In the space of fewer than 100 pages, How We’ll Live on Mars delivers an overview of the history, science, and technology relevant to Martian colonisation. But more than a technical primer, Petranek’s new book is a manifesto. He argues that we’ve had the tools to get to Mars for decades, we simply haven’t chosen to pursue this opportunity.
Yet in the past five years, the notion of living on Mars has once again sparked public imagination, with private space companies offering us a new window to the stars. Now that it’s become clear that we really are going to ship humans off to Mars, Petranek says we need to start considering the enormous potential (and pitfalls) that await us out there.
Scientists and engineers have been discussing how to get humans to Mars since the 1940s, when former German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun wrote Das Marsprojekt, a 91-page treatise that envisioned a fleet of Mars-bound spacecraft, built at a space station in Earth’s orbit with materials and equipment launched up by reusable rockets.
As the first study on the technical feasibility of a manned mission to Mars, von Braun’s work captured the public's imagination. But the dream of putting boots on the Red Planet was shelved in early 1970s, when US President Richard Nixon instead chose to focus NASA spending on the Space Shuttle programme.
Had Nixon committed the United States to Mars, there'd probably be a base there by now. Instead, the wildly expensive shuttle threw US space exploration into a dark, passionless, 40-year void. Only in the past five years has America begun to emerge from the shuttle’s crippling legacy, thanks the arrival of private rocket companies and, most importantly in Petranek’s view, the leadership of Elon Musk.
“Everything we need to go to Mars has been around for a long time,” Petranek told me. “It’s only a matter of willpower. And now, there’s somebody who wants to go to Mars. If you look at the mission statement of SpaceX, it’s that this company was formed to bring people to Mars.”
“One of the most fascinating things that happened to me while writing this book was watching the shift in attitudes at NASA as SpaceX became more successful,” Petranek said. “I could not get anybody at NASA a year ago to say when and if we’re going to Mars. Now all of a sudden, NASA has appointed a Mars administrator, and announced that we’re going to Mars in the 2030s.”
In perhaps 20 years, colonial transport systems could be shipping dozens, if not hundreds of settlers off to the Red Planet. Petranek likens these early space colonists to the first European settlers in the New World. The analogy is surprisingly good: like the first British colonists at Jamestown, our Martians pioneers will find themselves living in austere conditions on a remote frontier, utterly occupied with the task of basic survival, and (in all likelihood) with no means of returning home.
Of course, Martian settlers will have much more technology at their disposal, which they’ll need in order to face the daunting environmental challenges: temperatures far below freezing, no liquid water, and practically no atmosphere, to name a few. But in his survey of the technologies we’ll need to survive (some are already space-ready, others are hypothetical) Petranek makes it clear that we can survive on another planet.
Sure, those first settlers may need to hunker down below-ground to avoid being eaten alive by cosmic radiation, and yes, they’ll need to wear pressure suits at all times, and maybe they’ll begrudgingly add insect protein to their diets. But as history has proven, the promise of a new world is incredibly alluring.
“Once a Mars base is reasonably functional, people will flock there,” Petranek writes. “A simple look at the extraordinary number of people on Earth who migrate from country to country each year indicates that huge population on Earth wants to go where the future seems brighter. It’s part of the human spirit.”