Living on Mars — which Elon Musk predicts we’ll do in some form by 2024 — will no doubt pose hardships and challenges. And there’s going to be plenty of manual labor. It’s prohibitively expensive to ship construction supplies 34 million miles, so the first settlers will do what settlers have always done: build by hand, with local materials. Sure, those made-from-regolith bricks and water-based windows will probably be 3-D printed, but those materials will still need moving and stacking by hand. Exploring and surveying the planet, doing geological research, and locating ideal habitation areas will involve manual labor, too.
This is nothing new for humans. We’ve built one world by hand, we can probably build another — even in harsh UV light, subzero temperatures, and a lethally low-pressure atmosphere. But if opposable thumbs were key to the evolution of human civilization, and humanity can’t be naked against the Martian elements, then it’s an unexpected and unglamorous factor that will determine whether or not we succeed: gloves.
“Hands are the essence of the human being and the way we manifest change in the world.”
What kind of gloves? That we don’t know yet. Because human hands are so complex, designing a glove is almost as complicated as creating an entire Mars suit. Dr. Sheyna Gifford, a physician at Washington University, spent a year in a Mars-analog mission, HI-SEAS IV, atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, during which she wore a suit and gloves each time she went outside her domed home. To her, the ideal glove would need to be completely protective, and yet not restrict movement or flexibility. “It assists you in grasping and manipulating objects,” she says. “It interacts seamlessly with touchscreens. It provides feedback on pressure, temperature, and texture as exquisitely as your own fingers, while completely protecting you from the elements.”
It would also “be hygienic, wick away sweat without drying out your hands, be easy to clean and maintain, simple to repair, and quick to swap out” if damaged, says Gifford. Laundry won’t be a given on Mars, which is dusty, so like a desert plant, the stuff we wear will also need to be self-cleaning, or at least very easy to hose off with air. Eventually, gloves will need to do more than not get in the way and protect our hands: “The very best glove might augment your movements at will: make your grip stronger, stickier, slightly magnetic or — in the case of magnetized Mars dust finer than human hair — dust repellent,” said Gifford.
The challenge of making such an item is so unique and specific that in 2009, NASA put together a design competition for gloves only. One prize-winning entry was designed by Ted Southern, who went on to start a company called Final Frontier Design. Southern’s submission and subsequent designs were meant to accompany the puffy, pressurized ensemble we’re all familiar with from moonwalks and space missions.
The problem is, those designs won’t actually work on Mars — because those space suits won’t work on Mars either. Existing suits protect the human inside using a layer of pressurized air between the body and the suit. This means it’s a workout to move, even in a zero-gravity environment. And Mars is not a zero-gravity environment. “The kind of weight that is in a pressurized space suit is going to be impossible to work with on the surface of Mars,” Southern said. Mars’ gravity — one-third the strength of Earth’s — is enough to make each movement a small battle in a heavy, pressurized suit. In addition, this design is also incredibly tough on hands — astronauts already get blisters and lose nails trying to complete more delicate repair tasks through gloves that are essentially balloons made of rugged fabric.
Enter a mechanical-counterpressure suit (MCP), which is thin where the other suit is puffy, sleekly fitting to the body of the wearer and providing pressure directly on the skin to keep the wearer safe, comfortable, and enabling significantly more mobility. “Your body doesn’t need the gas around it — just your head,” says Southern. MCP suits get less-bulky gloves to go with. “We think [the MCP suit] is going to be the answer to walking around on Mars,” he says. Southern and his team delivered their first MCP glove to NASA in August 2016. (A suit to accompany it doesn’t exist yet, but MIT professor Dava Newman’s Biosuit is a solid early prototype.)
Of course, human hands aren’t just for building — they’re also a way to communicate. Gloves that could augment or amplify sign language over distances “would certainly have good use in a place where radio fails would be likely,” says Professor Michael Lye, who taught a class on Mars suit design at the Rhode Island School of Design and has long worked with NASA. It’s easy to imagine: In situations where larger groups might go out to find building materials or carry out research, hand comms might be a faster — and more private — way to communicate. As on Earth, so on Mars: Stuff will break, and people will need a way to have offline, private conversations — and probably make questionable jokes behind others’ backs.
“Hands are the essence of the human being and the way we manifest change in the world,” Southern says. And in time, the gloves we wear will tell the world who we are. “Once we get enough people on Mars, they will make their things individual — initially for functional reasons — like they don’t want to get their gloves mixed up with someone else’s,” says Lye. By then, there will be different kinds of gloves for different tasks. Because hands are so individual, these base gloves are likely to be custom-fit to the user. And just as the texture of our hands used to give away our status as field workers or fine ladies, eventually, our Mars gloves will reflect our occupations as builders, botanists, or bigwigs.
Later, our gloves will come to more deeply express our personalities. “We make things that please ourselves,” says Lye. “We’ll introduce color, or pattern, or more decorative sides of the design.” As they have for centuries, our gloves will come to more deeply express our personalities. After all, Lye points out, “Throughout history, people don’t really change that much.”