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Strategies of Creating a Self-sustaining Environment

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Life outside Earth has been one of the ultimate goals for generations. Whether it be finding life outside Earth or moving life outside of Earth. Still after so many years humans are primarily stationed on this planet. The biggest issue stopping humans from moving for long periods of time is that they need to create a self-sustaining environment and doing so is complex. To create a self-sustaining environment outside of Earth, humans must look at the problems of making one, then they must terraform Mars, and they must look at strategies for the future.

Before humans can create a self-sustaining environment, they must address the problems. Two of the major problems are finding out how to create a self-sustaining environment that humans can live in and deciding if recreating planets, so they can host us is ethical. Environments consist of many factors and recreating any environment (much less Earth’s) would consume a large amount of time, money, and labor. For example, on Earth there is a magnetic field that protects life from UV radiation. Mars, the likeliest and closest option for terraforming, lacks a magnetic field.

To create a self-sustaining environment that humans can thrive in, they will have to artificially create a magnetic field that ideally covers the whole planet. One solution brought by the Council of European Societies is to place large magnets around Mars’ equator to redirect the solar winds and protect the settlers (Sandu). The problem with this option is the magnets will cover only a small part of Mars and therefore all the cities will have to be in this small, equatorial area. If humans want to expand, thinking of how to increase the magnetic field coverage is a good example of one of the tasks they will have to complete.

Another issue is sending the magnets to Mars is an expensive process where the return may not be enough to justify such an investment. Creating a self-sustaining environment has many problems and creating a magnetic field is just one. The other major issue is the ethicality of humans terraforming other planets. Who is to say that humans have the right to go to other planets and recreate it in their image and potentially harm extra-terrestrial life? Ethics is always a sensitive issue, so as suggested by Robert Haynes, society must come up with a universal code of ethics before they continue (Haynes).

Once humans decide what they can and cannot do, only then can they begin work on alien environments. Once humans decide if it is ethical to restructure planets, Mars is the most likely the best option to start terraforming because it is close, and it has potential to be Earth like (with its ice at the polar caps and its CO2 heavy atmosphere). There are many ideas about how humans can reach Mars and terraform it.

Robert Zubrin’s method, named Mars shows one method for moving humans to MarsDirect, is one of the better-known ways. In the Mars Direct plan, humans send one Earth Return Vehicle (ERV) to Mars. This first ERV will be loaded with rovers and preliminary equipment. On each consecutive trip, astronauts will be sent in an ERV. These astronauts will stay on Mars for 1.5 years. During that time, they will explore, and they will live off the land (Zubrin). This is a good start to a strategy to creating a self-sustaining environment.

This is also known to be cost effective with the preliminary steps costing a merely $50 billion which is only 25% of NASA’s annual budget (Zubrin). However, the core of most strategies is to control the composition of the atmosphere and in this case, heat up the planet. Eugene Boland and his team at Techshot are currently working on creating micro-extremophiles that could help control the atmosphere. The idea is to genetically create extremophiles that can survive in the Martian soil and can convert the CO2 in the air into oxygen (Hall). This strategy has potential because only one trip would be needed to send the bacteria to Mars meaning this method will still be cheap.

Also, the extremophiles will do most of the work, so because the extremophiles are doing most of the work, humans can come later and finetune the rest of the planet. And as far as heating up the planet, James Lovelock brought up the idea of using chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which are greenhouse gasses notoriously known for speeding up the rate of global warning on Earth. CFCs will trap the heat in Mars which will help start the creation of a self-sustaining environment (Allaby). These three strategies all have their pros and cons, but the best strategy might be starting with Zubrin’s method, then slowly using Boland’s method and CFC production to fix the two biggest problems with Mars. If done in the right proportion, the atmosphere will heat up and its composition will be oxygen heavy and afterwards, humans can move to Mars and start perfecting the rest of the self-sustaining environment.

Mars is humans’ best opportunity to a self-sustaining environment, but at some point, humans will need to expand further. Therefore, humans should also consider other strategies. One strategy known as the Kenneth Roy Shell World Approach involves covering an entire planet in a large shell. In this shell there will be some space between the shell and the planet. Aside from gravity, everything inside the planet can be controlled and adjusted. The downside to this approach is making the shell requires a lot of material, so this approach works best on smaller planets/moons. Therefore, people have thought about using this method on the Moon or Mercury.

However, this is still a good strategy because humans will have almost full control over every molecule in the atmosphere. Because the shell acts as a strong barrier, pollutants can be pushed to the outside of the shell and the celestial body can be maintained (Moltzan). Another strategy for creating a self-sustaining environment are space settlements. Rather than attempting to change a whole planet, a space settlement isolates a small portion of land and creates the self-sustaining environment within that space. Because this is small scale, it is a viable strategy during the starting phases of terraforming. But once humans start to move beyond the solar system, and space travel takes much longer, space pods may become the next best strategy for a self-sustaining environment.

Space pods are like space settlements, but they are moving through space. For all intents and purposes, the International Space Station (ISS) is a space pod. Although it is orbiting Earth, it is still mostly independent in space. The ISS is constantly finding ways to recycle what they have and which each finding, the ISS becomes one step closer to becoming a self-sustaining environment. From time to time new supplies are still brought up, but with more recycling, this will lessen. And although this strategy may seem to be the easiest, it also has its problems.

One major issue is making sure the balance is perfect. As seen in NASA’s Langley Simulator, simply supplying people with enough food, water, and oxygen is not enough to create a self-sustaining environment. The NASA Langley Simulator consisted of isolating four guys for four months in NASA’s Living Pod. NASA wanted to test if a self-sustaining environment could be created by supplying just the basics. Because the Living Pod lacked proper waste recycling, the subjects started feeling nauseous and ill. The experiment had to be cut short because it placed the subjects in danger.

Finally, the Deputy Director of NASA declared that there needs to be further research about how closed systems work and develop before they continue research with humans (Kallipoliti). Another consideration is that sending anything into space is expensive. Before a space pod can be sent up, some calculations must be done to figure out if the benefits of sending each recycling system outweighs the cost (Jones).

Creating a self-sustaining environment is a tedious task, but with the right strategies and some practice, it is possible. However, before humans pursue creating one, they must consider how they will do it and if it is ethical. Once they answer that, they should start work on Mars because it is the best and easiest option. Finally, as humans terraform and reach the edges of the solar system, they must look at more options to go start venturing beyond. After that, the possibilities are endless, and humans can go anywhere.

Works Cited:

  1. Allaby, Michael, and James Lovelock. The greening of Mars. Deutsch, 1984.
  2. Hall, Loura. “Planting an Ecosystem on Mars – NASA’s Mars Exploration Program.” NASA, NASA, 19 Sept. 2017,
  3. Haynes, Robert H. “Ecce Ecopoiesis: Playing God on Mars.” Moral Expertise (1989): 161-183.
  4. Jones, Harry W. “Would Current International Space Station (ISS) Recycling Life Support Systems Save Mass on a Mars Transit?” NASA, NASA, 16 July 2017.
  5. Kallipoliti, Lydia. Architecture of Closed Worlds. Lars Muller Publishers, 2018.
  6. Moltzan, John. “Icarus Interstellar, Interstellar Flight.” Icarus Interstellar, 15 June 2013.
  8. Zubrin, Robert. “THE MARS DIRECT PLAN.” Scientific American, vol. 282, no. 3, 2000, pp. 52–55.

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