Mars Is a Hellhole

Colonizing the red planet is a ridiculous way to help humanity.

9:57 AM ETShannon StironeWriter and journalist

Landscape of Mars's surface

There’s no place like home—unless you’re Elon Musk. A prototype of SpaceX’s Starship, which may someday send humans to Mars, is, according to Musk, likely to launch soon, possibly within the coming days. But what motivates Musk? Why bother with Mars? A video clip from an interview Musk gave in 2019 seems to sum up Musk’s vision—and everything that’s wrong with it.

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In the video, Musk is seen reading a passage from Carl Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot. The book, published in 1994, was Sagan’s response to the famous image of Earth as a tiny speck of light floating in a sunbeam—a shot he’d begged NASA to have the Voyager 1 spacecraft take in 1990 as it sailed into space, 3.7 billion miles from Earth. Sagan believed that if we had a photo of ourselves from this distance, it would forever alter our perspective of our place in the cosmos.

Photo of Earth
The Pale Blue Dot photograph that inspired Carl Sagan’s book of the same name. (JPL-Caltech / NASA)

Musk reads from Sagan’s book: “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate.”


But there Musk cuts himself off and begins to laugh. He says with incredulity, “This is not true. This is false––Mars.”

He couldn’t be more wrong. Mars? Mars is a hellhole. The central thing about Mars is that it is not Earth, not even close. In fact, the only things our planet and Mars really have in common is that both are rocky planets with some water ice and both have robots (and Mars doesn’t even have that many).

Mars has a very thin atmosphere; it has no magnetic field to help protect its surface from radiation from the sun or galactic cosmic rays; it has no breathable air and the average surface temperature is a deadly 80 degrees below zero. Musk thinks that Mars is like Earth? For humans to live there in any capacity they would need to build tunnels and live underground, and what is not enticing about living in a tunnel lined with SAD lamps and trying to grow lettuce with UV lights? So long to deep breaths outside and walks without the security of a bulky spacesuit, knowing that if you’re out on an extravehicular activity and something happens, you’ve got an excruciatingly painful 60-second death waiting for you. Granted, walking around on Mars would be a life-changing, amazing, profound experience. But visiting as a proof of technology or to expand the frontier of human possibility is very different from living there. It is not in the realm of hospitable to humans. Mars will kill you.

Musk is not from Mars, but he and Sagan do seem to come from different worlds. Like Sagan, Musk exhibits a religious-like devotion to space, a fervent desire to go there, but their purposes are entirely divergent. Sagan inspired generations of writers, scientists, and engineers who felt compelled to chase the awe that he dug up from the depths of their heart. Everyone who references Sagan as a reason they are in their field connects to the wonder of being human, and marvels at the luck of having grown up and evolved on such a beautiful, rare planet.

The influence Musk is having on a generation of people could not be more different. Musk has used the medium of dreaming and exploration to wrap up a package of entitlement, greed, and ego. He has no longing for scientific discovery, no desire to understand what makes Earth so different from Mars, how we all fit together and relate. Musk is no explorer; he is a flag planter. He seems to have missed one of the other lines from Pale Blue Dot: “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”

Sagan did believe in sending humans to Mars to first explore and eventually live there, to ensure humanity’s very long-term survival, but he also said this: “What shall we do with Mars? There are so many examples of human misuse of the Earth that even phrasing the question chills me. If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if [they] are only microbes.”

Musk, by contrast, is encouraging a feeling of entitlement to the cosmos—that we can and must colonize space, regardless of who or what might be there, all for a long-shot chance at security.

Legitimate reasons exist to feel concerned for long-term human survival, and, yes, having the ability to travel more efficiently throughout the solar system would be good. But I question anyone among the richest people in the world who sells a story of caring so much for human survival that he must send rockets into space. Someone in his position could do so many things on our little blue dot itself to help those in need.

To laugh at Sagan’s words is to miss the point entirely: There really is only one true home for us—and we’re already here.SHANNON STIRONE is a freelance science writer based in the Bay Area.

The terrifying reality of actually living on Mars

The first spaceships that could carry humans to the red planet are being developed now, but we need to discuss accommodations once we’re there.


On Earth we never worry about going full soda, thanks to our very friendly atmosphere and helpful magnetic field. But on Mars we’ll need to create infrastructure to solve the problems our planet handles automatically.

And of course, we also have to develop ways to extract the water and oxygen we need to survive from a Martian landscape that has hidden them away in pockets of ice, soil, rock and extremely thin air.

Easy peasy.

However, Lee and others who have cataloged the many ways to die on Mars do not see them as insurmountable hurdles. In fact, there might be one ready-made solution for living on Mars that’s viable from the moment humans arrive for the very first time.

Just stay on the ship.

Living in the parking lot

This futuristic render shows a collection of Starships hanging out on the surface of Mars. Elon Musk and Space envision astronauts initially living out of the spaceships while constructing a more permanent human settlement on the Red Planet.


The first people to arrive via a SpaceX Starship will likely live and work out of the landed spacecraft in the beginning.

“[Starships] are very valuable on the surface of Mars,” said Paul Wooster, the company’s principal Mars development engineer, in 2018 at a Mars Society convention. “You’d actually be having most of the ships stay and you’d be operating using the various systems on them to support the activities there.”

Living in the ship after arrival isn’t just a SpaceX idea, though.

The Mars Society, founded in 1998 to advocate for exploring and setting up a human presence on Mars, has its own “Mars Direct” plan. It also suggests traveling to Mars in habitats or “habs” that could then be used to set up a base on the surface once the earthlings arrive.

The habs could be connected together, in much the same way that modular buildings are trucked around on Earth and quickly hooked together on site.

“We could have people on Mars by 2030 and a permanent manned base by 2040,” Zubrin told me in 2018.

Besides bringing their own shelter to start, Martian pioneers must also pack the right tools to harvest materials from the rugged landscape in order to build a more permanent crib.

“Very little that pertains to living on Mars in the early years will involve off-the-shelf equipment and supplies from Earth,” writes Stephen Petranek in his book How We’ll Live on Mars. “Almost every tool or device in use on Mars will need to have been carefully thought out.”

Building from scratch

For the long term, a basic modular camp like the one Matt Damon struggles with in 2015’s The Martian may not offer sufficient protection from radiation and other dangers, especially in the case of a powerful solar flare aimed directly at Mars.

Radiation shielding doesn’t need to be high-tech. A barrier made up of water or certain plastics can work, as can simply going underground.

Former NASA physician Jim Logan estimates putting our fragile, fleshy bodies behind or beneath about 9 feet (2.7 meters) of Martian soil should suffice. Zubrin has also suggested using thick bricks made from Martian regolith to construct shelter, adding a uniquely medieval castle vibe to the more traditionally sleek and futuristic vision of a Mars outpost.

Old lava tubes and underground caves are also ideal places to shelter, both early on and in the case of emergencies like major dust and solar storms that can sometimes spread across the entire planet.

In the absence of other options, 3D printing technology offers another alternative for creating custom structures. NASA held a 3D printed habitat challenge in 2019, with New York’s AI SpaceFactory (which bills itself as a “multi-planetary architectural and technology design agency”) winning the top prize for a system that built a lightweight but strong structure using autonomous robots requiring almost no human guidance.

Going underground or behind thick walls isn’t exactly great for the agriculture that’s going to be essential to sustain any presence on Mars, however.

Mechanical engineer Andrew Geiszler suggested at the 2015 Mars Society convention that geodesic glass domes could be the answer. Mars provides all the raw materials needed to create glass, plastic and metals that can then be turned into dome homes.

“Ultimately we’re going to need to use native materials. It’s very feasible. They’re there for the taking.”

The glass dome structure has been popular in visions of Mars settlements going back decades, including in some recent renderings from HP’s Mars Home Planet concept challenge that asked designers to draw up plans for a city on Mars.

This leaves the question of exactly where on Mars is best to establish a presence. None of the above is possible without access to water, which we need to create oxygen, grow food and produce fuel and other raw materials. So finding precious H2O will be a top priority along with shelter from the elements when choosing a site.

Water has been found in Martian soil, in trace amounts in the air, and in significant amounts near and below ice deposits. Moving to the edge of a Martian ice cap would likely be too cold and windy, but the planet also offers intriguing craters and canyons that provide a certain amount of shelter, building materials and water from deposits of ice or possibly even springs. The remarkable Valles Marineris, a massive gorge eight times longer and four times deeper than the Grand Canyon, is one place often suggested as a dramatic second home for hardy humans.

Time to Terraform

Maintaining all of the necessary life support systems on Mars will be quite an undertaking, which is why Musk and others have a long, long term vision of expanding the habitable bubble we construct on Mars to eventually encompass the entire planet.

The concept is often referred to as terraforming, and would involve changing the planet’s environment to be more earth-like. Musk notably proposed nuking Mars’ poles to release massive amounts of greenhouse gases to warm the planet, although he’s also amenable to massive solar mirrors.

Other methods involve importing methane or ammonia to kickstart the greenhouse effect. Regardless, such a project could be a centuries-long initiative.

“Terraforming will be incredibly expensive, and it may take a thousand years before humans can walk the surface of Mars in an environment not unlike what one finds along the west coast of Canada,” writes Petranek.

That kind of long-term thinking may be required for humans to become truly multi-planetary like Musk hopes. But first, we’ve just got to figure out how to make it through the first night on Mars.