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Colonizing Mars: Comparing the Facts and the Fiction

Here’s how the most popular of today’s Mars-set science fiction stories line up with today’s science.

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  • Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox

Mars has long inspired science fiction writers, and the stories humans tell evolve with the science we’ve discovered.

Prior to 1965, stories written about Mars often speculated wildly about what we humans would find if we could just reach that mysterious world. But after NASA’s Mariner probe successfully flew by Mars—and robots were regularly sent to the planet to take photos—authors had actual scientific data with which to work. Consequently, subsequent hard science fiction stories set on Mars were modeled off humanity’s expanding scientific understanding of the real planet.

Given Elon Musk’s ambitious plan to build a thriving Martian colony within the next half-century, and NASA’s intention to get humans to Mars sometime in the 2030s, humanity is now more fascinated by the prospect of making a home on the Red Planet than ever before. That fascination is reflected in the plethora of fiction available about sending humans to Mars. But how accurate are these beloved Martian tales?

Here’s how the most popular of today’s Mars-set science fiction stories line up with today’s science.

Up, Up and Away

The first step to colonizing Mars is, of course, leaving Earth, but this is often overlooked in science fiction, waved away as a dull detail of engineering. Andy Weir’s The Martian (and the 2015 movie adaptation) doesn’t skimp on this essential step. The movie used artists’ representations of NASA’s under-development heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System, to give its fiction credibility. The Martian incorporated NASA’s real-life plans to explain how its characters break free of Earth’s gravity well on the journey to Mars. This is in stark contrast to most other movies about Mars expeditions, such as Red Planet (2000), which skip over the leaving-Earth part entirely.

RELATED: There Really Is Life on Mars (That We Sent There)

Are We There Yet?

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  • Mission to Mars

    Photo Credit: Touchstone Pictures

In real life, the flight to Mars could take an estimated six months or more. And a journey of that duration may be complicated by the psychological toll of crowding too many people in tight quarters, particularly if any of those people are romantically involved.

The 2000 movie Mission to Mars  posits that married couples would have a stable relationship during the journey to Mars, but real life is more ambiguous. Astronauts Jan Davis and Mark Lee secretly married before launching on the space shuttle in 1992 and completed their mission without fuss. But a love triangle involving astronauts Lisa Nowak and Bill Oefelein blew up spectacularly in 2007 without even leaving Earth. Research is mixed on how a romantic relationship onboard might impact a mission. Although couples on a long journey have the sanity-preserving option to confide and seek comfort in one another, it could be dangerous if any inter-couple conflicts spill into the workplace.

Romantic relationships aside, there are considerable challenges in just keeping humans alive during the long trip to Mars. Along with supplying food, water, air, and power, spacecraft need to provide radiation protection for squishy biological life forms.

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Red Planet nods to this in a scene where a burst of radiation from the sun damages the spaceship. The fictional engineers are portrayed as downright negligent for failing to radiation harden their electrical systems against an easily anticipated hazard, even though the magnitude of the burst is greater than anything we’ve measured or predicted from our Sun in real life. Although Red Planet exaggerates the potential of radiation bursts, solar storms outside the protection of Earth’s magnetic field are one of the substantial challenges that face any journey to Mars.

Unfortunately, those challenges won’t end when Mars-bound humans finally reach their destination.

Seven Minutes of Terror

Landing on Mars was justifiably nicknamed “seven minutes of terror” by NASA after the Curiosity rover’s difficult descent to the surface in 2012. The journey from Mars’ orbit to the surface is challenging because the atmosphere is too thin for friction and parachutes to slow spacecraft down. Real-life robotic explorers on Mars use a variety of landing techniques, not all of which have been successful. The TV miniseries Race to Mars (2007) highlighted this challenge in a grim tribute to probes lost, opening with a lander crashing into the unforgiving surface.

RELATED: Seven Minutes of Terror: The Phoenix Mars Mission

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  • Sky Crane Detail

    Photo Credit: NASA

Red Planet also references real-life Mars landings. Filmed after the NASA Pathfinder lander safely bounced to a rest muffled in airbags, Red Planet padded its fictional escape pods the same way for its heroes to safely arrive on the planet’s surface.

Once humans stick their Martian landing, survival will depend on our ability to develop self-sustaining bases that harvest local materials and convert them into the essentials for life.In science fiction, as is the case with The Martian, these bases are often later destroyed. But while many things can go wrong on Mars, for any real-life human expeditions, protocols will exist to minimize risk as much as possible.

RELATED: We Finally Know More About the NASA Mars Mission 

Spacecraft regularly ping home status reports, telemetry, and data. If a robot goes silent, as happened during the European Space Agency’s recent attempt at landing in Schiaparelli crater, its human operators back on Earth know something is amiss right away and can task other Mars resources to gather data on its status. This means that base status will always be known. Red Planet shows astronauts arriving on Mars to find their base destroyed, but in real life, extensive monitoring and precautions would likely prevent that from ever happening. Similarly, Mars is under constant surveillance, so processes like massive dust storms will be monitored far in advance. This is hinted at in The Martian, although the movie then depicts unrealistically strong winds in the planet’s whisper-thin atmosphere.

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  • Red Planet

    Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Countless movies feature Mars explorers wandering off alone, only to meet an abrupt and grisly fate. Yet real-life astronauts and fieldworkers use the buddy system, sticking in pairs to be able to provide immediate aid in case of injury and offer greater situational awareness. Similarly, leaving the habitats completely unoccupied, as happens in Mission to Mars, would be a preposterous failure of basic common sense—imagine if every astronaut on the International Space Station simultaneously went on a spacewalk! Someone always stays behind to monitor conditions, relay situational awareness from remote observatories, and provide support in case of disaster.

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Another idea that shows up frequently in Mars fiction is missions scavenging parts from prior missions—Red Planet, Race to Mars, and The Martian all feature this plot point. While this reuse would reduce the need for local manufacturing, in real life, humans would have to cover vast distances over prohibitively difficult terrain to recycle equipment. Reaching crashed, defunct, and abandoned robots to scavenge parts would be a substantial quest. Lower gravity may make it easier for humans to travel further under their own power, but this is countered by the difficulty of working in such a thin atmosphere and wearing extensive protective gear.

Home Sweet Martian Home

Most fictional accounts of Mars colonies envision long-term habitation. Sometimes the stories are set in protected spaces and domed cities, like the habitat in The Martian or the cities in 1990’s Total Recall. Other stories transform all of Mars into a second Earth through large-scale terraforming.

The science of terraforming is currently under active research and has been well represented in fiction. In Frederick Turner’s Genesis, Mars is terraformed using genetically engineered bacteria; in Red Planet, it’s accomplished using algae; and in Kim Stanley Robinson’s book trilogy Red Mars, humans use complex multifaceted engineering to produce Earth-like conditions. Changing an entire planet’s atmosphere and ecosystems is a large, long-scale project. Many stories featuring terraforming take place over multiple generations during the transition (Red Mars), or are set partway through the transition from hostile to hospitable, as in the horror sci-fi movie Ghosts of Mars (2001), and William Hartmann’s Mars Underground.

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  • Red Mars Trilogy

While people continue to develop schemes for attempting widespread climate engineering, the plausibility of successfully exercising careful, deliberate control over planetary atmospheres seems low given current struggles with geo-engineering climate change on Earth.

RELATED: 10 Space-tacular Books Like The Martian 

Red Dystopia

The biggest place where fact and fiction intersect when it comes to Mars isn’t science, but sociology. How humans will govern themselves on Mars is explored in great detail in the Red Mars trilogy, including debating the ethics of modifying Mars to suit human needs.

On Earth, remote research stations run by government agencies and resource camps run by commercial companies are hierarchical in structure. It’s plausible that this power structure would also extend to similar outposts on Mars, and these rigid governing structures would control access to essential resources like air and water. This is a key source of power for the tyranny in Total Recall: Displeased leaders can control rebellious troublemakers by cutting off their ability to breathe.

Some fiction imagines more egalitarian governance structures, even predicting residents of Mars joining in an interplanetary democracy. But like historical colonies separated by vast distances from their founding community, this often leads to struggles for independence. Both Greg Bear’s book Moving Mars and the TV series Babylon 5 feature Martian residents trying to break free of Earth’s authority.

Let’s Get Our Asses to Mars

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  • Journey to Mars

    Photo Credit: NASA

Humanity’s dream of colonizing Mars is closer to reality than ever. With countries and companies joining the modern-day space race, what used to feel like pure fiction may soon be within our grasp.

Hopefully, the plans articulated by NASA, SpaceX, Boeing, and others will inspire a new generation of stories set on Mars. But just as science fiction draws inspiration from real life, future Mars colonizers can look to the creativity of others for help envisioning how humans can make a home beyond Earth.

Featured still from "The Martian" via Twentieth Century Fox; Additional photos: NASA; NASA

This article was originally published in 2016.