Daniel B. Botkin is a scientist who studies life from a planetary perspective, a biologist who has helped solve major environmental issues, and a writer about nature. Well-known for his scientific contributions in ecology and environment, he has also worked as a professional journalist and has degrees in physics, biology, and literature. Daniel B. Botkin writes an in-depth report on how life on Mars might just be possible. Here is the inside story based own life experiences.

People have talked for decades, perhaps centuries about establishing a human presence on Mars.

The idea has been both for adventure and to make sure there is a second home for our species, in case some disaster would eliminate Homo sapiens from our original home, Earth.  Others have said it’s too expensive and that Mars would be a difficult, perhaps unpleasant place to live, so why not focus on fixing up our home planet?

In past decades, it seemed too difficult and expensive to actually do it, but now, with the corona virus killing many people on Earth, Ebola coming back in Africa, pig diseases requiring killing many pigs in China, international disagreements that might generate dangerous wars, and raising questions whether the human population now on Earth is too big for Earth to support.  Maybe it is time to reconsider this settlement on Mars as away to insure human life persists in the universe.

Edmund Musk of Tesla cars and Space X rockets taking large payloads to the space station says he wants to go to Mars while he is still alive.  He’s not the only one, and the U.S.A. is not the only country thinking about this.  Whoever sets up a live crew on Mars has the first claim to ownership of at least part of that planet — exactly how much is an unknown, of course, subject to complex international negotiations.

Space travel has fascinated me since I was a child, designing paper space ships with places for oxygen, carbon dioxide, food, water, when I was five years old and flying my paper rocket ships around the living room from one paper cut out planet to another.

I got more serious about this when I got a PhD in biology and an undergraduate degree in physics.  Landing people on the Moon was often talked about as the first step in our space exploration, with Mars being the second.  Another popular idea in the 1970s was to create huge artificial moons circulating Earth from not too far a distance.  Among the promoters of this was a Princeton physicist who suggested that these be Toruses — huge doughnut shaped structures with an earth atmosphere, plants and animals for beauty and food.  Such a torus would spin enough to create a replacement for gravity —- pushing people and all items toward the outer walls and thus functioning as gravity.  The drawings of these space crafts were imaginative, with people able to fly through the air because of the combination of the density of the atmosphere and the force from spinning made just strong enough to create a useful equivalent of gravity but not so strong as to prevent people for spreading their arms and flying. These paintings looked like a paradise.

The primary pusher of this idea, the Princeton physicist, got a lot of publicity in newspapers, magazines, and television.  He said and wrote that this would be easy to do, all we had to accomplish is to make sure that any form of life we wanted up there would be sterilized and just moved up there.

Given my life-long fascination with space travel, I read his descriptions carefully, and his statement that it would be easy went against what I knew.  So, I got in touch with him and met him in his university office. We began with a pleasant conversation and then I said that I thought setting up one of these space Toruses was more complicated and difficult that he had written.  He asked me what might be difficult.  I replied that there had to be an atmosphere with a combination of oxygen and carbon dioxide, at least, and that the Torus as a system would have to sustain the amount and ratio of these two gases, along with some other elements and compounds.

He replied “I can see where the carbon dioxide comes from but where does the oxygen?” He had planned and promoted the construction of the space habitations without even knowing that photosynthetic organism — bacteria and other tiny organisms living in water or very wet soil, and green plants including crop plants produced oxygen.  He was writing about a subject which he assumed one only needed a little physics and no knowledge of biology, including no knowledge of ecology.  How could he, I wondered?  Such arrogance from a kind of 20th century carnival salesman. I left politely.

I then got immediately in touch with Lynn Margules, one of the greatest biologists of the 20th century, thinking and writing broadly about many aspects of life and what has sustained it over several billion years (See died a few years ago, leaving a great legacy of her work to be continued).  I was working at that time at the Woods Hole Ecosystem Century, in Woods Hole, Cape Cod, a very pleasant and heavily biologically influenced place on both land and ocean. She immediately said she would come up so we could talk about this, but also she was a friend of Astronaut  “Rusty” (Rusty Russell Louis) Schweickart, an Apollo 9 flyer.  He agreed to come and so did Lynn for us to meet at the Ecosystems Center.

Rusty arrived in his flying suit, including a sharp knife in a special pocket down below his right knee.  He said he had to do a certain number of flight hours to maintain his flying rating, and it was a nice flight to make to Cape Cod, and he had, as an astronaut and military pilot, to wear that gear.  We three had a delightful discussion, ranging over a wide variety of things about life and Earth and life’s history.  Rusty was fun and charming and he and I became long-term friends; Lynn was already a close friend of Rusty and me.  We agreed that the suggestion about a low-orbit space torus to house people near Earth was a good idea, but that we had to put the real biological and environmental requirements down on paper. We worked that out and then in a few days they returned to their homes and professional positions.  We three wrote an article about what such a near Earth life-supporting satellite would have to have. 

We wrote two versions of that article, but found that only two very obscure scientific journals were interested in publishing it, and no regular newspapers or magazines were.  We published those two, which I have continued to believe are among my least known, most obscure of any of the many scientific and popular articles I have written and published.

Daniel B. Botkin

However, soon after the publications of those articles, and I guess because of some communication from Rusty about what the three of use had done, I got a phone call from NASA asking if I would come to the next meeting of NASA’s external scientific advisory board to talk about this idea.  It was to be held in a beautiful part of the Colorado Mountains, up in skiing and mountain climbing mountains, and they would put up my family with me.  I went and spoke about what Rusty, Lynn, and I had discussed.  Soon after, NASA got in touch with me and asked if I would lead a small scientific group, paid for by NASA, to consider biological life support systems for long term space travel.  Sounded great to me and I got four other scientists whom I greatly respected: Harold Morowitz, a biophysicist who was a colleague of mine when I was on the Yale faculty, and he had written about the fundamentals of physics that made life possible; Larry Slobodkin, one of the best-known professors of ecology then on the Stony Brook faculty, famous not only for how smart he was but also that he was the best stand-up comic among all ecological scientists. He had broad knowledge in many fields and about many civilizations.  I invited Bassett Maguire, who was also a close colleague, whose career in ecology had focused on creating small closed ecosystems with vegetation and small animals in closed, sealed, glass containers which he studied to see how long different varieties of creatures, container sizes, and inorganic materials could persist — exactly what we needed.  Then Berrian Moore, a mathematician who had recently become fascinated with ecology, heard about our project and came and asked if he could join.  Always a good idea to have a professional mathematician for this kind of project, so after we talked and I got a sense of his expertise, I said yes.

The five of us met together in Snowmass Colorado.  The question was whether a biologically closed system on a space craft could provide all, or most of, the necessities of life, and whether the weight of this system would exceed the weight of just taking everything from food to oxygen along, stored on the space craft.  The longer a planned people space trip and the bigger the crew, the heavier this picnic basket approach would become. Thus, it was also our charge to figure out not only what this life supporting system would be but also how heavy it would be.

As soon as we sat down and introduced each other, Larry Slobodkin said “Well the primary question for us is on a space craft, for this system that would provide food, water, the mixture of gases and solid chemicals life required, is what should be the equivalent of the oil pressure gauge in an automobile —- the dial whose light would go on when the system was about to fail.  That was one of the amazing things about Larry.  He could take a very complex problem and reduce it to its essentials.  The rest of us agreed and we spend that first week discussing what that dial would be connected to.  Knowing as a group a lot of biology, physics, mathematics, and ecology, we spent the first week intensely discussing Larry’s idea.  Harold Morowitz, the brilliant biologist — physicist immediately got us into a discussion about what we would have to know in order to solve Larry’s question. 

The NASA scientific advisory board and NASA’s administration was so impressed with what we wrote that week that we were funded for five years, meeting a number of times a year in various places, each close to where one of our five lived.  We realized that to design that warning gauge, we would have to have a rather complete listing and knowledge of most of the species of life on Earth and from that we could sort down to what needed to be on the spacecraft and how the connections could be expressed mathematically so as to create that about-to-stop working gauge.

I was also asked to join the NASA space travel advisory board, which I did for a number of years, as the lone biologist and ecologist.  That was a deeply challenging appointment, because the other members were top, well-known scientists in their field and used to knowing how to argue and fight to get funding for themselves rather than others on the panel.  I was a rather innocent beginning member and, without realizing it, was easily manipulated by these super scientists, each to help one of them to pursue his search for more research funding from NASA, but that’s another long story.

I’ve always maintained my fascination with human space travel and just regular airplane travel. Along the way I got a pilot’s license with an instrument rating, and loved flying, even when my instrument rating took me into storm clouds with rather exciting rain, ice, snow, and winds inside.

When I started as a child to be fascinated by space travel, and then got directly involved with the topic as a PhD professor of biology and ecology at Yale in 1968, and also had an undergraduate degree in physics, planning a real space travel to go even as far as settling Mars seemed way beyond present technology.  But things have changed very much.  Tesla’s director is producing rockets that are carrying heavy loads into space, some bringing astronauts to the space station, others scattering near Earth space with observational and electronic transfer of information devices; Micro processing computer systems make possible tiny devices necessary for space travel; Artificial Intelligence devices make it possible for machines that could be sent to Mars to find best livable places and build some of the required buildings.  Books by scientists and astronauts explain how to design and set up freight carrying rockets that could make use of the energy obtainable from the gravitational fields of Mars and Earth to provide frequent supply trips to the initial human inhabitants. 

And among the most important is an experiment known as Biosphere II that was built for $125 million allowed eight people to live inside a completely closed ecosystem for two years. Biosphere II experiment lasted from 1991 to 1993.  It had a clear glass roof to allow sunlight in, it land area covered 3.14-acre (1.27-hectares), and it had) rainforest, an 850-square-meter (9,100 sq ft) ocean with a coral reef, a 450-square-meter (4,800 sq ft) mangrove wetlands, a 1,300-square-metre (14,000 sq ft) savannah grassland, a 1,400-square-meter (15,000 sq ft) fog desert, and two anthropogenic biomes: a 2,500-square-meter (27,000 sq ft) agricultural system and a human habitat with living spaces, laboratories and workshops. The plan was that having this variety of ecological systems would mean food could be grown year round and oxygen and carbon dioxide balance would be controlled by this variety of ecosystems.  I was on the scientific advisory board for that experiment and became close friends with one of the inhabitants, talking often with him by telephone.  Some things went wrong during that experiment, which was to be expected.  But these gave Biosphere II a bad reputation, and its experiments were stopped, which I believed was very unfortunate. Yet the system is still there, the best atmospheric seal every made, and still usable.

Perhaps, then, now is the time to reopen Biosphere II to more specific experiments and to make use of the technological inventions of the recent decades to create a working settlement on Mars.  It is a complex decision, as to whether the funding required should better be spent on the current Earth problems.  On the one hand, a national or international project with the hope of settling Mars might be a cheerful goal as we on Earth fight against the many problems, diseases and international relations, including possible more warfare, that we are dealing with now.  I hope this essay stimulates a renewed consideration of these possibilities.