What would a home on Mars look like? What sort of clothes would we wear on the Red Planet? And how would we grow our food? The answers to some of these questions are beautifully imagined in a new exhibition, “Moving to Mars,” at London’s Design Museum.
The race is on for a successful manned mission to Mars, with NASA leading a pack of public and private institutions competing to be the first to land, including Elon Musk’s Space X, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Boeing, and the China National Space Administration.
NASA plans to launch a manned mission in the 2030s, a timeframe shared by other private groups, although this goal might be more aspirational than realistic. Many technologies required don’t yet exist, including the spacecraft, which are either under development or at the prototype stage. What a Mars mission would look like is far from clear, with some teams planning to build a full-blown Martian habitat, while others foresee orbiting stations that could function as launch pads for limited trips to the surface. But it’s not too early to dream, nor to start imagining how it will all take shape.
Centered on the role that design will play in sending humans to Mars, the exhibition is rich with historical materials but also more forward-looking or speculative elements, with a wide range of works by designers from various fields.
Curator Eleanor Watson said the designs on show were response to questions about future Mars missions. “Such as what would microgravity clothing need to look like, what would a Mars habitat look like, very speculative questions on what the planet might look in 1,000 or even 10,000 years,” said Watson in a phone interview.
Among the experimental works is a fashion collection by sustainable design company RÆBURN, which imagines clothing to be used inside Martian habitats, tailored from recycled spacecraft materials.
“At $18,000 per kilo of payload, sending stuff to Mars is expensive, so anything that you bring with you, you have to be able to reuse intelligently. All of the rovers that are being flown over, for example, come with landing parachutes. What are you gonna use these parachutes for after the landing? Well, one option would be to make all of the clothing for the astronauts from them,” said Watson.
The exhibition includes five architectural projects for potential Mars habitat modules, all derived from NASA’s 3D Printing Habitat Challenge, a $3 million competition to build 3D-printed homes for deep space exploration. One of them, by London-based international design firm Hassell, is scaled up to full size, for people to get into and explore.
“Hassell very kindly agreed to make a one-to-one scale mockup of one of their modules and it’s six meters in diameter. It includes a system that would allow you to reconfigure the space easily. They’ve created a group of six modules that link together and are covered by a shield to protect from radiation. These six modules are in a ring, so that you have an internal courtyard and when you’re in one module, even though it’s quite small, there’s a big window and you can see across and see what other people are up to,” said Watson.
Outside of habitats, normal clothes won’t cut it in the thin and unbreathable Martian atmosphere. Astonauts will need space suits, such as the NDX-1, one of the very first designed for Mars, by two University of North Dakota engineers, Gary L. Harris and Dr de Leon. Compared to suits designed for the Apollo Moon program, for example, Mars suits would need to be much more flexible, as they would be worn for months or even years rather than just days.
Currently, exploration of Mars is done solely by robots, and there have been four successful landings of rovers on the surface of the planet, with only one of them, Curiosity, still operational. The exhibition includes a replica of Rosalind Franklin, a Mars rover that will be launched in 2020 by the European Space Agency and will land in 2021. It’s named after an English scientist who made crucial discoveries about DNA, and was previously known as ExoMars. “It’s a lab on wheels and it’s going to drill quite far down into the Martian surface, to try and find traces of life,” said Watson.
Among the historical documents on display is the very first map of Mars, drawn by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877. He identified darker and lighter features of the map as seas and continents. “He also famously described the straight lines he saw on the surface as canali, which then was translated as “canals” rather than “channels” and sparked the canal craze that led to the misconception that there might be or have been intelligent life on Mars,” said Watson.
The interactive components of the show will focus on a multi-sensory experience designed to simulate the conditions on the surface of Mars, complete with smells and sound, and a family trail that invites visitors of all ages to solve their own design challenges, by completing tasks set by experts including British astronaut Tim Peake.
While Mars has always been a fascinating subject for scientists, designers and dreamers alike, interest for the Red Planet has reached its peak in recent years. That might be down to the fact that the technologies required to go there are now mature. But it’s also due to the current state of our own planet, argues Watson.
“The climate crisis is — rightly — frightening a lot of people, and there is a tendency to think of Mars as a sort of escape hatch for humanity, a planet B, which is very dangerous and problematic,” said Watson.
“But I think that the endeavor is worthwhile, because all the technologies required to develop a mission to Mars, such as zero waste habitats and sustainable farming, have very tangible earth applications that we need right now.”