The Four Primary Stages of Mars Settlement

These are what I imagine to be the four primary stages of human settlement of Mars:

  1. Human exploration
  2. Establishment of permanent colonies and infrastructure
  3. Formation of a Martian society
  4. Terraforming

Let’s briefly review each of these, before covering each in greater detail.

Stage 1: Human exploration

It could be said that “Robotic exploration” is the first, or preliminary stage of Mars settlement. This may be true, but since that process is largely underway, and because we’re talking about human settlement of Mars, I will skip it here other than to refer to robots in the context of human exploration and settlement. Robots will always be involved in human settlement of Mars, and in fact it seems that the robotics and space revolutions will occur (and are occurring) in parallel, each propelling the other forward. The more active we become in space, the more advanced our robots will become, and the more they will work alongside us, on Earth as well as in space.

This stage will encompass human activity on Mars, spanning from the first “Humans to Mars” (H2M) mission up until the establishment of the first permanent human colonies. It will include human missions organised by governmental space agencies, either operating independently or in collaboration with each other, and it may also include private exploration missions such as those proposed by Mars One or the Inspiration Mars Foundation.

The main purpose of this stage of Mars settlement is reconnaissance, experimentation, scientific research and other forms of knowledge gathering, accumulation of technological assets on the surface of Mars, and increasing public interest in human settlement in order to fund further human activity on Mars (such as the establishment of permanent colonies). This stage will be characterised by the development of exploration bases on Mars designed to support small crews of explorer-astronauts (up to, say, 8-10 people), comprising temporary surface habitats and greenhouses, ISRU and power production equipment, communications and positioning equipment, and surface excursion vehicles (rovers).

Stage 2: Establishment of permanent colonies and infrastructure

Once we have sufficient scientific knowledge of Mars, and have developed the necessary technology to support settlement – most importantly, how to obtain energy, air, water and food from Mars – we’ll be in a position to begin installing more permanent infrastructure. This will include settlements capable of supporting larger populations; say, up to 100 or 1000 people and eventually more.

Note that Stage 1 and Stage 2 serve to differentiate between the terms “base” and “settlement”. Although these terms are frequently used interchangeably, I prefer to treat them distinctly different modes of human habitation on Mars. The term “base” is used to refer to a temporary base of exploration designed to support up to about 10 people for short periods (say, up to 2-3 years at most). Although the site for a base may be developed over a long period, the components of a base are typically small and compact, and designed for short-term usage.

The term “settlement”, in contrast, refers to a permanent facility designed to support a growing population for a long period, perhaps indefinitely. Settlements will attract greater investment in infrastructure such as roads, power plants, telecommunications, satellites and so on, in order to support long term growth and expansion. Whereas bases will be supported from Earth and not designed to be self-sufficient, it will be the goal of most settlements to develop as great a degree of self-sufficiency as possible. Bases are more likely to be funded by governments, but settlements are more likely to be propped up by private enterprise. Bases are camps; settlements are towns.

Settlements will be much more capable and independent than the earlier exploration bases. Many will be partially underground in order to provide improved protection from radiation. Some may include business or industrial districts to support the formation of an economy within the settlement. Certainly, most will develop independence in the four basics of ISRU: energy, air, water and food.

Base Settlement
Up to ~10 people. Up to ~100 or ~1000 people.
Temporary structures; above ground. Permanent structures; partly underground.
Heath and safety level: survival. Healthy and safety level: comfort.
Dependent on support from Earth. Largely self-sufficient.
Funded mainly by government. Funded mainly by private enterprise.
Mainly concerned with science and engineering. Mainly concerned with tourism, mining, commerce, settlement.

Stage 3: Formation of a Martian society

The establishment of permanent settlements on Mars will sow the seeds of a Martian economy. Tourism, sports, mining, energy, manufacturing, property development, education, agriculture and other industries will begin to evolve. Babies will be born, children will grow up in the settlements, and the evolution of a new branch of humanity will begin.

We will begin to evolve our own rules for our new society, appropriate to the situation. These will be related to economics, commerce, law, government, religion/spirituality, health and fitness, relationships, transportation, timekeeping, education, and every other aspect of human society. Although each of these aspects will evolve from their counterparts on Earth, they will each also be adapted to Mars. The Martians will be living in a very unique situation compared with the rest of humanity – mostly indoors, highly dependent on technology and on each other, constantly innovating, safety always uppermost in their priorities, cognisant of the value of every life form, and (hopefully) with a buoyant enthusiasm and excitement about the future they’re creating on the new frontier. Our situation will affect the development of all of our systems, and it will be fascinating to watch it evolve (I will be an old man then but I’m looking forward to being part of it).

Most would agree that we will eventually outgrow our dependence on Earth, much as the US and other nations outgrew their dependence on England and other European colonial nations. (And how Australia hopefully will one day, too.)

Stage 4: Terraforming

The case could be made that terraforming qualifies as part of Stage 3, since it will occur in parallel, but planetary engineering is not what we would normally consider part of “forming a society”. Besides, terraforming is such a huge, long-term project, that it warrants its own discussion. The basis of Martian society will be well-established long before the ultimate goals of terraforming are achieved.

“Terraforming” refers to a specific mode of planetary engineering that involves making a planet other than Earth more like Earth. In the case of Mars, this will mean warming it up, thickening the atmosphere with oxygen and nitrogen, and gradually building up a hydrosphere and biosphere; in other words, covering Mars with water and life. The ultimate goal of terraforming is an uncontained biosphere. Humans and other Earthian life forms should be able to walk around on the surface of Mars unaided by genetic engineering or technology (at least, nothing more elaborate than a warm coat).

While many believe this to be impossible, or that it would take so long that it’s really a problem for our distant descendants and we shouldn’t bother our primitive minds with such ideas, there are also many of us who are fascinated by this possibility and enjoy thinking about it. If we truly wish to become multiplanetary, to the degree that we can ensure the survival of our species no matter what, then developing the capability to build uncontained biospheres on other worlds is essential.

If we look at the current exponential rate of development of human technology and capability, combined with what we already know about Mars and about modifying planetary environments, it is actually not that hard to imagine that Mars can be terraformed; perhaps within just a few centuries. Actually, quite a lot of serious thought has already gone into this topic, and if we add to this our current and evolving knowledge and expectations of robotics, AI, nanotechnology and genetic engineering, terraforming becomes a lot more believable.


I like to read, write, teach, travel, code, lift weights, play music, listen to music, make things out of wood, watch scifi movies, and play board games and computer games. My interests are broad, spanning science, engineering, architecture, technology, nutrition, environment, psychology, health, fitness, finance, business, and economics, but my main passions are spirituality, space settlement, and veganism. My ambition is to be a successful writer and speaker, and to create a company to produce awesome science fiction books, movies, and games that inspire people about the future. Eventually, I would also like to create vegan cafes and urban farms.

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5 comments on “The Four Primary Stages of Mars Settlement
  1. tanzanos says:

    So long as there is no magnetosphere on Mars then a thick atmosphere is not possible as the solar wind will continuously keep stripping it.


    • mossy2100 says:

      You’re right tanazos – but an artificial magnetosphere can be created on Mars by building a planet-circling conductor, which could also double as an electricity backbone for the planet. The challenge is how to generate sufficient energy to power the field. Right now it may seem beyond us, but I think (perhaps wishfully) our descendants will have the ability to generate much more power than we can.


      • Matt Heins says:

        The rate that we’d be adding gas will totally outpace solar wind stripping. Unless Mars was stripped down from 350-500mbar in the last few centuries, it’s not a problem.


    • Matt Heins says:

      That takes millions of years, so it isn’t relevant. Beyond our timescale.


  2. Bradley Grant says:

    Partial Terraform Mars

    For the reasons some have stated about Mars, not having a magnetic field, and atmosphere being striped away, I would find it hard to believe that Mars could be terraformed to become Earth like in less time than a very long time, perhaps many centuries to thousands of years.

    But I could see Mars being partially terraformed, every millibar of increased pressure would provide more protection against solar radiation, make it easier for aviation, less differential pressure for those working in space suits outside the habitats, help to warm up the atmosphere which would help to melt the CO2 at the poles further warming up the atmosphere, and increasing its pressure to the point humans could survive without pressure suits, but still needing oxygen.

    If I understand this right, plants can live in a thinner atmosphere than humans can, and also naturally breath CO2. So plants would be the first to take advantage of living in a partially terraformed Mars, which too would benefit the humans living on Mars. Full Earth like terraforming would come later, possibly much later. So I kind of see terraforming Mars as a 2 step process, partial and then full Earth like. Actually there may be multiple steps in partial Mars terraforming, and multiple more steps leading up to full Earth like terraforming, and at each step having its advantages.

    Just some of my thoughts for your blog which I have already found very interesting.


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