Summiting Mars (Abbreviated)

Completed during my last semester at Carnegie Mellon University, I developed a solution that allows humans to summit Olympus Mons, a trophy for the next generation of explorers, and a catalyst for new technological and human advances. This project was completed in May, 2016.

Project Info:
Mars City Design Competition Finalist
/ Space Studio / Spring 2016

Three months / One Semester

Rhinoceros 3D / Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, Indesign / Digital fabrication

Hi-fidelity renders / 3D Rhinoceros models / Experience diagrams / Models


"As we leave our own planet, we become critically aware of our dependence on it. In the void the only space for our existence will be inside our built environment, inside a piece of architecture, acting as a surrogate for all of Earth’s resources. The structure, form, organization, and material instantiation of architecture must sustainably account for all our very limited materials and how we interact with them and with each other." - Professor Christina Ciardullo

The realm of space for the designer challenges some fundamental beliefs about the role of the design professions and design education:

01 — Are we suggesting real projects to be completed, or are we simply speculating? What is the difference? Are we making science or science fiction? 

02 — What does interdisciplinary really mean? And how does the architect bridge between disciplines?

03 — Through the lens of the extreme, what is it that truly matters in design: human culture, physical comfort, psychological or social structures, systems integration?

The Mission

Set in a time years after our first pioneering missions, my studio was tasked with envisioning a future for Mars habitation. Our designs focused on the relationship between materials, technology, and the human experience, and how, by thinking about the future, we can better design for humanity today. We began with the baseline assumption of six astronauts on a 500 day journey to Mars, in transit, on the surface, and back. We researched and defined our own programs for a Mars Surface or Transit Habitat in context of our long-term vision for human exploration. To help frame our approach, we received four high level goals to achieve over the course of the next three months.

Design process and program requirements

Our semester followed a modified version of IDEO’s Human-Centered Design process. It was crucial to ground our designs in research to remain within the realm of moderate feasibility. A level of viability was necessary since we would be taking our projects to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in the coming month for critique.

Credit: Christina Ciardullo
Following an extensive research phase, we dove into iterative design sprints centered around the multiple scales we needed to address,
both at a human level and at a community and habitat scale.

The holistic experience that we developed needed to encompass a few key areas. Our design needed to be a post-pioneering settlement or outpost on the surface of Mars or in transit that responded to available resources, size and form according to social and resource-driven concerns. The settlement also needed to include:

- Human living functions (Sleeping, eating, eliminating, cleansing)
- Human productive functions (research, data collection, observation, building, construction)
- Human support program (Food, medical, social, janitorial, repair)
- Systems program (Energy, water/air filtration/circulation, computational equipment)

researching the domain  (Abbreviated)

An ambitious and open-ended studio, we built our scope and defined our project through rounds of research and unrestricted imagination. My studio followed an iterative analysis and application methodology. In each cycle, we conducted group research and discussion followed by individual application. Over the course of our research sprints we performed weekly pinups and critiques that addressed three critical areas in relation to time and space:

The extreme and unlivable environment found on Mars requires a closed loop design. We looked at precedents found on the ISS and compared it to the way we (or other plants and animals) use and source resources on earth. We also researched potential sources of food, energy, water all within the constraints of a closed loop system. We considered waste, input, and output as well as the human body’s needs. Our primary goal was to understand how our resources shape our bodies and environment, and how they ultimately influence design.

In space, as well as on earth, design is first and primarily a reaction to the scale of our bodies. The dimensions of the human body govern the size and scale of current spacecraft to the minute detail. We developed diagrams and one to one scale mockups of existing space modules (ISS, Skylab, MIR, TransHab) to discover the boundaries of intimate, social and public space in a vacuum, and to answer critical questions:

How do our bodies and culture shape our spaces?

What large interior spaces still give a sense of freedom? How much room does a person need, for how long?

What's it like to be in a place without a landmark or any sense of human scale?

NASA tests the limits of the human body, as well as human psychology, and seeks to design spaces that for the moment, suffice for survival of an astronaut. But as we continue on longer missions, how much of our habitat goes beyond survivability?

NASA Mars Desert Research Station

NASA's Man-Systems Integration Standards

In developing an experience for the future, we naturally assume significant technological inventions in materials and processes. Humans have invented tools (another word for technology) to alter our environments both physical and digital for generations. We sought to answer a crucial question:  

How will program or design change in light of new undiscovered technologies? 

We looked at passive technology and active technology to inform our design, as well as conditions such as inside the machine, part of the machine, and alongside the machine.

My studio’s extensive research painted a comprehensive and detailed understanding of the constraints, expectations, and needs when designing for deep space. Our design approaches, while still open to interpretation, needed to address the daunting list of requirements and human necessities set forth by our research. Our research revealed the complexities our species, and just how unsuited we are for any environment not found on Earth.

Project Approach

Mars in my mind was awe-inspiring and unforgiving but one of the universe's greatest gift to man: a challenge that remains unmet. I began by researching similar challenges on Earth. Time and time again, research brought me to the Himalayan peaks. Everest stands as the pinnacle of human achievement and a pursuit representative of the most celebrated passion and drive. To all the climbers who have summited Everest and me, it stands as something man must champion, and instills in us a primordial itch that leads to millions of dollars in gear and years of intensive training with a startlingly high risk of death.

"Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory — who was to die on Mount Everest — was asked why did he climb it. He said, ‘Because it is there.’ Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it. And the moon and planets are there. And new hopes for knowledge and peace are there.” John F. Kennedy

As one of the most extreme environments in the world, humanity does not see Everest as a habitable place, but as a place of awe and respect. I applied a similar mental model to the extremes of Mars. I sought to outline how humans can begin to summit Mars, not permanently inhabit the dangerous planet. While providing a thrill for the next generation, the platform will also tackle technological and environmental advances by testing newly designed systems that can be applied back on Earth.

Design Principles

With my project scope defined, I devised design considerations and requirements rooted in research that would structure my design iterations moving forward.

Trash is a significant problem on Mount Everest. 26,500 pounds of human garbage is found on the slopes of Everest each season. Despite local efforts, the Everest Summiteers Association, which has also collected tons of debris from the mountain, estimates there might be as much as 10 tons of trash left on Everest. It was vital to design a system that would allow climbers to summit Olympus Mons on Mars, and return with no trace left behind.

Mars does not have a breathable atmosphere. It’s 100 times thinner than Earth's, and 95 percent carbon dioxide. Humans cannot walk on Mars without a suit. The very nature of Mars’ environment requires a system design that is a closed loop. With no viable way to grow sustenance in Martian atmosphere, all resources including human excrement need to be contained and reused if humans wish to spend extended periods of time on Mars.

Mars' thin atmosphere and its greater distance from the sun mean that Mars is much colder than Earth. The average temperature is minus 80 degrees F, although it can vary from minus 195 degrees F near the poles during the winter to as much as a comfortable 70 degrees F at midday near the equator. The atmosphere of Mars is 100 times thinner than Earth's, but it is still thick enough to support weather, clouds, and winds.

Currently used in modern space habitat design, modular systems allow parts and pieces to be easily replaced, used, and transported. Ideally, my design would be compact upon delivery to maximize carrying capacity and fuel efficiency during transit.

Focussing all design efforts around human efficiency was crucial. In the harsh environments of Mars, for my mission to be a success, efficiency and survivability took priority. However, by focusing on a spectrum farther away from human comfort, I was left to test and design at the line between spaces deemed crucial and those deemed unnecessary.

Defining Scope

The vastness of the project and its touch-points had me scope down to a manageable scope quickly. We were free to explore designing for in transit or on the surface but to best envision a future for a Mars summit, it was crucial to focus my design efforts around temporary habitation on the surface and for the climb itself.

It was also vital to take a step back and understand timeline at a more holistic level. I developed a timeline that included planetary transit to set feasible expectations and higher level restrictions. My higher level timeline revealed the amounts of constraints and long transit time needed to complete a Martian climb. For a Martian journey, transit, climbing, and acclimation are measured in years as opposed to weeks.

Defining Site

One of the most fascinating peaks on Mars is Olympus Mons. It is currently the highest mountain in our known universe. At 15 miles high, three miles taller than Mount Everest, It is rimmed by a four mile high scarp with a 50 mile wide caldera located at the summit.

The scarp makes a perfect location for first time interplanetary climbers.
The primary site is located in the Gordii Fossae Planes situated at the base of Olympus Mons.

Defining Program

With a location defined, it was crucial to set the program for my project. With so many possibilities, I returned to Everest. I looked at habitation programs necessary to perform an Everest summit. My research revealed multiple stages of camps. These included a more permanent base camp, with subsequent camps that followed climbers up the slopes of Everest. I developed four critical programs to build.

Camp Olympus is the equivalent to Everest’s Base Camp. It acts as a more permanent structure with longer-term occupants that focus on food production, medical attention, and mechanical concerns. Base Camp reflects a more temporary camp and is smaller and adaptable to accommodate for different climb routes. It was vital to incorporate a checkpoint camp that allows for storage, food production, and shelter along the path to Base Camp and the summit. Climbers at Base Camp would attempt multiple climbs before returning to Camp Olympus.

Defining climber touch-points

There were countless intricacies and touch-points of a Mars climber. To help clarify my understanding and a more detailed roadmap of program needs, I devised a high-level user journey to map out the different tasks and touch-points a climber and researcher would accomplish and achieve in any given day. 

Mapping my user's journey at a more detailed level helped inform more specific program for each habitat.

Human Scale

By developing for human scale first and foremost, I ensured a design that adhered to a comfortable, usable human experience. I focused on designing for a six ft male, typical to the demographics found in current space travel missions. To inform my iterations, I looked to current standards of temporary habitation found on Everest and extreme environments like cliff faces.

I looked at current human scale gear utilized during an Everest Climb.

I also took inspiration from current rock climbing gear, particularly the Portaledge.

Due to the extreme conditions of Mars, I redesigned current standards of extreme habitation to better fit the needs of a Mars climber and the added bulk of a suit. One significant addition is the incorporation of an airlock, a necessity that allows climbers to change out of their oxygen sealed gear. I also addressed the human resource loop and diagrammed inputs, outputs and sources of energy that my habitats could utilize.

Habitat Scale

With a better understanding of the human scale on a foreign planet, I turned to community level habitats and focused on designing public structures for Camp Olympus and Base Camp. The key to success here was modularity. I focused on iterating a shape that was strong, flexible, and adaptable. I returned to research and looked at current designs for galactic travel. My crucial inspiration was derived from Nasa’s Bigelow Expandable Activity Module or “BEAM.” Beam is an inflatable modular design developed by Bigelow and recently completed its first year in space.

I explored shapes that would allow for modular attachment. I settled on a hexagonal design that allowed for maximum internal space and external surface connections. The benefits of using a multi-sided form lay in its ability to use a smaller number of unique panels and allow for different orientations while still maintaining its connective ability.

NASA Mid-Semester Review

Over the course of a month, we refined our concepts from sketches to more refined experiences. We used a combination of 3D models, diagrams, and timelines to define our projects before taking them to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for a critique by current astronauts, designers, and engineers.

While level of feasibility was a consistent critique, our review panel appreciated the level of detail and attention to constraint when designing our solutions.

Mid-Semester plots. Sized 24" x 60"

I received mixed feedback on my design. The critiques mainly focused on the level of detail not yet achieved in the actual material and physical breakdown of my hexagonal pods. However, my story was incredibly compelling to the review panel as a novel way to push the boundaries of technology, and the human body.

This case study is currently in working progress

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© 2020 -  Jeremy y. Lu