Mars city illustration

Book review: ‘The First City on Mars’ by Justin Hollander

Image credit: Corepics/Dreamstime

An urban planner’s guide to settling the Red Planet.

Before anyone seriously thinks about building a city on Mars – and Elon Musk has already stated that we’ll see a settlement of a million people there by 2050 – there are two competing ideas to address. First, is simply that we can’t do it. It’s tens of millions of miles away. The Red Planet has less than half of Earth’s gravity and the same amount of sunlight. The only building materials are sand and rock. There’s no atmosphere to speak of and what water there is comes in the form of ice.

So, if you want to grow your own food, you’d have to melt that first using small nuclear reactors. Talking of radiation, there will be plenty of it, so you’ll need decent shielding.

The second idea, which is what ‘The First City on Mars: An Urban Planner’s Guide to Settling the Red Planet’ (Springer, £24.99, ISBN 9783031075285) takes as axiomatic, is that we can do it. After all, crossing the Atlantic to the New World seemed impossible until we did, for better or worse, while the eastward migration from the West Coast was a challenge of similar scale, until we did that, too.

As there’s no apparent limit to what humans can achieve as explorers, there’s no obvious reason why we can’t think the way Musk does. Plenty of us have lost money betting against him before, only to watch him found SpaceX with the specific ambition of reducing the costs associated with colonising Mars. ‘The First City on Mars’ is a book like no other, in that its author Justin Hollander gathers current thinking on the nuts and bolts of how we’re going to get there and what happens when we do.

Of course, it could all be pie in the sky, but if like Hollander you analyse the scientific and engineering knowledge and know-how that’s already been invested in settling Mars, the concept becomes less fanciful by the minute. After all, we have four centuries of history in colonisation, seven decades of field experience in spaceflight and we’ve been planning cities for getting on for ten millennia.

Plus, we know how to set up camp and survive indefinitely in the toughest places imaginable: Antarctica is but one example. We’ve even had detailed plans drawn up for fully-functioning lunar colonies since the work of Dalton and Hohmann in the early 1970s – earlier than that if you factor in the work of science-fiction writers.

While this all sounds well-reasoned, Hollander admits that to capture the public imagination for a project like installing a city on Mars “people want to see a plan.” In that spirit, he has set about constructing a detailed vision for Aleph, the first Martian metropolis. With its transportation links, power generation and accommodation hubs, Aleph looks like a gigantic modern airport. We’ve learned how to make those work, too.

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