Quick Read: How We’ll Live on Mars by Stephen L. Petranek

“Studying whether there’s life on Mars or studying how the universe began, there’s something magical about pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. That’s something that is almost part of being human, and I’m certain that will continue.” Sally Ride

“You need to live in a dome initially, but over time you could terraform Mars to look like Earth and eventually walk around outside without anything on… So it’s a fixer-upper of a planet. I would like to die on Mars, just not on impact.” Elon Musk


Following on the heels of the immensely popular film The Martian, our STEM Institute faculty is currently in planning mode for a new adventure — launching a STEM program at Illinois State University for a cohort of young Golden Apple Scholars, the teacher preparation arm of Golden Apple. The theme for the week of activities is “Mission to Mars,” and once the Scholars have experienced and reflected on the Mars mission-themed activities for themselves, they will be rolling out two summer camps for students in the area, one focused on students in 3rd through 5th grades and the other for students in 6th through 8th grade.

We are encouraging those students to apply by asking them to imagine themselves as part of the team of scientists and engineers that will launch the first successful manned mission to Mars in 2026. We tell them

“At the Mission to Mars ISU STEM camp, you will explore ways to get to Mars, land on Mars, live on Mars, study Mars, and return safely to earth.

During the camp you will get to…
• Launch rockets.
• Create a means to successfully land humans on Mars.
• Explore the planet, testing and analyzing the rocks, soil and atmosphere.
• Develop ways to grow food on Mars.
• Search for evidence of water on the Martian surface.
• Construct a settlement for you and your fellow space pioneers.
• Develop a way to safely return to and land on planet earth.

At the Mission to Mars ISU STEM camp, you will do all of these things so that you are ready to play a historic role in Man’s first visit to the mysterious red planet we call Mars.”

Imagine yourself as a 5th through 8th grader. Wouldn’t the prospect of participating in a Mission to Mars summer camp thrill you?

If you want to consider creating a similar experience for your own students, I have a quick read for you.

How We'll Live on Mars

How We’ll Live on Mars by Stephen L. Petranek is a 2015 TED Original publication. Weighing in at 77 succinct, information-packed pages, including 22 gorgeous color photographs of the surface of Mars, the rocketry, and the exploration devices we’ve used to explore it thus far, it’s a little gem of a book for launching your own planning for a unit about getting to and living on Mars. Petranek begins with a brief history of the idea of man traveling to and colonizing Mars, acquaints the reader with the private space race currently going on involving, among others, Elon Musk, the creator of the Tesla car, details the challenges rockets pose for engineers, and analyzes the economics of a mission to Mars, before delving into the prospect of actually living on the red planet. What will we do about water? How will we breathe? How will we feed ourselves? What clothing and shelter can we devise to protect ourselves in such a hostile environment?

Clearly we will have to change something if we are to view Mars as a long-term habitation for human beings. Chapter 7 “Making Mars into Earth’s Image” goes into various ways humanity might set about terraforming Mars to create a suitable home for humans. Also called planetary engineering or planetary ecosynthesis, terraforming was initially proposed by Carl Sagan in the journal Science in 1961. Students can learn a lot of science exploring the various scenarios scientists and engineers have proposed. But what if rather than changing Mars to be more like earth, we changed ourselves to be better able to survive on Mars? Petranek explores this intriguing possibility that could be achieved via gene manipulation.

Chapter 8 explores the ubiquitous WIIFM question or “What’s in it for me?” What’s in it for humanity to invest in establishing human settlements on Mars? The most obvious answer is that Mars could serve as Plan B for a species that has ruined its own home planet, providing an escape hatch should earth become less and less habitable. At least some of humanity would survive. But as it turns out, there’s a veritable fortune to be made in colonizing Mars and exploiting the natural resources contained in the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter, which is much easier to access from Mars than it is from Earth.

On Our Way!

On Our Way!

The final chapter returns to a historical perspective, comparing the exploration and settlement of Mars to the most obvious analogy from Western history, that great period of exploration which opened the New World to European explorers and settlers. What an intriguing opportunity to connect social studies and science in any Mission to Mars unit you would design.

As our work on the Mission to Mars curriculum evolves, we’ll be sharing it on our Partners in Inquiry website. In the meantime, this quick read should set your own thinking in motion toward developing a Mission to Mars unit for the students you teach.

And here’s something for you to dream on and to spark your students’ imaginations and creativity. A NASA scientist recently announced that we could transport humans to Mars in a month. A month! And be sure to check out the images and videos of Mars that NASA has made available, paid for by our tax dollars and worth every penny!

Until next time …

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.


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Filed under book review, creativity, curiosity, engineering, innovation, Mars, teacher resources, TED, The Martian, Uncategorized

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