Just How Realistic Is Buzz Aldrin’s Plan to Colonize Mars?

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/aug/27/buzz-aldrin-colonize-mars-within-25-years

Buzz AldrinThe second man to walk on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin – along with the Florida Institute of Technology – has joined the growing ranks of space colonization advocates that foresee the settlement of Mars in the near future. Other groups, such as SpaceX, NASA, and the much-harangued Mars One, all have plans in motion to land astronauts on the Red Planet. Most of these plans rely on research and space missions that have not yet been conducted; Aldrin’s plan, for instance, would use space stations, asteroids, and the moons of Mars as way stations for the eventual one-way colonists.

These plans are alike in that they are ambitious, inspirational, and daring. And they may be, ultimately, unrealistic. It’s been more than forty years since humanity’s last manned trip to another celestial body, the Apollo 17 Moon mission in 1972. Implementing a manned mission to Mars will take decades of research and planning, immense political will, and generous funding. The colonization of another planet is a project the likes of which have, arguably, never been seen before. Do we (i.e., the human race) have the drive to achieve such ambitions?

It is undeniable that serious, intelligent people are talking about the very real possibility of colonizing another planet. And with movies like The Martian debuting soon, it’s clear that Mars is in the public consciousness as well. Maybe now is the perfect time to start planning our next great leap into space.

Photo courtesy of Dennis Knake, used under a Creative Commons license.






3 responses to “Just How Realistic Is Buzz Aldrin’s Plan to Colonize Mars?”

  1. Ian Miller Avatar
    Ian Miller

    I have written five SF ebooks that cover colonising Mars, at various stages, although admittedly three contribute very little to this particular issue. I am also intending to write a series of blogs on the matter, but for the purposes of this discussion, the most obvious points I would raise are these:
    1. Settlement (as opposed to exploration) needs to be of a reasonable size. You need to include doctors, dentists, engineers, electricians, etc, and you have to feed them.
    2. That means you need to grow a lot of food, which means you need a large area under “domes”. That in turn means you need to be able to make useful materials on Mars, such as structural supports, glass, concrete, etc.
    3. You need excavating equipment, which presumably comes from Earth, but you need energy to run it. That in turn is almost certainly going to have to be electricity, but that means you need a means of generating it, and storing it. In my “Red Gold”, I “invented” an aluminium-chlorine fuel cell, aluminium because it has the highest plausible energy density from something reasonably available, and chlorine because (a) it would be liquid at martian temperatures, and (b) I thought it would not lead to solvent impedance of reaction rate. As it happens, and Al/Cl battery has been developed that supports my view. Yea!
    4. You need a lot of energy and a high energy density to refine metals and make things from martian rock, and, of course, to make the Al and Cl for (3).
    5. You need to take an awful lot of stuff, which means massive vessels, and that means chemical propulsion is almost certainly inadequate.
    6. In “Red Gold” I solved all of this by powering the ships with fusion motors, and these motors were subsequently brought down to Mars to act as power generators. The motors worked through a magnetohydrodynamic effect, and that permits both electricity production, but also, through something similar to a mass spectrometer, it does element refining. (This may or may not be practical, but in an earlier book, “Troubles”, I described a working fusion reactor. The purpose of this was to get across to people that sometimes a good concept, if it works, can be made to do a number of unintended things, so the description is more a hint to think carefully about science when designing a project.) Remember, there is no carbon on Mars to reduce oxides.
    7. However, when all this is done, the settlement in “Red Gold” was still doomed to fail because there are other problems. One is nitrogen fertiliser; the nitrogen in the Martian atmosphere is thin, and do you really want to make ammonia from it? I got around that by discovering urea-like material, but that depends on my specific theory of planetary formation being right, namely that Mars originally had a reduced atmosphere, and the fluvial flows were actually water/ammonia (which is liquid down to minus 80 C). The statement in the book was, if they could not find nitrogen materials, the settlement would eventually be too difficult. I like to think that stands.

    Finally, I am thinking of posting a number of blogs about this problem. If anyone is interested, I shall add links when I do it, so let me know if interested.

  2. Zach Berkson Avatar
    Zach Berkson

    Hi Ian,

    Thanks for the reply! You make a lot of good points about the challenges faced with a Martian colonization project.

    I agree that a real “colonization” of Mars means transporting a lot of people and supplies. As far as I know, nobody has proposed a viable way to transport lots of people and supplies to Mars using existing technology (I think SpaceX is supposed to unveil a heavy-duty Mars transporter at some point). That’s why the exploration and colonization of Mars probably has to be staged from intermediaries: space stations or asteroid bases. Asteroid utilization is the best first step, using near-Earth asteroids for their resources and as waystations. Who knows, asteroids might be the best sources of chemical feedstocks in space.

    As for the energy issue, if we’re limiting our speculation to existing technology then I see pretty much no way around using nuclear fission reactors to power our space ships and Martian colonies. They can be built incredibly safely these days, and generate plenty of heat and energy for minimal fuel. Cursory Google searching doesn’t turn up anything about fissile materials in Mars or in asteroids, so I assume that’s something that we just don’t know. Possibly future exploration could turn up exploitable radioactives, but even if Earth is our only source it would be a lot easier to send a few fuel rods to Mars than a bunch of chemical reactors, or even enough solar panels to power large colony.

  3. Christabel Avatar

    Hey guys, I also find this as a quite interesting subject. Recently I found a really in-depth article for the colonizing Mars by Tim Urban. He is spoke with Elon Musk, owner of SpaceX. You can find it on WaitButWhy’s website.