In my work I spend a lot of time writing about people who live on other worlds. So you can imagine how talking about actually doing it piques my interest. However, there are more challenges to life on the moon or Mars than just showing up in a space suit and planting a flag.

If our astronauts plan to stay for an extended period of time, they will need living space. In The Martianthey assemble a prefabricated housing unit made of durable industrial canvas. Although strong and capable of protecting residents from the harsh conditions on the surface, this hab unit is essentially a high-tech pressure tent. It provides shelter from the weather and a space where our astronauts can spend time without cumbersome pressure suits, but it can only provide a limited degree of protection against other hazards.

On Earth, our atmosphere and magnetic field protect us from solar radiation, but the moon and Mars have none of these protections. Humans on the surface of Mars would be exposed to an average of about 230 millisieverts per year.

To put this into perspective, the UK Ionizing Radiations Regulations 2017 set the upper limit for an adult at 20 mSv per calendar year, and only 6 mSv for a child. This means that without protection, our potential settlers would absorb almost twelve times the recommended safe upper limit every year. Additionally, NASA’s Mars Odyssey Probe has detected occasional solar events that brought 20 msv to the Martian surface in a single day.

Clearly, all people who plan to stay on Mars will need some form of shelter from this radiation. In his book The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Should Do ItRobert Zubrin suggests digging shelters in the ground, using the ground as a shield against radiation. This would obviously require the use of heavy machinery to excavate the necessary caves, and careful engineering to ensure that these underground spaces remained stable and habitable.

The lack of water and air on Mars means that these underground bases will have to recycle their air and water with astonishing efficiency, and use solar energy to heat them from the intense cold. Apart from occasional and limited trips to the surface in spacesuits, our colonists would be confined to an underground life, akin to staying aboard a submarine or spaceship for an extended period of time, and with all the attendant psychological pressures that such incarceration entails.

Of course, science fiction writers have proposed some wild solutions to these problems. In his epic Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) Kim Stanley Robinson depicts a multi-generational attempt to terraform the red planet, using a number of collaborative methods, from massive boreholes used to release heat deep within the planet, to the deliberate crashing of ice asteroids to reduce the amount to increase water in the atmosphere (something also suggested by Isaac Asimov in The Martian Way). Robinson also shows a giant mirror in orbit that significantly increases the amount of sunlight reaching the surface – a slightly more feasible approach than Arthur C. Clarke used in The sand of Marswhere he suggests the creation of an artificial sun!

Elon Musk has proposed using nuclear weapons on the polar regions of Mars, evaporating the frozen water and carbon dioxide to create an atmosphere that retains heat and provides some protection from solar radiation. However, a joint study from Northern Arizona University Flagstaff and the University of Colorado Boulder has concluded that there simply isn’t enough ice on Mars to achieve this, even if it were all injected into the atmosphere.

Even if such a plan were feasible, the lack of a magnetic field means that the solar wind would quickly strip away the new atmosphere. Unfortunately, the only way to create a magnetic field would be to somehow boost the planet’s molten core, causing it to rotate – a project of truly gigantic proportions and something that would likely be far beyond our possibilities lie.

In his 1976 novel Human PlusFrederik Pohl takes a completely different approach. Instead of trying to change the planet to suit our needs, he puts forward the idea of ​​artificially altering humans to suit the harsh conditions, creating a race of cyborgs that survive on the cold, airless surface can tolerate.

The inescapable truth is that Earth is the best home we have, and if we’re going to spend a fortune and a generation’s worth of work changing a planet’s atmospheric composition to make it habitable, maybe we should start here.

Gareth L. Powell is an award-winning science fiction author. It can be found online at