A Mars V candidate site in the mid-Gobi Desert.


Why Mongolians are destined to go to Mars.

While I earn my living as president of a small aerospace R&D company, Pioneer Astronautics, I also lead the Mars Society, a non-profit that promotes the exploration and settlement of Mars. Founded in 1998, the Mars Society has chapters in 40 countries. Our activities include public outreach to spread our vision, securing support for government Mars programs, and projects of our own—most notably, establishing Mars analog research stations in deserts around the world.

Their mission is to learn how to explore Mars by tasking a small crew, typically six scientists and engineers, to conduct a program of geological and microbiological field exploration while operating under as many Martian constraints as we can impose on them—for example, wearing spacesuits whenever they are outside. We’ve built a station in the Canadian high Arctic and another in the Utah desert. Since 2001, we’ve operated more than 250 crews in them for durations ranging from two weeks to three months. Some of our 1500-odd former crew members have gone on to establish other stations in Hawaii and Poland, and formed a very professional group, headquartered in Austria, that conducts such expeditions in locations across the Middle East. Our Australian chapter has launched an initiative to establish a station in a region of the Australian outback with bacterial fossils dating back to the origin of life on Earth—exactly the sort of thing astronauts will be searching for on Mars.

Inspired by this, a group of Mongolians formed their own organization, Mars-V, and asked me to come to Mongolia to advise and support their effort to build a Mars analog research station in the Gobi Desert. I expected Mars-V to be perhaps a dozen local Mars enthusiasts. Instead it turned out to be a highly influential organization with some three thousand members, including corporation and bank presidents, prominent cultural figures, political party leaders, and Mongolian government cabinet members.

Erdenebold,[1]Mongolians only have one name, usually a compound of words describing traits. A woman might be named “beautiful flower,” or a man “eternal steel.” If it is necessary to distinguish the woman … Continue reading At 39, is one of the leaders of Mongolia’s Democratic Party, which has a free-enterprise bent. He is friends, though, with much of the cabinet of the ruling People’s Party, which leans social-democratic and of whom some are members of Mars-V. Erdenebold has a degree from Harvard Law, served as a major in a Mongolian Army unit alongside American forces in Afghanistan, and has written ten books, including a modern Mongolian verse translation of The Secret History of the Mongols.[2]The Secret History is a classic account of the Mongol creation story, from mythic times through the life of Chingis (or Genghis) Khan. Both the Chinese and Soviets attempted to suppress it. He met us at the Ulaanbaatar airport, waving us past customs and immigration, joined by his close associate Munkhnast (“Everlasting”) and 30 Mars-V members sporting Mars-V and Mars Society banners. We caravanned together to the city with an honorary police escort, where they put us up in the excellent, if sparsely patronized, Shangri-La Hotel.[3]The Mongol religion is Tibetan Buddhism, combined with shamanic traditions of their own.

Ulaanbaatar has been called the most air-polluted city in the world, but the air was fine. The problem isn’t the prominent coal-fired power plant that provides electricity to the city year round, it’s the use of coal in domestic fireplaces to heat homes in the winter. The Chinese offered to help solve this problem by building a hydroelectric dam, but this was blocked by the Russians, who compete with the Chinese for influence and market share within the country. What Ulaanbaatar could really use is a midsized—say 600 MW—nuclear power plant. (Korea, are you listening?)

We met the next morning in the city’s central square, dominated by a huge statue of Chingis Khan. A more modest statue of Marco Polo stands across the street. Chingis is a hero to Mongols, a kind of founding father. While Mongols had existed thousands of years before him, it was he who united the constantly warring tribes and suppressed the endless inter and intra-clan violence, replacing the anarchy with a uniform and rational set of laws, including such attractive features as universal religious toleration, the abolition of torture, and a sharp reduction in the number of capital offenses. He also suppressed brigandage, making long-distance trade possible across all his domains, and amplified the resulting prosperity by introducing paper money—a Mongol invention. Combined with the organization of Mongol horse-archer war-fighting methods into a powerful military system, this gave Chingis a nearly unstoppable carrot-and-stick in foreign policy tool that within a generation created an empire covering most of Eurasia.

Cities were offered a choice: friendly annexation to his prosperous regime or futile resistance. Most chose annexation, thereby adding their capabilities (such as siege craft engineering) to the Mongol forces. Those who resisted were almost always defeated, after which Chingis would execute the ruling aristocrats but preserve the useful classes—including merchants, artisans, and farmers—to add power to his empire.[4]The massacre of entire cities to create pyramids of skulls was not the practice of Chingis, but of the brutal central Asian nomadic warlord Tamerlane, who lived 200 years later.

Mars V volunteers gather in Ulaanbataar’s central square before a statue of Chingis Khan. All photos by Hope Zubrin, Robert’s wife, who accompanied him on the trip.

Things went a bit haywire after Chingis’s death, when his empire was divided among his four less worthy sons. Building upon Chingis’s invention of paper money, they proceeded to invent hyperinflation, making the currency worthless. Still, the interlinked Mongol empires continued to grow and prosper, so that in the late 1200s, when the Italian traveler Marco Polo visited the Sinocentric domain of Chingis’s grandson, Kublai Khan, he described it as a world of unmatched wonders.[5]As several of my Mongol hosts pointed out to me, with the notable exception of Marco Polo, nearly all foreign accounts of Chingis’s empire were written by its enemies, and distorted accordingly. … Continue reading

Other Mongol inventions included the stirrup, playing cards, and most importantly, printing, using movable type. The Chinese had invented printing using carved blocks of characters, but the Mongols had an actual alphabet of some 41 letters, which made movable, reusable type printing possible. They also invented yogurt, and introduced words such as “hurrah,” which, as Erdenbold pointed out to me, was used extensively in many American Civil War songs, including Union ForeverMarching Through Georgia, and The Bonnie Blue Flag.

But the Mongols’ most important cultural legacy was not their own inventions, but the extensive trade networks they established. These acted as a transmission belt for innovation, bringing together the inventive capabilities of previously separated civilizations. The main beneficiaries were the Europeans, who were far more open to the ideas of outsiders than their counterparts in Islamic, Indian, and Chinese societies. In 1600, Francis Bacon listed printing, gunpowder, and the compass as the three inventions that had revolutionized the world. All had been transmitted to Europe by the Mongols.

The same routes also carried the Black Plague, which emerged in south China and spread globally along Mongol trade routes, in the process shutting down the very trade upon which Mongol commercial power was based. Fatally weakened, the Mongol empires were overthrown or driven back by local powers in China, Russia, and the Middle East. Even their homeland was ultimately dominated, first by China and then by Soviet Russia. The Soviets gave Mongolia its current Cyrillic alphabet and some good technical institutes, but imposed a brutal Stalinist dictatorship, murdering, among many others, some 40,000 Buddhist monks. One of Mongolia’s early Marxist leaders tried to reject this purge, and actually slapped Stalin in the face. He paid for his defiance with his life.

In 1992, shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed, Mongolians rushed to overthrow the legacy communist regime and join the West. Although it is a non-aligned and free country, independent Mongolia is sandwiched uncomfortably between revanchist Russia and an increasingly aggressive China. Only a third of the world’s Mongols live there. Most of the rest, such as the Buryats in the Russian Federation and the Uighurs under Chinese rule, live in Mongolian regions annexed by China or the Soviet Union. Like the Hazara in Afghanistan or the Tatars in Crimea, they are ethnic minorities left behind by the retreat of the Mongol powers long ago. The Mongolians view these peoples as their own and are deeply disturbed by reports of China’s repression of the Uighurs and Putin’s conscription of the Buryats to serve as cannon fodder in Ukraine. To escape conscription, many Buryats are fleeing across the border into Mongolia, where their kin welcome them with open arms.

Most Mongols are hostile to Putin and horrified by the failure of Western leaders to stop him. Still, the Russians have left their mark on the country. Educated Mongols of the older generation speak Russian as a second language. The younger ones, though, are learning English, and some speak it perfectly, with American or British accents. In Ulaanbaatar, the signs on the buildings are a crazy mixture of Cyrillic and Latin characters, featuring loan words like “Computer” and “Mini Market.”

We proceeded with about 35 Mars-V members in a caravan down the potholed road from Ulaanbaatar to the mid-Gobi provincial capital of Mandalgov, where we had lunch with the Governor. He gave us a painting of the Gobi desert and expressed his strong support for the building of a Mars station in his province.[6]Mongolians always give gifts when you meet them. They are the most hospitable people I have ever met.

Then it was off to the Gobi desert.

Leaving Mandalgov, we travelled via a dirt road across a grassy steppe. The grass grew increasingly sparse as the terrain became more arid, the dirt road growingly indistinguishable from the surrounding land, until finally we were traveling across open, unmarked ground in a vast and nearly-unvegetated desert. Over the four-hour journey the surrounding livestock changed from cattle and sheep to camels and goats, but horses present from first to last. Mongolian horses have short legs but are very beautiful, with long flowing manes. They were all roaming about free range, with nary a fence nor a barn to be seen. Some chose to patronize deep water troughs left for their benefit by nomads.

We saw a fair number of nomads too, as well as the gers, or yurts, that serve as their portable homes, but none were riding horses. They preferred dirt bikes. I asked our traveling companion Uemaa, a Mongol renewable energy engineer, why this was. She said her family owns twenty horses, but only occasionally ride four of them for fun. The rest they just let roam around looking beautiful. “Not all horses need to be ridden,” she said.

Mongol horses in the Gobi desert.

It was not unusual that Uemaa, or “Mother of generations,” was a female engineer who spoke excellent English. Quite the contrary. Girls outnumber boys in Mongolian universities by three to one. Most of the engineers and middle managers at her company are women, with men comprising the large majority of the manual labor workforce and upper management.

Finally, we reached one of our top candidate locations. The site featured a vast landscape of red desert contoured into incredible terrain features by wind erosion. I wasn’t convinced it was the right place for the station, however. The area near our campsite wasn’t especially interesting, geologically, and the terrain was such a wild maze of erosion features that it was unclear how far anyone could travel into it on an All-Terrain Vehicle. If ATV passage were blocked, this would limit crew members to traveling on foot, and it’s difficult to hike very far while wearing a spacesuit. The Mongols answered this concern by bringing out an aerial drone and using it to identify a path that penetrated some distance into the maze.

Still, I could hardly compare the merit of this site with others that I hadn’t seen. I was preparing to recommend a more thorough exploration of all candidates sites—Mars V has a list of at least 20—when Erdenebold showed me their concept for the station. Instead of building a two-story permanent structure, like our Mars Arctic and Desert Research Stations, their idea was to use two single-story gers, each eight meters in diameter, that when linked together would provide the same amount of space for work and living quarters as one of our two-deck, eight-meter diameter hab modules. These could be put up in hours and fitted out within days, allowing the stations to be moved easily every year. By invoking the Mongols’ nomad heritage, they could explore not just one, but all of the sites as their program unfolds. This would allow teams to test different methods of conducting exploration operations in very geologically diverse (and in some cases, paleontologically fascinating) regions—which is necessary, because Mars itself is very geologically diverse.

Erdenbold explains the concept of mobile habs based on the ger.

Each of the Mars V candidate sites would require an appropriate concept of operations. In the case of the one at hand, combined operations involving the use of satellite remote sensing data, aerial drone reconnaissance (which could be done on Mars using helicopters, as demonstrated by NASA’s Perseverance/Ingenuity mission), astronauts on ATVS and foot, the station laboratory, and a science support team communicating by satellite from Ulaanbaatar would fit the bill. Other sites might be better explored with other methods, including using a simulated, pressurized rover mobile laboratory vehicle that Mars V had designed.

What’s more, most of the sites are vast. This is important. Human Mars exploration missions will cost of lot of money. They should be designed to explore regions the size of provinces, not parking lots. The Mongolian sites would provide theaters of operations of the size required to learn how to do so.

Finally, since all the sites could be visited without the need to commit, there would be no need to delay the program with years of preliminary exploration to choose the best one. Instead, the program could begin Mars mission field simulation operations at this site as soon as next spring.

This was great.

The Mongolian Cosmonaut Gurragcha briefs Robert and Hope at the Astropark Space Museum.

That night, we celebrated. The Mongols laid out tables of Mongolian food, which is basically meat and dairy, with some alcohol (actually plenty of alcohol) to wash it down.[7]If you wish to travel Mongolia on a vegetarian diet, you should bring your own vegetables. After Hope and I stuffed ourselves, we were informed that the real dinner would be served in the camp ger later that evening. We were given traditional Mongol robes to wear for the occasion.

Properly attired, we came to the ger. We had more Mongolian fare, cooked a bit fancier, and a bit more to drink. A pair of traditional Mongolian musicians provided the entertainment. Preeminent in their field, they had provided part of the soundtrack for Netflix’s Marco Polo series. It was only proper that I contribute something to the party too, so I performed Poe’s “Raven,” which I know by heart, and can ham up like a champ. This seemed to go over well. Then it was on to dancing around the campfire. I could have done this reasonably well, since the dance style was similar to some eastern European type folk dances I was familiar with, except that I kept tripping over my robe. Dancing concluded, we went off to our tent to sack out.

I’m an early riser, and I woke at the crack of dawn, before anyone else. I climbed atop an outcrop from which I could get a view of the surrounding terrain, lit up by the Sun’s early light. On a distant mesa, I spotted two moving specks. So I pulled out my 8X monocular to see what they were, and saw them—two gray wolves. One was looking right back at me, appearing for all the world like a seated husky. The other was roaming. I tried to get a photo of them through the monocular, but it was a tricky shot, and before I could arrange it they were gone. Still, I had seen them, and the sight will forever be engraved in my mind.

When I told the others about it later that morning they were impressed. Wolves are rarely seen, and when they are, it is portentous. Lest there be any doubts about the favorable omen, soon afterward a falcon flew over the party, seen by all.

The group amused itself with sports after breakfast, including archery, a big deal in Mongolia. I was invited to try my hand. I had done some archery when I was a kid and was pretty good at it, but I hadn’t pulled in bow in more than half a century. Nevertheless, I accepted—and scored! This impressed the Mongols some, but Hope most of all, as she had no idea I had that skill in my bag of tricks.

We broke camp and again began roaming the Gobi. We stopped at the ger of an elderly nomad whose interior was decorated with a number of Soviet-style medals he and his family had earned. He shared some of his camel’s milk with us.

The expedition’s cars then became separated. Ours wandered into a semi-arid area grazed by scores of goats, with rock formations that looked like a huge forest of petrified wood—indeed, a much larger one than the famous petrified forest in Arizona. Mongolia is a treasure house for fossil hunters, and some of the greatest paleontological finds of all time have been made in the Gobi. But no one had heard about this one. Avid with the joy of discovery, we photographed the site from all sides, scribbling down the GPS coordinates of the most notable features. But then the expedition’s geologist showed up and told us that what we had found was not a petrified forest at all, but a common type of schist formation. So that was the end of our discovery. Still, we had been world famous explorers for more than half an hour.

Moving on, we reached a glamping hotel where we spent the next night. A Mars V member, one of Mongolia’s top folk singers, sang a moving song about a horse that had been sold off into China, but then escaped to try to get back to Mongolia. Crossing the Gobi desert, the horse’s strength failed him, so he called up upon the North Wind to bring him one last scent of home. Many of the Mars V members sang along with him. (I pitched in with a rendition of Poe’s “Tamerlane,” which seemed appropriate for the occasion.)

At dinner I met a Mars V supporter, a construction magnate who had come down from Ulaanbaatar with his family to meet me. He spoke no English, but we conversed some in Russian. (Mongolian Russian is much easier to understand than that spoken by Russians: They speak it slower, use simpler expressions, and don’t use slang.) His son and daughter spoke perfect English with an American accent.

The next day we saw more grand sights in the desert, including the White Stupa, a set of spectacular cliffs reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. Then it was back to Ulaanbaatar.

Hope and Robert at the White Stupa.

Mars V held the rollout for the Mongolian edition of my book, The Case for Mars, which they had translated and published. This gala event was held at the National University of Mongolia, with many important personages in attendance. A very poised woman named Sural, who spoke flawless, educated British English, presided as Master of Ceremonies. I gave my Mars Direct talk, after which Erdenebold and I announced that Mars V was now also officially the Mars Society Mongolia. As a gift to celebrate the occasion, I gave Erdenebold the monocular with which I had seen the wolves. The book signing went on for half an hour. As the signing concluded, I was informed that the Minister of Digital Communications would like me to join her for dinner.

Rolling out the Mongolian edition of The Case for Mars.

So I met the minister, whose name is Bolor, meaning “Crystal,” for dinner in a Chinese restaurant whose fare did not resemble anything I have ever encountered in an American Chinese restaurant, or a Chinese one for that matter, but which was excellent nevertheless.[8]As an aside, I should mention that the American Chinese food dish “Mongolian beef” is not eaten in Mongolia. Bolor has a MS from Oxford, and at 29 is part of a new generation of Mongol leaders who are working to advance Mongolia in the modern world. Her key initiative is an effort to bring nationwide internet service to Mongolia. This is something Mars V needs to provide communications for its station, but its implications are much broader, because it would provide proper communications for every kind of field scientist, from pure science paleontologists to commercial explorers searching for rare earths and lithium in the Gobi and other distant regions. If reasonably priced plans for them can be arranged, it could also be world-changing for the nomads. However, expanding service is controversial. Local providers are worried about competition. There are international implications, too. She asked me to see what I could do to help, and I agreed to do so.

Over the next two days, Erdenebold, Hope, and I met with cabinet ministers, including the deputy prime minister, and finally, on my last night in the country, with the prime minister himself. All expressed support for the Mars V project. I explained the importance of Bolor’s digital communications initiative for its success. I think we made some progress.

Between meetings, Hope and I visited museums, including the fascinating National Museum, whose excellent exhibits tell Mongolia’s history from earliest times to the 1992 revolution. I picked up a terrific Chingis Khan souvenir hat. We were hosted at the Astropark Space Museum by the Mongolian cosmonaut Gurragcha, who flew to the Soviet Salyut space station in 1981. We were only the second Americans ever to visit the museum. The first was Buzz Aldrin.

We had more remarkable experiences, including attending a gala debut of the contemporary ballet “Uran Khas,” based on a 1931 Mongolian short story about space exploration. I was also interviewed on a Mongolian talk show hosted in a children’s science museum. I’ve been interviewed for TV many times, in many places, but this show was unique: Before the interview began, they had a warm up act—a really terrific Mongol tenor belting out classical opera arias. That was novel enough, but then, while I was listening, a young Mongol woman got up from the audience and asked me to dance with her to his final number, which was kind of danceable. So we did, on camera, swing style. The cast of Uran Khas was there, and the male lead asked Hope to dance with him, as well. But she wisely declined, as his moves were pretty wild. Then the host, the tenor, and the Uran Khas cast asked me to sign copies of the Mongolian Case for Mars for them, which I did, and then signed more for the studio audience.

The cast of “Uran Khas.”

They then took us to another part of the museum to join the kids in building tiny toy robots. Whether it was archery, singing, dancing, or this, the Mongols seem much more eager to create and to entertain than our spectator-oriented culture has become. I think this is admirable. But I had a hard time with this one, because I didn’t know where the tools were, and the parts were so small that I couldn’t see them properly. Fortunately, dinner came to the rescue.

Then, back to the hotel for a late-night meeting with the prime minister. Early next morning, a substantial crew of Mars V volunteers showed up to take us to the airport and see us off.

Exchanging gifts with the prime minister.

Reflecting on it, I have very high hopes for the success of the Mongolian Mars station project, and not just because of the wolves and the falcon. After centuries of foreign domination, the Mongols are trying to make their own place in the modern world, and they’re pursuing the opportunities that freedom has brought them with talent and determination. As the New Zealand-based launch company RocketLab has proven, the entrepreneurial New Space revolution has opened participation in this great age of space exploration to people from all countries, even those without significant space programs. South Korea is in a better position to take immediate advantage of this new reality, but Mongolians have strong entrepreneurial instincts and will doubtless find ways to become players as well.

The Gobi desert provides a unique and vast theater of operations to learn about how to explore Mars. This is of critical value, because all the thinking by NASA, other space agencies, and even SpaceX about human Mars missions has been about flight systems, with virtually none devoted to surface activities—which are the entire purpose of the mission. There is no point going to Mars unless you can do something effective when you get there. Situated in free, but non-aligned Mongolia, the Gobi Mars Analog Research Station could provide a place where those seeking to look up from our increasingly fractured world still can come together to learn how to do that.

As for the Mongols themselves, I think they will play a significant role, not only in their own desert station program, but in the human Mars missions that follow. There is much to be said for the nomad heritage when it comes to space exploration. For example, their concept of establishing a temporary outpost in many different locations is a far superior strategy for early Mars exploration than the usual fixation with inaugurating human activities on the Red Planet by establishing a central Mars base or settlement. The Mongols are used to roughing it. Severe water conservation measures and other necessary mission expedients, unusual and uncomfortable for Americans or Europeans, are already familiar even to urban Mongolians as matter of field trip routine.

So I think there will be Mongolian astronauts among the crews that go to Mars in the near future. And someday, I think there will be Mongolian starship captains.

That’s what I think.

Dr. Robert Zubrin is an aerospace engineer. His latest book, The Case for Space, was recently published by Prometheus books.


1 Mongolians only have one name, usually a compound of words describing traits. A woman might be named “beautiful flower,” or a man “eternal steel.” If it is necessary to distinguish the woman from others named “beautiful flower” she might add a patronymic, such as “beautiful flower daughter of eternal steel.” Erdenebold means “Bold Treasure.”
2 The Secret History is a classic account of the Mongol creation story, from mythic times through the life of Chingis (or Genghis) Khan. Both the Chinese and Soviets attempted to suppress it.
3 The Mongol religion is Tibetan Buddhism, combined with shamanic traditions of their own.
4 The massacre of entire cities to create pyramids of skulls was not the practice of Chingis, but of the brutal central Asian nomadic warlord Tamerlane, who lived 200 years later.
5 As several of my Mongol hosts pointed out to me, with the notable exception of Marco Polo, nearly all foreign accounts of Chingis’s empire were written by its enemies, and distorted accordingly. The best-balanced modern assessment can be found in the works of the American writer Jack Weatherford, most notably his 2004 book, “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.”
6 Mongolians always give gifts when you meet them. They are the most hospitable people I have ever met.
7 If you wish to travel Mongolia on a vegetarian diet, you should bring your own vegetables.
8 As an aside, I should mention that the American Chinese food dish “Mongolian beef” is not eaten in Mongolia.

2 Comments on "SPACE NOMADS"

  1. Wonderful descriptions and fascinating insights into an exciting and historic part of the world. It bodes well for our future on Mars as well. Thank you for sharing what you encountered, Marco Zubrin!

  2. Awesome article! I’m blown away by the sheer enthusiasm for space travel on display here—that country will go far!

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