DECIPHER: Going to Mars - Science, Society and Sustainability (2020-2021)


The settlement of Mars used to be an idea that belonged only to science fiction. Today, people have already begun planning to go to Mars, including official missions by government agencies like NASA and ambitious ventures by private entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Musk envisions a city of 100,000 people on Mars, and Duke students could be in that cohort. Motivations for going to Mars include advancing scientific knowledge, extracting valuable resources and reducing the risk of life being wiped out by a catastrophe on Earth.

Attention has focused on science and technology, but the success of missions to Mars will also depend on the social and organizational systems developed by settlers. Risks include physiological harms from travel to and living on Mars, clashes among settlers and missions with conflicting motives, failing social and legal systems and disruptions of the ecosystems of Mars or the Earth. This cacophony of missions, ambitions, benefits, risks and tradeoffs demands an interdisciplinary analysis.

Project Description

This project aims to develop a series of risk-based decision scenarios of the settlement of Mars, which includes associated contexts, histories, decisions and outcomes. Team members will develop analyses and recommendations on key elements of settling Mars, drawing on tools from multiple disciplines including science, engineering, history, economics, ethics, law and international relations.

Participants will explore how national motivations to settle Mars might be accommodated with international agreements, national government settlements, private sector settlements and other initiatives. Team members will interact with guest speakers from a variety of organizations, including other universities, government agencies, private enterprises and nonprofit organizations. Stakeholder representatives may include US federal government agencies such as NASA and private enterprise such as SpaceX or Blue Origin.

Anticipated Outputs

Recommendations on key elements of settling Mars; educational and communication products; policy memos; oral presentations; podcasts; journalistic interviews; policy inputs for stakeholders


Summer 2020 – Spring 2021

  • Summer 2020 (optional): Assist the team with research
  • Fall 2020: Study the science and engineering behind putting humans on Mars; examine the history of past settlements and the basis of decision analysis; conduct analyses of space technologies; participate in a debate on key questions about Mars exploration
  • Spring 2021: Continue research; design a governance framework for settling Mars; complete policy submission

This Team in the News

Q&A with Current Political Science Students

Duke Law Faculty, Students Tackling Diverse Interdisciplinary Research Projects through Bass Connections

See earlier related team, DECIPHER: Decisions on the Risks and Benefits of Geoengineering the Climate (2019-2020).


Image: Curiosity is ready for clay (highlighted), by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS


Team Leaders

  • Daniel Buckland, School of Medicine-Surgery: Emergency Medicine
  • Tyler Felgenhauer, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Charles (Chase) Hamilton, Duke Law
  • Spencer Kaplan, Sanford School of Public Policy
  • Jory Weintraub, Science & Society
  • Jonathan Wiener, Duke Law

/graduate Team Members

  • Savannah Artusi, Juris Doctor
  • Shuobo Boboila, Juris Doctor
  • Kathleen Burns, English-PHD
  • Charles Hamilton, Juris Doctor
  • Clare Holtzman, Juris Doctor
  • Christopher Kilner, Ecology-PHD
  • Siobhan Oca, Mech Engg/Materials Sci-PHD
  • Samuel Schrader, Juris Doctor
  • Nikki Shintaku, Master of Environmental Management, Coastal Environmental Management

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Changhe Chen
  • Adam Doll, Mechanical Engineering (BSE)
  • Joanna Feaster
  • Logan Green
  • Angel Heredia, Political Science (AB)
  • Alison Huang, Computer Science (BS)
  • Lelia Jennings
  • Ruopu Jiao, Biomedical Engineering (BSE), Computer Science (AB2)
  • Nathan Nouri
  • Shivam Patel, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Donald Pepka
  • Ritika Saligram
  • Chunxin Tang
  • Patrick Wilson, Mechanical Engineering (BSE)
  • Jeremy Yu, Political Science (AB), Int Comparative Studies (AB2)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Mark Borsuk, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Dawn Bowles, School of Medicine-Surgery: Surgical Sciences
  • Curtis Bradley, Duke Law-Center for International and Comparative Law
  • Mary Cummings, Pratt School of Engineering-Electrical & Computer Engineering
  • Joao De Figueiredo, Duke Law
  • Sarah Deutsch, Arts & Sciences-History
  • Earl Dowell, Pratt School of Engineering-Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science
  • Laurence Helfer, Duke Law-Center for International and Comparative Law
  • Christine Ogilvie Hendren, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Mohamed Noor, Arts & Sciences-Biology
  • Amy Schmid, Arts & Sciences-Biology
  • J. H. Pate Skene, School of Medicine-Neurobiology