Moonbases, not Marsbases

An interesting, knowledgeable article (with a really good comment queue), on the benefits of settling the Moon, rather than Mars.

If Elon Musk and Robert Zubrin have their way, we may get migrations of hopefuls setting off from Earth to Mars to colonize what they believe to be a “New World”. If so, what they find there will be far more like the nineteenth century Antarctica than the seventeenth century “New World”. Indeed, even the climbers who tackled Mount Everest in the twentieth century explored a far more hospitable place than Mars. You could breathe the air on the summit with only the need for an oxygen mask. It’s also bitterly cold on Mars – a night in the Martian tropics is colder than the coldest night on Everest in the middle of winter. It’s so cold that the air often starts to freeze out as dry ice at night.


Mars not only has no crops or animals, it also has no seas, streams, rivers or lakes, no rain – just ice. It looks Earth-like because it is so dry. The equatorial regions are completely dry almost everywhere too, to hundreds of meters depth. If the planet was covered in an ice sheet meters or kilometers deep, like Antarctica, it would be far more habitable than it is now.

Interesting. A Referee could have a colony settle on a world-covering ice sheet – a permanent ice sheet, or a local ice age.

It also, more fundamentally, has no air either, only 0.6% of Earth’s. The air is a the same pressure as the top of a mountain four times the height of Mount Everest. It has only trace amounts of oxygen. Even with an oxygen mask you would not survive. The moisture lining your lungs would boil making it impossible to take up any of the oxygen and leading to death quickly. You need a full body spacesuit to survive on the Mars surface. And of course any gardening has to be done inside a pressurized greenhouse or habitat holding in tons per square meter of outwards pressure.

Also as a side effect of that, any human occupied habitat  has to be built like the ISS, of tubes and spheres able to hold in the atmosphere against an outwards pressure of many tons per square meter. It also has high levels of radiation. It’s not enough to kill you, not nearly. But enough to increase the cancer risk, risk of dying young from cancer too, not late death as for cigarette smoking. It’s like living on Earth after a nuclear war, in levels of radiation.

Ah yes, our old friend radiation. A realistic Traveller campaign would have PCs dropping dead of leukemia left and right, instead of dying of pirate sword cuts…

Yeah, yeah, I know it’s a game (believe it or not!), and it has to be entertaining.

Now whether in the future we will have the technology to be self sufficient in space I don’t know. But if it ever happens, we could feed the entire Earth from 2.5% of the Sahara desert using the technology suggested for growing food on Mars or the Moon, or we could feed four times our population from 0.5% of the Pacific in floating self contained environmentally friendly sea cities. That would cost far far less than to feed the same people in space. In a floating sea city, you can leave out much of the complex technology they would need in space, if we do it on Earth instead. You don’t need to wear spacesuits to go outside your habitat to repair it, just open the windows to get air in and let toxic gases escape from your habitat, no need to hold in tons of atmosphere per square meter – hard to beat all that.

If it ever gets cost-effective to grow food on Mars, Earth is going to be stupendously valuable real estate. Even a patch of the ocean, or a few square miles of the Sahara, is far better at food generation than the Moon or Mars.

I can see major, major far future wars being fought over Earth, “the food basket of the galaxy”.

Mars is of great value potentially, right away, right now, but not as a place to colonize. It is of great interest for the search for life there. But that means also that we have to take great care not to introduce Earth microbes. Spacecraft on Mars risk crashing, it’s the hardest place to land in the inner solar system. For the reasons see my Why Spacecraft Crash on Mars. A crash of a spacecraft with humans on board on Mars would put an end to any planetary protection of the planet and potentially destroy a lot of the science interest for the search for life there.

PCs working in the Solomani Rim should be tempted to crash on Mars,”to keep up the tradition.”


I do think we are going to have outposts in space like the ones we have in Antarctica. And we may have larger populations also, tourists, explorers. Maybe eventually self sustaining habitats of thousands, even cities of millions. But it’s not like the new world where you just need transport to go to the Moon or wherever and you can make your tools there, grow crops, dig the ground etc. You would need a lot of support from Earth before there is any chance of it being self sustaining.

This could be quite important in the Traveller universe. I suspect that this was probably a major driver for the founding of the First Imperium: providing start-up capital for terraforming. The current Imperium canonically doesn’t get involved here, probably because of the need to avoid land disputes.

I think the most likely to be self sustaining are large habitats like lunar caves, which in the low gravity could be as large as kilometers in diameter and over 100 kilometers long – or city domes. Even then the equivalent in habitat volume on Earth would cost much less to build probably (see What about Earth deserts? for examples) – and have less maintenance. But it might be that in the future there’s enough reason to be in space to have large numbers there. If so, large enclosed spaces like the lunar caves or city domes would be lowest maintenance. If they can become so low maintenance that the cost per inhabitant per year is only hundreds of dollars, it might even score over habitats on Earth due to the stable conditions, no earthquakes, storms, flooding etc. See my section on Maintenance costs for more on this.

I’d vote for lunar caves over city domes: safer from radiation and many forms of bombardment, natural and otherwise. An airless world would still be smart to surrender quickly before a major naval flotilla, though…

If we want to live in space, the Moon is far closer and easier as a place to start, and it is in many ways more habitable than Mars.

An interesting thought!

Surprisingly, the Moon is also rather good for gardening. It is no “New World”, but the lunar night is much leses of an issue than you’d think. There’s light 24/7 at the poles, and as for the lunar caves, it turns out that many crop plants do just fine with fourteen days of darkness every month provided they are cooled down to a few degrees above zero. While ultra efficient modern LED lightning means the power requirements for the plants that need light during the lunar night are far les sthan you’d think. See my

I like food on my planets 🙂

The Moon also has some commercial potential many think, with possibly hundreds of millions, or billions of tons of ice at the poles, and many millions of tons of CO2, CO, methane, and ammonia.

…which could be put to work on-world, or off-world…

It also has many metals and some think it has platinum and gold from impacts by iron meteorites with some evidence to back them up. Also the Hoyt cislunar tether system (see exporting materials from the Moon) could give a way to return those materials to LEO or to Earth indeed at very little cost / delta v. This involves a couple of orbiting spinning tethers, and is a much lighter and simpler construction than the lunar elevator, though both can be made with existing materials, the Hoyt system is the easiest to build and most practical in the near term.

If so, the Moon could possibly be profitable and if they can turn a profit at all, it might be very profitable, for metals like platinum, supply of ice and fuel to LEO etc, and if so it might lead to people living there permanently (though it might also mean lots of robots on the Moon and a few humans to supervise them).

Lots of robots, and a few humans. There would be quite a number of worlds like this in the Imperium (and elsewhere), being automated factories, automated terraforming, automated farming, etc.

(P.S.: I’m looking forward to the “dirt poor peasant farmer with no more than a dozen farming bots, a single medical bot/drugmaker, and two, three 3D printers tops” stereotype, from ~2050 onwards.

“I bet that if you dig around, you’ll even find one of those old-fashioned cell phones lying about!”)


About Alvin Plummer

I'm working to build a better world, a world that blesses Christ and is blessed by Him. I hope that you're doing the same!
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