How To Live On Mars

How to Live on Mars

A Brief Review of Robert Zubrin’s How To Live On Mars: A Trusty Guidebook to Surviving and Thriving on the Red Planet

It isn’t over-the-top wild and whacky like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Douglas Adam’s array of hilarious sequels, but Robert Zubrin’s How to Live on Mars is funny, easy and quick to read, and as well grounded in the science as it is possible for a book written not less than six decades prior to its fictional publication – and well before the exploration and settlement of Mars – can be.

How to Live on Mars: A Trusty Guidebook to Surviving and Thriving on the Red Planet offers assertedly practical tips on “how to get to Mars”; “how to choose a spacesuit”; “how to choose your homestead”; “how to save money on radiation protection”; “how to stay alive in the desert”; “how to profit from the Terraforming Program”; and much else besides, interlaced with wry aspersions cast at NASA, the Mars Authority, Earth and Earthlings, and interspersed with political and social commentary from the acquisitive, anti-authority interplanetary pioneer narrator/author.

One short excerpt should suffice to give you some of the flavor of the book, “Surviving Without Oxygen”:

“We now come to what many new arrivals regard as the most fearsome scenario of all. What happens if you are caught stranded out on the planitia without oxygen? No doubt Earthlings view this predicament as particularly terrifying because it never happens on their home planet. However, while such feelings may be understandable, they are basically irrational, since oxygen is actually quite plentiful on Mars. You just need to know where to find it.

“The most obvious place to get oxygen on Mars is from the atmosphere, which is 95 percent carbon dioxide. To get the oxygen out of the CO2, all you need to do is react some hydrogen with it over a copper-on-alumina catalyst in a reverse-water-gas-shift (RWGS) reactor. This will yield water and carbon monoxide. The aqua you electrolyze to make your oxygen, as well as hydrogen, which you recycle back into your RWGS reactor to continue the process; while you just toss the CO back into the air as waste. (You can do that on Mars – we have no Environmental Prosecution Agency here.) Alternatively, if you find water, you can just electrolyze it to produce your oxygen directly.

“These techniques are obvious and quite simple, but they do involve a problem in that, to produce the 1kg/day of oxygen you need to live, the electrolyzer used by either the above approaches will require an average round-the-clock power level of 180 watts. Unless you have a radioisotope generator with you, this in turn means that you would need a solar array capable of producing about 500 watts during prime daylight.

“Well, if you are really scared of oxygen deprivation, you can go buy yourself a 10-square-meter photovoltaic panel set and make your own breathing gas that way – which after all, is the same method by which it is done in the life-support system of your hab; or on an industrial scale at the central oxygen-generation plant at New Plymouth. But why waste good money on such a fancy (and heavy) approach when there is a much cheaper way to make do when you are out in the field? Really folks, safety is fine as far as it goes, but what’s the point of keeping yourself alive if you have to spend so much to do so that you have nothing left over to use to have a good time?

“So forget about making emergency oxygen by the book from the air or permafrost. There’s an easier way that works just fine, and that is to use the regolith itself. Virgin Martian dirt is loaded with peroxides, and these can be made to break down and emit oxygen just by wetting them with water. This surprising fact was discovered by NASA’s Viking lander probe way back in 1976. Viking was sent to Mars to look for life. One of its experiments involved wetting Mars dirt with water, to see what might grow. But the scientists got quite a shock when, instead of promoting a slow growth of native plants, the soil itself responded to its irrigation by immediately releasing a flood of oxygen gas into the test chamber.

“Well, 1976 may be ancient history, but the trick still works. If you wet unprocessed Martian soil, you will get oxygen. So, instead of a RWGS unit with a 10-square-meter solar array, what you need is a large plastic bag, a shovel, and a small roughing pump. To get oxygen, just shovel some dirt into your bag, and then wet it, using water obtained by the methods I explained to you earlier [“Marooned Without Water”]. In fact, highly saline water obtained simply by melting permafrost is also fine for this purpose. When the oxygen starts fizzling out, just turn on the pump to bring the gas up to your suit pressure, and inject directly into your helmet’s auxiliary feed line. The stuff tends to smell a bit like fired gunpowder, but it’s quite breathable. If the smell does bother you, you can deal with it by inserting a small activated-carbon filter into the gas feed line. When the fizzling stops, just dump the bag, reload with soil, wet with water, and continue. There’s nothing to it.”

How to Live on Mars will never be an immortal classic — not even in the “science fiction” genre — but it is both interesting and fun. If you’re at all inclined to the general subject matter, I think you’ll enjoy it immensely.

For a wealth of additional information on this topic, see The Mars Society website, hub for the organization (Robert Zubrin is its president) which seeks “to further the goal of the exploration and settlement of the Red Planet . . . by broad public outreach to instill the vision of pioneering Mars . . . support of ever more aggressive government funded Mars exploration programs around the world . . . [and] conducting Mars exploration on a private basis.” You’ll find the Mars Society’s Founding Declaration here, and also in the final chapter of How to Live on Mars. For an abbreviated Case for Colonizing Mars by Zubrin, see the article previously printed in Ad Astra July/August 1996. For a more extensive brief, see Zubrin’s book The Case for Mars.

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Published in: on May 27, 2009 at 5:41 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. what do you need to surive on mars? Inputs? Outputs?

    • Check out the Mars Society website for some of the answers to your question. You might also want to see a ten-year old article from Time magazine by Jeffrey Kluger addressing the question Will We Live On Mars?, and touching upon some of the issues. And here’s a very brief item from the Norwegian Space Center which asks Can We Live On Mars?


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