The Things We Do For Love: Building a Mars colony in the basement

I pull into the driveway and turn off my car. I've heard rumours of this place.

It looks like any of the other suburban homes on this street in Charlottetown — but it's different.

I'm working on a series for CBC P.E.I. called The Things We Do For Love. I'm profiling people and the things they do just because they love them. Not their job. Not their side-hustle. The things they do for love.

"Good day, sir!"

A smiling man with a grey moustache opens the door before I can even knock. It's Rick Cuttell.

"Good day, Rick!" I answer back.

"Leave your shoes on and come on in," he says.

I enter the house. Big TV, nice couch, well laid out kitchen. We walk past it all to the basement stairs. Cue the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. We enter the basement and spread before us on a giant table is a Martian landscape.

No really.

One small step for a retired man

Red soil and rocks cover the surface. Some sort of transit tube crisscrosses the table. There's a landing strip for spaceships and so much more.

Rick Cuttell is the mastermind behind this Mars colony. He retired a few years ago from a career in non-profit management, but he quickly got bored.

Dave Atkinson

"My son said, 'take a hobby,'" he said. "So I searched around and found a lot of retired guys were doing train sets. And everybody does train sets, and I wanted to do something different."

Cuttell thought of the boxes of his son's old Lego that have been kicking around for 30 years.

"I also have an interest in space and Mars and colonization and all of that. So I put the two together and I've designed a Mars landscape at a Lego scale, so it can fit on a couple tables. I've just gone from there."

It's almost a perfect retirement hobby. Each little project leads to another project.

Little help from a 3D printer

He started building with just Lego, but soon learned he'd need to branch out if he wanted his world to be realistic.

"I realized one of the current technological advancements that's out there is 3D printers, so I picked up a 3D printer and taught myself to use it."

Dave Atkinson

It's not enough for him that this just looks cool — he wants it to really function like a Mars colony.

He's asking questions like "what will people eat?"

He's building a self-contained aquaponics set up. Water drawn from his sump pit will be filtered and piped to a growing area, where trays of seedlings will sprout under special lights.

"I have tested growing micro-greens," he said.

"Because it's Lego-sized, as opposed to a tomato plant or some other large type of thing, so that water will come up here and have a continuous flow with sensors that say 'OK, the water is too low, it needs to be up,' and automatically will do that."

'Turn on the landing strip'

Cuttell has thought of everything. There are habitats for people to live in, there's a model of a giant 3D printer — because those colonists will need something to build those habitats with — there's the rapid transit tube, which works, by the way.

But one of the coolest things.

"Hey Google," he announces to the air. "Turn on the landing strip."

"OK," responds his Google assistant. "Turning on the landing strip."

A series of lights spring to life, illuminating a clear path for incoming spaceships.

The landing strip comes to life. (Dave Atkinson)

"I did not know a thing about electronics," he said with a laugh. "Or how to do any of this. And it took months for me to put it together. But there's a little computer chip in here. There's about 48 wires that are actually under the sand. And I've put it all together. From an initial stage of a single flashing light to 12 lights flashing on and off was a major challenge for me."

The projects keep spawning projects. The landing strip needs a spaceship. So he's building a track along the ceiling for ships to fly across.

The hydrogen cylinder in the corner should be producing hydrogen, so he's tinkering with an old toy to turn it into something — he's not even sure what yet. He'll figure it out.

And that's kind of the point.

Dave Atkinson

"As a kid, I enjoyed building models. But to me they were static. I mean, once you built it, they stood there, they did nothing, you could play with them, I suppose," he said. 

"But I always had this impression that if we were to make something that actually worked — gears that move, wings that go up and down, lights that go on and off — that would be so much more entertaining and exciting."

He didn't know how to do half of the stuff he's dreamt up. It took a lot of time and effort to figure it all out.

"But what have I got?" he said. "I'm retired. I've got time."

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