Book review: “A City on Mars”

Why on Earth should we build a city on Mars? Well, if the Earth as we know it is finished, we might need to one day. Also, if it becomes technically possible to do it, then why not?

“The world doesn’t tremble before us.” So concludes “A City on Mars: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through.” This cleverly written book by Zack and Kelly Weinersmith is infused with humor and presents a somewhat apologetic tone toward enthusiasts of space settlement.

Zack and Kelly, who repeatedly call themselves space geeks, practically shatter the dream of living on Mars. And they do it with such a graceful and thorough deconstruction of the various myths surrounding it that I’m convinced there won’t be a Mars settlement within my, or even my daughter’s, lifetime.

Space is a terrible place to visit, let alone inhabit. The Weinersmiths will detail it all – from decreasing bone mass and deteriorating sight to the absence of Earth's not-so-guilty pleasures, such as sex and regular potato chips.

Yet, establishing a camp on Mars entails resolving far more issues than just homesickness or the effects of a low gravity environment that's only a third of Earth's. Here’s a couple I found really mind-boggling:

  • If, against all odds, humanity were to settle on Mars, how can we ensure our survival won't be at risk? The authors of the book discuss the concept of a 'minimal viable population.' Merely relying on just Adam and Eve wouldn't suffice to ensure the species' survival. How many people would we need to establish a sustainable settlement in space? The answer remains unclear because, as the authors point out, having 'too few' has not been a problem for humans in quite some time."
  • With strides in technology, one potential avenue could involve entrusting artificial intelligence with mating selections to maintain genetic diversity, but that’s a thought unlikely to be popular with the masses.
  • Conceiving in space, let alone raising a child in such an inhospitable environment, seems akin to rocket science. The Weinersmiths delve into this topic extensively in a dedicated chapter on space sex. Spoiler alert – it appears to be all shades of gray, minus the pleasure.
  • At present, envisioning a space settlement without regular contact and trade with Earth for essential supplies seems challenging. Should Earth become uninhabitable, a space city would have to rely entirely on itself – from sustenance to medical care, construction to recycling. This city would need to achieve autarky, akin to the closest Earth-based examples like North Korea and Cuba. However, even Cuba relies on imported advanced industrial products, and North Korea remains distinct in its own right. Autarky, as the authors of the book point out, is the last nail in the coffin when it comes to space settlement.
  • Imagine residing in 'Muskow,' a city on Mars crafted solely by Elon Musk. Even for his admirers, residing in a corporate city distant from Earth implies a significant reliance on your employer. Your boss wouldn't just be your supervisor but would likely own everything – from your apartment to local amenities, assuming they exist. Quitting your job could mean losing everything. The book delves into numerous examples of corporate cities on Earth, and truth be told, none of them resembled the wonderlands most would desire to inhabit.

I won’t reveal any more details – the book delves into numerous practical queries about space settlement, and it's worth picking up a copy. The Weinersmiths skillfully engage readers in the most technical and unconventional challenges we face before venturing into space. Their work is not only thoroughly researched but also presented with clever humor, complemented by cheeky illustrations that simplify complex concepts.

The Weinersmiths, initially avid 'space geeks,' turned skeptical about many ambitious space plans after extensive data exploration. They advocate for the 'wait and go big' strategy, emphasizing the need to address multiple challenges before establishing a civilization in space.

However, upon exploring the vast array of issues and immense resources necessary for space settlement, a question lingers – wouldn’t it be more prudent to allocate those resources toward making sure that the civilization we already have doesn’t crumble?