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I'm interested in writing a story about inhabitants of a permanent base on Mars, a few decades after all life on earth has (presumably) been wiped out. Preferably, I'd like them to still be there, be it with a major setback in technology.

In the interest of keeping the community on Mars more relatable, I'd like the story to be set not too far in the future. Assuming this is set in our actual solar system, at what point is it plausible that we could have built a (almost) self-sufficient base on Mars and what could have been the motivation of the people doing the colonizing?

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    $\begingroup$ This is probably a better question for Space Exploration. $\endgroup$ – DonyorM Oct 1 '14 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ But good question at the core, just the wrong site. $\endgroup$ – DonyorM Oct 1 '14 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ Just discussing this in chat, just because it would also work on space exploration doesn't mean it would not work here... $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 1 '14 at 15:29
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    $\begingroup$ I'd like to see this here, as the approach would be different, answering "when can we" rather than "what can we do now". $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Oct 1 '14 at 15:30
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    $\begingroup$ I suspect that on SX.SE they can also claim it's more suited to this site. Since this is intended to be used for a story, I guess the really hard science isn't needed, perhaps it is better suited for here rather than SX.SE. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 1 '14 at 16:12
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According to Robert Zubrin's "The Case for Mars," we could have had a mars base right now. What has stopped us (humanity) from colonizing mars, according to Zubrin, is our lack of focus on space exploration. If we had retained the same enthusiasm for exploring space during the Apollo Missions, humanity would likely be on Mars by now.

This book was written when the space shuttles were still around. Of course, there are new players in space, such as SpaceX, who may just decide to go ahead to Mars while the NASA looks on in extreme jealousy. (Not that NASA couldn't match their expertise, but merely lack the directives from presidents to go.) We could easily see a manned mission to Mars within our lifetime, possibly even the beginning of a colony, depending on who goes there and what their end goals are. The best explanations as to why we can do this are detailed in "The Case for Mars," especially when it talks about Mars Direct.

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    $\begingroup$ I think I've also heard or read somewhere that we might not have gone into space or the moon as soon as we did where it not for political competition. If that holds water and this case for Mars does as well, I guess the question can be rephrased as, "given the same level of motivation and exploration rate, when could we expect to have a base on Mars?". $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 1 '14 at 16:49
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    $\begingroup$ Just having a base there is very far from being self-sufficient. $\endgroup$ – Mark Adler Oct 1 '14 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with conclusion, but the reasons are different. Money. USA got to moon, not because they wanted, but because they pumped massive amount of resources was pumped into it to beat Russians. $\endgroup$ – Euphoric Oct 1 '14 at 21:14
  • $\begingroup$ I occasionally think american foreign policy in the 60's was based around whomever got to the moon first was the winner, anything that happens after that is nothing more than post-game wrap up $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Oct 2 '14 at 0:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Euphoric That's part of the lack of focus. If you look at Mars Direct, it really isn't money that's the problem. NASA LITERALLY has no self-direction; they must follow what the president approves for them to do. Talking to some employees, I know they want to go to Mars and do this cool stuff, but lack the presidential directive to do so. $\endgroup$ – PipperChip Oct 2 '14 at 18:33
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I don't believe my own answer but Mars One claims that they will send up the first colonists who will live the rest of their lives there in 2024. While it will depend on delieveries for maintenance items, this is very soon. If funded and supported, one would expect the technology we currently have would allow us to make it self sustainable within 20 years after that. I am not fully convinced, however, that their predictions/plans are reliable. I also do not believe that they will be able to make it completely self supported.

Please note that mining and agriculture are very necessary for a physical structure to be build/repair itself and that is going to take time to setup. While the computer systems will reasonably be able to be replaced via shipments, the eventual colony would need very advanced manufacturing inorder to construct these replacement components. This is by no means a simple goal and it would require many people to operate.

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The excellent book Red Mars from Kim Stanley Robinson deals with the history of the first colony on Mars. It was written as immediate future in 1993 stating that the trip happened in 2026 after an agreement between the USA and Russia and the joint participation of (Almost) the whole world.

In fact, we could be there now (2014) if we had continued sustaining the space programs after Moon landings.

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I think your answer is going to depend on the situation on earth. At our current rate, 2050 isn't that feasible...to be blunt, we just are not dedicating many resources to it as the return just isn't there (ultimately we are a capitalist society, space exploration and colonization doesn't exactly result in a good payoff to investment ratio). I'd say if the Earth remained how it currently is, 2100 is probably a reasonable goal for it.

I don't like the mining colonies btw...Meteorites are far more easily mined and don't need to be shipped off a planet to get to it's destination. Colony (food growing/supplying/people living) on Mars is a more feasible reason to be there as Mars is ultimately a stepping stone towards the asteroid belt and other space mining opportunities there, as well as a gateway to the rest of our solar system. If you are into the mining scenario, consider one of the two moons (Deimos and Phobos) as the ones being mined...Phobos was struck by another planetary body early in it's history and can easily be used as the explanation as to why exceedingly rare elements are found on that moon). Of course, this might be all moot if there is a 'mars space elevator' scenario where what is extracted from mars can easily be put into space for transport.

All this said...2050 is also feasible, had the appropriate situation on Earth come to bear. War, disease, destruction, famine...if we need to leave this planet to live elsewhere, the social changes needed to get to space colonization will happen considerably quicker (and also gives the reason of 'need a place to live / colonization' as to why people are setting up colonies on mars). Remember there is no profit in space exploration and our current economic situation flat out means we won't invest in it. Change that social/economic setup so space exploration/colonization is our only goal, and we'll get there basically whenever you feel like setting your story.

It's a good position for story writing...give us a reason to have a colony, and we will, regardless of time frames.

added: remember we got to the Moon with 14.4 modems in the late 60's early 70's...tech wise, there is really little reason why we couldn't be on Mars now.

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  • $\begingroup$ "ultimately we are a capitalist society, space exploration and colonization doesn't exactly result in a good payoff to investment ratio" Capitalist or socialist, the same problem exists. Suppose we lived in a utopian communist society. We take a vote on how much you are willing to pay in taxes to send a mission to Mars. How much would you vote for? Or suppose someone asked for contributions. How much would you give? Assuming it was purely for the science, adventure, etc, no promise of economic reward? Personally, I'd gladly give a few hundred dollars to such an effort. ... $\endgroup$ – Jay Dec 5 '14 at 19:18
  • $\begingroup$ ... Maybe as much as a thousand. I can't imagine I'd willingly give half my paycheck for the next five years. And I'm sure there are plenty of people who would see it all as a waste of time and wouldn't be willing to give a dime. $\endgroup$ – Jay Dec 5 '14 at 19:19
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I think you need to lay down the urgency first. I wouldn't be surprised if we could have a self-sufficient colony on Mars by 2020 if it was done on a crash-priority basis. (Say, a 20 mile asteroid is detected that's going to smack us on Jan 1, 2021.) It would certainly mean Orion boosters and probably a few spectacular failures.

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Engineers routinely talk about the difference between what is possible in theory, what can be demonstrated to be possible in the laboratory, what can be done in practice, and what can be done economically. There are lots of inventions that have been built, demonstrated, and really do work, but that are far too expensive in one way or another for anyone to use for any practical purpose.

Like, auto manufacturers have built prototype cars that run on fuel cells, meaning that basically the fuel is water. Sounds really great: if we built a fleet of cars that run on water, think how much we could save on gasoline, not to mention cutting pollution, dependency on foreign sources, etc. But there's one small catch: the raw materials for each car cost about $200,000, not even considering what it costs to actually assemble the vehicle.

My point being: If tomorrow we all woke up and discovered there was some really compelling reason why we had to go to Mars, if the future of all life on Earth depended on it, the basic technology to make such a trip exists. Engineers would have to work out the details of the design, but I'm 90+% confidant that, if a hundred billion dollars was devoted to the project, and if all the bureaucracy and environmental regulations and political considerations and all were waived or ignored and suitably capable people pulled from whatever they were doing before, we could have the vehicle built and launched in a year or two.

The problem is what would give us the motivation to do all that. Given present technology, the cost of transporting one person to Mars would surely be in the billions of dollars. It is difficult to imagine anything they might find there that would be economically productive. Whatever resources exist on Mars, we could surely obtain the same resources here on Earth, or find some way to accomplish the same goal with different resources, for far less money. Despite all the problems here on Earth, it would almost certainly be more productive to devote resources to solving the problem than to escaping it by going to Mars.

Consider why Europeans explored and colonized the New World. (a) Looking for a more efficient route to India. (b) Access to gold and other resources. (c) Scientific inquiry and adventure. (d) Political prestige. (e) Escape from religious persecution.

With our present technology, economic motives like (a) and (b) are unlikely to be practical. (c) is possible. At present a manned expedition is so expensive that no one is prepared to pay the bill just for the shear joy of discovery, but it could happen. (d) is possible but the political situation doesn't presently exist. (e) is too expensive for any dissident religious group to be able to afford it at present.

All that said, my conclusion is that no one is likely to send a manned expedition to Mars until there is some technological advance that dramatically reduces the cost, OR until enough people think the scientific or political benefit is worth the cost. It's difficult to predict when either of those things will happen. I'd be surprised if there's a manned expedition in less than decades, and a true colony would be further away still.

Of course for a fiction story, you can invent circumstances to make it all happen. You can just write, "... and then Dr Jones invented the new Fubar drive that revolutionized interplanetary travel ..." or "After the rise of the Islamic Caliphate, the United States and the Caliphate became involved in a space race to see who could reach Mars first. Everyone knew that whoever won would be viewed as the technological leader, and other nations would quickly join their alliance ..."

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  • $\begingroup$ I'd stretch that year or two out to a decade or two. We'd have to build the manufacturing to build the ship. The current estimate is that we could get back to the Moon in about a decade if we got serious about it. I'd leave a bit more for Mars (the second decade), and we might want to leave even more for the development needed to make it self-sustaining. $\endgroup$ – Brythan Dec 6 '14 at 2:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Brythan Good point, two years is probably hopelessly optimistic. The Moon landing was a crash program with lots of resources devoted and took 10 years. We have a lot more experience with space travel now, but Mars is a more ambitious goal. And yeah, I was brushing off the whole self-sufficient part. That just adds to the mix. $\endgroup$ – Jay Dec 8 '14 at 14:49
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1970s. :)

Seriously. If we hadn't scrubbed the space program, we would've done Skylab (in 69/70) as the ISS - or better - and then been on our way to the rest of the solar system.

You don't need a lot to make a self-sufficient colony (esp. if you allow a colony complex; ie: high-space production of metals from asteroids). You don't even need microchip fab. We want microchip fab, because it makes life a lot easier. But, old-school microchip tech is within hobbyist reach now. Getting off Mars is a lot cheaper than getting off Earth for servicing high-space production.

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