Researching New Topics

Updated 7/2/2021 to fix a typo and add a few words.

I haven’t talked about my class at Kepler Space Institute in a while, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to provide an update on my work there. As is my habit, I found a complicated topic for my “big paper” for the class because, hey, what’s the fun of doing something easy? The challenge of researching a topic that’s not covered regularly in the professional literature is finding sources that still address what I want to say. This post is longer than some others, so if you’re in a hurry, remember that searching by relevant keywords is a good place to start.

The Topic

My class at Kepler is about arts and recreation in a space context and I just finished helping write a paper for the Mars Foundation on their new design for a city on Mars. I  put 2 and 2 together and thought, “What if I wrote about how arts and recreation in the first city on Mars?”

The assignment for my “big paper” required a hypothesis or problem to solve. I figured I would cover something reasonably high-level:

  • How can arts and recreation contribute to quality of life in off-world communities?
  • How can arts and recreation facilitate physical and mental health in a 1,000-person Mars settlement?
  • How will the unique environment of Mars affect arts and recreation in Leominster and elsewhere?


After doing a bit of research on several related topics, I was able to craft the following abstract:

Arts and Recreation on Mars: Contributing to Quality of Life in the Leominster Community

How can the arts and recreation contribute to quality of life in off-world civilization? It is the author’s belief that arts and recreation can become a regular, organized part of life off Earth once people reach the point of building large cities with the resources to support them. Given the importance of the arts and recreation throughout human history, we should also expect them to become an essential part of life as we migrate beyond Earth. Because the Moon is so close to Earth, I will focus on people migrating to Mars. The paper is written as a report to future city planners for Leominster, a fictional 1,000-person city being built on Mars. The report will explain the need to incorporate arts and recreational spaces into their community consciously and deliberately; how arts and recreation can be incorporated into the design of Leominster; and how they can serve as a draw for future residents. Additional world-building assumptions for Leominster will include its architecture, technological capabilities, and industries; the city’s history, economy, and designed living conditions; and the characteristics of the people choosing to live there. The inhabitants will have to cope with the extreme environment (frigid temperatures, thin/unbreathable atmosphere, high radiation, months- or years-long dust storms, etc.) as well as life within a built community (no access to fresh air, “outside” mediated by spacesuits or vehicles, confinement, life support emergencies, and physical and communication distance from Earth). Because of these challenges, the report will cite analogous peoples who experienced similar pressures, including migrant and displaced populations; confined and imprisoned people; nuclear submarine crews; early explorers and space analogue participants; and previous space crews. The report will identify how art and recreation helped these isolated people survive; recommend specific types of art and recreation for Leominster; and clarify how they will contribute to life in the new city. I intend to show how arts and recreation can contribute to life in a single Mars city but also how they can advance the course of human civilization beyond Earth.

Research Challenges

The biggest problem I’ve faced with this topic is that most of the current professional literature about building on Mars is focused on bases, which is to say science stations, where people are there to work and then go home. Bases are functional. If any arts are happening, it’s because someone decided to bring their guitar or knitting or paint brushes with them as a diversion in their minimal free time. Bases are not designed for long-term, permanent residents, and the problems of operating them are more related to keeping them supplied with food, water, air, equipment, and vehicles. I have an 888-page book in my library about building bases on the Moon, and leisure and recreation are barely mentioned at all.

A city is a more permanent facility with different sorts of people and different motivations bringing them to it. Not everyone immigrating is happy to be leaving their home–there’s just no alternative. Still, cities need people with different skill sets than just science and engineering. To attract residents, they will need to offer features or opportunities that are unavailable elsewhere. It’s not just a matter of the basics, a home needs to include comforts that make the place worth living in: music, art, live and recorded entertainment, games, sports, gardens. Today’s engineers are not ready to discuss the comforts, unless they’re talking about orbital hotels. They’re still working out how to keep people alive in space without having them go crazy from the danger or from being confined in their functional-but-not-fun habitats. So while I will look at cities of the past and present, there will, necessarily, be a bit of science-fictional “world building” included in the paper to set the scene for what I’m trying to do.

My research has been a bit like the people who built the Biosphere 2 habitat: looking for a close simulation of a permanent home on another planet when nobody’s built one yet. I’ve been researching the lives of immigrants, military families, prisoners, Antarctic scientists, nuclear submarine crews, and yes, space crews…looking for signs of arts, recreation, and their benefits. I’ve even put out a survey to get feedback on people living through the COVID-19 pandemic, trying to get a feel for how people in isolation interact with arts and recreation. I’m not certain at this point if I’ll make an airtight case for adding professional artists and athletes to the city of Leominster, Mars, but I figure I’m at least doing what the Martians will probably end up doing: making it up piece by piece.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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2 Responses to Researching New Topics

  1. Edgar Zapata says:

    On the topic of keeping people sane, your might find KSR’s “Aurora” a good read. It’s a simple premise that’s not explored enough. Start a journey with a thousand astronauts, then what might you expect the crew looks like generations later? How might you expect subsequent generations see this “journey”. Similarly, in complement, recent pandemic events probably apply, a once in a lifetime experiment (we hope) as far as the psychology of what people do to adjust well (or not) when particular options are closed off a while.

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