Five-year-old Rowan Bailey-Davies and his mum, Gillian Davies, had come well prepared. He had donned his bright astronaut suit for this very special occasion, while she had picked geraniums from their garden.
Their mission: to visit and help begin to furnish a “Martian house” that has appeared, golden and gleaming, among the sailing boats, wharf train tracks and cranes on the harbourside in Bristol.
“That was great – I liked the bunk beds,” said Rowan after being one of the first to explore the public art project, Building a Martian House, which is designed to get people to think about what everyday life would be like if humans settled on Mars – and perhaps inspire Earthlings to consider looking after this planet a little better in the meantime.
“It does make you stop and think,” said Davies, who is training to be a landscape gardener. “We have to do better to look after Earth, to live more sustainably. It prompts you to think about how we could live better here, preserve what we have got, go a bit slower. It actually makes me feel a little sad thinking we may go there and spoil Mars too.”
The house opened to the public for the first time on Wednesday after seven years in planning and construction, a painstaking process that has involved space scientists, architects, engineers, designers and schoolchildren, whose input has helped shape the basic two-storey shell.
Between now and October, members of the public, young and old, are being invited to visit and help finish off the interior. The first event was a textile workshop with the two artists who have led the project, Ella Good and Nicki Kent, residents of the Pervasive Media Studio at Bristol’s Watershed, inviting people to bring along flowers – hence the geraniums – to decorate duvets for the tiny sleeping pods using their natural dyes.
As well as the bedclothes, all the essentials are up for debate, from Mars-appropriate clothes to wallpaper and toothbrushes, the focus is on creating items that are easy to repair and, ideally, multifunctional.
Within minutes of the first workshop beginning, people were queueing around the house for a glimpse of the human race’s possible future. “It’s brilliant to be able to invite people in,” Good said. “We didn’t know what people would think, how would they respond. That’s the point really. It’s all an experiment, there’s no final answer.”
The house is powered by solar panels and designed to be lightweight but able to withstand the environmental challenges faced on Mars, such as temperatures of -63C and exposure to radiation.
Its upper level is made from pressurised inflatable gold-coated foil. On Mars its walls would be packed with Martian regolith (soil), but the prototype is filled with air, so that it can be reused. For the moment – until people come up with ideas on how the space might be used – it is bare, apart from a collection of herbs grown hydroponically.
The lower level – a shipping container, in this prototype – is designed to be buried underground and includes two compact bedroom pods along with a shower and a “Martian loo” with low water use, designed by a sanitary ware company (it was thought it was better not to leave this sort of crucial detail to amateurs).
Kent said the combination of art and science had made the project so special. “It’s art but it uses real science. Using those restrictions helps focus the conversation, gives boundaries, but within them you can be as imaginative as you want.”
The visit prompted some of the first visitors to think what they would take if they had to go to Mars. One parent said she’d like a year’s supply of cheese and crackers. Nine-year-old Autumn plumped for her mum. Another nine-year-old, Freddie, said he’d take the family dog Waffle, a jack russell. “She’s so small, she’d be able to fit fine,” he said.
The house will be open at certain times, and a series of talks and workshops are taking place. For details, visit buildingamartianhouse.com.