Watch Out, Mars: City Planners Are Coming For You
published during a waning gibbous moon.

city planners

Credit: Katharine Gammon

In the basement of a building on USC’s campus last week, a group of engineers, urban planners, and architects listened as astronaut Buzz Aldrin offered his vision of a city on another planet – then their pens started working. The exercise was part of the Mars City Design workshop, which tackles some of the hardest parts of planning how to live – and thrive — on the Red Planet.

There are several special considerations to think about when designing structures on Mars. Temperatures regularly dip to -100 degrees F. A fine layer of dust can cloud solar arrays and work its way into everything. The day is slightly longer (39 minutes and 35 seconds, to be exact) so human’s physiological cycles such as digestion might get messed up. Oh, and the atmosphere is 200 times thinner than Earth’s.

And there are smaller considerations too. Mars’s gravity, at only 38% of Earth gravity, would likely make humans feel like superheroes, necessitating different design strategies for buildings. Staircases on Earth on step have seven-inch steps, but on Mars, steps may need to have a higher interval, perhaps nine inches or more, Artemis Westenberg, director of Explore Mars, Inc., told the group. In experiments to grow crops in Martian regolith (that’s soil without bacteria), Westenberg told the workshop that crops grow very well – including string beans, tomatoes, and carrots. One crop that didn’t fare well? Potatoes. “Sorry, Andy Weir,” said Westenberg, referencing the potatoes grown by an abandoned astronaut in Weir’s book The Martian.

city planners

Mars Research Facility. Credit: Matthew Jennings

Some of the projects entered into the workshop (which is also a contest) included innovative designs using 3D printing technology and Martian regolith to create concrete and bricks for housing. Other projects designed ways to filter out radiation by creating self-sustaining gardens in the air or by using ice blocks to build structures. These projects may seem far off, as the first planned missions to Mars won’t be until at least 2024. But Jeff Demain, with the Mars City Foundation, said that the contest is an incubator to test ideas.

All the designs will be 3-D printed during the workshop, and the foundation plans to construct the winning proposal at full-scale in the Mojave desert. “That’s what differentiates our foundation: it’s not just simulated or built in a lab,” he said. “Let me take it out into the environment and ask questions. What does the design do to the culture, to the emotion, to people? That’s beyond what a government agency can do.”

Vera Mulyani, Mars City Design’s founder, adds that the group wants to experiment with 3-d printed soil for some of the buildings in the desert. “We want it to be a Mars research center where people can feel what it’s like in that environment,” she said. “What makes it so special is that you’re in the middle of no possibilities but you’re creating magic just by living there.”

city planners

Vera Mulyani, Mars City Design’s founder. Credit: Katharine Gammon

Just living on Mars – and the stresses of getting there – bring up some unique medical issues in addition to architectural issues. Brian Hanley, founder and chief scientist of Butterfly Sciences, told the group that gene therapy could be one way to keep astronauts safe and strong on the red planet.

When subjected to only 37.5% of Earth’s gravity, human muscles and bones start to weaken, and changes in gravity even impact cardiovascular health, weakening blood vessels. People on bed rest can lose up to 4% of muscle mass in a single day, and astronauts returning home often are so weak they have to be carried. Hanley is working on gene therapies that would give hypermusclarity and dense bones. One downside is that bigger muscles require a bigger appetite – something that might be challenging in a space environment.

One idea that is farther off is to genetically engineer people who could thrive on radiation instead of being harmed by it. There is a fungus that evolved within the Chernobyl containment vessel that thrives on gamma rays because it super-expresses melanin. The fungus is a deep black color, said Hanley. “If we could if we could modify humans to super-express melanin in all cells, that should help,” he said, adding that such a human would have black bones, tissues, hair and even black irises.

These ideas aren’t stuck in some far-off space, either. Mulyani said that designing for Mars will lead to better design for Earth’s environment. “There is always a surprise even if you plan it really well,” she said. “I would rather know those surprises now. Without the goal of the future, technology doesn’t evolve.”