Life on Earth can be overwhelming. It’s crowded, for one thing. There are 7 billion people bumping into each other, spreading disease and telling bad jokes. And it’s hectic, too, with all the wars and poverty and general bedlam. In the past, you didn’t have a choice but to deal with our worldly inconveniences, hope to find a suitable partner and bring more humans into our flawed little world. You could become an astronaut, I guess. But space is lonely!
If Elon Musk, entrepreneur, gets his way, this won’t be the case for long. The billionaire founder of PayPal and SpaceX, the world’s first private spaceflight company just announced that he has his sights set on getting off this rock. Musk wants to start sending people to the red planet in order to set up a colony of 80,000. At first, only ten or so people would make the trip in an oxygen- and methane-powered rocket. They’d start getting things set up, and over time, the rest of the colonists would make the move to Mars. Musk expects tickets to cost around $500,000 and the entire mission operating as a public-private enterprise with a $36 billion budget. Ultimately, the colony would be just like a small city on Earth, except you can’t go outside, and the snow is made of carbon dioxide.
Old Elon is really excited about this idea. “At Mars, you can start a self-sustaining civilization and grow it into something really big,” he told London’s Royal Aeronautical Society a couple weeks ago. “The ticket price needs to be low enough that most people in advanced countries, in their mid-forties or something like that, could put together enough money to make the trip.” He explained, “Some money has to be spent on establishing a base on Mars. It’s about getting the basic fundamentals in place. That was true of the English colonies [in the Americas]; it took a significant expense to get things started. But once there are regular Mars flights, you can get the cost down to half a million dollars for someone to move to Mars. Then I think there are enough people who would buy that to have it be a reasonable business case.”
There are a few problems with Musk’s plan, though. For one, NASA scientists admitted a year ago that it’s virtually impossible to land anything larger than a rover on Mars, due to the planet’s wickedly thin atmosphere. (The air on the surface of Mars is comparable to the air on Earth at an elevation of 100,000 feet.) “Landing on Mars is like putting a landing space up on an absurdly high mountain and saying: ‘Land there,’” Robert Manning, chief flight systems engineer on NASA’s Pathfinder rover, told Wired last year. Then there’s the radiation problem. If the colonists do manage to land on the surface, they’d have to deal with solar storms and radiation heavy enough to seep into their very cells and damage their DNA. A bad solar flare could be enough to burn their skin and make them puke. It could also straight up kill them.
Inevitably, the biggest challenge would be keeping 80,000 people alive on a planet that’s essentially one giant desert with no breathable air and unpredictable weather. Musk wants to do it with transparent domes that could be pumped full of carbon dioxide from the planet’s atmosphere that would feed crops growing in Martian soil. The plan, over time, would be to make the colony become completely self sufficient, limiting the number of supply runs back to Earth. Building such a city would be a serious challenge, though. Dust storms can cover entire swaths of Mars for months on end, and scientists have no idea how to predict them. And lest you forget, the people that would be building them on the surface are probably being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation and may or may not be developing debilitating cancer. Don’t even get us started on the probable psychological trauma that seeing Earth as a tiny dot in the sky would wreak on the lonely colonists.
What this all boils down to is a lot of unknowns. But hey, scientists said the same things and heeded similar warnings when John F. Kennedy said we were going to the moon. Elon Musk is no Jack Kennedy. He is very, very rich, though.
Image via ESO / J. Girard