Elon Musk’s First Step to Mars Is Convincing Earth it's Worth Paying For

Elon Musk's Mars plan is too ambitious and expensive for SpaceX to do it alone, which has turned him into a salesman.

Jason Koebler

Jason Koebler

Image: SpaceX

Toward the end of Elon Musk's presentation of his long awaited Mars colonization plan, the SpaceX CEO publicly expressed something he rarely has before—not when talking about self-driving electric cars, or reusable rockets, or hyperloops. Something that hadn't come up earlier in the speech, while he unveiled in-orbit refuelable spaceships launched on unprecedentedly large rockets with "zero gravity games" and restaurants for passengers.

He expressed doubt.

"Our trip is extremely improbable," Musk said, sounding truly bummed at the idea that his life's work to make humankind a "multiplanetary species" might not succeed.

Image: SpaceX

Musk's grand ambitions and ability to deliver on many of them is why he has such a dedicated, often cultish following. But Musk has a tendency to pitch what many see as impossible as inevitable, which has earned him some doubters in the industry he works in. For instance: midway through Musk's speech, a senior science advisor at the European Space Agency working on the Rosetta mission tweeted he has "real space missions to work on, one of which is really landing on a real solar system object really on Friday."

In the past, Musk has been able to brush aside the haters and continue along his course. As a billionaire, he's been able to shuttle money between his various companies and his personal bank accounts to make sure they survive. This is a feasible means of operating a company even when you're doing something as expensive and massive in scope as launching rockets. But it becomes much less feasible when, over the next 100 years, you propose sending 1 million human beings to a planet no one has ever been to, to live there on a self-sustaining city.

Elon Musk's "funding" slide. Image: SpaceX

And so while Musk's presentation was filled with impressive physics, simulations, and facts and figures about how the Interplanetary Transport System would work, it contained very few specifics about how much the architecture would actually cost and about how SpaceX proposes to pay for it.

Getting to Mars is Musk's life's work, but he's finally found a project that no company or person on Earth can possibly afford to undertake on their own. And so Tuesday was quite simply Elon Musk's sales pitch to the world: If I build it, will you come?

Musk went so far as to say that his sole goal right now is to focus on his companies and himself making as much money as he possibly can—"accumulating assets," he called it—so that he could pour it back into the Mars mission.

"Right now we're trying to make as much progress with the resources we have," Musk said. "As we show that this is possible, that this dream is real, that it's not just a dream, I think support will snowball over time. Personally, I'm accumulating assets to fund this. I don't have any other personal motivation to accumulate assets except to make life multiplanetary."

But while SpaceX can make money shuttling astronauts and cargo to the space station, satellites to low Earth orbit, and perhaps may find a way to deliver broadband from outer space, it's not going to be enough without external funding.

"I know there's a lot of people in the private sector who are interested in funding a base on Mars," Musk said. "Ultimately this is going to be a huge public-private partnership, and that's how the US was established."

And this may be where Musk's Mars ambitions ultimately fall apart. He suggested funding streams like crowdfunding, getting "Hollywood" to get people excited about the potential of a Mars mission, winning government contracts, and the nonspecific "snowballing" of public support. These are the same sorts of proposals we've seen recently from less serious but similarly ambitious programs like Mars One and Inspiration Mars, which proposed to go to Mars through a combination of philanthropy, crowdfunding, and reality television shows. Each of them failed spectacularly and quickly, because it's just not obvious that there is enough will from the masses (and the deep-pocketed) to actually go there.

Musk's companies have both the engineering success and the fanbase to go further than either of these endeavors. The question is: Will governments, corporations, and the masses buy the future Musk is selling?