James Ball

What would life on Mars actually look like?

It would need more than 100 million people to make it viable for a start – living in airlocked, subterranean bases, producing food and oxygen in artificially-lit greenhouses

[Getty Images]

Just as extreme altitudes have notable effects on the human body and mind, so too does extreme wealth seem to have a particular effect on psychology. Or at least that’s how it appears when you look at the shared ambition of two of the world’s most prominent billionaires, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Both men are fixated on the idea that humanity’s future lies beyond Earth and are funnelling fortunes into the vision that we will soon have significant human settlements off-planet, whether on the moon, Mars or elsewhere. It’s an argument grounded not just in exploration and discovery, but in survival. If humanity’s future on Earth looks to be in doubt, is living off-world not the ultimate insurance policy for our species?

A City on Mars, written by the science writing wife-and-husband team of Kelly and Zach Weinersmith, answers this question very bluntly: don’t pin your hopes on it. The book doesn’t occupy itself too much with the wishes of particular billionaires – except as recurring comical asides – but concentrates instead on the much weightier question of what off-world living might actually look like.

The picture is quite bleak. Space is dark, mostly cold, but in places extremely hot, empty, poisonous and radioactive – the absolute opposite of anything you might hope for in a holiday brochure. There’s also not much in the way of economic prospects out there. Mining might be possible, but moving things in space is extremely expensive, and neither the moon nor Mars show much evidence of valuable minerals anyway. The idea of huge, glass-domed space bases is out. Instead, a real base would likely be an airlocked, underground, claustrophobic affair, with most of the room given over to vast, artificially-lit greenhouses producing subsistence food and oxygen.

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