When David Bowie sang, ‘Is there life on Mars?’ we can safely assume he wasn’t thinking of 3D-printed machines mining resources on the red planet. Escaping reality is another matter. But given Exhibit A, Earth, how could planet-hopping be made an ethical and effective venture that doesn’t just have benefits for humans as its central mission.

It seems to many that we’re at our wit’s end. Perpetually on the precipice of either a burnout or a meltdown, the choice is ours. It can be easy then for our minds to dream, even crave, the good old days or a simpler non-internet future. This ease of imagination though, relies on tropes foisted on us by misremembering the past, or projecting into ready-made futures constructed via popular science fictions. Our slashed and burned contemporary combined with the airbrushed and slick PR videos released by space exploration companies lead us again, to an easy conclusion: escape to Mars to escape the worst of Earth. Imagine a fresh start where we leave behind mass consumption; mass production; environmental degradation; plastics in the air, sea and in our bodies; the capturing of our attention and the manipulation of our behaviour; the shortening of our lifespans by the air we breathe and the noises pounding their way out of our cities; the dissolution of the hard fought for distinction between work and leisure; our constant surveillance by either governments or corporations; the breakdown of support networks for the most vulnerable; the humiliation of the only known planet to harbour life in our solar system.

But when we watch the YouTube videos and read the PR material surrounding HASSELL’s Mars Habitat, currently on show at the Moving to Mars exhibition at London’s Design Museum, we encounter an alien world that’s same, same but different. This speculative community of intrepid pioneers will be able to live in an environment ‘where health and wellbeing are put first, where work life and living combine holistically to ensure they [the astronauts] feel connected to each other, to themselves and somehow to their distant home.’ These are some compelling ideas, seeing as increasing amounts of people no longer feel they have, or will ever be able to achieve this on Earth. So it becomes easy to fall for the allure of such softly spoken promises. The project was made in collaboration with engineers Eckersley O’Callaghan and shortlisted for NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, but what purposes do these animations and maquettes have other than simply acting as renderings of hope? Will our faith in space travel, and its cosmically enforced Marie Kondo style de-cluttering offer us a chance to better ourselves beyond trends and fads? Or does our existential meltdown simply spell doom for another planet?

HASSELL+Eckersley O’Callaghan

To answer these questions we should first go back in time to 2011. There isn’t much talk of it now, especially after the windows broke on Tesla’s futuristic Cybertruck, but that year saw the official launch of the Mars One project. The plan was to send astronauts to Mars, not just for scientific reasons, but to also establish a colony of reality TV stars whose lives would be monitored and beamed back to our screens. Listed as a not-for-profit on its website, its aim was to establish a colony by 2032: sixty-three years after the first moon landing. To achieve this it had to find funding and sponsors, and one partnership forged – that proved to be very short-lived – was with the production company Darlow Smithson Productions; the owner of which is entertainment company Endemol Shine Group (the one that’s responsible for shows Black Mirror but also Deal or No Deal, Big Brother and the truly terrifying Your Face Sounds Familiar). Luckily however, Mars One was declared bankrupt in January of this year, but it still serves as a stark and perfect example of how it’s not just the physical baggage that we’ll take to other worlds, but the ideological too. And with Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson all vying for a bit of intergalactic action we must be wary of whose future we’re to inhabit: theirs or ours?

Yet what we can actually glean from proposals like HASSELL’s are ways of researching and approaches to building that can have real-time, Earth-bound consequences. Xavier De Kestelier, HASSELL’s Head of Design Technology and Innovation and one of the minds behind its Mars Habitat proposal, explains the research that was carried out:

“We didn’t just design it, we designed the mission architecture as well… and by doing that we came to a very real hyper-realisation that whatever we do will have an effect. And you start to think of sustainability not as just a nice thing to do, which often happens in architecture… because on Mars it’s almost a necessity. If you don’t recycle your air or water you’ll die. It’s as simple as that. So, we had an extreme realisation about how important it is to do these things. And that’s also the way I talk about the project now. So it was also an intellectual exercise…”

HASSELL+Eckersley O’Callaghan

This hyper-realisation can offer us a taste of how we’re to live sustainably on this planet. It’s taken several generations to challenge the maxim of ‘just because we can, we should.’ Even so, it’s still hard for us to imagine our planet as a hostile place beyond the obvious threats, but the cost of our constant consuming and clicking is distracting us from seeing past our screens. Each individual’s burnout adds and points to the ever-looming collective meltdown. Such a joyless example between life and death should remind us that we’re humans first and consumers second. De Kestelier also points out the intrinsic value of a designer when creating these new habitats: “…designers are the ones that design for humans. And this might sound like such an obvious thing but a lot of space engineers don’t design for humans, they design for missions, they design robots and they design satellites… I also truly believe the mental health and state of people is really defined by the space they live in.” It may seem obvious, but right now it’s the obvious that’s being ignored more than ever. When comparing the two approaches of Mars One and Mars Habitat it’s easy to choose the version of a future we’d prefer. But the latter still doesn’t go far enough in imagining a workable future away from the hyper-extractive form of capitalism we have.

Much how De Kestelier highlights the relevance of the designer’s human focus in contrast to that of the engineer, the artist must also work with and influence the designer. Suzanne Kite is an Oglala Lakota (one of the seven subtribes of the Native American Lakota people) performance and visual artist and research assistant at the Initiative for Indigenous Futures. The main concerns that underpin her artistic practice are about the ethical choices and decision-making that stem from the basic understanding that non-humans are beings that deserve respect. This approach is embodied in her artwork Listener (2018). A piece which builds within her the capacity to dream a sovereign future; one where Kite can dream through her mineral and metal kin, and through relations with other seemingly inanimate things like hair and rocks. When discussing her practice and how it could influence humanity’s approach to building on Mars she adds:

“If you do what you’ve already done you’re going to get what you’ve always got (something that my mother always said), because if you look at the state of the world now… that’s the result of an ontology. It’s a bottom line ontological difference especially between the Lakota worldview and the West. The ontological difference is that we see non-humans as beings, as actual things that are and that exist, and that we have an ethical responsibility to. We don’t see ourselves as above them but we actually, in the Lakota tradition, we see ourselves as less intelligent than some other beings.”

HASSELL+Eckersley O’Callaghan

An example Kite gives of this relationship is summed up in a forthcoming text she wrote for the Indigenous Protocol and Artificial Intelligence Project, through the Canadian Centre For Advanced Research, entitled How to Make Anything Ethically. In it Kite uses the example of a Lakota sweat lodge to discuss the set of protocols involved in its creation. To start with you need to collect willow in order to start building, and in order to collect the willow you have to exchange something with it, you need to give something that is more valuable than the willow itself. Then taking this model Kite asks, “So, I’m about to build on Mars, what is the equivalent of the relationship with the willow and the exchange? What’s the equivalent of giving more than I’m receiving?”

The value of this way of imagining and being cannot be understated, especially when in HASSELL’s YouTube animation we see ‘ecosystems of 3D printing robots’ digging up the Martian regolith (soil) and subsequently melting it down to create structures. De Kestelier also explains that the floors will be made from locally grown Martian bamboo, but the same extractive and exploitative ontology would persist. To survive we have to see planets as more than just a resource.

HASSELL+Eckersley O’Callaghan

More than 200,000 people applied for the Mars One endeavour. Just imagine if it had succeeded and through some catastrophic event all human life on Earth had perished. And the only members of our species to survive were to be found on the red planet; beaming their lives back to screens devoid of the attention they so demand: with “Earth do you copy?” replaced with “Like and Subscribe!” A fitting epitaph for the pessimist but a potential reality we cannot entertain. We all have to make sure that the likes of NASA, HASSELL and The Initiative for Indigenous Futures find a way to collaborate, because it’s through such an approach that humanity can ethically and effectively dismantle the exploitative structures we’ve built on Earth.


Suzanne Kite would like to acknowledge her elders, art elders and the community surrounding the development of Indigenous futures: people such as Maȟpíya Nážiƞ, Melita Stover Janis, Kim Tallbear, Jason Edward Lewis and Skawennati, to name just a few. Kite’s positions on Lakota knowledge are her own and her family’s, and are not a broad take on Lakota knowledge.





By Josh Plough

This article appeared in DAM75. Order your personal copy.