Mars By Design

Photo credit: Felix Speller

A review of the exhibition “Moving to Mars” held at The Design Museum, London from 18 October 2019 to 23 February 2020.

By Allen Ashley

The Design Museum used to be tucked away somewhere on the south bank of the Thames but since relocating to Kensington in 2016 has established itself as a premier cultural venue in the capital. Those of us a little longer in the tooth would recognise its newish home as having once held the Commonwealth Institute. Today the array of flags has gone but the building is still nestled next to parkland. It’s drizzling on the longish walk from the tube station. It’s the final week of “Moving to Mars” and it’s also half-term; which, as a sometime supply teacher, I should have taken into account. Let’s face it, what do kids love most? Dinosaurs. And second most? Space. (Witches are third, in case you’re wondering.) 

I’ve printed out my ticket and, for a museum that prides itself on design, the barcode comes out as, frankly, blotchy. But I put these omens aside as I enter the exhibition.

“Moving to Mars” is a large-scale, immersive exhibition that starts with the human- written history, assumptions and fantasies of Mars but is mostly focused on the design and technological challenges posed by the notion of people visiting and settling on the fourth planet. The exhibition sets this agenda with some of the text in its airlock-like lobby: “There will be no experience of Mars outside an artificial bubble, whether in the habitat or the spacesuit” and “This is the ultimate designed life”. There is also a photo opportunity against a projected backdrop of the red planet. 

Mars has fascinated humans throughout history – red and moving in the night sky. Galileo observed it via telescope; William Herschel noted the frozen ice caps in 1784; H. G. Wells effectively kickstarted Martian-obsessed literature in 1897 with “The War of the Worlds”; Ray Bradbury took us to an elegiac and allegorical version of Mars in “The Martian Chronicles”; films such as “Total Recall” 1990 and “The Martian” 2015 and books such as the “Mars” trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson are other notable examples of our Martian fascination. Not forgetting Gerry Anderson’s follow-up to “Thunderbirds” – “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons”, in which the latter are a mind-controlling enemy from the red planet. The museum has on display some great old pulp SF mags such as “Wonder Stories” and “Authentic Science Fiction Monthly”. What’s interesting is that some of the references I have made – Bradbury, Robinson, Mysterons – aren’t even mentioned here yet I bring them to mind because Mars and Martians are so deeply rooted in my psyche; and that of many others, especially science fiction or astronomy fanatics.  

Also on show is a diagram charting the scientific expeditions to Mars (orbit or surface) since 1960 when the USSR’s beautifully named “Marsnik 1” set sail (unsuccessfully). The first successful probe was the USA’s “Mariner 4” in 1964 and since then the USA, Russia, China, Japan, India and the European Space Agency have all sent missions to explore the red planet. What strikes home is the regularity of the probes – there is also someone having a look at or sending a payload to Mars, it seems. 

Next up is a small display on Giovani Schiaparelli, the astronomer who in 1877 thought he saw “canali” on the Martian surface and, perhaps more than anybody else in history, is responsible for inspiring the later flurry of literature presuming Mars to be or have been inhabited. Why he doesn’t feature earlier with Herschel, I don’t understand. 

Map by 18th-century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli

I suppose I had never really considered the question of the size of a Martian Rover. Maybe I’d assumed shopping trolley / wheelbarrow proportions. But here we have a 1:1 scale model of the ExoMars rover due to launch in 2020 and land in 2021. With its solar panels of black photonic cells, its silver wheels and gold trim, it is magnificent and maybe 2+ metres wide, 2 metres high and 2 ½ metres at its fullest extended length. If it lands in one piece, this vehicle should be able to comfortably negotiate the various boulders, craters and outcrops. 

European Space Agency, ExoMars Project. Photo credit: Ed Reeve

The next room has a video projection Martian landscape complete with information text, much of it pleasingly numerical. The discovery on Mars of clay deposits and rounded pebbles suggest that surface water – lakes and rivers – was present three and a half billion years ago. The atmosphere on Mars these days is about 100 times thinner than ours and is mostly carbon dioxide. With the lower gravity, you could jump three times higher but over time your bones are going to weaken. This video comes complete with atmospheric wind tunnel noises. Mars looks like a desert and sounds like a desert. Mars is currently 246 million miles away. To get there would take 150-300 days. There’s a 22 minute live radio delay. The most moving part of this video is when they show a vision of the Martian night sky and point out which glitter of light is Earth. 

Like Elton John sang in “Rocket Man”, it’s freezing cold on Mars. The icing sugar like dust storms can last for months. The film offers the contention that, “Human missions would be focused on finding (evidence of) recent or ancient life on Mars.” Given the escalating climate catastrophe here on Terra, I would say the mission would likely be soon focused on part two: How can we live permanently on Mars? 


The next room has some information on rockets, with a filmed commentary from Tim Peake and with features on the father of the Space Age, Werner von Braun, and also classic space artist Chesley Bonestell. A copy of “Collier’s Magazine” dated 30 April 1954 has cover headlines: “Can We Get To Mars?” and “Is There Life On Mars”; along with the more topical and down to earth: “Special Report – How Your Town Can Avoid A Recession”.  

To the side of these displays there’s an aluminium covered wooden playhouse “rocket ship” for the kids to play in. It’s fun and reminds me of a Ray Bradbury story and a Smashing Pumpkins video. 

The question of who finances space travel is raised in the displays dealing with the publicly funded (e.g. NASA) versus private debate (e.g. Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos of Amazon).  

The explorations and boundary-pushing endeavours of deep-sea diving, supersonic or near-supersonic air flight, and then the Mercury and Gemini missions etc, initiated a design imperative and led to the development of pressure suits and spacesuits. Several examples and designs are on display here. The International Space Station has taught us much about how to construct an environment for people to be able to live in space or off-Earth – including the difficulties posed by the normally simple functions such as eating or, indeed, excreting. Lessons that will need to be carried forward and designs that will need to be improved upon if we are to settle on Mars. 

The “Survival” / “Building on Mars” room includes models of several fascinating ergonomic and topological designs for habitation on Mars, many of which assume using, at least in part, some of the regolith (sandy topsoil) available in situ. Perhaps in this room more than any other the need to design in order to survive (and thrive) on Mars for any length of time is more apparent and more vibrant than elsewhere in the exhibition. Displays include “Grow Stack Mobile S5” – a hydroponics machine, plant trays under artificial sunlight. At the far end of the room is a white ovoid “Hab-Pod” set out like a living quarters complete with sink, bamboo plant and furniture. This latter is rather unattractive and frankly uncomfortable: 3D printed, ridged and layered plastic table, chairs, a stool not really suitable for the human buttock and some sort of couch bed that was badly in need of cushions, pillows, mattress… Yes, I got into it. Yes, I struggled getting out again… and not because of Earth gravity! 

Mars habitat by HASSELL in partnership with Eckersley O’Callaghan (EOC). Part of NASA 3D Printed Habitat Challenge. Photo credit: Felix Speller

Nearing the end of the exhibition there is “The Wilding of Mars” by Daisy Ginsberg – an interesting computer simulation picturing the planet being terraformed. But over a time scale that would, realistically, take hundreds of thousands of years. There is another video “Mars Mission 2100” – an uplifting animation of a future Martian colony along with a spaceship blasting off from Earth to join them there. The final room “Should we go, and what could we learn?” encourages reflection on all that we have experienced beforehand. 

This was an engaging, thought-provoking, interactive – everybody tried out the Martian pod furniture! – and generally well-curated exhibition. A treat for science fiction fans, amateur astronomers, eco warriors and futurists alike. If we are ever going to go to Mars – and I’m still coping with the disappointment that NASA reneged on its original 1986 mission promise – then design is going to be key to success and survival. 

Bio: Allen Ashley has previously reviewed exhibitions for “The BFS Journal” and “Prism”. His poetry featured in “Focus 69”. His most recent book is as editor of the science fiction and science fantasy anthology “The Once and Future Moon” (Eibonvale Press, 2019). He is President Elect of the British Fantasy Society.


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