How to start a civilisation (on Mars)

When I see a problem in the world, I try to tackle it head-first. And in this case, when I say ‘in the world’, I actually mean ‘off the world’. This is a tie-in of two of my favourite subjects – space exploration and Puftnarkel. If the latter of those made no sense to you at all, go and read this post here. Or if you want a refresher. Either way. So all of you know about the fair land of Puftnarkel. It currently has some random data and a constitution. So let’s give it a space agency. Every respectable country needs a space agency, after all.

Given that Puftnarkel has an economy on a scale to that of the USA (but without all the cumbersome military), we can give it a similar sized space budget. If the NASA budget is $18 billion and the US defence budget is $630 billion (be appalled, my friends. Be appalled), we can give the PSA (Puftnarkel Space Agency, pronounced pee-sa, no toilet jokes please) an annual budget of $35 billion. Which is actually bigger than the next five space agencies put together. But hey – this is fictional, so we can do what we want.

So we have our space agency, with its tremendous budget. So let’s go to Mars! But first, some context about Mars. There is a reasonable estimate that a mission to get 4 people to Mars and back would cost $6 billion. But then the next trip would cost $4 billion (once you have the R&D, it never goes away). So let’s say that the cost reduces by 2/3 each trip (as technology improves and stuff like that). And because we have a new space agency, let’s make the initial cost $12 billion.

But wait! That is the cost of a round trip, to Mars and back again. And while that is the initial intention of NASA (we want our astronauts back please), their operative word is not to land on Mars. I have the word of a NASA official that the operative phrase is to pioneer Mars. Which yes, involves leaving people behind. And that’s what we want to do here. And not taking a return journey’s worth of fuel means we get to save a lot of cash. Say, a quarter of the money. So that takes the initial cost back down to $9 billion. That’s official now.

The next question is about people. We could do what NASA will probably end up doing – put four astronauts born and bred on a spaceship. But that, frankly, is boring. Do you think you could spend years on a base on another planet with only three people? Me neither. While a crew of four might be enough to do some science and come home, we need more than that for a permanent colony.

So I did some boring thought process, and here is my thought. I could continue like this for the next half of the article – rambling for a few paragraphs and then getting to a point. Only problem is, that’s really tedious and would triple my word count. So I’ll leave out my boring thought process, and skip straight to the exciting mission part.

Phase I – Alpha landers ($18 billion)

This is the first stage – a dozen unmanned vehicles. I propose landing in the Tharsis region, located around 7.7°S,  249°E (just to the north-east of Syria Planum). You can see it on this helpful Google Mars tool. So anyway, we send up the first phase.

These vehicles are miners. There’s a fair bit of evidence that Mars has useful ores, especially in volcanic regions – like where we’re landing. So the first mission goes in two years ahead. They land in the rough area, and start drilling. They will primarily extract iron from the rock, and stockpile it for the next phases. They will also look for other useful minerals, and look for a landing site. I propose using solar-powered drones (like are being currently used on Earth) to survey the area. Another priority is to look for ice and water vapour, for obvious reasons.

Phase II – Beta landers ($20 billion)

The second phase of robot landers will be builders, leaving Earth about 18 months after Phase I. They will carry a stock of materials from Earth, including inflatable base structures. They should land near the site and use the materials gathered to start building a complex that people can sort of live in. They also have a cool job. As you slam into the Martian atmosphere, you use a parachute to decelerate to about 1000km/h. At that speed, the landers open ram air intakes. Those of you familiar with Kerbal Space Program will recognise those as devices that use your forward speed to intake massive amounts of air. So when the landers touch down, they will have tanks full of high-pressure CO2. The same CO2 that plants turn into oxygen. Get my drift yet?

So the beta robots assemble a complex on the site where the first settlement will be. The initial one is pretty simple – some living quarters, a lab, a communication centre and some greenhouses – plus solar panels and a small nuclear generator. The generator would be an RTG, running off 238Pu (a plutonium isotope) which needs exceptionally low shielding levels and can last for about 90 years while remaining at useable levels.

Phase III – Gamma crew ($27 billion)

These are the brave pioneers. These are the first men (and women) on Mars. The gamma mission consists of three ships, each carrying 8 crew members (but with capacity for 12, the reason will be explained later). The ships will leave a week apart, keeping in constant communication with each other and the ground the whole way there. Each crew will be carrying a dedicated payload with them – the first one perishable supplies as well as oxygen and water, the second one plants and the third one medical and scientific supplies.

The first crew will land to find (if all goes according to plan) an assembled base with a high CO2 atmosphere (there will have been purifiers working for the past month, but these things take time) but otherwise functional equipment. They land, use a transport vehicle landed in the beta stage to move to the settlement site and link up to the rest of the base. They can then pressurise some compartments with breathable air, use spacesuits to patch the things that need patching and hold on tight for the next crew. The first crew would be hardcore astronauts – engineers and getting-stuff-done people. And my inner feminist is screaming for the first foot on Mars to be female, so let’s have that as well.

When the Gamma 2 module lands, it will be mostly full of vegetation. Photosynthesis is a remarkably efficient process, so it seems the obvious choice. They land and unload the non-food bearing plants into the rest of the base, which is around room pressure. Given how the crop that is best at photosynthesising is sugar cane, there would be a lot of that. And also algae. The Gamma 2 crew would be scientists – physicists, chemists, geologists biologists and astrobiologists.

The Gamma 3 module would have the kind of people and supplies that you need to have a permanent base. It would carry a pretty large supply of antibiotics and sticking plasters, as well as some interesting food (including spices) and tools. The crew for this team is more general – doctors, cartographers, specialist engineers, industrial biologists and whatnot.

Now those three capsules will all be capable of launching from the Martian surface and joining up with a rendezvous orbiter (which went up with Phase I to coordinate the operation, but I forgot to mention) which would have the capacity to get about 90 people back to Earth in the event of emergency. But as the mission grows, that capacity obviously won’t stay there. That means there is a dangerous chance of a fair percentage of the colony dying on Mars. Oops.

Phase IV – Delta crews

My post-getting-too-long-ometer is now in the red with flashing lights and deafening klaxons, so I’m going to have to stop. I will certainly almost definitely probably finish this some time this or next week.

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