Building a Mars Colony? You'll Need a Team of Astronaut 'MacGyvers'

Future Mars settlers
Future Mars settlers will need to rely on local resources and a lot of human labor to make a colony sustainable on the Red Planet. (Image credit: Illustration: Pat Rawlings/NASA)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Colonizing Mars will be no easy feat. It will require billions of dollars and years of specialized research led by some of the smartest scientists and engineers in the world. It will demand advanced technologies, yet to be invented — new kinds of spacecraft, for example, advanced rocket propulsion, deep-space life-support systems and high-speed communications.

But when humans arrive at the Red Planet, their best chances for success and survival will depend on simple materials, low-tech solutions and a broad set of problem-solving skills that will allow people to adapt. 

"Here on the Earth, when we go to a remote location to do an engineering development project, we've learned that taking high-tech equipment isn’t really the right approach. What you want is appropriate technology," said planetary scientist Phil Metzger, who is also a co-founder of NASA Kennedy Space Center's Swamp Works. "You want technology to be maintained using the local resources and local labor." [In Images: NASA's Vision of a Mars Base]

Metzger was speaking at the New Space Age Conference held Saturday (March 11) here at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School. He was part of the panel, "Sustainable Expansion: Reaching Mars and Beyond," which included Jeffrey Hoffman, former NASA astronaut and director of MIT's Man Vehicle lab; Keegan Kirkpatrick, founder and team lead of RedWorks; and Mark Jernigan, associate director of NASA JSC Human Health and Performance Directorate.

There was a consensus among the group that maintaining the structures and systems a Mars colony would need to sustain itself could not rely on resupply ships. 

"Mars has to operate independently from Earth," Kirkpatrick said. 

Imagine if, when the British formed the Jamestown Colony in Virginia, they built their houses in England, shipped them across the Atlantic and then counted on additional shipments to make repairs, he said. 

"The United States as we know it would never have grown beyond a handful of outposts along the Atlantic Seaboard," Kirkpatrick said. 

On Mars, colonists will have to turn to the local environment for construction materials, as well as for water and oxygen. Kirkpatrick said he and his colleagues at RedWorks are looking to the past for inspiration. They're reinventing a kind of building material popular during the Roman Empire, called welded tuff. The modern version is made using a low-heat system that's able to turn fine silicates and basaltic compounds into simple stone compounds. 

Another technique, called molten regolith electrolysis, uses electrical energy to break down soil into its basic minerals in a single step. The process releases oxygen, which can be harnessed for breathable air, and creates a kind of "mongrel alloy" made of iron, aluminum, titanium, silicon and other trace metals. 

Although the alloy won't be very strong or of high quality, in the low-gravity environment of Mars, it doesn't need to be. People can use it to build "beefier" structures and foundations to support early settlements. 

"A simpler system like that would be easier to maintain and easier to source with spare parts," Metzger said.

Pulling water and oxygen from the Martian atmosphere might be easier than trying to source it from the soil, said Hoffman, who is the deputy principal investigator for the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resources Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE. The experiment is the first of its kind to test whether life-sustaining products can be extracted from Mars. The instrument is planned for NASA's Mars 2020 rover mission and is designed to split the carbon dioxide molecules in the Red Planet's atmosphere into carbon and oxygen.

"The nice thing about using the atmosphere is that you don't need a whole mining infrastructure," Hoffman said.

"I mean, we're struggling now with running MOXIE, which has very few moving parts except for a compressor," he said. "To set up a real mining operation with robotic excavators and all of the other processing that you need, and have that running completely autonomously, is a huge challenge."

That's why eventually establishing a colony of humans on Mars is important. 

"The advantage of having people is that people are capable of responding to situations that were not anticipated," said Mark Jernigan of NASA. "People can understand the situation and adapt as needed, and they also have the ability, that when failures occur, to use resources that were not originally anticipated in order to solve the problem."

But the kinds of people who ultimately go to Mars may surprise you.

"You have to have a lot of people with a diverse, less-specialized array of skills to go to Mars," Kirkpatrick said. "In other words, average people that have to be able to support this large diverse economy," he said. 

Just as the infrastructure may draw from simpler times, so, too, may the population. A Mars colony will likely have a greenhouse, for example. People will need to understand farming, as well as biology and pest control.

"When you're talking about trying to survive on the surface of Mars, the level of skills that you need are so much broader," Jernigan said. 

People will need to adapt to local conditions and make use of resources in ways that were not planned. 

"We will need a lot of MacGyvers out there," Jernigan said.

You can follow Tracy Staedter at her website and @tracy_staedter. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on

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