All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2016:

Elon Musk and Mars: Looking for a Snowball Effect (Oct.)

The Citizens’ Debate on Space for Europe (Sept.)

Creating a self-sustaining desert civilisation: Aridopolis (Aug.)

Lecture by Professor Wörner: United Space in Europe (July)

Brexit! Thoughts on the UK Referendum Result (July)

The Pillar versus the Pyramid (June)

The Way Forward (May)

Manned Spaceflight Statistics (April)

When Will Jan Wörner Get His Moon Village? (March)

Interstellar Travel and Straw Men (Jan.)

A Strategic Goal for Humanity on Earth and in Space in 2061 (Jan.)

Back to 2015:

Britain Takes the Wrong Approach to Manned Spaceflight (Dec.)

New in 2020:

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AE posts:

2022: What’s to do on Mars?…

2021: New space company Planetopolis…

2020: Cruising in Space…

2019: The Doomsday Fallacy, SpaceX successes…

2018: I, Starship, atheism versus religion, the Copernican principle…

2017: Mars, Supercivilisations, METI…

2016: Stragegic goal for manned spaceflight…

2015: The Pluto Controversy, Mars, SETI…

2014: Skylon, the Great Space Debate, exponential growth, the Fermi “paradox”…

2013: Manned spaceflight, sustainability, the Singularity, Voyager 1, philosophy, ET…

2012: Bulgakov vs. Clarke, starships, the Doomsday Argument…

2011: Manned spaceflight, evolution, worldships, battle for the future…

2010: Views on progress, the Great Sociology Dust-Up…

Chronological index

Subject index

General essays:

Index to essaysincluding:

Talk presented to students at the International Space University, May 2016

Basic concepts of Astronautical Evolution

Options for Growth and Sustainability

Mars on the Interstellar Roadmap (2015)

The Great Sociology Debate (2011)

Building Selenopolis (2008)


Issue 129, 1 August 2016 – 47th Apollo Anniversary Year

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Creating a self-sustaining desert civilisation: Aridopolis

Inspiring talk about Mars – but what will the strategy be?

The National Geographic Channel has announced a new TV series dramatising the first manned flight to Mars in 2033. The six-parter is due to be launched this November.

See report at io9 and the official trailer on YouTube.


As well as all the usual space action, dramatic music, etc., the trailer offers some inspiring statements:

The very first flight is supposed to lay the groundwork for a permanent human settlement on the Red Planet. In order to manage and operate that and subsequent flights, the film-makers have teamed up two fictional organisations: the International Mars Science Foundation and the commercial Mars Mission Corporation (see sneak preview of a press release on this page – due for official release in May 2033, assuming all goes well…).

The government–commercial partnership is a promising sign. But I am keen to see what their strategy will be. I hope they are not simply assuming that an Apollo-style dash for Mars will lead to anything but disappointment and cancellation?

Building civilisation in the desert

SF author Charlie Stross blogged in 2007:

“Mars is … well, the phrase ‘tourist resort’ springs to mind, and is promptly filed in the same corner as ‘Gobi desert’. As Bruce Sterling has put it: ‘I’ll believe in people settling Mars at about the same time I see people settling the Gobi Desert. The Gobi Desert is about a thousand times as hospitable as Mars and five hundred times cheaper and easier to reach. Nobody ever writes “Gobi Desert Opera” because, well, it’s just kind of plonkingly obvious that there’s no good reason to go there and live. It’s ugly, it’s inhospitable and there’s no way to make it pay. Mars is just the same, really. We just romanticize it because it’s so hard to reach.’ In other words, going there to explore is fine and dandy – our robots are all over it already. But as a desirable residential neighbourhood it has some shortcomings, starting with the slight lack of breathable air and the sub-Antarctic nighttime temperatures and the Mach 0.5 dust storms, and working down from there.”

A good challenge which anyone seeking to settle Mars needs to answer.


And the answer is obvious: it is first to produce a successful desert settlement on Earth using the same approaches as one would need to live on Mars. Let’s call this place Aridopolis – aridity being the chief environmental factor defining a desert, and hinting at its ultimate daughter colony at Areopolis (i.e. on Mars).

Key demonstrations to be carried out at Aridopolis would include:

Where might such a settlement be located? In his book The Millennial Project, Marshall Savage advocated creating such settlements on floating islands on the surfaces of the tropical oceans. This is probably a viable longer-term prospect, and in the long run presumably necessary for full political independence. But in the near term it would be better to start off with at least some solid ground under one’s feet. Here are the 24 largest terrestrial deserts (data from Pick your desert and start building your city of the future…

Rank Name Type Area (sq km) Location
1 Antarctic Polar 14,200,000 Antarctica
2 Arctic Polar 13,900,000 Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia
3 Sahara Subtropical 9,100,000 Northern Africa
4 Arabian Subtropical 2,600,000 Arabian Peninsula
5 Gobi Cold Winter 1,300,000 China, Mongolia
6 Patagonian Cold Winter 670,000 Argentina
7 Great Victoria Subtropical 647,000 Australia
8 Kalahari Subtropical 570,000 South Africa, Botswana, Namibia
9 Great Basin Cold Winter 490,000 United States
10 Syrian Subtropical 490,000 Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia
11 Chihuahuan Subtropical 450,000 Mexico
12 Great Sandy Subtropical 390,000 Australia
13 Kara-Kum Cold Winter 350,000 Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan
14 Colorado Plateau Cold Winter 340,000 United States
15 Gibson Subtropical 310,000 Australia
16 Sonoran Subtropical 310,000 United States, Mexico
17 Kyzyl-Kum Cold Winter 300,000 Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan
18 Taklamakan Cold Winter 270,000 China
19 Iranian Cold Winter 260,000 Iran
20 Thar Subtropical 190,000 India, Pakistan
21 Simpson Subtropical 145,000 Australia
22 Mojave Subtropical 140,000 United States
23 Atacama Cool Coastal 140,000 Chile
24 Namib Cool Coastal 34,000 Angola, Namibia, South Africa

Now we can begin to talk about “a new hope for humanity”! For if people can live sustainably in the Great Victoria Desert or the Kara-Kum, then they can live equally so, and with equally little dependence upon global supply routes and global pollution sinks, in London or Rio de Janeiro.

In other words, Aridopolis would be the prototype of a kind of self-sufficient city which would be the key to sustainable living both on Earth and off it.

It will be interesting to see whether National Geographic’s new epic will reflect this in any way, or whether they are simply relying on the by now rather tired theme in which sending a few people to live on Mars is supposed to transform the lives of everybody left on Earth without actually making much difference to those lives…


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