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The Tour

By Ray R. Collins


This is aimed mostly at giving people or groups tours of Mars Base Zero. We have added it to our web site for those who are interested in a more “visual” approach to our information.


This was originally written during the winter of 1999-2000, when Mars Base Zero was occupied and partially operational; some of the information reflects that operational period (eg computer setup description, which has been removed for storage while Mars Base Zero is unoccupied). Several sections (eg crop areas) have been updated in the summer of 2002, to reflect what we are currently doing.


We hope to add some photographic links to this page. To further that we have added a few comments for our photographer to work from; these are enclosed in [ ].


Note to the web page version:

This is mostly an outline to help me remember salient facts. I have added a few extra comments to make it a little more readable, but it should not be seen as a complete discussion.


I. Outside: The basic structure

Mars Base Zero is a Quonset hut shaped building. There is a very small apartment located at the eastern end of the building, and in the western majority of the building is the crop area/greenhouse. Both apartment and crop areas are still under construction. Some details:

a. Concrete walls: 2 feet high around the entire perimeter of the building. [need photo of concrete walls]

b. all exterior frame walls are well insulated and 8" thick. [need photo showing thickness of end wall]

c. The greenhouse 'glass' covering is removed during summer operation to help control heat. During the winter we have one or two layers of plastic.

d. Eventually we want extruded plastic for our ‘glass’, which is a semi-ridged plastic with a double layer; this will provide extra insulation.

e. Landscaping

1) Current: limited parking, etc.

2) Eventual:

-better parking for 3-4 vehicles

-graveled drive

-turn-around area

-graveled path to the door, lined with flowers


f. Addition to the far end of the building (eventually)

1) dehumidifiers

2) air conditioner

3) light ballasts

4) emergency escape hatch

5) storage


II. Arctic Entry (if large group don't go in)

Our arctic entry is very similar to an airlock in function. It prevents outside air from getting into Mars Base Zero. We also use it as a slop room, and for tool storage.

a. Oil fired hot water furnace: rated at 185,000 BTU, but we crank it up to 210,000 BTU.

Heat only; no domestic hot water [photo of furnace]

b. Door left open in hot weather to help keep it cooler inside

-this will not work in the summer after we sterilize--it will let bugs in!

c. The structure is designed to be partially seal able; the arctic entry is outside of the seal due to the furnace needing air.

d. Power, phone & sensor (outside temp) cables currently run through the arctic entry; eventually they will be run through an access tube which was placed beneath the concrete floor.

e. Heat tape on the oil lines; this was necessary to keep them from freezing during the winter. These lines are exposed because we installed the oil furnace after freezeup during the first winter of operation; these lines will eventually be buried.


III. Kitchen

Though small, our kitchen functions like most standard kitchens, with the exception of the lack of running water! [Photo of kitchen area]

a. Inside seal

b. Like an actual Mars base, space is in short supply

c. Shelves were stocked 1/1/00 with 4 months of food

--Some was left over at the end the 4 months.

d. A regular propane stove used to enrich atmosphere with CO2 as well as for cooking [photo of stove]

--Most plants are stressed for CO2; by adding CO2 from the propane stove we are 'fertilizing the atmosphere'.

--We aim for 1200-1500 ppm; unfortunately this time of year we can't do it during the day because we need to keep the place cool. This is several times the outside air normal of about 380 ppm.

--Caution needs to be taken with the source of the propane, to be sure it is pure.

--Ethylene may be mixed in with the propane, and if it is it will cause serious problems with the plants.

--With 1 burner on 75% of the time, we achieve 1200-1300 ppm and a 100 pound tank of propane lasts about 2 weeks.

--When the structure is better sealed, less propane will be needed.

Graph of the CO2 in Mars Base Zero from February 28 to March 9, 2000. The highs are where one propane burner is turned on (usually at night), lows are without propane turned on. The bottom axis is time in minutes; left axis is CO2 in parts per million. The gap of several days corresponds to the time when we were out of propane.

e. Appliances

1) Kitchen Aid

a) Flour mill

- whole wheat flour

- eventually we would like to get the sifters needed to make white flour

b) pasta maker

- we can make our own pasta from our own flour

c) heavy duty mixer (used to make mayonnaise from fresh eggs)

2) Bread machine which we use to make:

a) 100% whole wheat bread

b) white bread

c) half wheat/half white

d) pizza dough

e) raisin & other specialty breads

3) Single burner hot plate used for cooking when out of propane (every 2 weeks!)

f. Water--domestic

a) From Fox (a local spring many people use for drinking water)

b) Used for drinking, cooking, hand washing and dishes

c) NOT used for bathing, which is done elsewhere

g. Garbage is separated into organic & inorganic

a) organic will be fed to earthworms, who will be fed to chickens or fish

b) inorganic is hauled to the dump

h. All food produced is weighed and recorded

i. Refrigerator is very small; since most food is left in the ground until eaten this isn't a problem.

j. As the most likely place for a fire, our fire extinguisher is kept here.


IV. Bedroom/living room

Though very small, we have tried to arrange our primary living areas to be as comfortable as possible. It also doubles as a computer work area.

a. Computer setup

1. Monitoring CO2, humidity, inside temperature and outside temperature

2. Connected to the internet

3. Doubles as a DVD player & also has TV & FM capabilities

4. Word processing

5. Color printer

6. Programs for analyzing diet and nutrients (show)

b. Chest of drawers is very limited in size; 2 for Frankie, 2 for Ray and 1 shared

c. Scale. Weight of the inhabitants is very important to verify enough food is being produced.

d. 2 of the 4 thermostats in Mars Base Zero are located here.

-one controls the emergency space heater. It is set at 40°, for the space heater gives off ethylene which is very toxic to plants. So, while it is better than freezing, we only want to use it as a last resort.

-the second one in the primary heat control. It turns the fan on the unit heater on and off.

e. Safety equipment

-smoke alarm

-CO detector


V. From square E

Our growing area is broken up into a number of squares. Each square is outlined by concrete blocks, which define the edges of the squares. There are 5 squares, 1 of which is 12' x 24' in the western 1/3 of the greenhouse, and four 12'x12' squares in the eastern 2/3 of the greenhouse area (the living area is just to the east of that).

a. 4 of these 12’x12’ squares are filled w/dirt & planted.

b. Electrical panel: capable of handling & distributing 200 amps at 240 volts.

c. Light ballasts and sodium halide 1000 watt bulbs; currently 5 active, but we have 40 of these.

d. Light spacing: 7-8 per 12' by 12' square.

e. Water for furnace is obtained from a bucket, which is hung in the rafters with a sump pump in it. The height helps increase pressure, which is very marginal with the sump pump. Fortunately the furnace only needs more water very intermittently (the furnace has it's own pressure tank to maintain pressure once charged). When the final water system is installed this will be attached to the furnace. {note: this was removed in the summer of 2002; it was shading some of the plants.}

f. Hot water baseboard along front edge. [photo]

g. Unit heater: our primary heat source. [photo]

h. The other two thermostats {these are removed to keep them out of the weather}

-one controls the circulating pump on the furnace

-the other controls the cooling fan.


VI. Crop areas

The crop areas are the most important part of Mars Base Zero. Growing crops for food is what the structure is all about!

a. 4 squares.

1) Crops will be rotated through these 4 squares.

2) Root crops will not be grown in a square that has been watered with dilute urine until a year has passed.

3) Each square is 12' by 12'

-visqueen (plastic) lines the square

-1-2" of sand (to facilitate drainage)

-filled with soil

b. 12'124' area at the north-west corner of the greenhouse

1) 3' by 4' boxes will be built for most of this area

2) Germination bench at the back wall

3) Storage for seeds, pots, nails, etc.

4) Fish “pond” will be located here

5) Chicken cage is also here

c. Planting rates: about 1 square meter per day

1) In general, plant what you eat

d. Harvest rates: about 1 square meter per day

1) We expect to get half or a little more of the calories needed to support a person


VII. Chickens {this applied only during the ’99-’00 winter when Mars Base Zero was occupied}

Although the chickens are not a very good idea for a closed ecosystem because of the quantities of feed they require, in our structure they are a good alternate source of food and protein. We raised them to investigate the possibilities and to improve our limited diet.

a. We started with 7; 3 hens and 4 roosters.

b. Since only 1 rooster is needed, the others were slaughtered for food.

c. 1 hen was incompatible, and she was given away.

d. Egg production is about a dozen a week. This exceeds what we need by about 30%; the surplus is given away.

e. Chickens are not very efficient; when we had 7 they were eating more food than needed to support a person.

f. They are useful in other ways than food; they provide entertainment (of a sorts!), and in a closed system will provide some social stimulus (similar to pets).

g. Although we are not yet set up to do it, manure will be sterilized and composted for the garden.

h. Cage has screen in bottom so droppings fall onto tarp for easy removal

i. We have no plans to support the chickens from Mars Base Zero produce, though scraps from the garden could provide a fair fraction of their food.


VIII. Preliminary Operation {this refers to the winter of ’99-’00 no-closed operation}

Operation to date has been more aimed at gaining experience with what it takes to keep the system going. Harvests have been very limited; some wheat, a few strawberries, potatoes and carrots. The only system that has exceeded expectations are the chickens; we are getting more eggs (a dozen a week) than we usually eat! An aphid infestation has really devastated the potatoes, and pose the largest problem we have had (to date) in Mars Base Zero.

a. 2 occupants

b. Moved in October 1, 1999.

c. Pre-operation stage (October 1 to December 31, 1999) was very limited due to

1) lack of light (only a few grow lights had been installed)

2) lack of temperature control

-before the furnace, heat was with a space heater

-after the furnace, there were problems with it going down. It failed 4 times, and it froze inside the structure each time.

d. Initial operation

1) Preliminary goal was to get some stuff planted

a) planted potatoes, wheat, sunflowers, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, onions, peanuts, herbs, carrots, radish, lettuce and mint.

- potatoes did not germinate until January (the aphids really restricted their growth and then they died when it froze hard)

- wheat greatest success; survived temps in the teens

- sunflowers damaged by ethylene from the space heater

- onions did nicely, in spite of the freezes

- most of the remaining plants died when it froze

2) Shutdown was in the middle of May 2000.

-3 reasons:

A. I was gone all summer, and will be overwhelmed with work for a year or two afterward.

B. There is no way to keep it cool; even now the temperature hits 100° daily. {We have removed the plastic cover on the south side, which keeps it from overheating, since the structure is no longer closed in [photo]}

C. Aphids--need to shutdown to sterilize {we did this}

e. Future operation

1) Begin building up the ecosystem by operating it during the summer to gain experience.

2) Work on the structure, getting it complete.

3) Connect the utilities properly, especially the electricity and water.

4) Build a shed out back for storage

5) Finish building the ecosystem including

-fish tank

-planting trays for the western end

-fill the 4th 12’x12’ dirt ‘tray’

-install heat under the front two 12’x12’ dirt ‘trays’

6) Operate Mars Base Zero for several years part-time

7) Once we have the funding, operate Mars Base Zero for a full year.

f. Problems to overcome

1) Dust

2) Aphids

3) Chicken fights & crowing

4) Freezing

5) Lighting

- electricity

A. insufficient power due to master breaker limitation

B. high cost (6 lights x 24 hrs/day = $300/month) we need 40 lights for full lighting!


IX. Waste management

Although our waste processing facilities are not yet set up, we have them pretty well designed and partially built:

1. Under the chicken cage is our compost chamber.

2. On the work bench is the waste sterilizer

-this is really just a crock pot, into which we put materials and keep them at 150° F for 48 hours.

Waste disposal:

a. Kitchen wastes. Added to the compost pile, or fed to earthworms.

b. Slop bucket.

- currently dumped in the woods

- future will be dumped on the compost or directly on the garden

c. Chicken manure. Collected, sterilized and added to the compost chamber (chicken manure contains urine, and this makes it too strong for earthworms--it will kill them).

d. Human solid waste. Collected, sterilized and either fed to earthworms or the compost chamber.

e. Urine. Human urine only carries a few diseases; these can be easily screened for. So urine can be used directly on plants if it is diluted about 10:1 (if it isn't diluted it is likely to burn the plants and/or damage the soil micro-organism population). We expect to use about half of the urine produced to directly fertilize plants. The other half will be used to change the carbon:nitrogen ratio in garden wastes, to help decomposition.

f. Garden wastes will be decomposed in the compost chamber, and (especially wheat stocks, will need urine to change the C:N ratio for optimum composting.

X. Other

a. Fertilization

1) Our soil nutrient levels are only fair; they are on the low end of the optimum N, P, and K range for plant growth.

2) Before cycling of crops, artificial fertilizer will be added.

3) After we have complete at least one complete cycle (every planted area harvested once) we will begin recycling nutrients

-add compost as necessary to maintain fertility

b. The boardwalk over plants is to access every part of the growth area without actually walking on it.

-have to take care that the board does not block the light for plants (stand it up at the end)

c. Water for plants. {this relates to operation during the ’99-’00 winter}

1) Obtained by running a garden hose over to the Smyth house

2) 30 and 55 gallon barrels (in the far end) filled with water

-1 (the red one) was mixed with fertilizer, and put on all areas with green plants bi-weekly

3) Every time the drums were filled, the soil beds were well soaked (30-50 gallons of water)

4) Usually lasted about a month, depending on area planted.

d. Ariel boardwalk

1)     storage for long boards

2)     storage for unused lights

3)     pre-plant germination area

4)     may add additional loft for crop area

e. Ceiling

1) north side will eventually be covered with mylar

2) 2 feet of insulation over north side

f. Entire building will be sealed

g. Sensiphone

1) calls:

-my beeper

-my manager's beeper

-the Smyth family

2) Sensors

-Temperature (current limits: 50 & 110)

-Loud sounds (eg smoke alarm--also circular saw!)

-Electricity failure (it has battery backup)


Mars Base Zero Vital Statistics

Total area for crops & hardware & animals


-864. Sq ft


NW end planting area:


-13.4 m2

-fish tank, chicken coop, pre-plant table


5 Main planting trays:


-13.4 m2

-with 2' depth = 10.66 cu. Yds or 12 cu ft/inch

-note: these are filled within an inch or two of the top.


Living area

-kitchen: 7.5'x15.5' = 116.25 square feet (~10 square meters)

-loft: 7.5x12 = 90 square feet (~8 square meters)

-total 206.25 sq ft (~19 square meters)

Note: this is only about half the area of an efficiency apartment!!




-56.25 sq ft (about 5 square meters)


Structure (approximate)

-24'x44' (7.3 meters x 13.4 meters)

-1056 square ft, ground floor (98 square meters)

-end wall: 12' radius (~4 meters) = 226 square feet (~21 square meters)

-volume: 9952 cubic ft (~282 cubic meters)


Greenhouse (approximate)

-24'x36' (7.3 meters x 11 meters)

-864 square feet (80 square meters)

-volume: 8136 cubic ft (230 cubic meters)


Total surface area (including floor, approximate)

3167 square feet (294 square meters)


Preliminary Toxin Considerations & Control

Keeping toxins from the soil and air is of considerable importance when living in a closed structure like Mars Base Zero. Most of these toxins are the result of modern construction techniques. The list presented below is far from complete; these are only the ones we have either had problems with or that we took into consideration while designing and building Mars Base Zero. NASA has a very complete list of airborne contaminants they watch for during space flight; their system for controlling airborne pollutants is called the trace contaminant containment system. When we begin running Mars Base Zero sealed (or as sealed as we will be able to get, which will probably be around one air change per day), we will have to consider many more toxicants. Right now many are flushed from our ecosystem by the rapid air movement (one air exchange every 4 hours).


Lead is a very common ingredient for using to solder. It is usually used for soldering copper pipe used for heating systems.


Humans & other animals (+plants?)

Problems caused

Death in high enough dosage.


Solder, some other construction materials.


We used a lead-less solder. This is a little harder to work with, but isn't as damaging to the environment.


Glycol is a common additive to heating systems, to prevent the water from freezing. We are not using it in our furnace even though it is strongly advised where your heating system may freeze. Indeed, glycol would have prevented one serious freeze-up in the '99-'00 winter. But our system took about 3 months before we managed to patch all the leaks, and this would have released a large amount of glycol into our ecosystem. This would have caused serious problems for our plants, possibly for years to come. So we opted to do without glycol at all.


Most plants

Problems caused

Leaves fall off; plant death. (Holloway, 1998)


Leaks in heating system (even undetectable ones!).


Do not use glycol.


Ethylene is a growth hormone for plants. As such it is toxic in very tiny quantities. Although ethylene is flammable, enough to damage plants can make it through a flame without combusting. This makes open flame a prime source. Until completely 'cured', many plastics also give off enough ethylene to damage plants. This can take up to a year, depending on the thickness of the plastic. Many plants (especially fruits) give off ethylene, and if too many of these are grown the ethylene could build up in the atmosphere.


Most plants

Problems caused

Premature root senescence, terminal bud (growing tip) is killed (Nelson, 1998), epinasty (severe curling of plant leaves) (Holloway, 2000).


Space heater (Nelson, 1998), plastics curing (especially the visqueen tarps), wood glues (eg those used in plywood), Styrofoam, exhaust fumes, pollutants from burners (ie propane stove), plant parts (especially fruit), bacteria and fungi. (Holloway, 2000)


Ventilate for the first 6-12 months after installation of new plastics.

Do not use space heater

Critical limits

100 parts per billion

Indicator plants

Tomatoes, African marigolds, castor beans, sunflowers, cucumbers, peas, peppers. First symptom is epinasty (Holloway 2000).

Sulfur dioxide

Sulfur is a common contaminant in fuels. When these fuels are burned sulfur dioxide results. This is a toxin which must be kept out of the biosphere environment, for it will damage or kill plants, and cause problems with animals (including humans).


Most plants, animals.

Problems caused

Leaf damage (Nelson, 1998). Lung damage (?)


Bad fuel in heaters, or CO2 generators (Nelson, 1998).


Use clean fuel

Indicator plants

Begonia (Nelson, 1998)

Ammonia Gas

Ammonia is an excellent fertilizer. Unfortunately it is also a toxin for animals (including humans). Therefore it must be kept to a minimum, especially in the atmosphere.


Animals (including humans).

Problems caused

Lung damage(?)


Animal manure, urine (Brady, 1996)


Keep manures and urine buried so the ammonia is distributed and bound in the soil.




Mars Base Zero has a lot of copper in it. The heating pipes are mostly copper; the wiring is all copper, some utensils (and a few tools) have copper or copper coatings on them (eg pan bottoms).


Fish. (While we don't yet have fish, we have to plan for the time that we will, for fish are quite sensitive to copper, and if we get copper in the soil now, it could poison the fish in the future.)


Shavings or dust (for example from sanding the ends of copper pipe prior to welding it) from construction getting into the soil; copper leached from the pipe during watering when over-spray hits the hot pipe; corroded electrical parts that get dismantled over the soil.

Problems caused

Death of fish.


During construction of the heating system, care was taken to prevent copper dust or shavings from getting into the soil. Watering has presented more of a problem, but an effort is being made to keep watering solutions (especially when fertilizer is in it) from hitting the (copper) hot water baseboard plumbing.




Zinc is a common coating in many tin cans, nails and other metals that need to be rust-proofed. Zinc is a micronutrient, but at higher concentrations it may prove toxic. Therefore these need to be kept from being exposed to the soil.


Nails, tin cans, other zinc coated materials.


Problems caused




Limiting contact of nails, etc with soil.


Preliminary References


Brady, Nyle C. and Ray R. Weil. The Nature and Properties of Soils. Prentice Hall, New Jersey. 1996.

Holloway, Patricia. Personal conversation during tour of IAB greenhouse, spring 1998.

Holloway, Patricia. Ray's class notes 3/28/00.

Nelson, Paul V. Greenhouse Operation and Management. Prentice Hall, New Jersey. 1998.

Copyright © Fall 2002