Mad For Mars

Indeed. Alpha-planet Mars continues to excite people in ways Venus just doesn’t. People such as Elon Musk present colonising it as our best option for when life on Earth becomes too distasteful even for the wealthy. Driving this is the neoliberal mantra that the solution to the problems caused by technology is more technology. I can see the attraction. Mars has no rivers to pollute or trees to fret over. The atmosphere is already unbreathable. Sci-fi novels such as Frederick Pohl’s 1976 Man Plus and the 2019 movie The Titan propose humans bio-engineered to suit environments such as on Mars or Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

Bio-engineering humans to suit Mars is a modest endeavour compared to bio-forming Mars to suit us, but that finds favour too – in science fiction at least. Never mind that the planet may be working against us. Earth is almost twice the diameter of Mars and so its core is taking a while to cool down. Luckily for us, the high percentage of iron in our moving molten core creates a magnetic field that protects us from solar radiation.

There’s a lot of iron on Mars (hence the red) but its core is most likely completely solidified by now. If that wasn’t bad enough, Mars’ mass is insufficient to stop the planet leaking what atmosphere it has. Both these negatives result from planetary mass and no amount of terraforming is going to fix that.  

Be that as it may, the challenges involved in colonising Mars give ample opportunity in the here and now for visionaries to be visionary, and excite us about relentless technological development for the sake of it. This next image is a proposal for a Mars colony. Observe how much our images of the future are articulations of the present?

proposal for life on mars

Some people argue that we have a duty as human beings to embrace the challenge to explore and colonise, as if colonising and exploiting other countries represented our highest ideals and worked out well on Earth. For the sake of would-be Martians, hopefully Mars is uninhabited. Or is it? It might be axiomatic that, throughout the universe, intelligent life keeps to itself and expends its energies and uses the means it has to manage its survival as a society. If it is, it will be invisible to us, accustomed as we are to seeing megastructures as representations of intelligent life. [c.f. The Great Filter

It’s not going to matter. Industry and those that drive it and profit from it have decided that going to Mars is to be presented as if for everyone’s benefit. It’s difficult to see what role architecture can have other than promoting this endeavour. It’s not going to be as easy as making craftspersons obsolete in the name of cheaper houses for all. [c.f. Bauhaus Fatigue] Inhabiting Mars is a whole new level of resource allocation and a huge perception management problem. How will design and architecture work to validate it? They’re on the case.

Now. we also have an exhibition at London’s Design Museum to tell us, Dezeen to repeat it, and the www to echo it. I confess to first finding out about this on LinkedIn.

Let’s start with the press release.

“Surviving on Mars could teach us how to live more sustainably on Earth.” Could. What does “could” mean, apart from not will? The conceit of the exhibition mirrors that of the endeavour itself: that trying to make humans survive on Mars will somehow teach us how to make humans survive on Earth – a tenuous assumption.

It explores themes including the role that design plays in keeping astronauts safe. Design seems to be misused here as a euphemism for intelligence and science. Such a thing as design ingenuity exists but more often than not it’s for its own sake. Performance-driven goal-oriented design is usually called industrial design.

“We pose the question of whether the rigours required in such an inhospitable environment – where we’ll have to recycle our oxygen, recycle our water and reuse our waste to survive – might force us to solve those problems on Earth.” I think I know the answer to that. This planet already has many examples of human intelligence being applied to create structures that enable humans to live and function for long periods in inhospitable environments.

In each instance, humans are in an inhospitable environment because the reason for them to be there justifies the effort and cost of enabling them to exist and work there. Oil rigs have a profit motive, as do cruise liners. Antarctic research stations are ostensibly about research but they also make territorial claims though not as forcefully and explicitly as castles. Environments such as these used to be called extreme but now the term extreme climatic event is used to describe everyday inhospitable environments such as hurricanes, floods and droughts. Our current planet might be a better laboratory for working on how to enable humans to live and function for long periods in inhospitable environments such as these where the oversupply, undersupply and irregular supply of water are all problems. Our current planet is best placed for us to begin work on solving these problems as well as for learning how to not exacerbate them and, guess what, so are we. We don’t need expensive technology to get us here, not to mention the stuff we’ll need to do the job, whatever that is.

Okay we’re here! Now what?

Why am I reminded of Terunobu Fujimori’s Tokyo Plan 2101, as seen at the 2006 Venice Bienalle?

Diagrams like this next are all very well but we’re already on the case and thinking about such things and their integration for conditions on this planet. [c.f. Integrated Sanitation & Nutrition, Antarctic Architecture]

“We invited a number of designers to think through possible future scenarios. Their work adds a layer of design fiction to the exhibition, which is a great tool for taking ideas and making them concrete, and material.” Am I going mad? Design fiction is now a tool for making ideas real? Thinking about it, it probably is in the fictional real world in which such stuff like this gets written, propagated and consumed. Anyway, the show’s first section, Imagining Mars, is a history of our fascination with Mars and seems to imply our current view of it is less grounded in fantasy. The multi-sensory installation, On Mars Today, is supposed to help visitors appreciate the enormity of the challenges ahead. I immediately imagined some immersive installation recreating the conditions described by Frederik Pohl in his 1976 sci-fi novel Man Plus.

Instead of an agonising death, £16–18 will get you “a slowly panning panorama of the Martian environment, accompanied by an audio track of otherworldly sounds and a scent created especially for the exhibition by perfumery Firmenich.” I’m not sure which I’d prefer. I’ll race through the second part of this section dealing with the journey to Mars, pausing only to note the design contribution of Russian architect Galina Balashova who first introduced the colour coding of floors and ceilings to help astronauts maintain a sense of orientation. I’m more interested in survival for the sake of survival and not how the exhibition chooses to present it as where we will live, what we will wear and eat. It sounds a lot like life on Earth. Humans must consume oxygen, water and nutrients in order to survive but there’s something wrong with presenting survival as a set of lifestyle choices. When survival is concerned, there’s a important difference between consume and “consume”.

It’s also confusing reading all this new writing about the future because the present tense is sometimes used to refer to the future as if these things actually existed. When we don’t even know how we’re going to stay alive for the seven-month journey to Mars, it’s reassuring to know that that nice Mr. Foster has already thought about what people are going to live in if they’re still alive to live in them. His buildings are designed to be 3D printed from the stuff Mars is made of and this is intended to teach us something about the local sourcing of construction materials. I feel bad for already knowing it. What’s new is that they’ll be built by autonomous robots. Whatever these turn out to be they won’t be no slave robots. It’s good to see we’ve learned the lessons of Bladerunner but, before we get too excited, it’s worth remembering that the future hasn’t happened yet. And, by definition, it won’t. Ever.

This is my favourite image of robots making spacey-looking buildings. In the past I’ve been skeptical of Jacques Fresco’s Venus Project but on reflection it seems quite sane. [c.f. The Venus Project]

Wordwatch. The stuff the crust of a planet is made of is called regolith and what we call sand is really just tiny bits of underlying regolith, be it quartz or granite or whatever. It’s therefore misleading to speak of Mars’ soil because the thing that makes regolith into soil is the organic component humus lacking on Mars. Apparently, the goo 3D printers are proposed to use is going to be Mars regolith combined with as little water as possible because there’s not much of that on Mars. This is another lesson we don’t really need to learn. Foster’s house designs for Mars add an on-trend lo-tech bit to the hi-tech schtick that’s served him so well over the years. 100% hi-tech solutions for Mars habitats are already starting to look dated. This next courtesy of NASA.

Designers are on the case. This next might be one of those design fictions that make things real, a bit like that nuclear-powered oven in the 1956 Ideal Home Exhibition.

The one thing Mars does have is a lot of cold. The problem of lack of water still remains – will still remain – but when that’s solved there’ll be ice galore and we can print 3D houses out of ice, if “print” is the correct word. Anyway, they’ve already been designed and look much like how you’d expect space igloos constructed by emancipated robots to look.

Now we know where we’re going to live, what’s for dinner? This next image was captioned “Illustration of plants growing in an imaginary Mars base.” Nice, except that it takes about 50 square meters of nutrient-rich Earth soil to grow plants of calorific and nutrient density in sufficient quantities to sustain the life of a single adult. [c.f. Calories/m^3]

But more importantly what to wear? Fashion studio Raeburn has contributed its New Horizons collection, which responds [would respond? envisages responding? – See what I mean?] to the lack of resources on Mars through a “make do and mend” approach, repurposing solar blankets and parachutes into clothing. Nothing to learn here, although it is something that we might want to re-learn. Repurposing scraps of fabric has a long history, of which patchwork quilts are only a minor part.

Continuing this history, the products of planetbound Swiss company Frietag are made from repurposed truck tarpaulins which is more ethical than leather I suppose, though not all that much cheaper. Frietag’s head store in Zurich is made from shipping containers.

Of course it is. Maybe if we ship enough 3D printers to Mars we can have 3D printers print shipping containers? Just an idea. And why not? Chickens and eggs both exist regardless of which came first. Right now is the time to boldly think.

Be that as it may, it’s no excuse for not thinking things through. Mars enthusiasts aren’t fazed by the lack of oxygen on Mars. (“When we get there we’re going to squeeze water out of the rock and make oxygen from that.”) A 2015 MIT study predicted astronauts would die of oxygen insufficiency on their 62nd day en-route. Research studies such as this are a separate growth industry, which just goes to show how funding attracts research.

The final two parts of the exhibition – Mars Futures and Down to Earth – pose concrete questions about the future. Accordingly, they’re given a sentence each in the press release. Possible alternatives to colonising Mars are given short shrift. The last section invites visitors and contributors to ponder the ethical and existential question at the heart of the exhibition: should humanity actually go to Mars? Whoa! This is the first mention the exhibition has a heart. You won’t find design there. Design isn’t troubled by ethical or existential questions. Industry usually positions itself squarely between it and them.

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The MarsOne site is an online community of persons interested in receiving donations to help send humans to Mars. It doesn’t matter whether it’s genuine or an opportunistic parody. It shows amazing sensitivity to how the world works.

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1 thought on “Mad For Mars

  1. Nid Kalan

    Impressive sir! The funny thing is that, most of us(humans) are still learning to design solutions/solve problems here on earth itself, but trying so hard to do it elsewhere… They are so educated, but sometimes it is just weird…

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