The Surprising Path to Life on Mars: First, Go Underground?

True color image of Mars taken by the OSIRIS instrument on the ESA Rosetta spacecraft during its February 2007 flyby of the planet.

Before we live on Mars, will we need to prove that we can live underground?

This thought experiment and possible path is found in futurist Amy Webb‘s (@amywebb) new book The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology, coauthored with microbiologist and geneticist Andrew Hessel. Renowned computer scientist Rana el Kaliouby describes the book as a “roadmap for this interdisciplinary field of synthetic biology that is forever reshaping life as we know it.” 

Part Three of the book explores different futures in the form of fictional, speculative scenarios.

These scenarios describe how the world may develop, given what we know to be true today. These are near-term plausible developments, reasonable extensions of current trend lines, not sci-fi. They are also opportunities to rehearse the future, and these structured thought exercises are used by everyone from military strategists to CEOs. 

Scenario #4, “The Underground,” is excerpted from The Genesis Machine with permission and with light edits for length.

Please enjoy! 

The Underground

For decades, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, had been insisting that humanity’s best shot at long-term survival was to eventually become a multiplanetary species. He cited elevated levels of carbon pooling in the Earth’s atmosphere, extreme droughts, and the loss of biodiversity as precursors to a looming catastrophe. He began development on a program called Starship in 2016, which was intended to ferry cargo and, eventually, one hundred passengers between the Earth, Moon, and Mars. By 2021, NASA contracted SpaceX to develop a modified Starship vehicle for its Artemis program. Musk focused on building the core infrastructure that would eventually be required to sustain life, whether on Earth or on the Moon, Mars, or even beyond. But Musk realized he could not build an off-planet living environment on his own. Ever the showman, and with his personal fortune approaching $1 trillion, Musk announced an audacious contest called the Colony Prize. He’d award $1 billion to any team that could build and operate an underground, airtight colony of one hundred people for two years. In other words, the ultimate Mars simulation.1,2,3

Musk knew that for humans to thrive off-planet, regenerative systems would need to be developed at a scale never before achieved.4 The International Space Station once housed as many as thirteen astronauts on board, but typically only six or seven lived in the ISS at once. Colonists also needed to grapple with long periods of confinement. The typical ISS mission was about six months.5 NASA astronaut Scott Kelly had spent nearly a year in space. Cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov held the record for a single mission, spending an impressive 437 days on the Mir station in the 1990s.6 A better example for understanding a hundred-person enclosed society was a submarine––but even here the longest submerged and unsupported mission topped out at 111 days.7 Winning the Colony Prize would require keeping the doors sealed tight for more than 700 days.

The contest rules were simple by design. Entrants were to outfit and assemble airtight canisters into a closed living environment. Those canisters, which would begin as empty, modular self-contained spaces that would fit into the cargo bay of a rocket, could be configured as living quarters, science labs, farms, schools, water treatment systems, manufacturing facilities, and anything considered necessary to support a community. Colonies were encouraged to include facilities to support concerts, sports, and other forms of recreation.8 Once configured and loaded with supplies, the doors would be sealed and the mission clock started. The goal wasn’t to reinvent Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. It was to invent entirely new networks of modular structures—using something akin to the Minneapolis Skyway System, the world’s largest contiguous system of enclosed structures and bridges—that could scale to eventually become a city. Over time, such a plan would replicate some aspects of life in the days before extreme weather became our new normal.

In addition to container reconfiguration plans and simulations, contest entrants were told to submit a list of potential colony inhabitants, justification for their selection, and a detailed plan to ensure quality of life. There was an important caveat: the colony couldn’t just be made up of a bunch of carefree early twenty-somethings who, back in the halcyon days of the aughts, might have attended Coachella. Every colony had to mirror the full spectrum of society: a mix of families, couples without children and single people. The prize was intended, in part, to test population expansion in a closed system. That meant that facilities to manage pregnancy, delivery, and infant care, as well as various health issues and the various stages of life, had to be built.9

There were no requirements or quotas to ensure diversity of thought, ideology, race, ethnicity, nationality, or culture. Nor were there stipulations to prevent certain people from being excluded from a colony. If a group could prove in simulation that its plan could support life for two years, and if they could explain how inhabitants would work, attend school, receive medical attention, cultivate resources, and maintain balance within the colony, they’d be eligible to advance.

Selected teams would have eleven years to build, refine, and live within their structures. In the event of a system failure or need to make major changes to a configuration, any colony was allowed to reset the clock and start again, provided they had enough time remaining within the eleven-year limit.10 There was no limit to how many colonies could win the $1 billion award on successful completion.

Colonies would receive support from Musk’s various companies—SpaceX, Tesla, The Boring Company (his tunnel and underground infrastructure company), Chia (the energy-efficient blockchain and smart transaction platform), NovoFarm (an indoor, precision agriculture company), Neuralink (the implantable brain-machine interface company), and Programmable Matter (maker of materials that can shape-shift to respond to the environment or user input).11,12,13 Feasibility studies and infrastructure pathfinders had been completed, so a crucial aspect was location: future Mars colonies would need to be built underground. Mars lacks a magnetic field and radiation levels on the surface are dangerously high. The surface is cold. Building underground would provide radiation shielding and thermal insulation.14,15,16

Tunnels would be made by The Boring Company. Its automated Prufrock V machines could “porpoise,” meaning they could be launched from the surface, tunnel underground at a rate of almost one mile a day, and then surface after completion. Tesla produced stainless steel cylinders that fit neatly into these tunnels. They were like shipping containers, except that they were shaped like canisters of Pringles chips and had electric drive systems so they could move slowly under their own power. The interior of the canisters could be customized to house virtually anything, such as private quarters, hydroponic farms, or surgical facilities. They could operate independently for a short period, but they would typically be linked together to form more complex systems, the most straightforward configuration being a chain, like a subway train. Tesla also built solar and battery systems, while SpaceX handled transportation and communications with its Starlink satellites. The companies had installed systems on the moon under its contract with NASA. Colonies would have plenty of electricity and bandwidth.

Colony Prize teams were allowed to use this research to support their designs. Digital plans, models, and specifications were available online, and empty canisters were available for purchase from Tesla for $250,000 each. The big challenge for teams would be putting together, populating, and operating complete systems.

Musk made it clear, in his instructions to those vying for the Colony Prize, that ambition would be rewarded:

The goal is to create habitable places not just to live but live well. Build the colony where you and your family can thrive, with the right kind of people, and consider how it might continue to grow to become fully self-sustaining.

Colonists were required to self-fund their plans, including paying the salaries of those developing the colony and salaries for the colonists themselves. The $1 billion prize for successful colonies would be used to reimburse investors, pay out bonuses, and possibly fund further expansion. Musk believed that this model would incentivize and promote cooperation among various colonies, which would create a flywheel for innovation and accelerate a space-based economy, plus provide real-world experience on governance and operations.

The sheer magnitude of the prize—along with the weather on the surface [of Earth], which had become extremely unpleasant—catalyzed an enormous global investment in closed living system R&D. The only example that came close was by then fifty years old: the Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona, which completed construction in 1991.17 Originally intended to demonstrate the viability of closed ecological systems, Biosphere 2 was ultimately plagued with problems. Too little food, poor oxygen circulation, and a power struggle over the project’s management and administration doomed the experiment. No one since had tried to integrate the tremendous progress that had happened since then in vertical farming, manufacturing, sensor systems, and biotech into another closed system.

While there were tens of thousands of applications, only 180 proposals passed the initial rounds of filtering. They came from North America, Western Europe, United Korea, China, and India in what became known as colony-forming units, or CFUs. Getting started required that CFUs produce detailed plans and models for water regeneration, biofoundries, medical treatment, oxygen generation, and carbon capture. Doing so required real ingenuity and extensive computer-aided modeling. Ultimately, seventy-two CFUs had built skilled teams and secured land for their colony and surface operations. All of them had secured enough funding—ranging from government grants to investment from private companies to checks written by wealthy donors—to begin building.

Tesla began shipping thousands of canisters and power systems to colonies, which included such varied locales as Bloomington, Indiana, and Humboldt, Iowa; Dalmeny, Saskatchewan, and Edmonton, Alberta (Canada); Hwaseong (United Korea); Beizhen and Dadongzhen (China); Harda (India); Rumuruti (Kenya); and Knutsho (Norway). Along with partners, teams began customizing canisters and linking them together to form what, from a distance, could be mistaken for high-tech hamster enclosures, setting them up on the surface first and testing them extensively in preparation for moving underground.

While the prize rules did not limit the number of awards, it did set strict performance milestones. To meet milestones, colonies had to engineer microbes, including bacteria, that enabled crops to fertilize themselves. Sustainable indoor farms, which included climate-controlled environments, cloud-based AI systems, agricultural sensors, and collaborative robotics, were required to prove they could maintain safe levels of nutrition, carbon dioxide, oxygen, and hydration. Teams also had to design, build, test, and deploy DIY vaccines and therapies to manage any novel pathogen that might arise in the enclosed environment. Auxiliary products intended for everyday use—such as intelligent packaging made of polymers that effectively self-destruct or “unzip” when exposed to light, heat, or acid—were necessary to meet stringent waste management criteria.

At first, the teams struggled to meet their milestones. Creating a sustainable canister for one family to survive for a few years was hard enough. Scaling it to an entire community, and having some semblance of normal life deep underground was a far more complicated endeavor. Colony teams quickly realized the best strategy was cooperation, since there was no cap to the number of winners. Once they started sharing what they’d learned, the engineering of key colony systems evolved incredibly quickly. It didn’t take long for the teams to arrive at configurations that computer simulations predicted would support 100 people, then 150, then almost 200. They all also realized that it was important to build in some redundancy. Things go wrong, such as equipment failures. And sometimes things go right. Colony populations were expected to grow during the mission experiment.

By January 2043, just six years into the experiment, the first colony, Endeavor Sub Terra, announced that it was ready to seal the doors and start the mission clock. Endeavor Sub Terra’s community (ESTers, as they became known) was situated just east of the Arizona State University campus, beyond the Maricopa First Nations Community. (Ironically enough, Biosphere 2 had stood nearby the Arizona State campus, too.) It was sponsored in part by the university and the state government, which provided land and generous tax incentives. ESTers were carefully selected from the large community that had formed to build the Arizona colony. Many were families with kids, though there were young couples and people in various other relationship configurations. They’d all been living and working in the canisters for some time already. Going on the clock just meant not going outside for more than 730 days.

Its canisters were moved underground; the tunnel was sealed and filled with gases that closely matched the Martian atmosphere composition. Power and communication systems simulated the expected kilowatts and also transmission delays, which ranged from three minutes to as long as twenty-two minutes, depending on the relative positions of the planets.

ESTers were the first colonists to seal themselves off from the surface, but because of the extensive information and infrastructure sharing, most of the others were close behind. By the spring of 2044, all seventy-two colonist teams had moved underground.

CFUs devised and used different economic and governance systems. Some paid colonists as full-time employees, who earned salaries for the time they spent working on the prize and living in the community. Like the International Space Station, there was nothing to buy or sell. Salaries earned were deposited into colonists’ bank accounts for their use back on the surface. Other colonies developed universal basic income (UBI) models, where all inhabitants received a set of credits to start with in the form of community digital tokens. Gradually, community members would use these tokens as currency— to pay for goods and services while they lived in the colony.18

There were detractors. Some people referred to the colonies as “ant farms,” “hamster cages,” and “self-filling prisons.” But the colonists shrugged off the barbs. They believed their canisters and tunnels were great places to live, work, and raise a family. The environment was free from pathogens. Extreme surface weather events weren’t even noticed underground. Tunnels proved safe during the firenados that were ravaging large swaths of North America and Western Europe in the summer of 2044.

The colonies excelled at bioengineering. Their life science canisters were equipped with the best biofabs, including sequencers and synthesizers. Those in charge of developing organisms needed for vertical farms and recycling systems invented novel approaches, and they adapted and evolved their local, natural ecosystems as time passed. They also designed special surveillance systems to detect any contaminations or mutations.

The underground colonies provided refuge from perilous surface storms, but the experiment didn’t change basic human nature. Before sealing, psychographic data were collected on all community members to ensure they could withstand living in an enclosure with just 99 other people, but no one accurately predicted the ideal community composition. Neurodiverse candidates were allowed, though people with panic disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or who were prone to depression, were strongly discouraged. Those who had anger management issues, or who displayed signs of narcissistic personality disorder, were typically excluded. Still, some community leaders bent the rules, or outright broke them. Wealthy donors expected access and privileges in return for their investment, which often meant jumping the line in front of more qualified or suitable candidates. Some donors even bought their teenagers a colony stint, hoping it would land their kids at more prestigious colleges later. Others thought it would be the ultimate status vacation, or a way to boost traffic to their virtual media channels, and insisted they make the list.

There were also failures. In some colonies, vicious politicking, infighting, and scandal plagued inhabitants the minute the doors closed. In Visionary Valley, for example, the funders were determined to manage the community as they would a business. Within two months, the colony imploded. The funders had insisted that only they should know the lock codes to key resources, such as food and water stores. They also built a colony-wide surveillance system that could be viewed using only their own biometric authentication. This wasn’t known to colony members in advance, who realized, once they were all underground, that a hierarchical system was in place that mirrored the power and wealth imbalance they’d endured on the surface.

The colonists attempted a coup, but they were effectively living in a panopticon, and there was no way for them to take over. Disgusted and enraged, they broke the seal on Visionary Valley and vowed never to return.

In every community, some colonists struggled with social isolation, the abrupt change of lifestyle, and restricted movement. Several felt a sense of persistent unease, which led to difficulty concentrating and sleeping. For others, depression and anxiety were more acute. Those colonists became easily frightened and developed paranoia. Some had violent outbursts or became detached from family members and friends. Colonists gave that condition a name—traumatic below- surface syndrome, or TBSS—and there was no easy way to treat it.

The most successful colonies were those that acknowledged humanity’s basic physiological and safety needs. People wanted to feel a sense of purpose and belonging, and there were plenty of jobs to do within each community. A few UBI programs were successful, but most digital token systems weren’t perfect. Colonists blew through their initial allotment fast, and there was no bank to lend them additional credits. They had to borrow from neighbors, which caused friction, as it always has. In one colony, a sudden surge in demand for strawberries led to inflation, temporarily causing the prices of all produce to spike.

Flat power structures rarely work; some people will always want to lead, and others never do. Many colonies developed a modified social democratic system of government favoring consensus. Colony administrators rotated through positions, which wasn’t always perfect, but incentivized administrators against leaving a mess for their successors. Several colonies experimented with letting AI systems run everything.

Endeavor Sub Terra, the first to go on the clock, was also the first to win the $1 billion award in early 2045. Musk and the Colony Prize would eventually award fifty-five of the seventy-two teams. He considered it to be the best return on investment he’d ever made. Humanity had built the technical and social foundation for becoming a multiplanetary, spacefaring species—one that could scale indefinitely when given access to energy and raw materials. In addition to producing net surpluses of food, water, and other necessities, many colonies had reached economic escape velocity: the research, systems, and products they created were earning them a lot of money on the surface. If they wanted to, they could reinvest and keep growing. Which is why many ESTers decided to remain underground even after the mission ended.

They had developed an airlock and decontamination system that would enable colonists to pop back up to the surface on occasion to visit old friends or to enjoy one of the few days of good weather. They agreed to wearing or ingesting sensors, colony-wide testing, and quarantines to ensure that no one brought a virus or other pathogen back into public areas in the enclosure. They purchased their own tunneling machines and additional canisters to accommodate another two thousand people—but they already had a third growth plan underway for millions of colonists, with new underground neighborhoods, geothermal generators, massive bioreactors, and even an underground ocean. It may not have been his intention, but Musk’s Colony Prize had seeded the largest investment in sustainable communities that humanity had ever seen.

Around the world, surface ecosystems were rewilding as struggling farms and towns were abandoned for the underground. Buildings, roads, and homes were left to degrade naturally, eroded by sunlight, water, and vegetation. Nature and natural systems were bouncing back faster than anyone predicted, which required a new generation of naturalists and ecologists to study Earth’s dramatic new ecosystem shifts. For the first time in over a century, the CO2 levels in the atmosphere began to drop.

ESTers could see a future of flexible living: a way for people to live well on spaceship Earth or, if desired, off-planet. A personal module could be shipped to Mars and connected to a colony.

Sometimes ESTers would visit the surface at night. Lying on the ground, and without any light pollution, they would marvel at the canopy of stars above them. The stars seemed to whisper as they twinkled: Come, humans, explore!

Mars, and other planets, were waiting.

Excerpted from THE GENESIS MACHINE: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology by Amy Webb and Andrew Hessel. Copyright © 2022. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Footnotes:

1. Mike Wall, “Elon Musk, X Prize Launch $100 Million Carbon-Removal Competition,” Space.com, April 23, 2021, www.space.com/elon-musk-carbon-removal-x-prize.

2. Eric Berger, “Inside Elon Musk’s Plan to Build One Starship a Week—and Settle Mars,” Ars Technica, March 5, 2020, https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/03/inside-elon-musks-plan-to-build-one-starship-a-week-and-settle-mars.

3. Morgan McFall-Johnsen and Dave Mosher, “Elon Musk Says He Plans to Send 1 Million People to Mars by 2050 by Launching 3 Starship Rockets Every Day and Creating ‘a Lot of Jobs’ on the Red Planet,” Business Insider, January 17, 2020, www.businessinsider.com/elon-musk-plans-1-million-people-to-mars-by-2050 -2020-1.

4. Mike Wall, “Elon Musk, X Prize Launch $100 Million Carbon-Removal Competition,” Space.com, April 23, 2021, www.space.com/elon-musk-carbon-removal-x-prize; Eric Berger, “Inside Elon Musk’s Plan to Build One Starship a Week—and Settle Mars,” Ars Technica, March 5, 2020, https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/03/inside-elon-musks-plan-to-build-one-starship-a-week-and-settle-mars; Morgan McFall-Johnsen and Dave Mosher, “Elon Musk Says He Plans to Send 1 Million People to Mars by 2050 by Launching 3 Starship Rockets Every Day and Creating ‘a Lot of Jobs’ on the Red Planet,” Business Insider, January 17, 2020, www.businessinsider.com/elon-musk-plans-1-million-people-to-mars-by-2050-2020-1.

5. “Astronauts Answer Student Questions,” NASA, www.nasa.gov/centers/johnson/pdf/569954main_astronaut%20_FAQ.pdf.

6. Eric Berger, “Meet the Real Ironman of Spaceflight: Valery Polyakov,” Ars Technica, March 7, 2016, Valeri Polyakov held the record for a single mission, spending an impressive 437 days on the Mir station in the 1990s.

7. “Longest Submarine Patrol,” Guinness Book of World Records, www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/submarine-patrol-longest.

8. Jackie Wattles, “Colonizing Mars Could Be Dangerous and Ridiculously Expensive. Elon Musk Wants to Do It Anyway,” CNN, September 8, 2020, www.cnn.com/2020/09/08/tech/spacex-mars-profit-scn/index.html; Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, “Elon Musk’s First Name Shows Up in 1953 Book About Colonizing Mars,” CNET, May 7, 2021, www.cnet.com/news/elon-musks-first-name-shows-up-in-1953-book-about-colonizing-mars.

9. Ali Bekhtaoui, “Egos Clash in Bezos and Musk Space Race,” Phys.org, May 2, 2021, https://phys.org/news/2021-05-egos-clash-bezos-musk-space.html.

10. Sean O’Kane, “The Boring Company Tests Its ‘Teslas in Tunnels’ System in Las Vegas,” The Verge, May 26, 2021, www.theverge.com/2021/5/26/22455365/elon-musk-boring-company-las-vegas-test-lvcc-loop-teslas; Kathryn Hardison,“What Will Become of All This?,” American City Business Journals, May 28, 2021, www.bizjournals.com/houston/news/2021/05/28/tesla-2500-acres-travis-county-plans.html; Philip Ball, “Make Your Own World with Programmable Matter,” IEEE Spectrum, May 27, 2014, https://spectrum.ieee.org/robotics/robotics-hardware/make-your-own-world-with-programmable-matter.

11. Neuralink website: https://neuralink.com.

12. Chia website: https://www.chia.net.

13. NOVOFARM website: https://www.f6s.com/novofarm.

14. Sean O’Kane, “The Boring Company Tests Its ‘Teslas in Tunnels’ System in Las Vegas,” The Verge, May 26, 2021, www.theverge.com/2021/5/26/22455365/elon-musk-boring-company-las-vegas-test-lvcc-loop-teslas.

15. Kathryn Hardison, “What Will Become of All This?,” American City Business Journals, May 28, 2021, www.bizjournals.com/houston/news/2021/05/28/tesla-2500-acres-travis-county-plans.html.

16. Philip Ball, “Make Your Own World with Programmable Matter,” IEEE Spectrum, May 27, 2014, https://spectrum.ieee.org/robotics/robotics-hardware/make-your-own-world-with-programmable-matter.

17. “What Is Biosphere 2,” Biosphere 2, University of Arizona, https://biosphere2.org/visit/what-is-biosphere-2. [Ed. note: If that link doesn’t work, go to https://biosphere2.org/about/about-biosphere-2.]

18. Our thinking about the EST economy and governing structure was loosely informed by Norway and Sweden. Interview with Dr. Christian Guilette, Scandinavian Faculty at University of California, Berkeley, April 23, 2021. 

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4 Replies to “The Surprising Path to Life on Mars: First, Go Underground?”

  1. It’s possible I don’t get the full picture, but here’s my feeling: Earth, even at its worse, is still a paradise compared to Mars. We have a Co2 problem on Earth? 96% of Mars’s atmosphere is co2, 0.1% oxygen. Let’s say tomorrow we found one tiny average orchid on Mars tomorrow, it’d blow up on the news, we’d get so excited. How many do we have HERE? And dolphins, kittens, islands, so much greatness. I used to dream of designing the onboarding experience for life on Mars. I was a huge fan of this story (the best story will win). But then, I realized that it isn’t even an exciting plan B or Z. The landscape, atmosphere, temperatures, ALL of it is so hostile. It’s sad. It’s like giving up on Earth, our Mother, a little sick bc of us, yet looking away. If all the money invested in outer space was put into addressign Earth’s issues, we wouldn’t need to escape. Average temp on Mars is -81 degrees. No thanks. I prefer 81. Living underground isn’t a solution either when we live in bodies designed to dance with the sun and the moon. We were given a perfect ecosystem to fulfill our soul’s design. Let’s take full responsibility and realize Heaven is here, within, not in this alluring sci-fi movie fulfilling some conqueror’s fantasy. I think this whole space quest is the ultimate expression of mankind’s search outside of themselves, only to realize the portal to infinity was within, right through the pineal gland. Surprise.

    1. You’re right on a lot of points, but missing the main point of Mars colonisation. It’s about backing up the hard drive, providing humanity a back up plan in the case of a extinction level event on Earth.

      Should we be wiped out by a range of possible events, a colony on Mars ensures there’s humans to continue the species.

      1. Agreed! Having a viable colony on Mars that could potentially repopulate EARTH is simply sticking a few eggs in a few other baskets.I don’t think that an eventual terraforming of Mars is really feasible at this point, given the irradiated surface and widespread prevalence of toxic perchlorates- Europa looks a bit more feasible. Regardless, we should have a few nesteggs out there in case an asteroid or massive solar flare rearranges who’s the top predator on our planet!