How Startups on Earth Could Blaze a Trail for Cities on Mars

If future explorers manage to set up communities on Mars, how will they pay their way? What’s likely to be the Red Planet’s primary export? Will it be Martian deuterium, sent back to Earth for fusion fuel? Raw materials harvested by Mars-based asteroid miners, as depicted in the “For All Mankind” TV series? Or will future Martians be totally dependent on earthly subsidies?

In a new book titled “The New World on Mars,” Robert Zubrin — the president of the Mars Society and a tireless advocate for space settlement — says Mars’ most valuable product will be inventions.

“We’re talking about creating a new and potentially extremely inventive branch of human civilization, which will benefit humanity as a whole enormously,” he says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “But moreover, we’ll play from that strength to make money.”

Zubrin isn’t waiting until humans step foot on Mars to get started.

“We are in the process of drawing up business plans for two major initiatives — one in the artificial intelligence area and the other in the synthetic food production area,” he says. “And the idea is, fairly soon we’re going to be presenting these business plans to investors, with the idea of starting companies devoted to these two different technological ideas that we have put together.”

Zubrin says it’s too early to reveal exactly what these companies would do, but he claims the ventures have the potential to become extremely profitable. The AI concept could be “a billion-dollar idea,” he says.

“They’re both addressing critical questions for Mars that have tremendous terrestrial spin-off potential,” Zubrin says.

Income from the ventures would be split between investors and the Mars Society, which would use the funds to support a Mars Technology Institute. “We just did a fundraising drive and raised $150,000 to get this thing started,” Zubrin says.

Robert Zubrin is the founder and president of the Mars Society. (Credit: Mars Society CC BY-SA 3.0)

Once things get rolling, Zubrin envisions setting up a headquarters for the institute — perhaps in the Pacific Northwest or in Colorado (where the Mars Society is currently based).

The concept of using earthly ventures to support off-Earth adventures is by no means new. Back in 2015, when SpaceX founder Elon Musk was recruiting engineers for the Starlink satellite internet network, he said the profits from Starlink would go toward funding a city on Mars.

“Looking in the long term, and saying what’s needed to create a city on Mars — well, one thing’s for sure: a lot of money,” Musk told an audience of about 400 techies (including prospective employees) in Seattle. “So we need things that will generate a lot of money.”

Zubrin says the challenge of establishing settlements on Mars will promote invention in the same way that the challenges facing pioneers in the United States led to innovations ranging from steamboats to light bulbs to iPhones.

“Mars is even going to be much more technologically selective in terms of who goes there, and also a much more challenging environment,” he says. “It’s going to be America to the third power in terms of what it will be able to invent.”

He argues that settlers will be forced to innovate when it comes to developing nuclear fission and fusion plants for energy, finding ways to conserve and recycle resources for sustaining Martian communities, and maximizing food production amid the planet’s harsh conditions. All those innovations can then be exported back to Earth.

Zubrin has laid out the case for Mars settlement in a series of books that goes back to, well, “The Case for Mars” in 1996. He also wrote a fictional account of a crewed mission to Mars, titled “First Landing.” And he has appeared in more than a dozen TV shows about Mars and space exploration, including “Mars,” a National Geographic series that blends science fiction and science fact.

“The New World on Mars” deals with thematic territory that spreads out much more broadly than what was covered in “The Case for Mars.” And Zubrin says SpaceX’s rise is the reason why.

For years, Musk and his team have been focusing on development of a reusable super-heavy-lift launch system known as Starship. The next test flight could take place within weeks — and it’s likely to be only a matter of time before Starship offers a reliable way to get to Earth orbit and beyond.  Musk envisions building a fleet of the rockets to send thousands of settlers to Mars, in line with his long-term ambition to make humanity a multiplanet species.

“The New World on Mars: What We Can Create on the Red Planet” by Robert Zubrin. (Diversion Books)

Zubrin assumes that Starship or something like it will be a success — which means there’s less need to dwell on the nuts and bolts of interplanetary transport in “The New World on Mars.”

“This book essentially says, ‘Look, it’s soon going to be possible for humans to go to Mars,’” he says. “So the key question is not how do we do that, but what do we do when we get there?”

Zubrin goes into great detail about how Mars’ harsh realities could affect every aspect of daily life, from energy production and terraforming to marriage and parenthood. For example, he suggests that Martians might clean their clothes simply by airing them out in the Red Planet’s low-pressure, bacteria-killing environment.

Zubrin went so far as to test the technique by stuffing dirty clothes into a laboratory vacuum chamber. “The only downside is that stains are not removed, so they don’t look clean. One remedy for this would be to use camo coloration for clothes, as it does not show stains,” he writes. “I predict this will be the style.”

“The New World on Mars” is more optimistic about Red Planet settlement than “A City on Mars,” a book by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith that was featured on Fiction Science last November. That book argues that the drive to create space settlements is premature — and that a host of uncertainties need to be cleared up first. For example, the Weinersmiths say that much more research should be done on the potential effects of Mars’ reduced gravity on human reproduction and development. They also raise concerns about the potential international conflicts over property rights in space.

As you’d expect, Zubrin strongly disagrees with such views — in his book, on the podcast, and in a book review published by Quillette. “They say there’s no point going into space. There’s nothing to be gained from it, and therefore, there should be laws to stop it, which makes no sense whatsoever,” he says.

In Zubrin’s view, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty’s prohibition on claims of national sovereignty won’t tie the hands of Mars settlers. Instead, it would make it easier for them to stake their own claims. “If a Martian colony is set up, and declares property rights within its vicinity, [governments on Earth] have no jurisdiction to contradict it,” Zubrin says. “They have explicitly signed away their rights to interfere with Mars settlement.”

And what about the health effects of living on Mars? “OK, so yeah, we don’t know about the long-term effects of one-third gravity on people, but we’ll find that out,” Zubrin says. “When we send our first exploration missions to Mars, I believe it’ll be OK.”

The way Zubrin sees it, the main attraction for Mars settlers won’t be deuterium, or asteroid riches, or shiny red obsidian. It’ll be something money can’t buy: the freedom to create.

“I believe that there’s nothing more powerful than the creative power of life,” he says. “The grass finds a way to break through the pavement. Life finds a way. … And freedom is going to find a way.”

Check out the original version of this posting on Cosmic Log for Red Planet reading recommendations from Robert Zubrin.

My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and lives in San Francisco. To learn more about Phetteplace, visit her website,, and read “The Ghosts of Mars,” her novella in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine.

Stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, and Pocket Casts. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.