I love to see the fanciful and inspiring depictions of brave intrepid explorers traversing the Martian terrain, a gleaming city rising to the sky in the background. It's inspirational, some may even motivate young people to dream big and work hard to achieve something meaningful in life -- even if they never set foot on the surface of Mars they'll be better for it. This could be said for much of science and most science fiction as well.
But I grow weary of pretty pictures that never actually change anything, never push us forward to expand outward into the cosmos. Nice to look at, fun for the moment then soon forgotten. In short, pretty pictures that have become nothing but science porn. I'd rather look at engineering drawings and blueprints, electrical diagrams and cost analyses or read research papers. I know, I'm no fun at parties either.
Perhaps this is one of the perks of being old, I just don't give a shit how pretty something is. And I don't give a shit if anyone disagrees with me. Or perhaps it's a result of seeing such great strides of progress as a young man, and then after the 1970s seeing ... no real progress at all in terms of space exploration. Whatever the reason, these inspiring images just don't have the same impact as seeing things actually get done.
Why not love the shiny spires reaching into the heavens, the domes covering homes and labs and forests. Why is it, when I look at these inspiring images, all I do is point out the flaws in their design, the wasted materials used for artistic flair (aka a would-be penis enlarger for the architect). Why do I look at these images and say to myself, "everyone living in that is already dead... they just don't know it yet."
Let's start with where these cities are: on the surface of Mars. We make cities everywhere on Earth, even pretty good habitats in Antarctica. So what is wrong with the idea of figuratively transporting those same designs and ideas to cheaply and easily build cities on Mars? Short answer, Mars is not Earth, almost everything we take for granted here just doesn't exist on Mars. The thin atmosphere, the lack of a planetary magnetic field and ozone layer to protect us from solar radiation and cosmic rays, dust storms that shroud the entire planet for months, the lack of freely available surface water, etc., all conspire to make living on Mars more difficult and more dangerous than almost anywhere on Earth. And the thin atmosphere would do almost nothing to stop meteors from crashing through those pretty skyscrapers or punching holes in life preserving domes.
With all that taken into account, I wonder how anyone could assume that what works here on Earth would possibly work on Mars.
All things are designed to fit their environment and their intended purpose. We don't use hammers to drill holes and we don't regularly see jet airplanes cruising down neighborhood streets. They aren't intended to do those things. Likewise, whatever living environments we create on Mars will have to be suited to the environment there on Mars.
There will be no municipal services like electric, water, sewer and district heating that we can just connect to. We'll need to build all those things first, and each will need to be both tailored specifically for the Martian environment and have redundant backups if we really intend for humans to live on Mars long term.
Electric will be easy: just lay out a field of solar panels and we're done. Right? It's not so easy as that. Remember the dust storms. They occur every year and block the sun for at least a month or more. Solar panels will produce far less energy when the sky is obscured by dust, and even less when that dust settles or is blown onto the solar panels. So solar panels alone won't be enough. Future Martians will need to use something else as a backup energy source, whether that be hydrogen fuel cells, RTGs (radioisotope thermal generators), small nuclear reactors or some other thing, some way of generating at least enough power to maintain life support and other critical systems will be needed.
Sewers? That would be an Earth luxury that no Martian could ever have. Waste water will need to be filtered, purified and recycled back into the water storage tanks. Astronauts on the ISS do this now. Their water is cleaner and more pure than what comes from the tap here on Earth. Solid waste will be used as well, as fertilizer for non-edible plants possibly. The oxygen has to come from somewhere and humans on Mars will need plants to keep them sane anyway, kill two birds with one stone, eh?
Water and electricity would need to work in synergy on Mars. Since there is no free water on the surface, if future Martians want to drink or bathe they'll have to extract water from ice deposits or from the Martian soil itself. Mars landers have determined that water exists in Mars soil at between 5 percent up to 60 percent per cubic meter of soil. This will require specially designed machines to dig the soil, and other machines to extract the water, and some method of transporting it back to where its needed. All of which will need electricity to function. Thus a proper calculation of the power needed to run both the city and the water extraction apparatus at the same time. Need more water? Ok, then you'll need more power, simple as that.
Breathable air will be created either by electrolysis of water or extraction from the atmosphere. Another source of oxygen is in the perchlorates that comprise between a half percent to one percent of surface soil on Mars. Calcium Perchlorate (CaClO4) could be broken down to provide four oxygen atoms per molecule. Aluminum Perchlorate (AlClO12) would be an even better source of oxygen but, from what I have read, is far less abundant. Plants would be the best way to make oxygen, using the CO2 rich Mars atmosphere to create breathable air for us humans.
As you might have guessed by now, all these systems need to work together and in coordination under fairly precise control in order to have a self-sufficient city on Mars.