Systems Science

A City on Mars: A Response to Elon Musk

By Matt Johnson

Photo Courtesy of - A City on Mars

Photo Courtesy of – A City on Mars

Recently, Elon Musk, entrepreneur, business owner, and visionary, stated that because of the successful landing of the Falcon 9 rocket, it would now be possible to build A City on Mars. The success of this rocket is indeed exciting news. And without getting into the question of why we are still using rocket technology at all, there should be some interesting advancements to come out of this recent Space X success. But cities aren’t dependent on the success of a rocket landing, correct?

Modern cities are young. They aren’t more than a few decades old. But they are the pinnacle of human creativity, ingenuity, and industry. They are complex structures that illustrate the economic and technological prowess of a modern civilization. They are the human eco-system of modern political and social stability. There is nothing else like them on the face of this planet. There is no equal.

By looking back into human history and by looking at modern cities, we can get an idea of how a city on mars would emerge. To help us, we can look at cities in the past and today. In general, cities of the past and today have at least two things in common. First, is water. If we look at the cities in antiquity, we see many cities emerged around water of some type, albeit rivers, lakes, or an ocean.

A view of Gamla Stan from Slussen in Stockholm, Sweden

A view of Gamla Stan from Slussen in Stockholm, Sweden

For example,  Athens, Troy,  and Alexandria all prospered on the mediterranean ocean. Cairo prospered on the Nile river, and ancient Peruvian civilizations were supported by Lake Titicaca for a millenia. Today, modern cities such as New York and Hong Kong prosper on the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, respectively. Minneapolis consists of a great number of lakes and resides on the Mississippi river. St. Louis and New Orleans also reside on the Mississippi river; and Stockholm, Sweden and Helsinki, Finland reside on the Baltic Sea.

The second thing that ancient and modern cities have in common is economy. For ancient cities, it was bartering and trading in street markets, and bartering and trading between the cities themselves. Today, cities trade by means of transportation – trains, planes, trucks, and ships. And cities also trade by means of communication technology.

These two components – water and economy – interact with each other. The body of water works two-fold. First, it allows for trading and economy. Second, it is attractive. The economy also works two-fold. First, it perpetuates industry, and the waterways act as a conduit to facilitate the economy. And second, it provides means of accumulation of wealth (mobility) and stability so residents can enjoy the water as a recreation.

If a city emerges on Mars, it will more than likely be because of these two reasons. But this makes sense doesn’t it. If you’ve read The Martian by Andy Weir, then you know that water was a significant part of Mark Watney’s, the main character’s, survival on the harsh, desolate, and unforgiving surface of mars.

Wouldn’t NASA, the ESA, and other space agencies want to land astronauts near a site that could potentially produce water? Wouldn’t this be more important than the land and takeoff technology of a rocket? Wouldn’t extracting water or creating a system to produce water make more sense than Space X’s new technology? And if water is so prevalent in the emergence of cities, why would mars or any other potentially habitable planet be any different?

What do you think? Is it reasonable that a city would emerge around water on another rocky planet? Do you think private industry would move in and then perpetuate an economy and thus a future city would emerge another planet? Or do you think Elon Musk is correct? If so, why? Post your thoughts, comments, and questions below.

And I’m positive you will find these similar articles of interest as well: Book Review: The Martian, Book Review: Bad Astronomy, and Go Tell It to the Mathematicians.


Copyright ©2016 – The Systems Scientist



1 reply »

  1. I believe that you are right in stating that water will play an integral role in cities on Mars. There will also need to be many other technological and engineering advancements before these cities can become a reality. However, the first thing needed for any human trip to Mars is to get there and survive the landing. Due to the thin atmosphere on Mars the traditional methods (parachutes, airbags, etc.) used for small rovers and landers are not feasible for larger ships. This means that propulsive landing will be required. I believe this is the main reason Mr. Musk places such importance on the rocket landing technology SpaceX is pioneering in regards to building a city on Mars.


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