On the surface of Mars, temperatures average about -60C. The thin atmosphere, containing almost no oxygen, is unbreathable. Intense solar radiation, were you to survive the cold and asphyxiation, would be lethal. It would take seven months and billions of pounds to get there. Growing enough food on the red planet to live off would be, to put it mildly, difficult, so you’d have to bring it with you.

All of which makes the idea, once expressed by Stephen Hawking and now Elon Musk, that humanity might look to Mars as a planet B if things get really bad here terrifying. It implies that conditions on Earth would actually have to be worse than that unappealing Martian atmospheric cocktail. In which situation only an elite handful would make the escape, a handful that would include (in the imagination, one suspects, of Elon Musk) people very like Elon Musk.

One of the most thought-provoking exhibits in the Design Museum’s Moving to Mars exhibition is therefore the proposal by the artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg that we send plants and bacteria there instead, of a kind that could survive and propagate in the planet’s harsh conditions. It would require a certain disinterest, species-wise – the aim would be to continue life in this cosmic ark, but not human life – but it’s a refreshing variation on the more familiar concept of hero-pioneers efficiently setting up home in hi-tech colonies.

It’s also reasonable to ask, given rapid progress in robotics, whether it will ever make sense to send human explorers. In an age when robots can land on comets, the laborious ferrying of flesh and blood through our particular corner of the solar system begins to look old-fashioned. Despite all such reasoned objection, the thought of human travel to Mars is a powerful and romantic one. It’s also one on which Musk, Nasa and other agencies are prepared to lavish significant amounts of speculative investment.

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The Design Museum’s show is both a picture of a human idea and a sampling of intense human ingenuity. It starts with some of the speculation and fiction that the fourth planet from the sun has inspired. It shows, with the help of life-size mockups, proposals by the design company Hassell to get swarms of 3D-printing robots to build anti-radiation shelters out of regolith (the loose material of stones and dust on the surface of Mars) under which inflatable habitations could be inserted.

A visitor to the On Mars Today experience.



A visitor to the On Mars Today experience.

Photograph: Felix Speller for the Design Museum

Fiction and science often come closely entwined, as in the vivid paintings with which the architecturally trained Chesley Bonestell brought to life proposals for Mars travel by Wernher von Braun, the man who moved from designing V2 missiles for Hitler to moon rockets for Nasa. The Design Museum, keen to mount an exhibition that might otherwise seem better suited to the Science Museum, is at pains to stress the human and the cultural, as well as the purely technical, aspects of the subject.

To this end it exhibits material on the design of environments to help the wellbeing and sanity of astronauts. The celebrated American designer Raymond Loewy, who started his career designing steam locomotives and ended it designing the 1970s space station Skylab, makes an appearance. He insisted on the simple but effective measure, which seemingly hadn’t occurred to the project’s engineers, of installing a window. Astronauts were happier if they could look outside.

An ESA rover prototype at the Design Museum.



An ESA rover prototype at the Design Museum. Photograph: Ed Reeve

So it’s an intelligent and thoughtful exhibition. Its most compelling sensation, though, is one of wonder. Here, for example, is a full-size working model of one of the rovers that have been wandering this alien world these past several years, filming the view and gathering samples. It looks both sophisticated and basic – almost agricultural – at once. And here is a triptych of large screens on which you can see some of the footage the vehicle has sent back. It puts you right there, in the middle of a hard desert landscape half like the more arid parts of our planet, but also quite different.

No one should get blase about this achievement, even though the first such Mars visits were more than 40 years ago. It is stupendous. For good measure the Design Museum has installed, on the floor from which you watch the screens, a knobbly surface that imitates that of Mars. The planet’s scent is also pumped into the room. It’s a sort of dry must, something like old suede.

In Against Nature, the great decadent 1884 novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans, the hero buys a ticket to go to London from Paris. Before catching his train, he dines in an English restaurant, among red-faced eaters of beef. The weather happens to be rainy and foggy. He eventually decides that, having experienced the people and weather of England so comprehensively, he has no need actually to go there.

My instinct is that we should do the same with Mars – dream about it, fascinate ourselves with the information and images sent back by the rovers, but not try to turn into reality the fantasy of migrating there. Rather better, as an environmentalist filmed in the exhibition says, to work on the planet we already have.

At the Design Museum, London, until 23 Feb 2020



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