| DeCIPHER 4 |
Decisions on Complex Interdisciplinary Problems of Health and Environmental Risk

Going to Mars - The Risks and Challenges

Martian Migration

Going to Mars: Science, Society and Sustainability
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The Next great Frontier

The Future of Humanity on MARS


oing to Mars used to be an idea that belonged only to science fiction. Today, people have already begun planning to go to Mars, including official missions by government agencies like NASA and ambitious ventures by private entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Musk envisions a city of 100,000 people on Mars, and Duke students could be in that cohort. Motivations for going to Mars include advancing scientific knowledge, extracting valuable resources and reducing the risk of life being wiped out by a catastrophe on Earth.

Attention has focused on the science and technology of Mars exploration and settlement, but the success of missions to Mars will also depend on the social and organizational systems developed by settlers. Risks include physiological harms from travel to and living on Mars, clashes among settlers and missions with conflicting motives, failing social and legal systems and disruptions of the ecosystems of Mars or the Earth. This cacophony of missions, ambitions, benefits, risks and tradeoffs demands an interdisciplinary analysis.

Read our report
Our Vision

Going to Mars: Science, Society and sustainability

Our team of students and faculty worked together to develop a series of risk-based decision scenarios of the settlement of Mars, which includes associated contexts, histories, decisions and outcomes. We have developed and published analyses and recommendations on key elements of settling Mars, drawing on tools from multiple disciplines.

We have examined how national motivations to settle Mars might be accommodated with international agreements, national government settlements, private sector settlements and other initiatives. As part of our project, we have interacted with guest speakers from a variety of organizations, including other universities, government agencies, private enterprises and nonprofit organizations. Throughout our mission, we have simulated scenarios through the eyes of various stakeholder groups, such as US federal government agencies (e.g. NASA and military), private enterprise such as SpaceX or Blue Origin, scientists, astronauts, refugees, and future generations.

We encourage you to explore our unique approach and findings, from our research and publications, to our visionary scenario-based methodology, and finally through a simulation-based game where you set the course for Mars settlement!

HiRISE captures Mars Avalanche //
‍NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
DeCIPHER, A Mars Bass Connections Project


DeCIPHER (“Decisions on Complex Interdisciplinary Problems of Health and Environmental Risk”)is a series of Bass Connections projects at Duke University designed to improve the holistic understanding of health and environmental risks. Each annual DeCIPHER team develops a comprehensive profile of a salient risk topic, which includes associated contexts, histories, decisions, and outcomes. The project team explores lessons from experience, new ways to think about the topic, and ways to address other risks as well. Understanding how and why past, current, and future risk scenarios unfold as they do—or could be better handled—is critical to our ability to address future risks successfully. By integrating a broad array of perspectives and methodologies for investigating factors that shape decisions about health and environmental risks, we aim to provide team members with a comprehensive view and varied toolbox of methods for evaluating risks and solutions.

The truth of mars

Report Chapters

Our team project has produced several student-authored research papers, which appear as the main chapters of our report. We focus on four main challenges to settling Mars beyond the scientific and technical: Social, Collaborative, Cultural, and the impact of Martian Migration on life on Earth!

Research Modules

Going to Mars:
Background & Preparation

Our mission began with extensive background research. Our team defined four major themes that involved:

  • the lifestyle and community of a Martian settlement,

  • the management of the environment and use of resources,

  • how the people on Mars interact with each other and with those back on Earth,

  • and how the people on Mars should govern themselves.

These four major themes are Life & Community, Environment & Ecology, International Relations, and Governance.

Within each of these themes, our research team formulated focus groups in order to explore specific questions from various stakeholder perspectives related to each module. Read below to learn about what we discovered.

Housing, Habitat, and Community

Living on Mars will require novel approaches to living situations. What should those be like? Should we live in domes, or in tunnels underground, or in satellites orbiting the planet, or somewhere else? How will these living situations affect group dynamics, mental health, and the development of norms? How will they affect the planet itself?

Space Launch Groups

The team studying space launch groups focused on the budget required by launch groups for a successful mission, their private interests on Mars, and the structures they would need to provide for human survival on Mars. In the beginning phases, the initial budget of space launch groups would be more expensive, public support for the space cause would rely heavily on private promotion, and structures limited to the traveling spacecraft that could still provide critical resources to astronauts. As time passes and population grows, the influx of commercial interest would make every facet of this mission easier, specifically in terms of cost and budget surrounding these questions.


Labor Unions

Future Stakeholders

Medical Community

The medical community group focused on the services, skills, and settlement that would be required for the medical well-being of Martian settlers. Their research showed that, in the short term, advanced human medical experience and current technological resources would provide care for the smaller Martian population. In the long term, more advanced technologies as well as specialists would be integrated into the society given the more robust nature of a long-term Martian world. Factors  independent of time or population that the settlements have to consider are: gravity, radiation, the atmosphere, and light.

Cultural Groups

The cultural group's research focused on the cultural dynamic that would contribute to a positive environment on Mars and the role different factors, such as ethnicity and nationality, would play in contributing to a Martian culture. Initially, there may be a lack of diversity but gradually, as international cooperation becomes central to successful space exploration programs and proposals to establish civil society organizations arise, the Martian culture may shift to one of deep altruism and selflessness. 

Environmental Management

Knowing that human activity on Mars will affect the planet, how should we balance the competing interests of environmental preservation, scientific discovery, settler wellbeing, financial viability, and more? What measures, if any, should be taken to avoid contaminating Mars with terrestrial-based organisms? Should terraforming be considered as a long-term strategy for making Mars more habitable for humans?

Business: Resource based

The business-resource based group focused on ways commercial interests could play out on Mars. Their research prioritized commercial interests that would use the resources on Mars. For example, the use of resources on-site vs exports, the potential resources for extraction, and the terraforming of mars all played central roles in their research. Ultimately, mining and manufacturing would best thrive under different size populations and different timelines. The economics of such commercial interests and their impact on the environment of Mars were also viewed through different cost-benefit analyses.

Business: Non-Resource based


The Planet and Indigenous Life

Martian Settlers

The settlers group focused on ways the planet will manage its resources for agriculture, the role leisure and recreation will play on Mars, and the way regulation will enforce proper use of land management. Their research highlights the importance of a greenhouse on Mars and its feasibility, the gradual but critical role leisure will play on Mars, from VR to space tourism, and finally the importance of treaties and a system of checks and balances to address the proper use of land management on Mars.

Future Generations

The future generations stakeholder group highlighted the importance of protecting the interests of future voices that need to be accounted for when colonizing Mars. Their research reflected the importance of cooperation between nations and between public-private partnerships, specifically for the sustainable distribution of Martian resources for the future of humanity, deciding sovereignty on Mars, and the way partnerships can work towards a sustainable future for humanity on Mars, specifically focusing on environmental standards.

Military and International Relations

The settlement of Mars will engage various state actors with potentially conflicting interests. Already, governments are building up military strategies and assets for space, such as the United States Space Force. How will the long-studied norms of international relations play out on Mars? Will settlement be mostly peaceful or could conflicts escalate, and what are the stakes? Could nationalism spill over into settler dynamics? What can be done to preserve peace and promote cooperation?

Commercial Entities

The commercial entities group researched the application of commercial interests on Mars. Specifically, the group researched the dichotomy between national interests and corporate interests on Mars, the threats or benefits that space militarization could pose on interplanetary commerce, and finally how commercial interests have historically benefitted from military conflict and how it might apply to a space environment. Their research emphasized the important role of technology, political tensions, and military policy.

Civilian Organizations

Military Interactions

United Nations and other International Actors

Non-USA Spacefaring Nations

The non-US spacefaring countries group focuses on key actors, such as China and Russia. Specifically, the group examines the implications that these military and space powers have historically had on behavior on Earth. The group considers the history of US-China relations in space, how these nations' space policy affects the actions of other spacefaring nations, and how Russia's military actions in space have diverted from their military actions on earth. Conflict and cooperation are the main themes in their findings.

Countries without Space Access

This group's research highlighted the role countries without space access would play in the development of Mars as well as the necessary steps to make space access more equitable moving forward. Specifically, the team researched actions these nations could take to develop their space programs, how these nations may exert their influence in the development of Mars, and the interactions these nations could have with space-faring nations and organizations.

Constitutional Issues

A Martian settlement will need a system of governance. How should that be structured? Should they implement a democratic, majority-ruled institution? Or should power be more centralized? What factors are most important to making these determinations, and how might they change over time? Should there be certain inalienable rights, and if so, what should they include? Stepping back, who should get to make these decisions? Are there lessons or models to be drawn from governmental systems on Earth?


This focus approached the theme of democracy and governance by researching key questions, such as: should there be a government and what would be its purpose(s)? They also examined the benefits and drawbacks of establishing a Martian government. Ultimately their research emphasized the importance of establishing a government on Mars that would preserve the interests of its settlers, which also includes the type of government(s) that would allow for the preservation of rights.





This team focused on punishment mechanisms on Mars that would differ or mirror those on Earth. They researched ways in which constitutional violations would be addressed and whether the power to address would lie directly on Mars, Earth, or a combination of both societies. Some of their findings included ways in which a prison system could be set up on Mars as well as the relationship between Martian criminals and Earth criminals. Jurisdiction, space law, and the philosophies behind punishment are key in their findings.


This team focused on the impact time will have on constitutional issues over generations. The group researched the impacts of changing group identities on governance, how generational changes affect a group's functionality, how the transition to a self-reliant Martian society may play out, and finally on what factors citizenship will be based on. The group looked at historical precedents surrounding these themes, such as American colonization, as well as the Robbers Cave Experiment which highlights how intergroup conflict can form when fighting for resources. 

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The Future is in your hands

Command a Settlement

We have developed an interactive game for you to explore the challenges of settling Mars:

You are tasked with creating the first human settlement on Mars. You must select the first group of settlers to go to Mars, choose where to live/the settlement habitats, and the governmental structure of your settlement.

Level Deteails:
  • Who do you bring?
  • Where do you live?
  • What Government do you choose?
  • What is your relationship to Earth?

Explore these questions in-depth as you build the first human settlement on Mars, and determine the fate of our species and the Solar System!

Play Now

The Power of interdisciplinary vision

"What makes this project really interesting to me is how elusive our subject is. There's not a whole lot of research on designing a society on Mars. So to fill in that gap, we have to search disparate fields and seemingly irrelevant ideas to try and make those connections ourselves."
Donald Pepka
Undergraduate Student
This project has been incredibly rewarding, mostly because it’s shown me that space isn’t just a place for scientists or engineers — space touches everyone and everything. I have loved working with people on this team that come from so many different disciplines and walks of life and knowing that despite those differences we can come together and bond over something we’re just absolute nerds about. We’ve collaborated and created products that I think will have a very real impact on the future of space exploration, and it’s exciting to feel that you’re a part of something as big as that.
Ritika Saligram
Undergraduate Student
“If we are to successfully settle and terraform MArs, we must do so not by focusing on the technology, but on the humanity. This project has opened my eyes to the challenges we face as a species, and how we can overcome them today by looking to a future of exploration...”
Christopher Kilner
PhD Candidate