It transfixed astronomers in Renaissance Florence, fueled alien civilization conspiracy theories, and inspired a Hollywood age: For millennia, Mars has been humanity’s ultimate looking glass, embodying and reflecting back our wildest hopes, dreams, and (ig)noble pursuits. Today’s rapid technological advancements promise to transform yesterday’s fantasies of settling the Red Planet into reality. The closer we come to interplanetary civilization, the ethical stakes skyrocket: Do we have the right to colonize another planet? Who will benefit? Should we not redirect the massive resources necessary for planet-hopping to save our own?
Such deliberations implicate the design field, argues Justin McGuirk, the chief curator of London’s Design Museum and the organizer of an ongoing exhibition at London’s Design Museum. Moving to Mars, which runs through February 23, comes at a pivotal moment of renewed interest in space exploration, suggestive to many of a second space race. In the renewed drama to land humans on Mars, maverick tech moguls like Elon Musk and Richard Branson have assumed the leading roles. (Jeff Bezos, meanwhile, has ridiculed the idea of Mars settlements, but insists that space colonies are key to “saving” the earth.)
As J.G. Ballard noted in his writing on deserts, the lost utopia is the most seductive of them all. Moving to Mars plays on this idea, dialing up the Red Planet’s mystique and pop cultural appeal with immersive and multisensory entertainment in every room. Children can scale the side of a model spaceship or romp around on a textured Martian playscape, while their guardians (and other adult visitors) can lounge inside a prototypical Mars habitat, complete with 3D printed furniture and British fashion designer Christopher Raeburn’s Mars-themed wardrobe.
It’s even true that visitors smell “Mars” before they see it. An intoxicating scent, equal parts musk and ginger, wafts out from the exhibition’s entrance. Designed by French perfumer Nicolas Bonneville with input from NASA, the fragrance is pungent, recalling the trademark scent of the Australian skincare brand Aesop, which has locations all over London. “I caught a whiff of Mars crossing Hyde Park on my walk to work this morning,” quips McGuirk.
Following this aromatic prelude, the entrance gallery dives headlong into the cult fascination with Mars. Astronomical instruments, lithographs, and old Hollywood posters give a sense of the Red Planet through the ages, beginning with ancient Babylonian cuneiform tablets. Farther along in the timeline are studies of the Martian canals from 1887, a decade before H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds was published. With the onset of the cinema, cultural representations of Mars were more fully fleshed out, even if this added depth—or really, color—often came at the expense of scientific credibility. The cult of Mars, the exhibition makes clear, rose more out of magic than it did science.
Subsequent galleries probe the psychological and technical challenges of life on Mars—and indeed, all other planets—but the curation remains firmly on its human-centric focus, never broaching the ethical question of space colonization. The “arrival” section begins with an infomercial-like video by space architect Xavier De Kestelier, who reminds visitors that the moon mission was a three-day trip—a short vacation—while the journey to Mars takes upwards of seven months. How might astronauts cope with the exigencies of the trip? The drawings of unsung Soviet space architect Galina Balashova—a highlight of the show—represent an attempt at a solution. The interiors of Balashova’s project for the Soyuz LOK orbital module (1964) abound with texture and color. Decorative details including wall hangings, upholstered furniture, and enviable wood veneered surfaces make the place feel like home. The drawings also paint the nationalistic furor of the first space race in a different light, humanizing it through design. “Bulashova was thinking about the psychological necessity of color, the solace of a room with a view, at a moment where nobody else was,” suggests McGuirk.
Of course, having successfully endured the interstellar isolation and finally landed on Mars, there remains the daunting task of adapting to life there. Shelter is first required, and in response, Foster + Partners, HASSELL, and SEAarch+ offer up a type of regionalist architecture. Points of commonality across the designs, which were developed as part of NASA’s recently concluded 3D Habitat Challenge, include 3D printing as the mode of construction and the use of Martian topsoil, or regolith, as its primary material. But whereas Foster + Partners and HASSELL imagined low-lying, cave-like structures, the prototypical dwelling by female-led practice SEArch+ assumes a vertical orientation, providing researchers with plenty of panoramic views out across the red desert.
Man and woman can’t live by architecture alone, and the “survival” section displays all manner of complex instruments for habituating oneself to this alien world. There are gadgets like design graduate Anna Talvi’s “Memory smellscape” gloves, which come infused with the scents of Earthlings’ favorite possessions, pets, and loved ones to remind them of home. And should the worst happen, as always happens on Mars if one’s reference point is Hollywood, there are German designer Franziska Steingen’s mourning kits, which tackle the cross-cultural paradigm of how to properly commemorate the dead.
It’s in these affordances to daily extraterrestrial life that our own predicament here on Earth begins to come into view. Diagrams by the architect-academic Lydia Kallipoliti demonstrates the grueling extent of the net-positive, zero-waste lifestyle needed to make human habitation of the Red Planet possible. (Sweat, excrement, and tears are among the bodily resources that will need to be recycled in the Martian circular economy, with nutrition dished out in the form of lumpy spirulina protein shakes.) “Unless you put people in a life or death scenario like Mars,” reasons McGuirk, “They will not do better on Earth.”
Only in the exhibition’s second-to-last section do we see the glimmering outline of this idea. But just as quickly as it emerges, it’s gone: buried under the weight of reverse osmosis seed beds and 3D-printed gym pods. For a new era of space exploration heralded over by the likes of Musk, Bezos, and Branson—white middle-aged billionaires whose commitment to accelerated techno-capitalism far outstrips their interest in social or political progress—Martian infrastructure is the least fruitful or democratic concern. Unfortunately, Moving to Mars nonetheless dedicates the bulk of its space to technical trouble-shooting.
“We wanted to leave talk of colonizing and inhabiting other planets up for debate here,” suggests McGirk. But in a world where 99% of this debate is made behind the closed doors of business mogul corner suites, shouldn’t we be using the space of the museum to explore and critique the social and political possibilities of interplanetary human society? What about asking ourselves whether “moving to Mars” is even something worth striving for? (A modest visitor poll at the end of the exhibition reveals many more skeptics than space explorers.)
3,700 miles west of London, Designs for Different Futures (October 22, 2019–March 8, 2020) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art addresses these questions from an Earth-bound perspective. While it adopts a similar strategy of mining sci-fi tropes to pose hard-hitting questions, Designs for Different Futures goes further by prompting discussion points about unpaid/gendered labor, accessibility, inequality, and environmental meltdown (and with all the immersive, interactive fun of its London counterpart). A common thread uniting the 80-odd design projects is the use of speculative, NASA-adjacent technologies to embetter the Earth before embarking on interplanetary expansion. But the curators don’t rule out the possibility for a more equitable human society out in space, either. An entire section of the exhibition dedicated to sustainable growth goals on Mars (based on the UN’s development targets by 2030) opens up new socio-political systems for life on the Red Planet and invites both irl and url visitor contributions.
Inside Moving to Mars, these considerations only percolate in the final gallery. It’s a case of too little, too late. The cartoonish silliness of SuperUber’s Mars 2100, an immersive video commissioned by the Design Museum, catapults us into video-game territory with its souped-up vision of a fully colonized Mars and one too many SpaceX references. Even Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s poetic video simulation The Wilding of Mars (2019), in which the artist generates a live simulation of the flora that could populate Martian steppes were humans to not get involved, wilts beneath far-out neoliberal fantasies of terraforming the planet to look like our own.
“Conversations about Mars are always a proxy for our ideas about earthly civilization,” reflects Meghan O’Gieblyn in The Paris Review. “The billionaire space race is part of a larger war on symbolic spaces, in which every utopia is literalized, its iconography appropriated and affixed a price tag.” With a ticket to Mars via SpaceX setting you back $500,000, if and when commercial space travel gets the go-ahead, there is a very real real danger that life on Mars (and beyond) will be even more inequitable than life on planet Earth. Instead of trying to design finesse the creature comforts of Martian life, we should ask ourselves, what new political and social worlds do we want to build out on the Red Planet? And more significantly, how might we apply these resources to bettering our time left on Earth?