Musk’s speech – in which he laid out a plan to create a city on Mars – has now been published as a white paper, “Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species“, available freely online (until July 5). In it, the SpaceX and Tesla billionaire makes clear that colonizing Mars truly is his grand dream, stating that…
…the main reason I am personally accumulating assets is in order to fund this. I really do not have any other motivation for personally accumulating assets except to be able to make the biggest contribution I can to making life multi-planetary.
As I mentioned in last year’s story, it certainly is a case of ‘dreaming big’, and will surely be criticized by more pragmatic and skeptical space industry experts. But I also see echoes in it of JFK’s statement in the early 1960s about landing on the Moon before the decade was out, and is perhaps a necessary tonic for breaking out of the limited, ‘safe’ thinking that has crept into space exploration since the 1970s.
Musk’s vision is based on what he sees as a likely ‘bifurcation’ in the future path of humanity, depending on the decision we make on space colonization – one of which (staying on Earth) will likely end in our extinction.
One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event. I do not have an immediate doomsday prophecy, but eventually, history suggests, there will be some doomsday event. The alternative is to become a space-bearing civilization and a multi-planetary species, which I hope you would agree is the right way to go.
His choice of Mars as the destination is based on a number of reasons:
To give some comparison between the two planets, they are remarkably close in many ways. In fact, we now believe that early Mars was a lot like Earth. In effect, if we could warm Mars up, we would once again have a thick atmosphere and liquid oceans.
Mars is about half as far again from the sun as Earth is, so it still has decent sunlight. It is a little cold, but we can warm it up. It has a very helpful atmosphere, which, being primarily CO2 with some nitrogen and argon and a few other trace elements, means that we can grow plants on Mars just by compressing the atmosphere.
It would be quite fun to be on Mars because you would have gravity that is about 37% of that of Earth, so you would be able to lift heavy things and bound around. Furthermore, the day is remarkably close to that of Earth. We just need to change the populations because currently we have seven billion people on Earth and none on Mars.
There may be a bit of glossing over of details, or perhaps simply naivety, in saying “it would be quite fun to be on Mars because you would have gravity that is about 37% of that of Earth”. Along with the ability to leap a long way comes a bunch of other complications in the way the human body – optimised for living in very specific conditions on Earth – would function (or more correctly, struggle to function).
Another rather large issue in colonizing Mars in any sort of numbers is the price. Up till now, Musk figures, the cost of putting people on Mars would be around $10 billion per person. To achieve his dream, the cost needs to be closer to $200,000 per person:
Not everyone would want to go. In fact, probably a relatively small number of people from Earth would want to go, but enough would want to go who could afford it for it to happen. [But] it’s a bit tricky because we have to figure out how to improve the cost of trips to Mars by five million percent. This translates to an improvement of approximately four-and-a-half orders of magnitude. This is not easy. It sounds virtually impossible, but there are ways to do it
The threshold for a self-sustaining city on Mars or a civilization would be a million people. If you can only go every 2 years and if you have 100 people per ship, that is 10,000 trips. Therefore, at least 100 people per trip is the right order of magnitude, and we may end up expanding the crew section and ultimately taking more like 200 or more people per flight in order to reduce the cost per person.
However, 10,000 flights is a lot of flights, so ultimately you would really want in the order of 1,000 ships. It would take a while to build up to 1,000 ships. How long it would take to reach that million-person threshold, from the point at which the first ship goes to Mars would probably be somewhere between 20 and 50 total Mars rendezvous—so it would take 40–100 years to achieve a fully self-sustaining civilization on Mars.
Musk says that, at the moment, “we are just trying to make as much progress as we can with the resources that we have available and to keep the ball moving forward”. If they can do so, he says, their efforts will “show that this is possible and that this dream is real—it is not just a dream, it is something that can be made real—the support will snowball over time.”
It’s a big dream, but one I’m fully behind – and who knows, if Musk can do it, Wernher von Braun’s 1949 prophecy of a Martian leader named Elon might just come true…