Explore or Settle? Our Approach to Mars

Header image: Bryan Versteeg/Spacehabs.com

Mars Exploration Plans Leave Us Wanting More

Did you notice anything missing?

NASA just recently released their Journey to Mars -- a decades long plan leading to the first humans on Mars.

The plan builds on the current use of the International Space Station before progressing into projects and missions on and around the moon​.  Eventually,  a mission will be sent to orbit Mars and then -- ultimately -- a crewed landing on the surface.

Journey to Mars: to explore or settle?

NASA's Journey to Mars. Credit: NASA

​The plan is classic NASA - big, inspiring and full of hope.  A vision of a magnificent future in space.

But when you look it over, you might notice that one thing many enthusiasts talk about is missing.

The plan has nothing to do with the settlement of Mars.

​Let me explain...

Explore or Settle?

​Since the beginning of America's space program, visions of cities in space and on the moon have fed our imaginations. And the more success NASA had, the more the enthusiasm grew. 

Soon, we'd all be traveling through space:  

  • Visiting hotels in orbit,
  • Putting our own footprints on the moon​,
  • living in huge, spinning space colonies, and
  • traveling routinely between the earth and ... everywhere.

And Mars? Mars was just around the corner.​ We'd be there in just a few more years. And then we could all go -- perhaps even live there!

Fast forward fifty years. What's happened to that future? Where did it all go?

Well, frankly, it was naive -- a dream that just couldn't happen as fast as we wanted.  It was our own fault. We believed that NASA's success in exploration would immediately translate into human settlements in orbit and beyond. If NASA could do it, then we would be next. It was just a matter of time.

But it didn't work out that way.  And it still won't -- for one obvious reason.  

Exploration and settlement are two very different things.  

Exploration: ​ an act or instance of exploring or investigating; the investigation of unknown regions:

Don't get me wrong. NASA's successes​ are amazing -- and incredibly inspiring.  But nowhere in NASA's charter does it mention the goal of creating, or even enabling, a large human expansion into space or to other planets.  The goals and objectives of the organization are space exploration and planetary sciences. That's it. Nothing more.

In other words -- NASA is about science and engineering.  It is NOT about settlement or colonization.

​Settlement: the establishment and inhabiting of a new region;  a place newly settled; colony

​We all know this. But today, when you see news reports discussing plans space agencies have for exploring space, you still hear words like 'settlement' or 'outpost'. 

For example, the BBC published this story just the  other day:

Europe and Russian Mission to Assess Moon Settlement

By definition, the effort to establish a base on the moon, or on Mars for that matter, and to maintain a permanent human presence is a settlement.  You are inhabiting a new region -- creating a permanent outpost. But is that really what most of us consider 'settlement'?

Outpost:  a position stationed at a distance from the area occupied by a major formation of troops; an outlying settlement or position; a limit or frontier

​A settlement or colony is in reality a large group of people who come together to inhabit an area. It's not just a handful of folks who stay in a place for a short period of time. There's a permanence to it - a consistency. A sustainability. 

Admittedly, the line between what is and what is not a settlement is a fuzzy one.  Is it a matter of size/? How large does it need to be? Does it need to be inhabited 100% of the time? Does it have to be self-sustaining?

McMurdo Station, the U.S. Antarctic scientific research station at the tip of Ross Island in the Antarctic may be the closest thing to a Mars like settlement that can be found here on Earth. It can house over 1,250 people at a time and is permanently manned. But it does have to be constantly resupplied. Does that mean it's a 'settlement'?

Colony:  a group of people who leave their native country to form in a new land a settlement subject to, or connected with, the parent nation; the country or district settled

​Is this Really an Issue?

I know many people will argue that this is really not an issue. Through NASA's work, we advance the state of our technology. As technology advances and becomes available to the general public, others can take advantage of it and use it for their purposes, including settlement.

That may very well be true. In fact, when you look at present day operations, NASA is using private companies to build the rockets that supply the International Space Station. And as companies like SpaceX, Orbital, Boeing and Blue Origin advance their capabilities in space, they pave the way for private space operations and settlements.

But the problem is this...

It's taking way too freaking long!​

I'm impatient, you see. I've watched and waited -- and waited -- and waited --  for colonies in space and settlements on the moon.   I watched eagerly as Apollo astronauts made it to the surface of the moon and thought that was a future available to all of us. (Um. Still waiting....)

Granted, building the systems and technologies is incredibly difficult -- and incredibly  expensive.  But, that's not really the problem. The issue is that when we believe exploration-centric designs and technology will support settlement-centric initiatives, we're focusing on the wrong things.

Understand this:

Exploration does not need the same technologies that settlement does.

In fact, it probably only needs a subset of the technologies space settlements need. In other words, designing systems for Mars exploration does not mean those systems can be used for settlement.

Sure, there might be overlap on some systems. For example, rocket engine design, landing systems​ technologies, even hab construction -- the engineering designs for these systems can be used whether you are sending a handful of astronauts to explore or settle a hundred people at a time.

BA330 Space Station Module - a 'Must Have' technology for settling Mars

Credit: okan170 via Reddit

Other systems, however, like a space station in low-Mars orbit or on Phobos, have no overlap between exploration and settlement.  Do we really need orbital operations in Mars to explore the surface? Not necessarily. How about an earth-mars orbital transfer station -- a Cycler? Again, probably not needed for a quick exploration mission. In fact, it may be more of a distraction. But if you want to enable the transfer of a large number of people from earth to Mars, it's a 'must-have'.

Related: 10 'Must-Have' Technologies for Settling Mars

But what if we look at it from the other direction?  Can systems designed for settlement support exploration?

Well, systems that are built for settlement may actually be more expensive and take more time to develop than technologies designed solely for exploration. But they can still be used for exploration missions. 

So... Yes. They can absolutely support exploration.

Take the SLS, for example.  NASA's Journey to Mars touts the Space Launch System as the rocket that will get us to Mars. It will be the largest,most powerful rocket ever made.  It's not a system that will support the transfer of hundreds of people at a time into LEO, much less all the way to Mars, but for a handful of explorers, it will be fantastic. 

SLS - explore or settle?

SLS. Credit: Boeing/NASA

Now, instead of the SLS, if we were to develop a re-usable launch system that could lower the cost of reaching orbit and deliver a hundred people at a time, it would surely be useful for exploration. But, more importantly, it would be useful for settlement. .

It would undoubtedly take much longer to develop, and probably be much more expensive, than the SLS. But eventually, over time, operational costs would drop and the overall expense of sending a lot of people into orbit would put the cost range within reach of the general public. 

Will that happen? Most definitely not. The SLS supports the NASA objective of scientific study and space exploration. No need for them to consider altering designs.

The result?  

SLS: good for exploration - not so much for settlement

Re-usable launchers: good for settlement - and for exploration

​"So what's your point?", I can hear you say. Simply this...

Although current plans may speak of developing  technologies that support exploration and settlement, they are only useful in support of exploration.

 If we want to get a lot of people to Mars in the near future, this needs to change. But how?

Shifting Focus

​First, we need to rethink the way systems and technologies are designed -- particularly for Mars. Since exploration system design is not always in alignment with settlement system design, we need to shift focus and engineer for 'settlement first' instead of 'exploration first'.

Systems designed for settlement will always  support exploration.​

Notice, I didn't say settlement technologies would be optimal for exploration activities, only that they will support exploration activities.

A reusable earth launch vehicle ​can be used to launch exploration mission hardware. A cycler can transfer exploration hardware between Earth and Mars. A low-Mars orbital refueling station can re-supply exploration missions returning to Earth. 

These technologies may not be necessary for exploration - but they can all be used to support exploration. And the are absolutely necessary for settlement.

But, as was stated earlier,  systems designed for exploration don't necessarily support settlement.  So let's say it again:

Systems and technologies designed for settlement purposes always support exploration activities.​

So what does that mean? It means that every technology considered, every system designed, even every scientific and engineering idea for getting to Mars, should have one primary and over-riding objective:

Will it help support human settlement​?

Mars base: to explore or settle?

If it doesn't, it's time for another design.

The second thing that can be done is that we (the general public) should support the private development and financing of settlement-centric technologies. We should not expect that NASA's successes and technological advances will filter down to us. It didn't happen after Apollo. Why expect it to happen after the first trips to Mars? 

In other words...​

If we want to open up Mars for the many, we need to get the capability -- and financing -- into the private sector.

Admittedly, I am biased. My desire, my obsession even, is to get as many people to Mars as possible -- as fast as possible.​

And even if you don't agree with that goal, there's one other thing to consider:

Won't it be easier to explore the Red Planet if we are already there?​

What do you think? Explore or settle? Share your thoughts in the comments below. 


  1. Gary Brown 18 May, 2017 at 04:05 Reply

    Unless we plan for tomorrow, today all we will have is a one day anniversary of yesterday.
    Gary D Brown philosopher and
    Stem Support

  2. Peter 23 June, 2016 at 05:03 Reply

    Shame this excellent article only attracted the crazies…. I, for one, am putting my money on Elon Musk taking humanity to Mars and colonizing the place. I hope to live long enough to see it.

    • James Yancy 3 September, 2016 at 14:06 Reply

      I agree. I think Elon Musk and Space X has as good or better of a chance as anyone currently. He’s currently laying the groundwork for the capability, but he just might pull it off. Combined with the technologies being developed and used in conjunction with Tesla and Solar City, he might be able to develop a starting infrastructure as well . Electricity and mobility are going to be needed, and both companies are very much in the useful sphere of technologies that could supply much of those things.

  3. fj 15 January, 2016 at 03:16 Reply

    All these articles are great, but they assume that the level of technology is still essentially the same as used by Apollo – I.e. Use controlled bombs mounted under a pod to escape gravitational forces. Given the evidence that there is another level of technology altogether, one that has been developed quietly and secretly by a private, super-funded elite group in contact with extraterrestrials, it’s likely that the ‘pioneers’ who are putting these cool articles online on this website will meet with the true first settlers if and when they arrive on the Red Planet one day. The new documentary PACKING FOR MARS explores the fascinating story behind the possibility that there is indeed a type of ‘breakaway civilization’ playing with toys the rest of us can only dream of.

  4. Les 15 December, 2015 at 12:01 Reply

    They already been there they have five colonies on mars an a base on titan they also have eight large spacecraft that are bigger than a football field an have mastered artificial gravity sense the 1950 an hid it from us the bases on mars are mostly underground

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