The Mars Colony Administrator’s Handbook – Part 4

Administering a future Mars colony is going to be a tough job by any measure – not least because some of the decisions required are going to be controversial. Some of the toughest decisions will revolve around resources such as energy, mining raw materials – and picking the right people to join the colony.

In part 3 of this post, we discussed how the colony will keep supplied with air and food. You can also read the introduction here.


2960979878_f0f9f575e2_q The energy requirements for a Mars colony of several tens of thousands of people will likely be higher than a Western residential city of similar size on Earth.

For one thing, the colony will need to run heating continually, in order to maintain a comfortable temperature.

More importantly though, the colony will be running many processes on an industrial scale, just to survive.

Without adequate power, there will be no food, no water, and no air. Whatever the colony’s energy mix, there will need to be a large margin for error, and several levels of backup generation.

The key to remember is that there are no fossil fuels on Mars (as far as anyone can tell so far!) – so no coal, no natural gas and no gasoline. In the distant future, it is possible that hydrogen may be obtained from the outer solar system, but the infrastructure to do this isn’t going to be economically feasible for a long while. That means that the choice for energy mix will likely come down to some mixture of nuclear power, solar generation, and possibly (it will take some testing to see if this is workable in Mars’ thin atmosphere) wind turbines.

Building a nuclear plant on Earth is a tricky thing to do.

Providing cooling for it means that it needs to be situated near a large body of water. Nobody ever wants one in their backyard. Environmental assessments need to be done. Regardless of which location is chosen, there will be significant political opposition. And then there’s the paperwork. It isn’t surprising that few nuclear plants are built in Western countries, and that the ones in operation are all aging.

When we start talking about traditional-style nuclear energy in space, it actually gets worse.

Significant care would need to be taken not to break international treaties, or severe export regulations for nuclear technology. The legal groundwork for the colony would need to be firmly in place, and some kind of civilian testing regime would be required.

Then there are the technical issues – providing sufficient water for coolant, dealing with radioactive waste, obtaining the right technical people to run the reactor (hard even on Earth).

Most important of all is downtime – the colony can’t afford much downtime for servicing a reactor, and there won’t be a grid in place to pull in power from elsewhere when servicing is required.

What might be more feasible are micro-reactors, like the ones that Toshiba, GE and others have been working on (example here). These are small, sealed units with around 20 year’s operational lifespan. They’re intended to be run with minimal servicing during that period, and then packed up and shipped back to the manufacturer for servicing at the end. Some of them are smaller than shipping containers. Assuming that the legal and paperwork requirements could be met, the colony could potentially run on a few of these units in tandem.

Solar power of one kind or another has a high likelihood of being part of the energy mix.

One key factor is that Mars is further out from the sun than Earth, so PV generation is weaker, and larger areas of solar cells will be required. These will either need to be manufactured locally somehow, or imported from Earth, and the key consideration may wind up being some measure of weight to power, rather than area to power as on Earth.

Solar heat generation (i.e. molten salt and similar systems) may wind up being easier to build and maintain, since they’re primarily made out of plain old mirrors and metal containment units, which may be simpler to manufacture locally. Again, the area required will be significantly larger than on Earth.

One advantage of these type of systems is that they can store up energy and continue to provide electricity at night. With photovoltaic systems, battery storage becomes key, since they need light to create power. Batteries are heavy, and will need to be imported.

 Raw Materials

If the colony is to survive in the long term, it will need to be able to build much of its technology base locally. That means that somebody is going to need to mine raw materials.

Mining is about as heavy as heavy industrial gets. It is labor and equipment intensive, and it tends to leave a mess behind it. People are going to have to get over a certain level of squeamishness over pristine Martian landscapes if this is going to happen.

The implications: legions of independent prospectors fanning out in their rovers; vast areas of strip-mined surface; heavy equipment imported either from Earth or built locally (more industrialization), and powered somehow (remember no gasoline); mine tailings; and thousands of miners.

The alternative is to import everything from Earth, which will have ramifications for the long term survivability of the colony.


I had intended originally to leave most of the discussion over people to a section on demographics. There are a number of issues that are worth discussing here though.

People will perhaps be the most important resource available to the colony, and picking the right mixture of colonists will be critical.

In Elon Musk’s original formulation, the goal was to eventually bring ticket prices down to around $500,000 per person, which would be similar to the price of a house in many Western cities.

Gaming this out, a few things are likely to happen:

  • Wealthy, (possibly elderly but still adventurous) people will arrive, expecting an exotic retirement village. The reality will probably be closer to an 1880’s Alaskan goldrush town, only with worse food, and little entertainment.
  • It costs more than $100,000 per year to keep a prisoner in jail in many Western countries. For prisoners with sentences longer than 5 years, there may be a temptation for some governments to hand them a one-way ticket and a conditional pardon. There are plenty of terrestrial examples from the very recent past.
  • Large numbers of people with very specific technical skills, or general labor will be required for the success of the colony. There may be little incentive for a heart surgeon to buy a one-way ticket to Mars.
  • A mixture of age groups and demographics will be necessary for the long term survival of the colony.

Part of the problem is going to be self-selection. The kinds of people who will immediately sign up for a one-way ticket to Mars may be a useful component of a colony, but if they’re the only ones who come, there will not be sufficient diversity for things to work. Somebody will need to dig trenches, keep the books, weld metal, patch up injuries, make solar cells, entertain people, grow food.

If insufficient thought is made with regards to selection of people, the colony could wind up looking like an expensive retirement home, a penal colony, or worse – some mixture of the two in close proximity.

One thought that comes to mind: instead of charging half a million bucks per ticket, charge much, much more. Five million, or fifty million. The amount doesn’t really matter. Then use each paid ticket to subsidize a wide mixture of people, selected by skills or by lottery.

Continued in Part 5

Mars Colony Administrator’s Handbook – Navigation:

6 responses on “The Mars Colony Administrator’s Handbook – Part 4

  1. Patrick Ritchie

    On energy:

    Geothermal would make a great source of energy if a suitable location could be found.

    Also, you left out an advantage of nuclear: the waste heat can be used to extract water and in other industrial processes.

    1. Jeremy Lichtman Post author

      I’m sure I’m leaving out many, many things. These are excellent points.

        1. Jeremy Lichtman Post author

          Two more posts are up. 🙂

          Thanks! Feedback is good. Learning from your readers is better.