Caris Avendaño Cruz is a Filipina writer and author of MARIKIT WEARS THE MAP TO THE ENGKANTOS, a Middle Grade fantasy book that features an all-Filipino cast and local folklore, debuting in FSG BYR Macmillan, Fall 2022.
Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin has already said it: humans should be on Mars. It could be a stone shot in empty space—a far-flung daydream. Or it could be a vision of the future, one that will give earth-dwellers an alternative before the planet succumbs to a crippling disease brought about by climate change.
What was once seen in the pages of science fiction now becomes a foreboding reality. A rover is underway for a 2020 Mars approach. A one-way trip to the Red Planet is scheduled in 2024. Future-forward Elon Musk has rolled his sleeves with a foresight on Martian colonies. NASA’s Curiosity, the Earth’s closest resource to the planet, has brought home photographs of dusk-draped rocks and alien mountainscapes in icy blue, in search of life-sustaining regions.
But travelling to Mars isn’t easy. Unlike airplane flights, distance is not the only factor. Scientists also take note of other important details, including the nearest alignment of the planets. The entire journey lasts from 150 to 400 days before reaching alien terrain. Martian travel, without a doubt, surpasses the tedious experience of sitting through 7 hours of flight.
Surprisingly, many are preparing to submerge in Mars’ uncharted atmosphere with incredible zeal.
Cultivating the colony
Reaching the planet is one thing; staying there is another. In this virtue, NASA called on teams of brilliant designers to join its 3D Habitat Centennial Challenge, part of the many competitions that stir the conversation about space exploration, technology, and development. In this task, participants were to create digital renderings of a Martian habitat—things enthusiastically drawn by young kids, but as adults, require more sound design paired with scientific development.
The winners are chosen not only for their space-age aesthetics but an emphasis on the probability of life support in another planet, in varying atmospheres and landscapes. Taking note of Mars’ climate, the habitat should be well-insulated, air-tight, and should be built using the resources native to the alien terrain.
Zopherus, an Arkansas-based design firm, bagged first prize with their 3D-printed concept—one that would require no human interference while using materials helmed from the planet’s surface. A lander, in white capsule and steel spider legs, would scan the surroundings and select printing areas, while smaller robots would gather materials. The lander then seals to the ground, mixes the materials and prints out the habitat in red, hexagonal shapes, with small windows that allow dwellers to easily peek outside. Each habitat makes use of ice, calcium oxide and Martian dust.
The New York-based AI Spacefactory comes in second, with its large, cocoon-shaped habitat that stands up to 15 feet. It is, perhaps with the pun, called Marsha, and uses 3D printing with minimal human assistance. Just like Zopherus, it makes use of elements gathered from the Martian soil, an intelligent mixture of basalt and renewable bioplastic in thick strands coiled around one another. But unlike the former, Marsha stands alone on its own.
Kahn-Yates’ design takes the third spot, a strikingly white habitat with clean aesthetics shaped like a hat. Mesh holes create a modern tinge on its gray surface, as well as allowing daylight to aid interior gardening and food production. Unlike the two first designs, the Kahn-Yates habitat would be transported through space crafts. The shell would split during landing, leaving a prefabricated design which dislodges a print arm that connects the shells by using materials on the Martian landscape.
Experiencing Mars, however, is closer than one thinks.
In northern Spain, deep inside the Cantabrian mountains, a scientific agency Astroland has built an environment that mimics the Red Planet’s topography, creating the perfect backdrop for the wannabe-astronauts to experience Mars without leaving the Earth. The Ares Station, as it is appropriately called, offers a three-day vacation under a harsh climate, echoing the conditions of the Earth’s red twin inside its 164 feet high, 3,900 feet expanse. Here, temperatures drop, the winds are raging, and high levels of solar radiation would cause more than a skin burn. The atmosphere on Mars is said to be less than 1% of the Earth’s own, a grand mix of carbon dioxide with faint amounts of oxygen. This unique setting requires several adjustments, but understanding and prevailing through these circumstances are key to survival on Mars.
This immersion is not without an orientation. Each participant undergoes a remote training program for three weeks, with a firsthand glimpse at the struggles of space living. The lessons include buoyancy tests, spacewalking, basic engineering, and overcoming long bouts of isolation. After the course, each is sent to the field in limited groups, clad in their custom-made astronaut suits.
This space-age vacation is not without a hint of leisure. Inside the Ares Station are life capsules, research labs, food supplies, and 3D printers that allow one to create from dust. This out-of-this-world experience, at a cosmic price of $6,800.
A Martian bed and breakfast
Humans are always seeking the new and the unknown. The prospect of living on Mars, despite the possibility, requires more years of exploration and development. Yet still, this does not stop us from enjoying things to be experienced in the future. After all, with the present technology, everyone who seeks it will have a taste of Martian life.
After the success of Marsha, AI Spacefactory unveils Terra: a 3D printed habitat that echoes its Martian counterpart. The alien-looking hive is lodged in the Earth’s pristine, remote landscapes, offering a unique place to relish isolation and self-discovery. It uses the same hard-strung coils as its base, but rather than scouring for Martian rock basalt, Terra utilizes recyclable, plant-based materials approved by NASA. This, surprisingly, turns out to be three times as durable as concrete.
Starring a column of diagonal glass windows and three floors of generous interiors, Terra is retrofitted to harmonize with its surroundings. Its minimalist approach inspires dwellers to seek planet-saving, sustainable living while being off-the-grid. The first one is perched in the New York woodlands, set beside the Hudson River, and is open for nightly stays beginning March 2020.
From a fictional fad to a forthcoming future, living on Mars becomes our new pursuit. But before that space-age adventure begins, one can immerse oneself in these alien experiences while still on Earth.