All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2022:

Is Private Space Travel Environmentally Responsible? (April)

How Will the First Astronauts on Mars Spend Their Time? (February)

All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2021:

Questions for Human Analogue Simulators of Mars (December)

Black Arrow and Prospero Fifty Years On (October)

The Inspiration4 Mission Begins to Fill In the Bottom of the Transport Pyramid (September)

Are Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and their clients real astronauts? (August)

Planetopolis in an Age of Climate Change (July)

Planetopolis (January)

All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2020:

Stellar Engines (August)

Voyage to the Large Magellanic Cloud (July)

Why the Human Exploration of Space? (May)

Artificial Gravity for the Journey to Mars and Return (April)

Cruising in Space (March)

All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2019:

The Destiny of Civilisations – Fire, Iron and Gold (November)

The Destiny of Civilisations – A Problem for SETI (November)

The Holy Grail of Space (October)

Return to the Moon, 50 Years On (August)

The Case for Interstellar Flight (June)

SpaceX Dragon 2 Success (April)

Killing the Doomsday Fallacy (Feb.)

All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2018:

How Far Can We Take the Copernican Principle? (Dec.)

Dawkins and the McGraths: a Biologist versus two Theologians (Nov.)

The Atheism Question (Oct.)

The Religion Question (Sept.)

I, Starship (June)

Back to 2017:

Scenario Block Diagram Analysis of the Galactic Evolution of Life (Nov.)

Comments by Alex Tolley (Oct.)

Elon Musk’s “Great Martian” (Oct.)

Elon Musk’s Mars Plans: Highlights from His Second Iteration (Sept.)

What is a Supercivilisation? (Aug.)

Quantifying the Assumptions Behind the METI Debate (July)

Five Principles of a Sustainable Manned Mars Programme (June)

Pale Red Dot: Mars comes to Oxford (May)

Back to 2016:

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

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 163, 14 February 2022 – 53rd Apollo Anniversary Year

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How Will the First Astronauts on Mars Spend Their Time?

This post continues the train of thought from my previous post.

If we are going to practise for Mars on Earth, then there needs to be clarity about what exactly needs to be practised.

The space agency paradigm

view of Jezero crater from Perseverance

The usual assumption has been that the first humans on Mars will be scientists on a field trip. Like the crew of Apollo 17, there will be one or more professional geologists, and one or more professional pilots/technicians to support them in space and during the surface sojourn. As Zubrin puts it: there will be two “Spocks” and two “Scottys” (but no “Kirks”, and positively no “McCoys”).

This assumption has been carried over into the whole Earth-based Mars mission simulation industry, as practised both by space agencies (HiSEAS, Mars-500) and by private groups (Mars Society, Austrian Space Forum, LunAres).

(For an up-to-date account of the Mars Society’s Desert Research Station in Utah, see this new interview with its director, Dr Shannon Rupert.)

But Elon Musk and SpaceX have completely changed the picture. Mars is no longer about Apollo-style field trips for four to eight scientist-astronauts: rather it has now become a crash programme to build a self-sustaining city for a million people in the narrow window of time before the supply chain from Earth is broken by nuclear war, catastrophic climate change or hostile artificial intelligence.

Was the scientific field-trip paradigm ever realistic?

Consider some of the big differences between exploring Mars and exploring Antarctica or the Moon:

Realistically, if one is going to do sustained exploration of Mars, both on and underneath its surface, in sufficient detail to establish four billion years of its geological and probably also biological past, the starting-point has to be a secure base with local production of all essentials, a well-developed transport network using mature technologies, and local laboratories and hospital facilities.

We don’t have to go all the way with Musk’s vision of a city with a million-strong population to see that some degree of settlement is necessary right at the outset if we are going to have any kind of serious engagement with the planet.

This directly affects what we expect the first astronauts on Mars to be doing, and therefore the kind of preparation they need on Earth before they are ready for departure.

Tasks for the first people on Mars

The tasks can be arranged in “tiers” to illustrate their order of priority. We start off with a tier nought before the first astronauts arrive: all serious Mars exploration architectures start off with a robotic landing to begin automatic local production of methane/oxygen propellants for the return to Earth leg of a two-way mission. (Astronauts cannot be expected to commit to permanently living on Mars until local infrastructure is up to terrestrial standards of living space, working conditions and healthcare – and until the effects on the human body of environmental hazards such as the low gravity are well understood.)

This production uses the carbon dioxide freely available in the atmosphere. It relies upon imported power (most probably a small modular nuclear reactor, though SpaceX currently plans to use solar panels) and imported hydrogen.

First-tier tasks

After the first astronauts arrive, the surface activities will be dominated by human-operated machines such as earth-movers, drills and cranes. The machines will see hard use and will need constant cleaning, maintenance and repair.

Ingenuity in Jezero crater

The main first-tier tasks will be:

The requirements for water and power will dictate the siting of the base.

The number of people on Mars at any one time will be in the range of 10 to 50, all of whom return to Earth at the end of a physically and mentally demanding tour of duty – not unlike a similar sojourn at an Antarctic research base, on patrol in a nuclear submarine, or on an ocean oil rig.

Second-tier tasks

Science is still a luxury activity, pure scientists a rarity. The top priorities remain survival and security in a hostile world, with the scientific emphasis on investigations needed for direct application to the industrial processes under development.

The main second-tier tasks will be:

The numbers of people on Mars at any one time now creep past 100. Individuals begin to stay in the colony for multiple two-year stints. By the end of this stage there is no longer maintained sufficient transport capacity to return them all to Earth in the event of disaster: the settlement can no longer be abandoned.

Local repair workshops are becoming increasingly capable of maintaining the tools and machines supplied from Earth, but have not yet evolved to the point of being able to manufacture new units from scratch.

Third tier tasks

By the third tier, life on Mars should be more comfortable and less stressful, more like regular life in a business environment on Earth. The first Mars babies are being born, adding nursing and teaching roles to the industrial ones which have dominated so far. With population numbers rising into the thousands, there is sufficient surplus of labour and reliability of long-distance vehicles to allow major scientific studies to begin.

The main third-tier tasks will be:

Prepare to colonise Mars by first colonising Earth

Santa Cruz hill in Jezero crater

At its current stage of development, human civilisation on Earth is suffering from a number of well-known problems regarding both its global political organisation and its economic and environmental sustainability.

Getting it right on Mars requires us to get it right on Earth as well. Future cities on Earth need to be far more Mars-like than they are at present in terms of having a low environmental impact and high levels of recycling of organic and industrial wastes.

It’s way past time for serious studies of future human life on Mars to seize this parallel between the two situations, both as an economic route to fund Mars ventures, and in order to secure global public engagement and support for an expansive, creative and optimistic future for humanity.

This is the purpose of the project which I have named Planetopolis. I would appreciate engagement and support for this initiative.

Thank you!

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