How Your Kids Will Survive on Mars

The Red Planet will be within reach soon enough.

By David Isaac

Elon Musk (of SpaceX and Tesla fame) has been talking up Mars big time. He wants to send a million people there in just 20 years. Right when your arthritis kicks in. Well, just because you can't go, that doesn't mean your kids can't. And since you've raised them to be highly intelligent, inquisitive human beings, they'll undoubtedly be among the first in line to become highly curious, adaptable Martians.

So what will your kids need to survive on Mars? Almost certainly they'll need more than we can list here. But here are some basics—and a few of them may surprise you.

1. "Look mom, I'm not floating!"

Zero gravity is bad for humans. We've known this for a long time.

A 1969 NASA depiction of an artificial-gravity space station.

As far back as the 1970s, scientists documented the effects of weightlessness in Skylab missions. A mission lasting 84 days led to a 20% reduction in leg strength. Arm strength fell by 5% to 10%. Zero G also compromises the cardiovascular system and the immune system. But NASA continues to test its effects.

Imagine the scene. After six months in space, the first humans land on Mars. A worldwide audience watches breathlessly as the ramp lowers and the door opens. Out roll our astronauts. They lie on the planet's surface. One manages a weak wave. Their bodies are too depleted from effects of weighlessness during the trip to do anything else.

The answer is artificial gravity. Many technical hurdles have yet to be overcome, but we know in principle how to simulate gravity: By spinning big rings that keep people pinned to the outside via centripetal force.

Hollywood has done a nice job of getting non-astrophysicists used to this idea. Passengers, an upcoming movie starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, is the latest film to feature a spinning spaceship. It was reportedly in their contracts—green M&Ms and artificial gravity.

2. "Hey dad, I have a Martian driver's license!"

Mars may be only about half the size of Earth, but it's still a pretty big place. So unless you want your kids spending all their time sitting around at the base camp, they'll need a rover.

Scientists have determined that an internal combustion engine will work on Mars—but what would power it? Could this question be what drove Elon Musk to found Tesla? Does Mars inform everything he does? We can only speculate. But here's what he said: "The reason I am personally accruing assets is to fund this. I really have no other purpose than to make life interplanetary."

NASA recognizes the importance of having a practical, functional vehicle and is testing SEVs (Space Exploration Vehicles) like the one you can see above.

3. "Dear sis, I dug up a ton of Martian ice today."

Manned Martian missions will almost undoubtably rely on in-situ resource utilization.

And that's just a fancy way of saying "living off the land." You might think that Mars has nothing to offer on that front, but in fact the planet is rich in resources.

The atmosphere alone offers a wealth of possibilities. Mars's atmosphere is 95% carbon dioxide. Simple chemical reactions can exploit that CO2 to generate rocket fuel, water, free oxygen, and key ingredients for making plastics, as experiments by scientists such as Robert Zubrin have demonstrated. Moxie, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, developed by MIT scientist Michael Hecht (shown above) is a device designed to obtain oxygen from the Martian atmosphere.

4. "I'm building a colony, dad."

Why didn't we stick around on the moon? Partly, it's because the moon didn't represent the start of an age of space exploration. We went to the moon to beat the Russians, clearly illustrated in some of the recordings of JFK. With that kind of attitude, it's no wonder we're still stuck in low-earth orbit!

Our eventual voyage to Mars isn't going to be a flags and footprints operation like the moon landings. Your kids are going to stay and build a colony in the tradition of Colonial America. They'll establish homes, farms, factories, and even "pizza joints," to quote Musk.

5. "Fear not, a spaceship is on its way."

The movie Armageddon is a great argument for why two planets are better than one. It's a shooting gallery of asteroids and other space debris out there (as illustrated by the NASA image below), and it's only a matter of time before one of those rocks hits us. Our Red Planet pals might be able to come to our rescue—sort of like how the US helped out Britain in WWII.

Musk laid it out pretty bluntly: We go to Mars, or "we stay on Earth forever and then there will be an inevitable extinction event.”

This NASA picture shows the paths of known asteroids that may someday hit Earth.

Want More? Listen to the Podcast

We talk a lot more about the challenges and benefits of going to Mars in a recent epsiode of the One Cool Thing podcast.

Image credits: NASA, JPL-Caltech.