Life on Mars: What would a human habitat look like?

In a graduate design studio course, UCalgary architecture students are asked to imagine human settlement on Mars and answer some of the questions that inhabitants would face.

Mike MacKinnon
August 1, 2017

 

If you were tasked with designing a habitat for human settlement on Mars, where would you start? For Jessie Andjelic, instructor of the Mars studio in UCalgary's Faculty of Environmental Design, and partner in SPECTACLE Bureau for Architecture and Urbanism, it's pretty simple.

"It really depends what the purpose for going is," Andjelic says. "We only mostly hear about the scientific opportunity, but there are likely to be other underlying goals or ambitions that will affect the culture of the mission. For example, capitalistic goals of extraction, colonization, space tourism, recreation, etc."

With that in mind, Andjelic asks her students to envision the various social and cultural drivers that might lead to settlement on Mars before they start trying to solve any technical and environmental challenges.

Full Model Section.jpg

A sectional view of a design by student Cody Kupper.
Caption: 
A sectional view of a design by student Cody Kupper.

A completely different design canvas

"Instead of just launching into design, we first spend time defining what questions we're interested in looking at," says Andjelic. "These are the questions around the morals and ethics of inhabiting a new planet."

This approach leads to some very different considerations than what you might expect for a Mars mission, where discussions typically revolve around the engineering, logistical and medical issues associated with such a prolonged space voyage.

"If you look at what's been researched and proposed for Mars so far, it’s a very technical discussion, which is important," Andjelic says. "But in my opinion, the cultural opportunity is being missed. As architects and designers, we have the ability to suggest what life on Mars should look like, how we should inhabit it, what are the social relationships that might lead to successful habitation?"

Once they start designing, Andjelic asks her students to imagine two different phases: 2030, when the first group arrives to set up camp, and what settlement might look like further out, in 2050. Obviously, considerations get more complex and nuanced as habitats are more established and the population begins to grow. "Once you get to the size of a small town," she says, "how do you create a space where a Martian culture can develop on its own?"

Humans are the biggest variables

Andjelic says that apart from the practical issues related to simply getting to Mars, designers have to consider the human element, which presents a whole new set of challenges and opportunities. "Things like efficiency are obviously important when every square inch of material that is brought on the trip is very expensive – for example, it costs about USD $20,000 to take a water bottle into space," she says. "But we're starting to realize that when humans can't operate in an optimal environment, like when your efficient infrastructure is performing but your humans aren't, that could be worse."

To illustrate the point, Andjelic asked UCalgary chancellor and former astronaut Dr. Robert Thirsk to speak to her students about the psychological stress of being in space.

"In the early days of space flight, astronauts flew in capsules not much bigger than telephone booths," says Thirsk, whose last mission was a six-month stay aboard the International Space Station. "But those missions were short. Anyone can tolerate a confined space for a short period. For longer periods of time, isolation and confinement become issues."

Thirsk tells the students how he was able to cope with isolation and confinement through a very simple design element: "Whenever my crewmates or I had spare time, we were doing one thing," he says. "We were at the window, looking below at our beautiful planet. It's really a mind-changing thing to be able to look down at Earth from orbit."

Thirsk highlights the value of having a connection to Earth on long trips to Mars. "It's really important to make the space habitat resemble their home environment, and to have connections with family and friends," he says. "From Mars, you're not going to see be able to see Earth the same way. So we're going to have to provide Mars astronauts with something else, maybe a telescope, maybe an observatory where they can look out, reflect and consider what they're doing, and where the next space flight endeavour is beyond Mars."

Building a new civilization

According to Andjelic, the requirement to balance extreme efficiency with more human considerations presents students with unique challenges. "Because of these technical requirements, there are new design opportunities, new efficiencies that you can't find on Earth," she says."  

As more people arrive and the settlement grows, the challenge of making habitable spaces becomes even more pronounced. "When you get larger groups of people," Andjelic says, "you start to get diverse opinions, and those interesting clashes of people, and you start to get large enough where you think about biodomes and larger areas where people can stretch out and have some notion of personal space."

And what about when people start being born on Mars? "We can imagine going there and working similarly to the way we do here," says Andjelic. "But it's hard to imagine how people are going to change once they get there. The first Martians to be born will also have a different perspective on life. New physical realities will affect the way humans occupy, move through and inhabit space. Even the way you design a seat or a stair could be different. And, the inhabitants of a settlement will spend all of their time inside a climate-controlled interior environment. It challenges everything we know about environmental design."

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A detail from a design by student Cody Kupper.
Caption: 
A detail from a design by student Cody Kupper.

A unique opportunity to flex architectural muscles

For Andjelic, that opportunity to reimagine a society from the ground up provides students with a chance to explore their profession in ways they might not be able to otherwise. "The role of architects is to provide a vision," she says. "This is a chance to approach architecture from a completely different point of view. It's almost a clean slate, the chance to start over and think about what our civilization should actually look like, in addition to reacting to our existing condition.

"When you have a chance to  start over, to design a space that will provide the frame for the development of a new civilization, you can really get down to what it means to be human, and reconsider assumptions about human needs and wants.

Again, it comes back to the reason for going to Mars in the first place.

"Humans are naturally inclined to explore new frontiers, to settle new places," says Andjelic. "And we're starting to see the limitations of our planet. But the thing about looking at opportunities on Mars is they're going to teach us to be better custodians of Earth.

"Going to Mars will teach us lessons about environmental and cultural sustainability, which we will absolutely be able to apply back here. Populating other planets doesn't mean we abandon Earth, it just means we continue to grow and evolve and learn in other places."

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About our experts

Jessie Andjelic is a sessional instructor in the Faculty of Environmental Design at UCalgary and a co-founder of SPECTACLE Bureau for Architecture and Urbanism. She has worked with notable architecture firms Sturgess Architecture in Calgary and Powerhouse Company in Rotterdam, and has led design teams on three competition wins. Her range of projects includes private houses, multi-family and mixed-use housing, civic centres, university buildings and masterplans.
Former Canadian astronaut Dr. Robert Thirsk was elected the 13th chancellor of the University of Calgary in May 2014. During his missions aboard the space shuttle Columbia and the International Space Station, Thirsk and his crewmates performed multidisciplinary research, robotic operations and maintenance tasks. Thirsk is a strong promoter of an economy based on exploration and innovation. He encourages Canadians to build their career dreams upon an educational foundation, advanced skills and lifelong learning. He works with organizations and educators to develop space-related curricula that introduce young people to the wonder of scientific discovery. View Dr. Thirsk's profile
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