How much would terraforming Mars cost

We will never leave the earth. Conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson

By Mikael Krogerus


The future of mobility goes far beyond planet earth. Organizations such as the Dutch foundation Mars One are already outdoing each other with appointments for the first settlements on Mars. Science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson talks about the sense and nonsense of these plans and explains why thinking about colonizing Mars is enough for the earth to benefit.

30 years ago you wrote the globally popular “Mars Trilogy”, a science fiction series about the colonization of Mars. What would you say today: Is the journey to Mars already science or still fiction?

That depends on what time horizon we are talking about. In theory it is conceivable that we will send a manned spacecraft to Mars in the next 100 years, but in practice it is impossible. In the first place it fails because of the costs: A settlement on Mars would cost around 500 billion dollars. The next hurdle is getting there. It is currently estimated at nine months. Nine months without gravity wreak havoc on our bodies. Muscles and skeleton break down due to the lack of stress.

Anyone who climbs into the spaceship at the age of 40 will end up on Mars nine months later as a physical old man?

This process could be counteracted with intensive training, as is already practiced today by astronauts who sit on an ergometer for four hours a day. But we now know that there are also chemical processes that damage our heart. So the solution would be the old SciFi idea of ​​an artificial gravity created by rotation, but we're not there yet.

Just assuming you come to Mars in good health, what can we expect there?

It's cold, between -30 and -120 degrees Celsius. There is no atmosphere, no gravitational pull and also no global magnetic field, only weak local magnetic fields that offer little protection from cosmic radiation. The soil is poisoned by perchlorate salt, a highly active substance that causes considerable damage to people. In short: it is a hostile place. Should people ever settle there, the Martian colonies would have to be built meters deep underground. Still, Mars is the best candidate for colonization. There is a lot of water - which is frozen, however -, there is carbon dioxide - also in frozen form - and there is sunlight. These are three important ingredients for life! What does not exist, however, as far as we know, is life itself, for example in the form of bacteria. That's where we humans come into play.

The key word is what is known as terraforming. What does the term mean?

The word comes from science fiction literature and describes the attempt to "create an earth". For Mars, this requires a highly complex industrial process: First of all, there is the matter of the toxic soil, you would have to litter the entire surface of Mars with a mixture of sand and bacteria so that the highly toxic salts are eaten and transformed. Then we would have to produce something that one would like to prevent on earth: an artificial greenhouse effect that releases the frozen CO2 and leads to global warming. This is the only way that plants can grow, which in turn produce oxygen through photosynthesis. However, we have not yet solved the problem that plants need nitrogen to live, which is hardly available on Mars. As you can see, terraforming is theoretically conceivable, but practically impossible to carry out.

Maybe we don't have to go there at all. Adam Steltzner from NASA speaks of a kind of 3-D printing in which we first expose bacteria and later, when the conditions are more life-friendly, "print" human DNA on site.

I know and appreciate Adam Steltzner, but I think the idea of ​​sending human DNA into space is a crazy proposition. On the other hand, the idea of ​​ecopoiesis is interesting. We'd colonize bacteria and then let evolution do the rest of the work. Theoretically, the plant cover could multiply until the CO2 atmosphere is largely converted into biomass. However, it will take more than 100,000 years for this to become a reality.

Let's think the thought experiment through to the end: humans can - under whatever circumstances - live in colonies on Mars, feed themselves, reproduce. These people would then be exposed to a completely different kind of evolution. Would they still be humans or already Martians?

I think Martians would be something like super Tibetans. Tibetans have undergone an astonishing evolution within a very short time, which allows them to supply the blood cells with oxygen more intensely. Life on Mars might correspond to life at an altitude of 30,000 kilometers, humans would presumably adapt evolutionarily, they would be more productive, but perhaps also more susceptible to certain diseases.

Biologically they would be human, but would they also be culturally? What would an order of values ​​look like when people are 400 million kilometers away from the earth? Would human rights apply up there?

We can only think of Mars as a mirror of the world. Mars will perhaps be colonized in 1,000 years, at a time when most of what we believe in today - capitalism or democracy, for example - will no longer work here on earth. When I describe the colonization of Mars in my books, I don't think of a distant planet, but use the idea of ​​Mars as a metaphor for another earth. How would we live How would we organize ourselves? Are there alternatives? Because this is becoming increasingly difficult to think in our world, I extrapolate the question into space: How would we organize ourselves on Mars, for example? Well, I assume that on Mars we would try to develop an alternative economic system. Because our driver here on earth is also our gravedigger: capitalism. We destroy our resources with our growth logic. So we need an economic system that allows everyone to participate and that conserves natural resources. And if you change the economic system, you would also have to change the education system. And when you change schools, you automatically change the values ​​and norms of a society. To answer your question, yes, Martians would still be human. They would have the same needs, fears and hopes - this is deeply anchored in our DNA - but they would live in a completely different culture and therefore also have different values ​​and fundamental rights.

Your answer to the current crises is not the anti-progressive de-growth propagated by many leftists, but a Marxism that believes in progress.

Right, we can't turn history back. We have to use the technological possibilities we have today to save our world. Translated one could say: We do not have to terraform a new planet, but rather found «Mars colonies» on the world. Islands that offer basic social services that are independent of crises.

Who would actually have the right to colonize Mars?

The universe belongs to nobody and everyone. The Outer Space Treaty - i.e. the treaty regulating the activities of states in the exploration and use of space, which all UN states have signed - provides that the universe and thus all celestial bodies are something common. Just as the oceans are considered to be the “common heritage of humanity”.

The fishing industry ignores such treaties and regards international waters as an unlawful area. Could something similar happen in space? In other words: do we have the right to claim Mars for ourselves just because it is supposedly uninhabited?

The space treaty is formulated very vaguely and has no law enforcement. But I don't think there will be a battle for Mars because there is one thing you must keep in mind: it has no resources of any value on Earth. It offers no economic benefit. This protects it from overexploitation.

Let's summarize: Colonization on Mars is neither easy nor profitable. And yet there are both state and private projects and we are seeing a growing public interest in the subject. Where does our fascination for this planet come from?

I think there are two very different reasons for this. First, the feasibility: What we writers only imagined 30 years ago is technologically partially possible today. Mars is still far away, but technologically it is closer. The second reason for the new enthusiasm for Mars is pure escapism: We have ruined the earth in such a way that many have the feeling that they are looking for a new chance on a new planet. I consider the first motivation to be right and right, the second a mistake in reasoning. We will never be able to leave the earth. We are a product of this earth. We have to save them. Because the crisis on earth is acute, it must be resolved in the next 100 years, but it will take 1000 years before we can colonize Mars.
So I don't understand my science fiction novels as space scenarios, but as thought experiments that could help us to create a better world here with us.

How will future generations look back on our idea of ​​colonizing Mars?

You will think of it as a pointless, naive idea. But people are rarely interested in meaningful ideas and often in the most technologically extreme possibility, and that is currently: the journey to Mars.


Kim Stanley Robinson is an American science fiction writer. He became famous for his award-winning Martian trilogy (“Red Mars” 1997, “Green Mars” 1997, “Blue Mars” 1999), which emerged from 15 years of research and Robinson's lifelong fascination with the red planet. In his book series, Robinson deals with the technical possibilities and the social consequences of a human colonization of Mars on a high scientific level and with meticulous attention to detail. Before working as a writer, Robinson was a lecturer in literature and English at various American universities. He lives in Davis, California with his wife and two sons.

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