Growing up in Jakarta’s polluted slums, Vera Mulyani loved building things. As a child, she dreamed of becoming an architect.
More than two decades later, Mulyani is a self-proclaimed “Marschitect,” and spends her time brainstorming how human life might be sustained on the red planet. After studying at École d’Architecture de Nantes in France and at New York Film Academy, in January 2015 she founded Mars City Design, a think tank of sorts aimed at developing blueprints for the first self-sustaining city on Mars.
Earlier this month, Mars City Design raised $30,382 on Kickstarter to realize the next phase of its mission: Within the next three years, the group wants to 3D-print three to-scale habitat prototypes of Martian cities at Reaction Research Society’s test area in the Mojave Desert.
The design process will kick off at a workshop in September at the University of Southern California, where select engineers, designers and architects from around the world will collaborate on innovating important aspects of the first cities on Mars. Mulyani says the goal is to establish a base of four people on Mars that can ultimately grow to a city of 1,000. Unlike most projects for the planet, she explains, this one goes “from macro to micro,” exploring first how an entire city would function and backing into individual habitats.
The workshop, whose speakers include Jim Erickson, project manager of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover, and Madhu Thangavelu, a professor at the Viterbi School of Engineering, will also be attended by Apollo 11 pilot Buzz Aldrin. Mulyani says Aldrin “cares about the project” and even steered his friends to the Kickstarter campaign.
From the 25 finalists selected earlier this year by a panel of space experts, the Mars City Design team will choose the three best prototypes to be 3D-printed. Among the designs:
- Neurosynthesis: a proposal for an urban settlement with a closed river system, ambulatory housing, and an artificial Martian waterfall (pictured at top)
- Project Dandelion: an autonomous habitat that uses regolith, a Martian soil element, to provide sustainable source of oxygen, water, energy and nutrition
- Vertical Farms: enable food sources to be grown on Mars in a sustainable controlled environment in tight quarters, in order to limit the reliance on sporadic supply runs from Earth
- Instant Structure: employs laser explosion technology to rapidly create constructions as immediate solutions to natural disasters or war
- Mars Research Facility: a proposed research colony that uses Martian materials and computer-aided construction techniques to support human life
- The Mars Living Machine: a design that questions the most tangible aspects of how an extreme environment like Mars can shape architecture
Mulyani isn’t the only entrepreneur eyeing the fourth planet from the sun. Elon Musk, CEO of aerospace company SpaceX, wants to bring 1 million people to Mars within a century—he even has a detailed plan for Martian governance. Mulyani says she finds inspiration in Musk, and thinks it’s “just a matter of time” before they cross paths.
If all this seems a bit ambitious for a species that has yet to put a single human on Mars, Mulyani says her team’s goal is to look far ahead, to examine “what happens after the first city, what happens after we have a base.” She also sees the purity of Mars as an opportunity to think long-term, something we didn’t do (and arguably still aren’t doing) on Earth.
“We can think of how to use every single stage of the design process and engage in sensible waste-management from the beginning,” she says. “With Mars, we have a chance to start afresh.”