The Mars Colony Administrator’s Handbook – Part 8

What happens when things go horribly wrong on Mars? Help from Earth would take months to arrive, and would have a transportation bottleneck.

The colony will need to have a contingency plan for all possibilities, as well as a full range of emergency services.

Emergency Services


Most of the existing writing on the topic of space medicine revolves around specific, acute medical emergencies on long-term traditional missions – the classic case of appendicitis on a NASA mission to Mars.

A colony of tens of thousands of people will need to be able to deal with a far larger variety of medical issues, including things that would never occur on a mission with only a few people (pandemics, for example). The implication is that the colony would require a significant medical infrastructure.

The United States currently has an average of 30 hospital beds per 10,000 people (quite low for a first world country), which would translate into one or two decently-sized hospitals for the colony. That’s aside from general practitioners, and various other medically related professions (dentists, rehab personnel, nurses, nursing assistants etc).

Medical equipment and pharmaceuticals will likely need to be stockpiled in some quantity, especially given the lengthy supply chain. Certain kinds of supplies have expiry dates (i.e. vaccines), which may pose problems. Remember, even terrestrial countries sometimes have supply issues with these sorts of things. Particular medical supplies may only be manufactured by a single company (which can have all kinds of issues, ranging from labor interruptions, to financial troubles, to factory fires), or can require particular natural resources that have their own supply chain issues. The Mars colony may eventually decide to manufacture many of these sorts of items locally, but that is a long-term approach that will require massive investment.

Acute cases will likely need to be dealt with locally, due to the lengthy transit time. There may be some value in sending people with longer-term issues back to Earth for treatment.

One question that will likely come up will be screening for people before they are allowed to join the colony. The vast cost of treatment on Mars may necessitate discriminatory selection practices.


Fire in space is a serious problem. Zero-g habitats often run on fairly high oxygen percentages, which means that fires burn extremely quickly. In addition, the lack of places to flee to makes a fire in zero-g far more deadly than on Earth. The Mars colony may not use the high oxygen level of a zero-g habitat, but the lack of escape options still makes fire control vitally important.

It is probable that the colony will have a central sprinkler system that will allow fire suppression. This will likely be similar to existing terrestrial foam-based systems (rather than water), since one of the most likely sources of fire will be electrical systems. In a worst-case scenario, flushing the atmosphere can also stop a fire, although people would need to be evacuated first (or minimally have portable oxygen supplies and very warm clothing).

Cooking will likely always be a highly controlled act on the Mars colony. Induction stoves can minimize issues by localizing heat to the cooking vessel, but kitchen accidents can and do happen.

The job of fighting fires on Mars may wind up being a secondary requirement for all of the colonists, rather than a dedicated job (although one can imagine kids describing what they want to do when they grow up: “I want to be a fireman – on Mars!”). This is because the response time for stopping fires must be as fast as possible.


Formal search and rescue operations on Mars are going to be critical. Both exploratory and prospecting missions will constantly be running, and mishaps are always a possibility.

This will be complicated by the difficulty of operating aircraft in Mars’ thin atmosphere, and by the lack of roads (it would be interesting to see if hovercraft could work well on Mars).

A clear policy would need to be in place with regards to who gets rescued – people engaged in unnecessarily dangerous activities may endanger the lives of many rescuers. This will no doubt result in some difficult on-the-spot decisions.


The policing requirements for the colony will probably be fairly light, but these sorts of things will happen – a drunken bar brawl, an abusive relationship, an idiot messing with the environmental systems. Somebody will need to wear the sheriff’s badge. Somebody will need to run the hoosegow.

Quick Thought

Emergency services are fairly expensive to run in general, and will be more so on Mars. The money to pay for it has to come from somewhere (doctors may do a lot of volunteer work, but ultimately need to support their families). Factoring the cost of running services into the price of the ticket over would be a bad idea (i.e. that would be the classic definition of a pyramid scheme), and would ultimately be the direct cause of the colony’s failure. The implication is that there will need to be some form of taxation on Mars (along with people to collect it).

Failure Modes

What happens if things go wrong on a larger scale. An epidemic, say, or a natural disaster? The first step will be classifying the levels of potential failure, and determining appropriate responses to each.

1. The lowest level failure mode consists of a situation that requires opening the colony’s emergency supply stores. An example could be an infectious disease that requires usage of vaccine stockpiles.

2. An emergency that damages large portions of the colony’s habitat (a Mars-quake, a punctured habitat, or a fire) could require a “FEMA” style response, where emergency supplies and personnel are brought from Earth. The colony would need to operate under reduced circumstances during the period of time required for transit.

3. A more acute emergency could potentially require a partial evacuation.

4. The most serious forms of emergency would require a full evacuation of the colony. Examples could include a serious, long-term issue with the food supply, the discovery of Martian life (i.e. to safeguard it, or us), or a previously undetected issue with long term habitation of Mars (i.e. we still don’t know if humans can safely reproduce elsewhere in the universe). Full evacuation will be tricky due to the number of people involved.

An appropriate level of planning for each of the above is necessary, but hard. There are ample examples of people getting emergency response wrong on Earth.

See the concluding post here…

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2 responses on “The Mars Colony Administrator’s Handbook – Part 8

  1. pritchie

    A few random thoughts…

    I doubt that there will be a strict selection criteria for colonists (as opposed to the early explorers). Early on all forms of labor will be in such short supply that I can’t see anyone wanting to come being turned away. You can see some of this effect on the ISS, where most of the crew are needed to just maintain the station so the move from 6 to 7 results in a huge productivity boost.

    The self selection process should be plenty good enough, the only people who will be able to go are those wealthy enough to pay for the first ticket, this means they will mostly likely be skilled workers.

    Pharmaceuticals are definitely a specialized good that you would want to ship in from earth, the high value to weight ratio makes me suspect it will be one of the last items to be produced at the colony.

    1. Jeremy Lichtman Post author

      Exactly. I think it would be a long, long time before any space colony would impose restrictions on immigration – excepting if some nation on Earth tried to bulk-ship criminals or something of that nature.