In 2020, the promise of escaping Earth has never been more tantalizing. Our planet is facing a climate emergency
as the world burns; entire countries have been put into lockdown over ; nuclear weapons treaties are unraveling, bringing us closer to the threat of nuclear war
… and if that’s not enough to make you want to get the hell out of Dodge, there’s another US election this year. Save us.
Though the scientists and technological innovators of the world are working on solutions to save us from the apocalypse
, the only viable answer might be to ditch this planet and make our way to a new one.
The world’s billionaires are already working on an exit strategy. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is planning to, but others are more ambitious. Jeff Bezos wants us to live in . SpaceX intends to put its in 2023, and CEO Elon Musk already has big plans for settling humans on Mars and And NASA, the space race pioneer that first put us on the moon? The agency is forging ahead into the next era of space travel — its Artemis program is already well on its way to , before heading on to Mars itself.
But regardless of whether a government space agency or a private company makes it to Mars first, what will life be like when we get there?
How will we grow food, survive cosmic radiation and deal with the crippling loneliness of being so far from Earth? And most importantly, where will we actually live on our new home planet?
One company has created a habitat that may well be the solution to surviving and thriving on Mars: a 3D-printed, egg-shaped home called Marsha.
Hacking the Apocalypse is CNET’s new documentary series digging into the science and technology that could save us from the end of the world. You can check out our episodes on Pandemic, Nuclear Winter, Global Drought, Tsunamis, Cryonics and Escaping the Planet and see the full series on YouTube.
Life on Mars
Building a house on Mars is no simple task. But the team at New York-based architecture firm AI SpaceFactory took on the challenge, set by NASA, to create a 3D-printed habitat that could withstand the challenges of Martian life and the limitations of building in space. After countless refinements and redesigns, AI SpaceFactory spent 30 hours 3D printing its one-third scale version of Marsha, and eventually captured the top prize in NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge in 2019.
Though the robot required to print Marsha is made on Earth (and will need to be shipped to Mars), the habitat itself is designed to be made from materials that would be available on the Martian surface. AI SpaceFactory created a material using crushed-up basalt, which could be extracted from the rocks found on Mars, mixed with a bioplastic made from plants that could be grown on the red planet. The result is a super-strong, 3D-printable material the company says can shield people from both radiation and extreme temperatures, all while saving on interplanetary cargo costs.
Sourcing from Mars itself makes economic sense; every pound of material launched into space carries with it a massive price tag. But according to AI SpaceFactory, using Martian materials is also the only viable solution for such a remote location. When you need to fix a wall on Mars, you can’t exactly dash off to a hardware store to get more bricks.
In AI SpaceFactory’s offices in New York City, where blueprints line the walls and dozens of 3D-printed models of Mars habitats are dotted across the tables, the company’s founder and CEO, David Malott, explains the challenges that come with building outposts for civilization further out into the solar system.
“Mars is a very different challenge from the moon,” says Malott. “If something goes wrong on the moon, it would just take a few days to go out there, bring people back. If the house has a leak in it, you can send the replacements.
“But Mars is nine months away. And if you’ve seen the movie The Martian, if there’s a disaster, there’s very little you can do in terms of getting someone to come back. So you need to build something which is much more robust… shock proof, able to withstand the elements, much more durable.”
According to Malott, that means avoiding the kind of inflatable, “deployable” structures that you see in sci-fi movies, in favor of something 3D-printed from rock.
AI SpaceFactory didn’t just turn to the organic world for materials. The company also took cues from nature for the shape and structure of the habitat, too.
Though the design team initially looked at domelike structures (similar to those we’ve seen for years in science fiction films), after months of brainstorming, it settled on the “most structurally efficient form”: an egg.
“It’s important to be structurally efficient as a shape, because that means you can use less material,” says Malott. “If you think about an eggshell on Earth, it is the way it is… because that’s a very efficient shape. The eggshell can be very, very thin, and still it has the right amount of strength.”
Malott and his team also needed to think about the kinds of forces the structures would face on Mars. Malott started his career designing skyscrapers, where wind is one of the biggest factors in design. Tall buildings on Earth need to be able to withstand the kind of wind forces that constantly threaten to push them over.
On Mars, wind is a far less pressing issue because the atmosphere is incredibly thin — roughly 2 percent of Earth’s atmosphere. Instead, the main challenge is balancing the atmospheric pressure inside a habitat (which needs to be Earth-like, for us humans) with the thin atmosphere outside.
Malott picks up a model of Marsha, which is about the size of a football, to explain.
“If you can imagine there’s a little bubble of Earth on the inside of this, and then the Martian atmosphere on the outside, which is very thin. So this,” he says, pointing to the inside of the model habitat, “wants to expand outwards, like a balloon. So the shape of this envelope needs to contain that difference in atmospheric pressure.”
The result of these interplanetary limitations was a double-shelled design that gives the humans inside room to breathe, while protecting them from exploding out of their Martian balloon. That double-walled structure also means better heat insulation and, thanks to a skylight at the top, light can stream down between the two shells and diffuse through the entire habitat, making a much more pleasant space to live.
This 3D-printed Mars habitat could be your new home in space
AI SpaceFactory had to prove to NASA that it could engineer a structure capable of withstanding the extremes of Mars, but the team was also determined to create a space that was centered on the needs of its human inhabitants.
There’s no doubt Marsha is designed with the practical needs of early astronauts in mind. The ground floor features a work space and wet lab where inhabitants can conduct experiments (think of it kind of like a mud room, that lets you move between Earth-like and Martian atmospheres). There’s also space to prepare for EVAs, or extra-vehicular activity — essentially anything that’ll take them out onto Mars itself.
Above that, the second floor houses a kitchen and dry lab. The third floor starts to give over to the personal needs of the inhabitants, with a garden, sanitation pod (even on Mars, you still need a bathroom!) and personal sleeping pods. And on the top floor, under the bright skylight, a combined recreation-exercise space provides room to wind down. A winding staircase follows the curve of the egg, connecting each of these levels.
Curves in each level echo the rounded, outer shell of Marsha, giving the living spaces an organic air that feels different from the angular, utilitarian lines of other space habitats, like the International Space Station.
But this is still a design. AI SpaceFactory has done a test print of Marsha on Earth, but it’s going to be a long time before we see one of these 3D-printed habitats on the surface of Mars.
AI SpaceFactory does have plans to build a fully functional habitat much sooner than that. Its Tera habitat takes a lot of the same design cues from Marsha, with a futuristic egg shape and a 3D-printed shell.
Like Marsha, it’s designed to be printed from sustainable materials found on-planet: a basalt and biopolymer composite made from crops like corn or sugarcane. AI SpaceFactory says this material is 50% stronger than concrete, but also compostable. The goal with Tera is to show that sustainable building practices can be used to make construction more environmentally friendly here on Earth, without relying on materials that can’t be recycled.
AI SpaceFactory launched an Indiegogo campaign in 2019, letting members of the public book a night to stay in the Tera being printed in upstate New York. The company has also begun a multiyear pilot program to build more Tera habitats, which includes finding land around the world for habitat builds. The company says it’ll select land based on the “diversity and rarity of the plot” and relevance to space use-cases, including remote locations, difficult terrains and extreme climates.
For now Tera might be the closest thing us earthlings get to experiencing life on Mars. But even though this generation may never live to see humanity becoming a truly interplanetary species, Malott is still excited by the prospect of our civilization beginning a new era on another planet.
“Living on Mars is for the adventurous,” says Malott. “And I think there’s a certain romance of going to a place that no one has gone before… It’d be otherworldly yet still familiar, like some places on Earth. I think it’d be very romantic, actually.”