Inventor Buckminster Fuller was famous for espousing the virtues of geodesic domes, structures that incorporate the largest volume of internal space within the smallest amount of surface area. Unfortunately, geodesic domes don't make a lot of sense for housing here on Earth; they pose too much of a challenge to zoning requirements. But on Mars? If SpaceX's Elon Musk has his way, Martian colonists could live in geodesic domes.
Last month, Musk revealed a bold plan to begin colonizing Mars as early as 2024. But that plan was woefully short on specifics. In a recent AMA Reddit thread, he offered a few more clues as to how people might live on Mars. Here was his response to a question about what sort of permanent Martian habitation he foresees:
Initially, glass panes with carbon fiber frames to build geodesic domes on the surface, plus a lot of miner/tunneling droids. With the latter, you can build out a huge amount of pressurized space for industrial operations and leave the glass domes for green living space.
This makes a fair amount of sense. Geodesic domes are incredibly efficient, at least when it comes to the amount of internal space you get for the cost of materials. From an engineering perspective, geodesic domes are too complex to be popular on Earth, but in space, where you need to account for every pound in your payload, their engineering complexity is a small price to pay for their incredibly efficient footprints.
But geodesic domes are only a small part of the question Musk needs to answer on how humans will live long-term on Mars. A big one is how Musk plans to protect people against space radiation. On Earth, we are shielded from the ambient radiation of space due to our planet's magnetosphere, which along with Earth's atmosphere operate like a huge protective bubble. But Mars has no global magnetic field to deflect space radiation, and its atmosphere is much thinner than Earth's. That means that Mars colonists are going to have much higher risks of developing cancer than if they stayed on Earth. It's such a serious problem that NASA has devoted an entire page to the problem on its official website.
Asked in the Reddit thread multiple times about how SpaceX proposed to shield astronauts from radiation, Musk never answered. Moreover, in other statements about his Mars plan, he's been extremely cavalier about the lives of colonists. In fact, when presenting his plan to the public, Musk said that aspiring Mars colonists should ask themselves a simple question: "Are you prepared to die? Then okay, you're a candidate for going."
With his love for space travel and geodesic domes, Musk may be the closest thing the 21st century has to Buckminster Fuller. But Fuller was more than a techno-utopian: he was a humanist, too. If Musk really wants humans to live on Mars in our lifetime, he needs to do more than build geodesic domes. He needs to figure out how to make them impenetrable to deadly radiation.