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Mars base by SpaceX
Popular visions of humans living on Mars often overlook serious technical and social challenges. (credit: SpaceX)

The fault in our Mars settlement plans

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Think about the first human settlement on Mars. A constellation of images from science fiction, NASA, or SpaceX likely spring to mind: white cylindrical habitation units dotting a rusted desert landscape; an astronaut donning a futuristic skintight spacesuit to perform an EVA; inside, a botanist tending to a Martian greenhouse teeming with fruit and vegetables. But what aren’t we thinking of? Even with all our plans for Mars there are problems we’re stubbornly avoiding, like the dangers of radiation, the ethics and perils of reproduction in space, and handling of settlement resources. We imagine things working out because there are parts of the challenge we haven’t considered. We’re long overdue for a Red Planet reality check. In 1967, following the fatal Apollo 1 fire, NASA astronaut Frank Borman blamed the tragedy on “a failure of imagination.” NASA hadn’t fully considered the possible problems with their new spacecraft and paid a heavy price. Today, when it comes to Mars, our imaginations appear to be failing us again.

Success on Mars will hinge on not only the technological aspects but also the social ones. Simply put, we are ignoring real factors that undercut these popular visions of humans on Mars.

Readers of The Space Review are familiar with optimistic takes on Mars colonization and the state of the debate over how hard it might be. One example is John Strickland’s 2015 essay “Why humans should go to Mars and other places in space.” [1] In the piece, Strickland argues that travelling to Mars will actually be easier than ocean voyages of discovery were a few hundred years ago. Given the recent OceanGate tragedy, this is a statement we should be rethinking in more ways than one. He writes that the “isolation and stress of a Mars mission will be nothing like such maritime crews withstood.” Though Strickland is basing his claim on technological advancements, thinking of spacefaring as easier than seafaring simply doesn’t make sense. He also distorts history, writing, “[o]ne nice thing about future Mars colonization is that, unlike the Americas, there are no existing inhabitants to displace.” To be clear: inhabitants of the Americas were not displaced, they were victims of genocide. Whether it’s in the service of rewriting history or advocating for a specific future, bending the truth into self-serving narratives sets the stage for failure—not success.

Strickland’s piece is just one of many offering a picture of humans on Mars in which inconvenient details get bracketed off, downplayed, or ignored. Though logistics and feasibility should be front and center, so too should matters of human rights and ethical issues inherent in a Mars settlement. Success on Mars will hinge on not only the technological aspects but also the social ones. Simply put, we are ignoring real factors that undercut these popular visions of humans on Mars. Instead of ignoring these inconvenient truths, we must urgently foreground them in our discussions. If we are to remain on a relentless track towards human colonization that figures like Elon Musk envision for humanity, we need to address these concerns long before the first human steps onto the Martian surface. The rest of this article reviews just a few of the problems that mainstream conversations have been avoiding, focusing specifically on issues of human health and sociopolitical concerns.

Human life on Mars is untenable for several reasons. Its atmosphere is incredibly thin, measuring 0.08 psi. For comparison, Earth’s atmospheric pressure measures 14.7 psi. Additionally, its atmosphere is almost completely composed of carbon dioxide, meaning that we would be unable to breathe.[2] The Red Planet only has 38% of Earth’s gravitational pull, resulting in microgravity conditions that could pose threats to human health. Mars is also incredibly cold, with average temperatures hovering around –62 degrees Celsius. [2] To top it all off, Mars has a weakened magnetic field, meaning that humans would have little to no protection from radiation, which could in turn damage the DNA in our cells.

While thought to protect humans from the threats inherent to conditions on Mars, the conditions within the habitat modules our explorers would inhabit are dangerous in and of themselves; life on Mars will be characterized by isolation, monotony, and constant vigilance against ever-present danger. Even something as small as going for a walk outside will be arduous, with EVA suits having to protect against multiple life-threatening conditions waiting outside the door. Scientists and scholars have implied that survival in these conditions will require extreme sacrifices, whether that be everyday social and cultural norms or even fundamental human rights. In a piece concerning human rights on Mars, for example, Bloomberg Opinion columnist Tyler Cowen floats the possibility of what he calls “contractual servitude” as well as military and theocratic rule, displaying the variety of possibilities a presence on Mars could bring about—as well as the consequences.[3] Regardless, we need to ask ourselves if populating Mars is worth sacrificing hard-won human rights and consider how these changes may end up implemented back here on Earth.

With concerns of human survival comes the question of who exactly decides how matters will unravel on Mars.

Academics interested in fields of bioethics and space exploration have attempted to grapple with these challenges and propose solutions to them. A prime example of these attempts is exemplified in a study published in the journal Acta Astronautica in 2018.[4] Szocik and his associate authors use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a foundation for the concerns that must be addressed to successfully maintain a human settlement on Mars. Besides the already problematic use of Maslow’s hierarchy, which has been shown to lack supporting evidence and validity, the authors show a concerning callousness in their treatment of what are purportedly essential human needs.[5] Of particular concern is their discussion of psychological threats to human success on the planet, which include “lack of evacuation capability, significant communication delay with Earth, and the constantly diminishing view of mother Earth,” the last of which could lead to “an extremely pathological case of separation anxiety that could trigger an existential crisis and lead to suicide and even a desire to destroy the space vehicle and the rest of the crew.”[6]

These psychological threats are ones that are essentially unsolvable; while we can attempt to simulate our loved ones or incorporate biophilia into a hab environment, there is simply no means of bridging the millions of kilometers that lie between Mars and Earth. Consequently, the psychological effects of these threats are ones that we can, at best, mitigate and, at worst, doom astronauts to suffer. While the physical aspects of human health are the ones that immediately come to mind, when considering the difficulties of a human presence on Mars, the psychological aspects are just as, if not more, important to long-term habitation.

The difficulties of establishing a human settlement on the Red Planet don’t begin on the planet itself, either. Space Adaptation Syndrome (SAS) is a form of disorientation that occurs during space travel in which astronauts “suddenly feel as if they are upside-down or may even have difficulty sensing the location of their own arms and legs.”[7] As of now, there is no test that can predict whether an astronaut will experience SAS while in space. [7] If there are physical aspects of human health in space that we cannot ascertain on Earth, how are we to properly equip astronauts with the resources and training necessary to mitigate the psychological threats they will encounter, either in space or on Mars? What if there are psychological problems we are still unaware of? Can we, in good conscience, send astronauts on such a mission without knowing all the risks?

Let’s assume that, despite these problems, we are able to establish a human settlement on Mars. Sustaining a human presence will, inevitably, require humans to reproduce there. In another study published by Szocik in the journal Futures, he and his coauthors delve into what they term the biological and social challenges of human reproduction on Mars. They assume a minimal viable population (MVP) of around 5,000 individuals is required to sustain the settlement, especially in the face of unpredictable catastrophes.[8] While the authors consider new arrivals as a means of supplementing the population, they determine that in situ reproduction is ultimately the means through which the settlement must sustain itself. This is where another concerning problem begins. In discussing the possibility of a child being born with disabilities, the authors claim that “the birth of a disabled child would be highly detrimental to the colony” and that the use of settlement resources and effort to support this person “wouldn’t result in development of the colony and its community.”[8] Here, we begin to see glimpses of an insidious perspective: the prioritization of the colony over the human rights of those that comprise it.

The authors then consider two methods of solving this supposed conundrum: abortion or genetic engineering. The discussion of the first method is one marked by coldness, in which members of the community who become pregnant are expected to submit to an abortion if a fetus’s disability is predicted to tax the settlement’s resources. While Szocik’s vision is one in favor of abortion, it lacks a central component of it: choice. In this scenario, someone could be forced to abort a wanted child to safeguard the settlement’s resources or be forced to carry an unwanted child to term. The emotional and psychological effects of either situation are notably absent from this discussion. Likewise, the second method is discussed in a method clearly ignorant of the context underlying it, with the authors merely stating that “such technology and its ethical implications has yet to be fully developed.”[8]. If we were to start utilizing genome engineering to create “viable” progeny, who knows where we will stop? While the authors clarify that this technology wouldn’t be used for the purpose of eugenics, who are they to declare what can or cannot be done with this technology on a planet whose policies and inhabitants are operating within completely different parameters of survival? Additionally, the technology that is developed on or for Mars will likely be used back on Earth too; once we start descending this slippery slope, will we be able to stop?

With concerns of human survival comes the question of who exactly decides how matters will unravel on Mars. According to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which was drafted by the United Nations, space is designated as “the province of all mankind” and no sovereign nation can claim the Moon or other celestial bodies.[9] For a country to claim a piece of Mars seems unlikely, but what about a private company? In an interview regarding this question, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, advocated for a direct democracy, which he felt would remove the possibility of corruption.[10] However, if astronauts arrive under a company banner, who is to say that this governmental structure will hold? The establishment of a human settlement on Mars will be an exorbitant financial measure, one that no company or sovereign nation will undertake without some kind of insurance as to its success. After all, why would a company attempt to establish a settlement if not to create a lucrative enterprise out of it?

Consequently, this aspect of control over the settlement could play out in multiple ways. For example, to fend off the deleterious effects of reduced gravity on human health, a human living on Mars would have to exercise an extensive amount every day to stay in relatively perfect health.[4] What would be the consequence of noncompliance on this point? Will one’s vitals and health be consistently monitored to ensure this compliance? Will they be punished if they don’t comply? This aspect of control is one implicit in subjects of reproduction, especially as they have been discussed in this article. However, it is one that must be extended to the most fundamental features of human existence. To go to Mars and establish a settlement is to relinquish some aspect of control over our lives. While the awe of space exploration and sentiments of human accomplishment provide a bold vision to the idea of human settlement of Mars, there is a very real undercurrent of capitalist exploitation underlying it. Why else would we attempt to live and work on a planet that is fundamentally incapable of maintaining human life?

Put simply, plans about Mars are always plans about Earth. That colonization and politics are present in these sentiments is a warning we must abide.

While the Red Planet may represent a kind of futuristic human experiment or possible utopia to some, we must be wary of the fact that the problems we face on Earth won’t disappear once we get to Mars. Travelling to Mars does not inherently mean transcending our problems back on Earth. Ask yourself, truly, what is the point of colonizing Mars? While sending temporary crewed missions to Mars could allow us to return samples for scientific analysis or accomplish certain tasks that the rovers currently on the planet cannot, why live on Mars long-term? Why attempt to establish a human presence on a planet that fundamentally cannot support the survival and propagation of human life? When figures like Robert Zubrin or Elon Musk advocate for the colonization of Mars, what are they really advocating for?

In an interview, Zubrin compares human colonization of Mars to actual historical colonization efforts, claiming that only through the colonization of another world or another planet can we foster new technology and civilization.[11] Zubrin goes on to say that we must terraform Mars and build an “additional Earth.”[11] Similarly, critics of Musk have suggested that his desire to populate Mars lies not in a vision of human unity and expansion across the stars, but one originating in frustration with politics in the United States.[10] To assess the success of a Musk-run planet, one need not look farther than his recent takeover of Twitter, which has been characterized by lawsuits, plummets in profit, and temper tantrums.[12, 13] If Musk cannot so much as handle criticism of himself on a social media platform, can we really expect him to create a form of governance based on principles of democracy and freedom?

Put simply, plans about Mars are always plans about Earth. That colonization and politics are present in these sentiments is a warning we must abide. It is not until we confront the truth that underlies these discussions, and the real consequences of Mars colonization for the human beings we send there, that we can fully understand just what is at stake both in these conversations and their products. While establishing a settlement on Mars may be in our future, until we confront the reality of what it will take to accomplish such a feat, we are nowhere close to ready to realize this goal. In truth, given what we are willing to sacrifice to make it to the Red Planet, we are further from being able to achieve this goal than we have been led to believe.


  1. Strickland, John. “Why humans should go to Mars and other places in space.” The Space Review. January 19, 2015.
  2. Dobrijevic, Daisy. “Mars’ atmosphere: Facts about composition and climate.” February 25, 2022.
  3. Cowen, Tyler. “Human Rights on Mars Won’t Be the Same as Those on Earth.” Bloomberg. June 28, 2022.
  4. Szocik, Konrad, et al. “Psychological and Biological Challenges of the Mars Mission Viewed through the Construct of the Evolution of Fundamental Human Needs.” Acta Astronautica, vol. 152, Nov. 2018, pp. 793–99. ScienceDirect.
  5. Fallatah, R.H.M., Syed, J. (2018). A Critical Review of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In: Employee Motivation in Saudi Arabia. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
  6. Souvestre PA, Landrock CK, Blaber AP. Reducing incapacitating symptoms during space flight: is postural deficiency syndrome an applicable model? Hippokratia. 2008 Aug;12 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):41-8. PMID: 19048092; PMCID: PMC2577399.
  7. “Mixed Up in Space.” NASA Science Mission Directorate. Accessed 30 Nov. 2022.
  8. Szocik, Konrad, et al. “Biological and Social Challenges of Human Reproduction in a Long-Term Mars Base.” Futures, vol. 100, June 2018, pp. 56–62. ScienceDirect.
  9. Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (Outer Space Treaty), Jan. 27, 196718 UST 2410; 610 UNTS 205; 6 ILM 386 (1967)
  10. Grush, Loren. “Elon Musk thinks the best government for Mars is a direct democracy.” The Verge. June 2, 2016.
  11. Chow, Denise. “Robert Zubrin wants to establish ‘a new branch of human civilization’ on Mars.” Mach. August 19, 2018.
  12. Wagner et al., “Elon Musk’s Twitter Is a Shakespearean Psychodrama Set in Silicon Valley.” Bloomberg. December 14, 2022.
  13. Maurer, Mark. “How Elon Musks’s Twitter Faces Mountain of Debt, Falling Revenue and Surging Costs.” Wall Street Journal. November 21, 2022.

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