What Will Life on Mars Be Like?

An interview with Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society and author of The Case for Space.

Illustration of a baby in a spacesuit floating in space.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate

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During his bombastic Fourth of July celebration, President Donald Trump boasted that the U.S. will soon “plant the American flag on Mars.” NASA hopes to send astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s, while Elon Musk is continuing his own Martian plans. Let’s say humans make it to Mars and stay there. How will we organize ourselves? How will we create a community?

Robert Zubrin, president and founder of the space advocacy organization the Mars Society, has spent the past few decades working to answer those questions. Since 1998, his nonprofit has supported research and interest in both government-funded exploration and private expeditions to Mars. I talked to Zubrin, author of The Case for Space: How the Revolution in Spaceflight Opens Up a Future of Limitless Possibility, about the diverse challenges facing potential Martian settlements. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Slate: How do you envision settling Mars will begin, and what will the early settlements look like?

Robert Zubrin: I think it will begin with an exploration, and then the establishment of a permanent Mars base to support exploration. Whoever is sponsoring this base, whether it’s the U.S. government, an international consortium of governments, or private groups, it’s going to be tremendously to their benefit to have people stay extra rotations on Mars because the biggest expense is transporting people back and forth. If it costs $100 million to send someone to Mars and back—and that’s a low estimate—it would be a no-brainer to offer someone $5 million to stay there an extra two years. So, I think you’ll start to see people staying extra rotations on Mars, just like there are some people who spend an extra rotation on trips to Antarctica. And then, relationships will form. And people will have children. And you will see the beginning of an actual settlement, a base.

Once you have this Mars base, which perhaps is supported by the U.S. and its European-Japanese allies, it’s developing all these technologies for creating resources on Mars, and the interplanetary transportation is becoming cheaper. At this point, it becomes possible to envision not only other countries, including small ones, creating their own base on Mars, but private groups. Whether you’re talking about an entrepreneurial colony, which makes its income off of the inventions that its personnel create to meet the challenges of Mars, or even private groups, there’s always going to be people who have new ideas on how human beings should live together.

Should we be worried about potential conflict between these settlements?

I don’t think so. Mars has got a surface area equal to all of the continents. You’re going to have a lot of elbow room. There’s no reason for them to be on top of each other. And I think you’ll see here a lot of what you might call “noble experiments.” That is, people with new ideas on how to order society, and some of these ideas will be good ideas and some won’t be good ideas. The ones that are good ideas will succeed, and people will go there. Those colonies will succeed, they will prosper, and they will draw immigrants, and they will expand.

On the other hand, there are ideas that lead nowhere, that in fact do not offer people a better life, and are impractical from an economic point of view. Those colonies will fail, and they’ll disappear. And the ones that do offer something better will not only grow, they’ll be examples to the rest of humanity.

People ask me, What’s the government going to be like on Mars? I don’t know. I think there will be a lot of different ideas tried.

What might labor look like on Mars?

The labor shortage will drive the Martian settlement not only for labor-saving machinery, but things that expand the power of labor both in volume and diversity, including in robotics and artificial intelligence, for example. And, of course, the fact that they will have limited land for agriculture means they will be driven to innovation in biotechnology, and they’ll have very little patience for people who come up with what-if scenarios: What if the killer tomatoes get loose? Why don’t we put this through 40 years of study before we let you do it? I think the culture of Mars will be pragmatic and inventive. Now, these inventions made by the Martians to meet their own challenges will have value on Earth. They’ll file patents for these new technologies on Earth and license the patents, and that’s how the income for Mars colonists will come about. The easiest thing to transport across interplanetary distances is information.

Might some Mars societies replicate systems and institutions, rules, etc., on Earth? For comfort?

Well, some might, but it’s just a different situation, and you might say, Am I really going to waste all this time, all this talent, blocking it from being used by essentially red tape? Pragmatism dictates that you should make full use of the talent available. And I think that this will be very much a feature of Mars society. I don’t see how it could not be.

When do you see schools, churches, and community-based organizations being set up?

I think that once you start having children, you’re going to have some form of schools. They could be quite different than what we have now. I think there will be a lot more practical education.  And I think that a lot of the things that churches do are really, in a sense, associated with family formation. I think they will become more important as people start having families.

What about public spaces and open areas, for discussion and debate?

Almost anywhere you go on Earth today, in almost any society, there’s parks and open areas of a certain kind. And I think the Martian cities will definitely be walking cities. There will be community there. The Mars Society is currently holding this contest, on the design of a 1,000-person Mars colony, with a lot of different points including technological, social, political, economic, and aesthetic considerations. We had one report from an Israeli group that recommended the social system be based on kibbutz.

There is another point I’d like to make. I alluded to it earlier. Some people have written that extraterrestrial societies will be tyrannies because the government can turn off your air and kill you. I disagree with that 100 percent. In the Middle Ages, they had a saying: City air makes a man free. Cities were freer than the country. And the more complex a society becomes, the more interdependent it becomes, and the more critical the goodwill of every citizen is, because a single citizen could sabotage a Mars colony. It’s what I was getting at before. More complex, more advanced societies require greater respect for their individual members. Because everybody is essential. A government of such a place has to treat its people right.

Ultimately, Mars will progress the most if there’s a number of Mars colonies, making their own inventions, each experimenting with new ways of doing things. That is ultimately in the greatest interest of all. It will be a positive example to societies on Earth.

People talk about the current threats to humanity—people say it’s overpopulation, or global warming, or resource exhaustion, or asteroid impacts. I think it’s actually bad ideas. And in principle one bad idea, which was the cause of all of the disasters of the 20th century: that there isn’t enough to go around. By working together, and I mean working together in a very broad sense, as part of a broad enterprise of opening space to humanity, what people get to see is that it’s not true that there’s only so much to go around because the Earth comes from the infinite sky. And frankly, that’s why I’m in this. It’s how you conceive the future that determines what’s going to happen.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.