similar facilities like Lunar Palace in China and MELiSSA in Spain exist, Zach suggests that these efforts need to be kicked up a notch.

“If I was running a space settlement preparation agency, what you’d want to do is build a lot of these systems, maybe make them smaller than Biosphere and modular so you can see how small you can take it, [find out] what are the best plants, bacteria, animals, et cetera, and really develop a science,” he said. “We don’t have it. And you really have to have it to do Mars.”

Regarding legal matters, the Weinersmiths suggest that the rights and responsibilities for space settlements, including resource extraction, should be internationally negotiated. They cite the establishment of the International Seabed Authority as a model to consider.

If Earth were on the brink of an unavoidable disaster, could we lay the foundation for a space city in 20 years? Perhaps.

Vishal Kawadkar
About author

With over 8 years of experience in tech journalism, Vishal is someone with an innate passion for exploring and delivering fresh takes. Embracing curiosity and innovation, he strives to provide an informed and unique outlook on the ever-evolving world of technology.