I hate to break it to you, but there will not be any geodesic domes on Mars. At least not if Christopher Maurer is to be believed.
“You’ll see a lot of renders with glass domes and little houses, and things like that, but I don’t know those are serious scientific proposals,” he says. “Those are the real estate sales pitches for astronauts to come to Mars.”
Maurer is a Cleveland-based architect who will bring you down to earth very quickly about the romantic ideal of colonizing another planet. Most of us realize it’s probably a one-way trip. The Mars One Foundation–which dreams of putting colonies on Mars by 2023–recently had 200,000 people volunteer for the adventure, even knowing they’d have to die on the red planet. Elon Musk, whose SpaceX promises to land on Mars in 2024, has announced a plan for a city that would house a million people. The idea: to mine Mars for materials to turn into geodesic domes. (Keep in mind, Musk is having difficulty building cars on Earth.)
Often, these broad strokes visions overlook tremendous design problems, beyond Mars’s −55 °C average temperatures and lack of a breathable oxygen atmosphere. But Maurer has a solution: grow Martian buildings out of mushrooms. And he’s working with NASA to make it a reality.
The problem of building materials in space
Right now, it costs about $10,000 to put a single pound of payload into orbit. Even SpaceX admits you can’t possibly carry all of the materials you need with you because the rocket payloads would be too pricey, so that means you’re probably forming a shelter in situ, instead, out of Martian dirt.
Maybe a dirt hut doesn’t sound so bad, especially in the fetching red hue of Mars soil. But there’s another catch: To block the cancerous radiation that flows through most of space, you need more than some adobe bricks. You need 10-foot-thick walls of the soil, which is why that scenario probably has you just moving underground instead–“living like early burrowing mammals,” Maurer says.
A novel, organic solution
In his Ohio architecture firm, Redhouse Studio Architecture, Maurer has spent the past three years experimenting with refuse from mushroom harvesting–stuff like its mycelium root structure humans don’t typically eat–compressing the waste into strong planks to build sustainable housing. At a conference, he met NASA scientist Lynn Rothschild who had also been considering the potential of mycelium as a growing material.
Independently, they’d both reached the same vision, and realized if so, they might as well work together to actualize it: Why not just grow buildings from the ground up? And instead of settling for earth, why not try it on Mars?
“With one spore, you could grow mycelium, indefinitely,” says Maurer. “With just a little seed biology, a couple pounds going into space can turn into thousands of tons of building materials on destination.” And with a carefully designed, vacuum-sealed plastic bag, that mycelium can grow into a giant habitat with little to no human effort required, filling its casing like an intergalactic pop-up tent.
Now, Maurer and Rothschild hope to prove the concept first on a NASA-funded study here on Earth, by turning 1,722 pounds of material (most of which is the plastic shell) into a McMansion-sized igloo that grows itself in just a few weeks. The ambitious scale is actually to the spec of NASA’s own reference manual to colonizing Mars, which was compiled in 2009.
If they succeed, they’ll demonstrate a dwelling that’s also possible to grow on Mars–with a payload that’s almost two orders of magnitude lighter than NASA previously thought possible.
A strange, old material
Perhaps mycelium seems like an odd building material. It’s probably something you’ve never heard even of, since the mushroom is the reproductive fruit of the plant that you eat, and the mycelium is the part that lives out of sight, under the Earth’s surface. How could you build a house out of fungus?
In fact, it can have tensile strengths that rival wood. It’s also lightweight, fire retardant, and self-healing. A little water, CO2, and algae (or similar food) is all it needs to grow into habitats, furniture, or even shells for rovers.
“It may sound strange and weird to talk about [growing] a biological structure on Mars, but think about it, we’ve been using biology to build habitats on the Earth for thousands of years. Whether you’re talking about a teepee with wood and skin or houses made out of wood, we use biological products in building all the time,” says NASA’S Rothschild. “I’m sitting here looking at myself, and I have leather in my shoes, I have cotton in my jeans, and wool in my sweater.”
Rothschild is an astrobiologist and synthetic biologist. She believes that it may be possible to not just grow a fungus shelter, but to seed it with genetically engineered bacteria that would help absorb harmful radiation. One possibility is that the fungus itself could develop melanin, the same thing that makes our skin tan in the sun, to help convert harmful energy into more food for the structure. Such genetic engineering is another thread of the project that Rothschild plans to study.
In any case, Rothschild and Maurer imagine that they can build a dwelling that looks a lot more like a human home than a prehistoric burrow, simply because you can grow mycelium in any shape you want. And in doing so, life on Mars could feel much more like a life worth living.
As promising as the work may sound, growing a habitat on Mars is still a long ways off. This nine-month proof of research grant itself is just beginning now, and it’s aimed at projects that NASA deems 10 to 20 years away from fruition. If it goes well, the team will pursue another that lasts for two years.
“We’re showing in principal this would work,” says Rothschild. “A double-bag dome igloo is a very easy concept.” Growing it 33.9 million miles away is just slightly more complicated.