What It Will Take To Colonize Mars

Danielle Beurteaux

When SpaceX launched its Dragon capsule, it was full of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS). And one piece of cargo was the BEAM, an experimental habitat that’s being tested as a living space… in space.

The BEAM – or the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module – is the brainchild of Robert Bigelow, who made his fortune from budget hotels and real estate, but has had a long fascination with space. His company, Bigelow Aerospace, produced the BEAM, which will be attached to the ISS for two years. The module was basically flat-packed during shipping (IKEA in space?) and will be slowly inflated to minimize the stress to the ISS. The module features the latest in space décor, including a web of netting for astronauts – and maybe future BEAM-residents – to grab onto as they float around the pod.

Creating a livable environment in space is one of the biggest challenges to spending meaningful time on Mars (a more likely environment than the moon). What will our future Mars homes look like?

NASA is even looking for help. The agency recently sent out a call for proposals for “the development of prototypes for deep space habitats that will give astronauts a place to call home,” called Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships-2 (NextSTEP-2). You’ll have to be part of an eligible entity, and the deadline is June 15, so start the brainstorming sesh now.

And this isn’t the first time NASA has looked for outside inspiration for space ideas. The agency’s 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge sought ideas that used 3-D printing technology to create habitats on Mars. There were 165 submissions and 30 finalists, including famed architect firm foster + partners. The winner is called “Ice House.” It was the submission of Team Space Exploration Architecture and Clouds Architecture Office and took inspiration from Mars’ water and ice deposits. Like the BEAM, it’s designed to inflate once it’s been settled into place.

But we won’t be ready to rent a space home until we’ve figured out a few health issues.

American astronaut Mike Kelly spent a record 340 days on the ISS. He has a twin brother who also works for NASA, but remained grounded, so the two were great test subjects. Mike Kelly took a range of medical tests that will try to ascertain any long-term health effects of living in space. For example, he grew two inches taller during his space habitation – but very quickly reverted to his pre-space height once he returned to terra firma. But there are more serious side effects of space time, including insomnia, radiation exposure, and atrophying muscles.

If mice are any indication, liver damage is another possible side effect of space travel. A group of mice spent two weeks on a space shuttle, and their livers showed signs of cell activity that could mean progressive liver damage.

The human immune system doesn’t do so well in space, either. A recent study by NASA, which examined the immune systems of 23 astronauts who had spent six months on the ISS, showed that their systems were weakened.

Turns out we might figure out how to grow vegetables in space before we can spend significant time there ourselves.

Artificial intelligence will play a big role when we colonize other planets, but they’re already moving into our workspace. See how robots are becoming collaborators and extensions of human abilities in our research report Bring Your Robot to Work.

Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.