In October, an international cohort of thinkers beamed into the virtual 2021 conference of the Mars Society, which has advocated colonizing the planet since 1998. In an age of low-cost rocket launches and Shatner space jaunts, it was a sign of how attainable the possibility of reaching Mars suddenly seems that the discussions were often about mundane logistics. How would criminals be jailed? What would safe sex mean in a low-gravity, low-oxygen environment? Should Mars have a Catholic diocese?

For many people, putting boots on the dusty Martian soil, or regolith, feels closer than ever, or at least as close as something requiring a six-month, 140 million-mile flight can. Both NASA and Elon Musk’s SpaceX have said they’re aiming for a human touchdown on Mars within the next two decades. That’s led a growing group of urban planners, architects, designers, astrophysicists, entrepreneurs, and philosophers to start rolling out renderings of what Martian cities and homes could be like.

Many scientists view Mars as a better candidate for long-term settlement than Earth’s moon. Yes, whatever water it has is believed to be frozen in underground lakes. The atmosphere is also 95% carbon dioxide and extremely thin, and exposure to solar radiation is more intense. But the regolith is nutrient-rich, if mildly toxic. Ore deposits containing iron, aluminum, and other minerals abound. And Mars’ gravitational pull is only 38% of Earth’s, meaning it would be easier to lift heavy things there. “It’s kind of an architect’s dream,” says Bjarke Ingels, founder and creative director of architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group, or BIG.

Ingels is among a number of architects and designers creating schematics and solutions for future colonies. They’re drawing inspiration from early explorers such as Polynesian island-hoppers and European sailors. For these pioneers, “learning to live off the land has always been kind of a prerequisite of success,” says Jason Ballard, the co-founder and chief executive officer of construction technology company Icon, which has partnered with BIG to create a 1,700-square-foot prototype habitat called Mars Dune Alpha.

A lot has to happen, of course, before any city can be built on Mars, even beyond the considerable task of landing a human safely on its surface. Lucy Berthoud, a professor of space systems engineering at the University of Bristol, says it would likely require humankind to build a base beyond the International Space Station’s orbit, to help fine-tune the processes for safely completing a six-month journey to Mars. Scientists also have to master the technology needed to extract oxygen and water from the CO2 on Mars, as part of an approach to commandeering available materials called in situ resource utilization. “That is a big enabler in terms of, firstly, breathing,” Berthoud says. “But also in terms of fuel, for coming back.” There’s work to be done, too, on refining 3D-printing technology so it’s capable of building large habitats out of regolith.

“If somebody says to me, ‘Can we do it tomorrow?’ I would say yes,” Berthoud says, “as long as you throw the resources—the human resources, but also the budget—at it.”

Skeptics say this is precisely the problem: Faced with the challenge of limiting carbon emissions or curtailing growth to preserve Earth, it’s cynical at best and shameful at worst to instead spend billions of dollars to flee the planet. But the most ardent advocates for colonization argue that Mars can be a testing ground for sustainable ways of living. Economic systems, environmentally friendly technologies, and architecture developed there could, in their view, make Earth’s cities stronger. The most optimistic among them believe Martian settlers will have a unique chance to create more just, equitable, and bountiful societies. After all, they’ll have centuries of trial and error from which to draw. Guillem Anglada-Escudé, an astrophysicist who was one of the key scientific minds behind Nüwa, a Martian settlement project conceived by the think tank SONet and the architecture and design studio Abiboo, envisions colonization as a collectivist effort, driven by pioneers willing to “contribute as much as possible.”

“Like Thomas Paine said with the American Revolution, we hold it in our power to begin the world anew,” says Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society. “We want to try to bring as much of the best as we can and leave as much of the worst behind.”

Left unsaid is that the American Revolution also brought displacement, enslavement, and environmental degradation. “There’s a paradox where every 10 or 15 years, we find this idea popping up in culture that this new technology that’s just around the corner will end scarcity, and lack, and injustice,” says Fred Scharmen, author of the forthcoming book Space Forces: A Critical History of Life in Outer Space and an architecture and urban design teacher at Morgan State University in Baltimore. It was going to be the motor vehicle, the skyscraper, or the personal computer. “How many times,” he asks, “are we gonna really keep falling for this?”

Even so, some of these technologies are showing promise for making things better here on Earth. Interstellar Lab, a biosystems technology company, is building a modular system of inflatable, enclosed domes designed for incubating flowers, vegetables, and insects in harsh environments. Someday they could be used to help feed Martian colonists; for now Interstellar is taking preorders from companies hoping to use them on Earth.

The needs of Martian settlement—mass-producing modular housing, building infrastructure without depending on fossil fuels, creating self-sustaining systems that draw on local resources—are all terrestrial necessities, too. “There’s no point going to Mars if we don’t look after us,” Berthoud says. “We’ll have nowhere to come back to.”

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