Making the First Martians: Building an Economy on Mars

By Matt Williams | 17 May 2020

A habitat design for future living on Mars, by artist Bryan Versteeg. (Source: Room)

Welcome back to our series on Martian colonization! In Part I, we looked at the challenges and benefits of colonization. In Part II, we looked at what it would take to transport people to and from Mars. In Part III, we looked at how people could live there. Today, we will address the question of how people could establish an industrial base there.

If we intend to “go interplanetary” and establish a colony on Mars, we need to know how to address the long-term needs of the colonists. In addition to shelter, air, water, food security, and radiation shielding, the people will need to create an economy of sorts. The question is, what kind of industry would Mars support?

There’s Gold in Them Thar’ Hills!

One of the main reasons why Mars is considered an attractive location for a colony is the similarities it has to Earth. Like Earth, it’s a terrestrial (aka. rocky) planet that’s composed primarily of metals and silicate minerals, which are differentiated between a metallic core and a silicate mantle and crust.

There’s also evidence of plentiful metals that are precious and/or could be useful for industrial applications. Studies of Martian meteorites, as well as evidence gathered by robotic landers and rovers, have detected aluminum, iron, magnesium, and titanium, as well as trace amounts as chromium, lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, zinc, tungsten, and gold.

The Spirit and Opportunity rovers have also found meteorites of iron-nickel and small spherical balls of iron oxide (known as “blueberries“) on the surface. For this reason, advocates of Martian colonization (similar to asteroid mining and lunar colonization) have often argued that a base there would allow for precious metals to be extracted and exported back to Earth.

Manufacturing It All

Mars’ plentiful silica and minerals would be useful for creating building materials. As we addressed in a previous post, silica could be melted down using microwaves (a process known as “sintering”) and then 3D-printed to build structures. Alternately, the silica could be mixed with a bonding agent and aerogel to create lightweight and durable bricks or “Marscrete.”

Similarly, metals could be fashioned into various building materials using the same technology – which includes support beams, rebar, and wire mesh out of iron, aluminum, titanium, and other metals. Precious and rare earth elements metals could also be fashioned into high-end electronic components.

So while the initial settlement would most likely need to rely on pre-fabricated structures to a point, Martian colonists could create a viable industry for building materials before long. This would remove the need to import building materials or pre-fab structures and could become a part of a sustainable economy.

Economics of Adventure

While mining is an attractive option, getting all that ore back to Earth where it can be processed in a cost-effective way remains one of the biggest challenges for creating a Martian economy (more on that below). For this reason, real estate is likely to be the main economic draw of a Martian colony, at least initially.

Transport services would also be promising, assuming people are eager to move to Mars. The key to this is to make the prospect of buying land on Mars attractive. Already, there are those who are eager because they like the challenge of a “new frontier” and creating an outpost of civilization.

There’s also the appeal of being paid to do important work and going where one is needed. As Musk said during his famous speech, “Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species“:

“If we can get the cost of moving to Mars to the cost of a median house price in the U.S., which is around $200,000, then I think the probability of establishing a self-sustaining civilization is very high… and Mars would have a labor shortage for a long time so jobs wouldn’t be in short supply.”

Cost of Doing Business

As noted, the biggest challenge in creating an economy on Mars is transportation. This is certainly true when it comes to mining. Why send ships to and from Mars to haul ore when you mine it on Earth for a fraction of the cost? To even begin to make Martian mining viable, we’d need much faster spacecraft.

In this case, nuclear-thermal/nuclear-electric propulsion (NTP/NEP) is a good option, one which NASA is currently investigating. Properly realized, this technology could reduce the time it takes to travel between Earth and Mars (once every two years) to just 100 days.

Another potential solution would be to have automated robots that leverage In-situ resource utilization (ISRU) and 3D printing to mine and process ores on-site. In a recent study, planetary scientist Gary Stewart described how such a facility could be established in a metal-rich crater on Mars.

Robotic miners would be responsible for extracting ores while automated foundries use 3D printing techniques to create iron-alloy products. Similarly, precious metals could be fashioned into bullion, electronic components, and even jewelry products.

Based on Stewart’s estimates, a daily gold production “of just 0.001 m³ can translate into multi-billion-dollar annual revenue from all precious-metal products.” This revenue could be used to create more facilities, which in turn could be used to establish a colony and other economic infrastructure.

Ground-Up Economy

Then again, maybe the idea of building an economy around the harvesting and export of resources, perhaps we should be looking to build an economy “from the ground up”. This idea was proposed by Prof. Matthew Weinzierl of Harvard Business School in a 2018 study titled “Space, the Final Economic Frontier.”

According to Weinzierl, once the process of building the infrastructure necessary for survival is done, colonists would be able to build an economy and political/social systems from scratch. As he states:

“If such space-economy visions are even partially realized, the implications for society – and economists – will be enormous. After all, it will be our best chance in human history to create and study economic societies from a (nearly) blank slate.”

In short, Mars could be a chance to build a self-sustaining economy and an entirely new society from scratch. Perhaps multiple colonies will be created, each one a social experiment with its own set of rules and values. In time, maybe these societies will flourish and even teach us Earthlings a few things!

Viewed from this perspective, the idea that we would want to build a colony on Mars for the benefit of Earth seems rather selfish. Then again, the name of the game is “how do we pay for it?” After all, any Martian colony will have to pay for itself to be sustainable. So asking what she should do might be a bit pointless.

Regardless of how we do it, one thing is certain: there is no shortage of people who want to see a Martian colony established within their lifetime. There are even those who are committed to making it happen. And a key part of that is finding ways to make it pay!

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Matt Williams is a professional writer, lecturer, and science fiction author whose articles appear in Universe Today, Interesting Engineering, HeroX, Popular Mechanics, and other publications. His first collection of novels is available through Amazon, Audible, and Castrum Press. He lives in Esquimalt, BC, Canada. For more info, check out:⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣,⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ and Follow him at Twitter.

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