Escape to Mars after we’ve trashed the Earth?

find-another-planet-climate-changeThe idea that we can go to Mars is touted by NASA, Elon Musk, and so many others that this dream seems just around the corner.  If we destroy our planet with climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss, soil erosion, aquifer depletion and more, no problem!  We can go to Mars.

Though not if peak oil arrives, which it may have in October 2018, there won’t be fuel to get there, and certainly none to return to Earth.

But as Ugo Bardi points out in his book Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet we already have gone to another planet by exploiting Earth so ruthlessly that we have changed our planet into another world.

“The planet has been plundered to the utmost limit, and what we will be left with are only the ashes of a gigantic fire. We are leaving to our descendants a heavy legacy in terms of radioactive waste, heavy metals dispersed all over the planet, and greenhouse gases—mainly CO2—accumulated in the atmosphere and absorbed in the oceans. It appears that we found a way to travel to another planet without the need for building spaceships.  It is not obvious that we’ll like the place, but there is no way back; we’ll have to adapt to the new conditions. It will not be easy, and we can speculate that it will lead to the collapse of the structure we call civilization, or even the extinction of the human species”.

Alice Friedemann  author of “Life After Fossil Fuels: A Reality Check on Alternative Energy“, 2021, Springer; “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer; Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Go to Mars?  Really?  Been there, done that on Earth, and it didn’t work out: Biosphere 2

Remember the $250 million 3.14 acre sealed Biosphere 2 complex near Tucson, Arizona?  It was built to show how colonists could survive on Mars and other space colonization but they only made it for 2 years ON EARTH.

Eight people sealed themselves inside in 1991, planning to live on the food they grew, recycled water, and the oxygen made by plants.

Some of the reasons the Biosphere failed are:

  • Oxygen fell from 20.9% to 14.5%, the equivalent of 13,400 feet elevation and after 18 months oxygen was pumped in
  • Carbon dioxide levels fluctuated wildly
  • Pests ran riot, especially crazy ants, cockroaches, and katydids. Nematodes and broad mites attacked the crops. Most of the other insect species went extinct.
  • Not enough food could be grown
  • It cost $600,000 a year to keep it cool
  • Extinction: The projected started out with 25 small vertebrates but only 6 species survived
  • Species included to pollinate plants such as hummingbirds and honey bees died
  • Water systems were polluted with too many nutrients
  • Morning glories smothered other plants
  • The weather was so cloudy the first few months that crops barely grew, leading to the Biospherians breaking into a 3-month supply of food that had been secretly hidden
  • The level of dinitrogen oxide became dangerously high, which can cause brain damage due to a lowered ability to synthesize vitamin B12

Astronauts will be damaged in space

We can’t go to Mars. Cosmic radiation in space is too harmful, bombarding  humans with the densely ionizing radiation found in space.  Mice who’ve been through this get dementia, suffer significant long-term brain damage, have cognitive impairments, lose memory and learning ability, critical decision making and problem solving skills, neuronal damage, and other cognitive defects (Parihar 2015, 2016).  Moon-walking humans are blasted with 200 times the radiation on Earth (Fox 2020).

Other studies have shown studies have shown the health risks from galactic cosmic ray exposure to astronauts include cancer, central nervous system effects, cataracts, circulatory diseases and acute radiation syndromes.

A recent study has shown that the risk of cancer is actually twice as high as what previous models had estimated for a Mars mission.  And cosmic radiation could not only damage gastrointestinal tissue, but increase the risk of tumors in the stomach and colon (Kumar 2018).

On top of that, going to space deforms brain tissue, perhaps permanently (Daley 2018).  Many astronauts have vision problems for years after returning from space from increased brain volume of 2% on average, perhaps because of pressure on the optic nerve (Kramer 2020).

The Biology of Spaceflight collection of 30 studies published in the journals Cell, Cell Reports, Cell Systems, Patterns and iScience lists the following risks for deep space missions: DNA damage, oxidative stress, alterations of telomere length, shifts in the microbiome, mitochondrial dysfunction and gene regulation. These changes on a cellular and molecular level can have a significant impact on astronaut health, both during and after their missions on the cardiovascular, central nervous, musculoskeletal, immune and gastrointestinal systems, as well as changes in vision. Increased cancer risks are also associated with these changes and blood cells with mutations spread more quickly than others, a potential risk for cardiovascular disease, lymphoma and leukemia. So far, missions to the space station have not exceeded a year, but deep space missions to Mars could last up to five years (Strickland 2020).

Terraforming Mars to be like Earth (Carson 2020, Steigerwald 2018)

Terraforming is the concept of making a planet more hospitable to humans, and it’s been cropping up in pop culture since the early 1900s.

The planet, about 70% the size of Earth, has an atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide and boasts an average temperature of -81 degrees Fahrenheit (-62 degrees Celsius). Because the atmospheric pressure is less than 1% of Earth’s (0.6%), there’s not much shielding from radiation. At best vaporizing the ice caps would increase CO2 enough to a pressure of 1.2% of Earth’s.  Heating soil would add another 4%, I’d like to see the size and energy consumption of that contraption.  And then even larger strip mining machines could try to squeeze CO2 out of the rocks below, for another 5%.

Mars does not retain enough carbon dioxide that could practically be put back into the atmosphere to warm Mars, according to a new NASA-sponsored study.   At best if all water vapor and carbon dioxide on Mars were exploited the pressure would only increase to 7% of Earth’s.  Nor is much of the CO2 or water accessible.

Mars atmosphere is too think and cold to support liquid water, which is essential for life. If energy were used to melt ice it would quickly evaporate or freeze.

Other cockamamie ideas require building giant orbital mirrors to reflect sunlight to raise the temperature of Mars, melt the frozen water to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, build factories to pump out artificial greenhouse gases like fluorocarbon gases, or harness tens of thousands of ammonia-rich asteroids, aligning them to hit Mars.

Better yet do what SpaceX founder Elon Musk advises: Nuke Mars. He insists that chucking nuclear bombs at the ice caps could melt the ice and put sufficient carbon dioxide into the air.

It turns out humans can’t do any of this.  Terraforming is way beyond the scale of any engineering we’ve ever attempted as humans.

Missions to mars can’t possibly carry enough food so astronauts will need to grow their own.  So far soil similar to what is on Mars is unable to grow plants, probably because the soil on Earth is full of microbes and other organic matter that helps plants grow, while Mars dirt is basically crushed rock. It will take a lot of effort to transform that material into something that plants can grow in.  Plus 2% of the Martian surface is calcium perchlorate, a toxic salt that keeps plants from growing (Temming 2020).

Dvorsky, G. 2019. Humans will never colonize Mars.

The Red Planet is a cold, dead place, with an atmosphere about 100 times thinner than Earth’s. The paltry amount of air that does exist on Mars is primarily composed of noxious carbon dioxide, which does little to protect the surface from the Sun’s harmful rays. Air pressure on Mars is very low; at 600 Pascals, it’s only about 0.6 percent that of Earth. You might as well be exposed to the vacuum of space, resulting in a severe form of the bends—including ruptured lungs, dangerously swollen skin and body tissue, and ultimately death. The thin atmosphere also means that heat cannot be retained at the surface. The average temperature on Mars is -81 degrees Fahrenheit (-63 degrees Celsius), with temperatures dropping as low as -195 degrees F (-126 degrees C). By contrast, the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was at Vostok Station in Antarctica, at -128 degrees F (-89 degrees C) on June 23, 1982. Once temperatures get below the -40 degrees F/C mark, people who aren’t properly dressed for the occasion can expect hypothermia to set in within about five to seven minutes.

Gravity on the Red Planet is 0.375 that of Earth’s, which means a 180-pound person on Earth would weigh a scant 68 pounds on Mars. While that might sound appealing, this low-gravity environment would likely wreak havoc to human health in the long term, and possibly have negative impacts on human fertility.

When it comes to terraforming Mars, there’s also the logistics to consider, and the materials available to the geoengineers who would dare to embark upon such a multi-generational project. In their 2018 Nature paper, Bruce Jakosky and Christopher Edwards from the University of Colorado, Boulder sought to understand how much carbon dioxide would be needed to increase the air pressure on Mars to the point where humans could work on the surface without having to wear pressure suits, and to increase temperature such that liquid water could exist and persist on the surface. Jakosky and Edwards concluded that there’s not nearly enough CO2 on Mars required for terraforming, and that future geoengineers would have to somehow import the required gases to do so.

A recent Nature study showed that radiation on Mars is far worse than we thought. Depending on the degree of exposure, excessive radiation can result in skin burns, radiation sickness, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

Life in a Martian colony would be miserable, with people forced to live in artificially lit underground bases, or in thickly protected surface stations with severely minimized access to the outdoors. Life in this closed environment, with limited access to the surface, could result in other health issues related to exclusive indoor living, such as depression, boredom from lack of stimulus, an inability to concentrate, poor eyesight, and high blood pressure—not to mention a complete disconnect from nature. And like the International Space Station, Martian habitats will likely be a microbial desert, hosting only a tiny sample of the bacteria needed to maintain a healthy human microbiome.

We assume humans could reproduce on Mars, but that’s an open question. Casting aside the deleterious effects of radiation on the developing fetus, there’s the issue of conception to consider in the context of living in a minimal gravity environment. We don’t know how sperm and egg will act on Mars, or how the first critical stages of conception will occur. And most of all, we don’t know how low gravity will affect the mother and fetus. The developing fetus, she said, is likely to sit higher up in the womb owing to the lower gravity, which will press upon the mother’s diaphragm, making it hard for the mother to breathe. The low gravity may also “confuse” the gestational process, delaying or interfering with critical phases of the fetus’ development, such as the fetus dropping by week 39. On Earth, bones, muscles, the circulatory system, and other aspects of human physiology develop by working against gravity.

The toxins in the soil will kill humans, plants, and bacteria

If there’s any life on Mars, it’s deep down because there are three toxins in the soil inimical to life — perchlorates, iron oxides, and hydrogen peroxide. The high levels of perchlorate found on Mars would be toxic to humans and almost certainly breathed in as very fine dust particles entered space suits or habitats.  Plants would be poisoned too, and even if a way were found to get these toxins out of the soil it wouldn’t matter, there are no nutrients in the soil.


And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of problems with going to Mars which Mary Roach’s delightful and hilarious book explains in “Packing for Mars“.

Rocket propulsion depends on fossil fuels, yet here we are at the cusp of the end of the oil age.  In a hundred years, they’ll be gone and we won’t be able to get to Mars or the Moon.

If only people appreciated how marvelous our planet is, and what a shame it would be if we destroyed our species, we may be the only intelligent, conscious life in the universe  (see Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe).

Poetry says it best: “This Splendid Speck” by Paul Boswell

There are no peacocks on Venus,
No oak trees or water lilies on Jupiter,
No squirrels or whales or figs on Mercury,
No anchovies on the moon;
And inside the rings of Saturn
There is no species that makes poems
and Intercontinental missiles.

Eight wasted planets,
Several dozen wasted moons.
In all the Sun’s half-lighted entourage
One unbelievable blue and white exception,

This breeding, feeding, bleeding,
Cloud-peekaboo Earth,
Is not dead as a diamond.

This splendid speck,
This DNA experiment station,
Where life seems, somehow,
To have designed or assembled itself;
Where Chance and Choice
Play at survival and extinction;
Where molecules beget molecules,
And mistakes in the begetting
May be inconsequential,
Or lethal or lucky;

Where life everywhere eats live
And reproduction usually outpaces cannibalism;
This bloody paradise
Where, under the Northern lights,
Sitting choirs of white wolves
Howl across the firmament
Their chill Te Deums.

Where, in lower latitudes, matter more articulate
Gets a chance at consciousness
And invents The Messiah, or The Marseillaise,
The Ride of the Valkyries, or The Rhapsody in Blue.

This great blue pilgrim gyroscope,
Warmer than Mars, cooler than Venus,
Old turner of temperate nights and days,
This best of all reachable worlds,
This splendid speck.

For more information see the 2013 NewScientist article “Biosphere 2: saving the world within the world” and Wiki.


Carson, E. 2020. Terraforming Mars might be impossible… for now Making Mars more Earth-like would be a gargantuan task.

Cucinotta, F., A., et al. 2017. Non-Targeted Effects Models Predict Significantly Higher Mars Mission Cancer Risk than Targeted Effects Models. Scientific Reports.

Daley, J. October 26, 2018. Hanging Out in Space Deforms Brain Tissue, New Cosmonaut Study Suggests. While gray matter shrinks, cerebrospinal fluid increases. What’s more: These changes do not completely resolve once back on Earth.

Fox A (2020) Moonwalking Humans Get Blasted With 200 Times the Radiation Experienced on Earth. Smithsonian.

Kramer, L.A., et al. 2020. Intracranial effects of microgravity: A prospective longitudinal MRI study. Neuroradiology.

Kumar, S. et al., 2018. Space radiation triggers persistent stress response, increases senescent signaling, and decreases cell migration in mouse intestine. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Parihar, V. K. 2015. What happens to your brain on the way to Mars. Science advances.

Parihar, V. K., et al. 2016. Cosmic radiation exposure and persistent cognitive dysfunction. Scientific Reports.

Steigerwald, B., et al. 2018. Mars terraforming not possible using present-day technology.  NASA.

Strickland A (2020) Astronauts experience these key changes in space that could impact their health, new research shows. CNN.

Temming M (2020) Farming on Mars will be a lot harder than ‘The Martian’ made it seem. The Washington Post.


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11 Responses to Escape to Mars after we’ve trashed the Earth?

  1. Here’s a TED talk (Jan 14, 2016) on the inadvisability of looking to Mars as a place we could live:

    “Stellar astronomer and TED Senior Fellow Lucianne Walkowicz works on NASA’s Kepler mission, searching for places in the universe that could support life. So it’s worth a listen when she asks us to think carefully about Mars. In this short talk, she suggests that we stop dreaming of Mars as a place that we’ll eventually move to when we’ve messed up Earth, and to start thinking of planetary exploration and preservation of the Earth as two sides of the same goal. As she says, ‘The more you look for planets like Earth, the more you appreciate our own planet.'”

  2. If humans ever go to Mars, it would likely be a one way trip.

    A suicide mission.

    A friend who worked at Greenpeace when the “Biosphere 2” was built wondered if it was really meant to test if the billionaires could build domed cities for themselves. Surely the smarter members of the elites understand we’re wrecking our atmosphere …

  3. Gregg Senne says:

    Something I have yet to read about is whether or not humans can reproduce on Mars. Perchlorate is a metabolic disrupter in small concentrations and outright toxic if ingested in quantity. The radiation issue starts before conception with damaged gametes and continues through gestation when cell division is rapid. I can’t help but wonder if subsequent generations of humans born off world will be subject to high rates of infant mortality and debilitating birth defects. Imagine neurological problems that reduce IQ by some percentage with each generation. In a few generations a Mars colony would be overrun with people who would be an extreme drain on resources. Could a society function with a 20% autism rate? I would expect cancer rates to ratchet up, also. What sort of treatment could cancer patients expect on Mars? Euthanasia perhaps? If colonization is predicated on a one-way trip scores of sick people wanting to return would be a major disruption.

    • energyskeptic says:

      I suspect the astronauts will die on the way or shortly after trying to colonize given all the issues. Plus I’ve read that only older, probably past reproductive age, volunteers would be sent because of all the health hazards. But I expect that fossil fuels will be growing scarce, which are needed to go anywhere or make hydrogen fuel, long before anyone even attempts to go to Mars. Basically the excitement generated diverts huge amounts of science research money to NASA that could have been spent better across the thousands of other scientific specialties.

      • Gregory Ross says:

        Mars is not the only fantasy. Jeff Bezos envisions us moving heavy industry to space and setting up colonies there to ease the population and pollution burden. The bad sign is, nobody’s laughing. I fear that society’s puerile fascination with hi-tech, space-travel and reverence for CEOs and entrepreneurs could be a recipe for disaster.

        Popular science did more to dispel religious and creationist myths in the West than decades of communism did in the East. Nevertheless, I suspect that popular science might also have incubated a climate of intellectual levity that translates to a humongous waste of money and resources, and accentuated the tendency for techno-optimism.

        By the way, remember when there was a discussion about whether your book can be found online and you tried looking but didn’t find it? Well, it turns out that Library Genesis, the bane of academic and science publishing, has an illegal copy of “When Trucks Stop Running”.

  4. Fred Justesen says:

    Thank you energyskeptic, for this little bit of sanity. Delusional thinking is
    a huge distraction from concentrating on subjects that we can actually do something about. Why, we as a nation are so proud of the space program is a mystery to me. It has been a huge waste of resources and intellect.
    (just my opinion) I agree that there are and have been limitless other projects that would have benefited the human species magnitudes more than the space program. I suspect that capitalism and limitless growth that supports this insane economic model that we have all been brain washed to accept as the only way forward, had something to do with it.

  5. Ken Barrows says:

    I am sure the Federal Reserve can make it happen. /s/

  6. JustineCoal says:

    No matter how energy-dense they are, it appears fossil fuels are not energy-dense enough or plenty enough to propel humans to Mars.

    The question is, can fossil fuels propel humans to the moon?

    Or more down to earth – can fossil fuels keep propelling fossil fuels supplies intercontinental – century in century out?

    If Britain would invade Iraq again in 2020, like in 1914, there will be no British coal to power that invasion end-to-end – like in 1914.

    Fossil fuels are so hypnotic, they made humans think they are almost on Mars.

    They left us not knowing if one will ever by able to see his mother – living one continent or two away, though.

  7. Robert Callaghan says:

    low gravity and high radiation will damage your eyes, brains, balls and ovaries.