Humans Will Never Colonize Mars

The suggestion that humans will soon set up bustling, long-lasting colonies on Mars is something many of us take for granted. What this lofty vision fails to appreciate, however, are the monumental—if not intractable—challenges awaiting colonists who want to permanently live on Mars. Unless we radically adapt our brains and bodies to the harsh Martian environment, the Red Planet will forever remain off limits to humans.

Mars is the closest thing we have to Earth in the entire solar system, and that’s not saying much.

The Red Planet is a cold, dead place, with an atmosphere about 100 times thinner than Earth’s. The paltry amount of air that does exist on Mars is primarily composed of noxious carbon dioxide, which does little to protect the surface from the Sun’s harmful rays. Air pressure on Mars is very low; at 600 Pascals, it’s only about 0.6 percent that of Earth. You might as well be exposed to the vacuum of space, resulting in a severe form of the bends—including ruptured lungs, dangerously swollen skin and body tissue, and ultimately death. The thin atmosphere also means that heat cannot be retained at the surface. The average temperature on Mars is -81 degrees Fahrenheit (-63 degrees Celsius), with temperatures dropping as low as -195 degrees F (-126 degrees C). By contrast, the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was at Vostok Station in Antarctica, at -128 degrees F (-89 degrees C) on June 23, 1982. Once temperatures get below the -40 degrees F/C mark, people who aren’t properly dressed for the occasion can expect hypothermia to set in within about five to seven minutes.

Mars also has less mass than is typically appreciated. Gravity on the Red Planet is 0.375 that of Earth’s, which means a 180-pound person on Earth would weigh a scant 68 pounds on Mars. While that might sound appealing, this low-gravity environment would likely wreak havoc to human health in the long term, and possibly have negative impacts on human fertility.

Yet despite these and a plethora of other issues, there’s this popular idea floating around that we’ll soon be able to set up colonies on Mars with ease. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is projecting colonies on Mars as early as the 2050s, while astrobiologist Lewis Darnell, a professor at the University of Westminster, has offered a more modest estimate, saying it’ll be about 50 to 100 years before “substantial numbers of people have moved to Mars to live in self-sustaining towns.” The United Arab Emirates is aiming to build a Martian city of 600,000 occupants by 2117, in one of the more ambitious visions of the future.

Illustration: Soviet artist Andrei Sokolov (mid-1960s)

Sadly, this is literally science fiction. While there’s no doubt in my mind that humans will eventually visit Mars and even build a base or two, the notion that we’ll soon set up colonies inhabited by hundreds or thousands of people is pure nonsense, and an unmitigated denial of the tremendous challenges posed by such a prospect.

Pioneering astronautics engineer Louis Friedman, co-founder of the Planetary Society and author of Human Spaceflight: From Mars to the Stars, likens this unfounded enthusiasm to the unfulfilled visions proposed during the 1940s and 1950s.

“Back then, cover stories of magazines like Popular Mechanics and Popular Science showed colonies under the oceans and in the Antarctic,” Friedman told Gizmodo. The feeling was that humans would find a way to occupy every nook and cranny of the planet, no matter how challenging or inhospitable, he said. “But this just hasn’t happened. We make occasional visits to Antarctica and we even have some bases there, but that’s about it. Under the oceans it’s even worse, with some limited human operations, but in reality it’s really very, very little.” As for human colonies in either of these environments, not so much. In fact, not at all, despite the relative ease at which we could achieve this.

After the Moon landings, Friedman said he and his colleagues were hugely optimistic about the future, believing “we would do more and more things, such as place colonies on Mars and the Moon,” but the “fact is, no human spaceflight program, whether Apollo, the Space Shuttle Program, or the International Space Station,” has established the necessary groundwork for setting up colonies on Mars, such as building the required infrastructure, finding safe and viable ways of sourcing food and water, mitigating the deleterious effects of radiation and low gravity, among other issues. Unlike other fields, development into human spaceflight, he said, “has become static.” Friedman agreed that we’ll likely build bases on Mars, but the “evidence of history” suggests colonization is unlikely for the foreseeable future…

F. Kaskais Web Guru


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