On mars, people will live in igloos and eat crickets

Start-up entrepreneurs, billionaires and state-sponsored space agencies are leading the latest push to colonise the planet Mars. At the 47th St. Gallen Symposium, two Leaders of Tomorrow thought farther into orbit and shared their ideas on how to live and what to eat on the red planet.

When he was a kid, Robert Nemlander, 29, wanted to become an astronaut. Five years ago, the tall, athletic Finn applied for the Mars One Program, a Dutch foundation that plans to permanently settle humans on Mars by 2032. Out of 200,000 applicants, he was chosen as a candidate and then volunteered for the Mars project.

“There are two key challenges for us to go to Mars in future,” Nemlander says, “landing on Mars and sustainable food production.” Humans, and especially Mars travellers, need protein. As you cannot bring chicken and cattle into space, Nemlander took insects into consideration.

“There are two key challenges for us: landing on Mars and sustainable food production.” – Robert Nemlander
Robert Nemlander © Lukas Rapp

“Two billion people on earth already eat them as part of their daily diet,” he argues. Traditionally, the tiny beasts are collected by hand from fields, depending on seasons and weather. Nemlander’s idea was to industrialise the production and scale it up.

The easiest starting point: a shipping container, available throughout the world. Nemlander took a month off from his job as a civil engineer. With his father, he crafted a prototype that later became the starting point of his firm EntoCube. Nemlander drove from Helsinki to the Netherlands to get the first load of 3,000 crickets. After a few months, he owned 300,000 crickets – thanks to their exponential reproduction rate.

In the meantime, Nemlander dropped out of the Mars One Program due to doubts over the way the organisation works. He says Mars One founders see their project as a media spectacle, similar to the Olympic Games. Now, he consults with NASA about closed-loop food production systems instead. An EntoCube container could be implemented on Mars with few adjustments.

“Two billion people on earth already eat insects as part of their daily diet.”

But for permanent settlement on Mars, there are three further challenges: First, high levels of radiation rule out simply staying on the planet's surface. Second, al- most no building materials can be taken to Mars. And third, astronauts will probably call their Martian houses home forever.

That is why Luciana Tenorio, 27, an architect from Peru, got involved in the Mars Society, an organisation dedicated to bringing humankind to Mars. Scrolling through the list of the people involved, she noticed a gap. “I realised that the only people who applied for these kind of programmes were biologists or engineers. I was disappointed not to see any architects or designers,” she says. “In the end, if you are going to design something on Mars – create some houses, for example – you need architects.”

Four years later, she’s working together with NASA scientists to design our Martian future. Tenorio focuses on how to keep astronauts happy, healthy, and dedicated to their tasks. Her design addresses the fact that astronauts cannot live on the surface of Mars without shelter since they would die from radiation poisoning. So far, many solutions to that have focused on underground living. That might address the physical problem but could cause mental health problems for the astronauts instead, Tenorio says.

To provide Mars residents with light, Tenorio designed a shelter that allows astronauts to live on the surface. She had to think out of the box: It will be almost impossible to bring anything big enough to construct a shelter on the space mission.

Mars has soil and rocks, but also frozen water deep underground. Water contains hydrogen, which is the best shield against radiation. “So I thought, why not print water walls?” Tenorio says. Tenorio is proposing a dome-like structure made of frozen water, drawn from underneath the red soil and printed with a 3D printer. The ice layers would be kept frozen by a very thin type of plastic.

“You would live underneath ice and have a blue-tinted view of the outside world,” Tenorio says. The ice houses are constructed like snail shells; they look like translucent spirals. She can even change the structure to make some windows: the settlers can look out on the Martian landscape. At the heart of the home is a greenhouse, so people can grow food for themselves. Around that, various rooms are built. Like normal houses, the struc- tures can differ in size and height.

Within two to three years, Tenorio will present her first prototype home in the desert of Peru, which has soil that is similar to the Martian soil. After that, it will take another twenty to thirty years of testing before they will be able to start building on Mars.

“You would live underneath ice and have a blue-tinted view of the outside world.”

However, Mars is still far away. “It may not be my generation that goes there, but the one that is in high school right now,” Nemlander says. Therefore, he and Tenorio work to ensure their visions also benefit terrestrial-bound humans.

Tenorio’s snail houses, in some form, may be useful for emergency structures on earth. She is working to adapt the proposal to develop structures that are lighter and more resilient to protect people in case of accidents.

EntoCube – with seven full time employees and a handful of volunteers – is building its first indoor farm in Finland, the largest in the Nordic countries, and tries to tackle world hunger and climate change. “Cattle production is unsustainable. If you substitute our traditional livestock with crickets, you create a much more sustainable world,” Nemlander says.

Cricket production © EntoCube: https://www.entocube.com/entocube-en/#farming

Nemlander brought a sample of Ento- Cube’s latest product to the symposium, a cricket granola. Most participants who tried it liked it. “In Finland, we’ve already turned 70% of public opinion in favour of eating insects,” Nemlander says. “A lot of that change is thanks to public outreach.”

Facts are convincing, in other words, but only emotions change people’s habits. “As a kid, you want to be an astronaut,” he says. “If you eat insects, you sort of have that opportunity.”

“As a kid, you want to be an astronaut. If you eat insects, you sort of have that opportunity.”