Materials for the first Martian settlers

In the previous post, I discussed the difficulties settlers on Mars might have with making things to construct domes, etc in which to grow food. Now, let’s suppose they have got that under control, where are the next difficulties? The settlers have a place to live, they have grown food in their domes, but they still have to cook it. Yes, we have energy (assuming all has gone well) but there are other things as well, assuming the settlers want more than the ability to survive. For example, in cooking there is often a lipid, such as olive oil or butter used. Even assuming they have big enough domes, are they going to wait around for olive trees to grow? Fortunately there is a way out of this. Microalgae have lipids in them, and if we grow them then mature them in a nutrient deficient solution, the oil content can rise to over 60% by weight. If there are plenty of nutrients, then the microalgae grow very rapidly (more rapidly than most plants) and largely contain protein, which makes them a desirable food, but for two things: the taste, and the fact they have a rather high content of nucleic acids. In my novel Red Gold, set in a proposed colonization of Mars, I suggested there would be a variety developed with much lower nucleic acid content. I suggested the settlers would start off by eating a lot of chlorella because it takes a long time for plants to grow.

Another problem the settlers will have involves clothing. Clothing is made from fibres and most fibres now come from the oil industry. Of course we can get free of synthetic fibres by returning to cotton and linen, which come from plants, as long as someone remembers to take them. But if settlers are going to do that, they will be growing a lot more than they are eating. Wool would not be available in most scenarios because sheep need a significant area to graze on, and that means building giant domes, AND finding enough material to make soil. Eventually, as they start growing crops, the dead waste plant material will be used to make more soil, but it will be gradual. Soil means more than “dirt”. Then, after that, they will still need polymers from the chemical industry to make suits that can be used for going outside, because it is important to be able to seal the air in the zone in which you intend to breathe. Where do they get the raw materials for such polymers? They will have to take something that will generate them. As it happens, chlorella can be processed to help make some such polymers.

Speaking of dirt, settlers may want to wash. Yes, you can wash in just water, to some degree of efficiency, but you might want soap. Can they make that there? Soap is made by treating lipids with caustic soda, whereupon you make soap and glycerol. Needless to say, you have to get the ratio of caustic soda right. Interestingly, pioneers often did this on Earth. I can recall as a boy, my father elected to do what his father had done, and make soap in the back garden. The family carefully kept the fact from roasts, clarified it, and it was heated up in a kerosine tin (4 gallons) in the back yard, then the caustic soda was added. This was largely used for laundry. The point is, soap making is not difficult, although it is more so if you want quality. But this brings up another point: when settlers get to Mars, they will have to do just about everything themselves, and unlike pioneers on Earth, there is no grass ranges, nor forests for timber. Worse, many of the things we take for granted involve several steps. Even for soap, the settlers first have to find and mine salt, then they have electrolyse that (doing something with the chlorine that is also made) then they have to react that with lipids that have been collected and purified, then they have to separate out the glycerol and do one or tow things to make an attractive cake. Most things we take for granted have a lot more steps, each requiring a specific skill. There are just so many things to do that involve a lot of different skills that you need a reasonably large number of people to do them. But then you have to take an awful lot of stuff to sustain all these settlers while they get going.

Perhaps now you see the trend of what I am trying to say. The cost of lifting stuff from Earth into space is horrendous, so settlers on Mars simply could not afford to purchase anything other than the most valuable materials from Earth. They have to make everything they want there, except possibly the most valuable pharmaceuticals, and there are very few raw materials that are easily obtained there. Life for such a settler would be extremely spartan, and it will not work unless there are a number of skilled people to carry out the tasks that require advanced technology.

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