Village Landscape

By IonMars

June 20, 2014

“Magnificent desolation” were the words made famous by the second man to step foot on the moon as he stood on its stark surface with the blackness of space behind him1.  How more poignant is the description by Buzz Aldrin when applied to the remote planet Mars, 350 million miles from Earth rather than a mere quarter million.  How challenging it will be to find meaning in life within a lifeless landscape, completely alienated from the warmth of the body of humanity. 

Yet another phrase also comes to mind: “beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.”  For among the small group of colonists who first step onto Mars’ barren surface will be a person who is enthralled rather than threatened, who is inspired rather than intimidated, and who will find fulfillment in the discipline of pioneering.   Such a person will bring a human touch to the landscaper of a Martian village.  Such a person will create a bit of artistry from the raw materials given to him or her, red regolith and stone.  For the pioneer who yearns to create meaning from desolation there will be opportunities to express humanity in the construction of houses, roadways, and storage tanks.  It will be the architect’s challenge that form follows function and from form, beauty. 

Hobbit HouseThe basic form of a Martian village was set in stone when a Roman arch house built of stone and covered with regolith was chosen as the structure that could be built from native materials with very little equipment imported from Earth.  From this point the Martian house was destined to look more like a hobbit’s dwelling than a prince’s palace. Some of these Earth homes look very much like a rabbit burrow, like the one shown in the picture on the left2. But such a burrow does not depict the practical and aesthetic possibilities of a Martian house, which is much better represented in the following photo of an upscale underground home in Greece. 

The features of the Greek house that are relevant to a Mars house exterior are: 

 1) Cleared ground in the “front yard.   Rocks and sharp glassy chunks or “glassicles” must be removed from the vicinity because they present a hazard to soft tires and spacesuits alike.  The same techniques used to clear roadways will be employed here with even more diligence because of the intense usage of the grounds within the village.  Frequent traveling over the ground will also bring up objects to the surface that were previously buried.  Like nails in the driveway of an Earth home, glassicles will mysteriously find a way to puncture soft tires of village vehicles.  The appearance of glassicules in an otherwise cleared ground will require constant vigilance to remove them as soon as they are discovered.

Underground House

In the Mars village, distinct borders that are delineated by a line of rocks will mark off cleared areas.  This is a practical technique to give notice to colonists where the prepared yards and roads come to an end and the hazardous zone begins.  It announces where the colonist may safely drive an MEV and where only an SEV or front-end loader on steel treads should enter.  Setting up the border will give opportunities for creating imaginative rock structures and designs. 

2) Sloped ground leading up the sides of the house.  The technique of constructing the sidewalls of a Mars house requires that rocks and regolith be placed next to the sidewalls as they are built.  (See the article “Pioneer House Building”.)  Depositing this material next to the walls will require ramps to be laid down at the same time so that the front-end loader can drive up the ramp to dump its bucket.  Rather than removing the ramp after construction it may be left in place and assume the sloped shape shown in the picture above. Note that when a crane is employed (See the article “Mars Village Vehicles”) a moderately sloped ramp is required to drive a SpyderCrane up to the site of wall and roof construction. 

 3) Retaining walls that mold the Wall of Bolderslandscape.  The landscape walls on Mars will not be dramatically white as shown in the picture above, but will assume the color of the stones that are available in the vicinity.  Most often they will be impregnated with reddish brown iron oxide. 

Retaining walls on Earth are of two types.  They can be built with flat stones and cemented together with mortar or they can be built as dry-stacked stone walls.  The first type of mortared wall is a solid structure that is employed when a vertical wall of substantial strength is required to hold back a mass of soil.  On Mars water-based mortar will not work and building blocks must be cut from solid stone and held together by melting or sintering the edges of the blocks.   Building such a wall would require a substantial expenditure of energy and therefore money.  This method will be reserved for construction of houses and storage tanks.  

Landscape retaining walls on Mars will not require the same structural strength as the arched ceiling of a house.  Landscape walls can be built from stones and rocks and placed into a dry stacked wall.   On Earth, structural walls of any kind can fail when not properly engineered.  The reason for failure is usually due to groundwater backing up behind the wall after a heavy rain and creating a massive weight against the wall until it breaks.  No rainfall on Mars means no unexpected mass against a wall.  In addition, the weight of soil is 38 percent of Earth soil, so less stress to begin with.  This means that a less expensive building method can be put to work.


Dry Stacked Stone WallThe dry stacked stone wall technique is a procedure that is well known and commonly employed on Earth.  It is used to subdivide the landscape into two distinct elevations, a higher elevation above the wall and a lower level below.  To proceed, stones of convenient size and shape that are found lying on the ground are collected and carried to the “construction” site.  A row of larger stones is laid down as a base.  Then rows of increasingly smaller stones are stacked one upon the other. (Such as the “wall of boulders” in the previous picture.)  The rows are irregular and smaller stone are carefully placed into the interstices between larger ones. Good judgment is required to determine how to stack the stones so that the weight of higher rows will hold the lower stones in place.  Each row is slightly receding from the row below it so that the wall will lean back against the soil.  In addition, soil (regolith and small rocks on Mars) will be placed behind each row as it is stacked and tamped so as to hold the stones in place.  Finally, a row of large flat stones will be laid along the top to hold everything in place.  Fill dirt will be emplaced onto a level just above the top row and then tamped. 

 The first step is to collect the type of rocks desired by the wall builder.  The appropriate rock type is not determined by chemical composition, but by visual appearances such as size, shape and color.  Rock collecting could be an adjunct to road building.  (See the article “Pioneer Road Building.”)  As the front-end loader digs, scrapes and smoothens the surface, rocks will be dug ups and put aside.  Desirable rocks or stones could be separated into separate piles for later trucking to a rock-wall building site. 

To illustrate the ease of finding appropriate rocks and stones, the following photos were selected from the gallery of the website These shots originated from JPL/NASA via the Curiosity rover on its journey through Gale Crater (5). 

Mars Landscape



It may not be necessary to build a rock wall on Mars; all we have to do is wait in place for 3 billion years to allow natural geological processes to take place and voila!   A dry stacked stone wall is formed! 




Haz-Cam Picture


This hazy picture was taken from the “Haz-Cam” near the wheels of the Curiosity rover.  Besides a hazardous area for Curiosity’s wheels, this vicinity could also be considered a rock collection site.




Sedimentry Rock Slab



This is the sedimentary rock slab store.   Self-serve and free for the picking; however, from Earth it is a rather long drive.  




Mars Hillside



This hillside is a good place for collecting “square” boulders and rocks.  Also sports a nice drift of regolith in the foreground.





To proceed, rocks or stones collected from the vicinity will be piled near the location for a dry stacked wall.  An example location for such a wall is shown in the sketch below.  The end walls of two standard Mars houses are visible with the stone block edges of two arched ceilings poised over two EVA hatches (doorways).   Two higher arched ceilings are indicated by dotted lines, meaning that two house intersections are located at the opposite ends of these two houses.  (See the article “Pioneer House Building” which illustrates a house intersection.) Each standard house extends 20 meters from the front door to the back where it joins an intersection. Horizontal dotted lines indicate Rock Wall in a Mars Villagethe height of ceilings of hallways joining the two houses together at the intersections.  Continuation of these dotted lines on the left and right suggest that hallways continue in two directions to additional intersections and additional houses that are not seen.  The two doorways are samples of a housing complex comprising the Mars village.   Note that a regolith cover that is 2-2/2 meters deep protects the entire complex. Horizontal dotted lines indicate the height of ceilings of hallways joining the two houses together at the intersections.  Continuation of these dotted lines on the left and right suggest that hallways continue in two directions to additional intersections and additional houses that are not seen.  The two doorways are samples of a housing complex comprising the Mars village.   Note that a regolith cover that is 2-2/2 meters deep protects the entire complex. 

The right side of the sketch exhibits a sloped surface extending from the front ground level up to an elevation that is higher than the house adjacent to it.  This represents the same type of slope shown in the photo of an underground house in Greece.  This inclined plane is built during house construction.   There is also a sloped plane between the two houses except that this slope was truncated.  The front face of this truncated slope is the location for the dry stacked stone wall in this example.  The wall as shown is about 1-1/2 meters high and extends around to intersect each of the two houses.  The wall performs the practical function of holding the regolith in place but also provides an ornamental texture to the landscape.  Note that a space over the doorway is labeled “rock face” which means that the rock wall is to be continued over this area.  It will allow more regolith cover to be extended closer to the edge of the house without regolith dust from raining down from overhead to the ground below.


Village Layout

The appearance of the village landscape will be determined to a large extent by the village layout.  This is the “floor plan” of the village that shows which houses, greenhouses, passage-ways, and garages will be constructed, when they will be constructed, and where they will be placed. 

Mars Landscape
To appreciate the implications of a village layout, let us analyze a theoretical example of the development of a pioneering Martian village. The first consideration will be the need for a location that is near the landing zone, close to a large source of water, and reasonably near a source of un-fractured stone. Another desirable, but not crucial, feature would be a moderately sloping ground that does not lie directly over the cryosphere where ice mining might take place. The rover Opportunity took this photo as it approached Endeavour Crater.  The foreground shows exposed rock debris and the hills in the background represent the crater rim. The middle ground appears to present a moderate slope from front to back, a desirable location for a village (provided the other criteria are met, which we don’t actually know.)  If the lowest level were reserved for waste treatment facilities and greenhouses, then wastewater collection pipes could be designed for gravity flow from houses down to these facilities, as suggested in the article “Farmland.” The highest ground could be reserved for an ice/water treatment tanks that would provide liquid running water to the village houses below. 

Next, let us suppose that the first colonial expedition will be organized into two waves of spacecraft with colonists and supplies that will be delivered two years apart.  (In most NASA plans these deliveries will occur two years apart because that is how long it takes for Mars and Earth to come into alignment where spacecraft can transit efficiently.)  In this example the first wave will bring six initial colonists, not counting any astronauts who will conduct exploration only.) One or more supply ships will deliver a self-contained habitat, ECLSS, an SEV, and all equipment and food required for at least a two-year stay.  The personnel and equipment will comprise a self-contained community without constructing any additional structures.  In addition, the supply ships will deposit the MEVs, scaffolds for building houses and storage tanks, methalox torches, diamond bit chain saws, and other (unspecified) equipment and supplies necessary to outfit the first Mars colony.  A modest payload might include two front-end loaders and one truck as a starter fleet.  

Year 1
During the first year the objective will be to construct the minimum size village that could accommodate the colonists for a longer-term stay on Mars without relying on the Earth-supplied habitats.  These will be backup.  At this stage the colonists will still rely entirely on future deliveries; it will take a very long time for Mars self-sufficiency, if it proves to be feasible. 

The above sketch labeled “Year 1” is the ambitious goal for construction during the first year. It will depend on everything going according to plan for the colonists in this imaginary scenario.  Note that the up direction in this sketch will be up-slope for the village. The module “House 1” is copied from the example house described in the article “Pioneer House Building" except that instead of two EVA ports there is a door to the garage.   The module “House Intersection” is taken from the same article and the house portal is an airtight doorway also mentioned in the article. The doorway labeled “suitrport” is a one-man facility taken from the NASA device of that name and adapted to the Mars intersection module (a temporary location). The module called “Garage” is described in “Mars Village Vehicles.” It shows that one vehicle, probably one front-end loader, could be accommodated.  The other vehicles will be left outdoors at night until more garages can be built. 

The following sketch called “Year 2” represents another ambitious goal.  By the end of two years time the colonists may be “getting the hang of it” and will construct more modules. Note that House 1 is now labeled H1, The adjacent intersection module is called I1 and the first garage is G1.  The suitport and H1 portal are still in place and a second garage has been added, G2.  These facilities could now accommodate two front-end loaders, but the truck would still be left outside at night.

Year 2

During the second year, a passageway (P1) wae built on the downhill side of I1 and two sets of stairs were built into the passageway, which joins into a second intersection, I2. Two modules were built onto I2, the composting facility and the first greenhouse.  As described in “farmland,” some time will be required to grow swamp grass to start up the compost (soil), which in turn will initiate the greenhouse.  Note that composting is a high humidity activity while growing plants requires moderate humidity, so the two compartments are separated.  By the end of the second year a greenhouse may begin to grow plants, but it will still be a long time before crop production will meet all colony needs. 

At the end of two years, the second wave of colonists and equipment will arrive. We will suppose that this payload will bring between 6 and 12 additional colonists, two more front-end loaders, another truck, and an MUV. It will provide additional ECLSS, portals and doors needed to continue construction. It will also bring equipment and supplies that the first pioneers requested because of accidents or because overlooked needs were missing in the first wave of supplies. 

The sketch below illustrates how a Mars village might look after four years of development when no disasters occurred to disrupt the plans.  Note that the original house (H1) was converted into a repair shop because it is adjacent to an expanding set of garages. Garages can now accommodate 4 of the 7 vehicles that were transported to the colony. An additional passageway, P2, was built and joined to an additional Year 4
intersection, I3. New greenhouses, Grn2 and Grn3, are longer than the original Grn1 to expand the farmland more quickly.   All were constructed as a part of a growing greenhouse complex that still can’t keep up with the nutritional needs of the colony. Another passageway, P4, was put in place between I1 and a new intersection, I4. This intersection branches off into two new houses, H3 and H4. Note that H3 was built at an angle to the rest of the village modules.  This modification will be required where the landscape is steeper and a different house angle is employed to facilitate the leveling of the building lot prior to construction. House H4 was built longer than the other houses to accommodate more people, such as a dormitory or bunkhouse. 

Note the use of Mars portals, the airtight doors.  This layout employs just three portals that are strategically located to optimize their utility.  The original P1 is still in its original position in the I1/H1 wall. An additional portal was placed into the I4/P4 wall and a third portal was located in the P1/I2 wall. These three portals will create four air safety zones. The original P1 is used to isolate the repair shop and garages from the rest of the modules.  If an air loss accident occurs inside this busy hub (zone one), it will not affect people in the other houses. The second portal isolates the composting and greenhouse modules from the rest of the village. This work area will operate as a second safety zone with people inside the area walking freely between the different greenhouses through regular, non-airtight doors. The third zone comprises the H3-I4-H4 area, which contains the most people, but only during evening hours. The fourth zone comprises the passageways P1 and P4 and the intersection I1, all of which can be isolated in the case of accident.  If additional portals become available they could be used to seal off H2 and H3 as their own zones. 

Suitports are also employed conservatively.  The first (one-man) suitport was removed from I1 to allow a door to H2 to be installed.  It was relocated to H4, thereby creating a house that allows direct access to the outdoors without passing through another module.  A second suitport, designed for two persons at a time, was built into the east wall of passageway P1.  This provides an exit to the outside near the MEV garage where colonists in spacesuits can work closely with colonists in MEVs.  A trail will be needed from the suitport to the MEV lot.  Such a trail could encounter too much regolith covering the repair shop and the compost module unless two parallel dry stone walls were built beside the trail to hold back the regolith. 

Another facility that will be completed by the end of the fourth year is the two-tank ice/water storage and treatment facility located at a high elevation near the village. These two ranks will be patterned after the facility described in the article “Pioneer Ice Mining.”  

This example layout provides protection and a bit of comfort for up to 24 colonists, but does not provide enough farmland. A rough estimate could be that four more greenhouses or two very long greenhouses will be required in the long run to place the colonists on the path to self-sufficiency. This also does not consider the need for many additional storage tanks to implement the strategic storage of chemicals as proposed in the article “Dr. Sabatier’s appurtenances.” The colony construction crew will be busy for a long time, even if no additional colonists were to arrive on the next Mars transporter, which they will. 




  1. Buzz Aldrin and KenAbraham, Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon, 2009, ISBN 978-0-307-46345-6.
  2. “Hobbit house underground house”, Accessed 4-28-2014.
  3. “Underground Living: Buried Secrets of a Stone Desert Home.”
  4. “Amazing Rover Curiosity’s Martian Views,” April 25, 2014.