What are the minimum necessary components for a viable and sustainable long-term colony on Mars?
First we have to get there, so we will need inexpensive and reliable rockets. They should be reusable both to keep costs down and to allow for return journeys.
Once we are there, we will need to be able to produce and store energy. This will require extremely durable solar panels hooked to efficient battery packs. We can use this energy to power our transportation — the small battery-powered vehicles (let’s call them “cars”) to transport people and supplies, and the larger heavy-duty construction equipment (“trucks”).
Mars is extremely cold and has minimal atmosphere, so it will make sense to build a a substantial portion of our colony underground. For this we will need advanced tunnel boring equipment.
With thousands of people across multiple settlements along with hundreds of vehicles and other bits of autonomous equipment, it will be critical to have an advanced communication and geolocation grid.
And we will need highly optimized mining and manufacturing techniques.
I’m surely not the first person to notice this, but Elon Musk is pursuing every single one of those goals. SpaceX has made remarkable advances in reducing the cost of spaceflight and the reusability of rocket components. Tesla (along with its SolarCity acquisition) have produced efficient electric vehicles, stationary battery packs, and have just unveiled their extremely durable solar roof tiles made of glass. The Boring Company, Musk’s latest endeavor, is aiming to improve the efficiency of tunnel boring machines by 10x or more. And as for communications, SpaceX recently announced plans to build a low Earth orbit communications satellite swarm consisting of twice as many nodes as all currently existing satellites combined.
If Musk’s master plan is to build every component necessary for successful Mars colonization, his logical next step would be to invest in breakthroughs around food production, packaging, and storage. We are also going to need environment suits, so maybe he will start looking into new types of fabrics, breathing apparatus, and the like. And of course he will eventually need to pivot from factory automation to include advanced automated manufacturing of stationary buildings.
The Musk portfolio of companies has cranked out in a little over a decade a substantial portion of the breakthrough technologies necessary to make us an interplanetary species. He is fighting a desperate battle against time as the effects of climate change compound and produce more disruption. We need to get some people off this rock before other people, driven by greed or desperation or hatred, do their utmost to destroy it.