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IAP: Life on Mars could be human, someday

If space is the final frontier, the first step in colonizing it is a one-way trip to Mars for 12 dedicated settlers, says an MIT graduate student who works for the nonprofit Mars Homestead Project.

"Getting to Mars, we feel, is the definitive step that will open up the solar system to humanity," Joseph Palaia, a graduate student in nuclear engineering, said at an Independent Activities Period (IAP) discussion of Mars settlement held Monday, Jan. 9.

The foundation hopes to have a self-sufficient colony firmly established on Mars by 2025. In the meantime, Palaia, Mars Homestead Project Director and MIT alumnus Bruce MacKenzie and others are working hard on plans to create a human foothold in the less-than-hospitable Martian environment, where most of the atmosphere is carbon dioxide.

Success may hinge on whether Mars harbors underground aquifers of water that can be purified to drink and broken down to make oxygen. The planners envision settlers growing their own food in greenhouses and generating power with nuclear reactors.

After an eight-month voyage through space, the first settlers would live in "temporary habitats" that resemble large tuna cans on wheels, until they can build permanent shelters in a Martian hillside, Palaia said. The initial buildout would take about eight years, and the settlement could be expanded to accommodate future settlers and children born in the colony. Settlers will live in private suites designed to ensure comfort, he said.

"We want people to have a comparable standard of living to what they have on Earth," Palaia said. "We think it would be a pretty nice place to live."

Palaia said that at this point, the foundation cannot count on funding from the federal government, so it is raising money from private donors. He recently co-founded a corporation, 4Frontiers, that plans to build a research and outreach center, including a model of the Mars settlement, to help raise money and awareness of the project.

Although much planning has been done, Palaia said he and his colleagues are looking for as much help as they can get. Researchers at universities across the country are already helping out with various aspects of the project, and the foundation is seeking MIT undergraduates and graduate students in any field of study who want to get involved.

Anyone interested in the project can e-mail Palaia and MacKenzie at For more information, visit and

Several Mars planning and brainstorming sessions are scheduled for the rest of IAP. The next sessions are on Jan. 18 at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. in Room 33-319. Check the IAP listings at for a full schedule.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 25, 2006 (download PDF).

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