The basis of Musk’s project rests upon ethical problems that haven’t been figured out yet.
Elon Musk has doubled down on his plan to get people to Mars by 2024 and insisted that this projection is "not a typo."
Musk laid out his Martian plan in the highest level of detail to date in a presentation he called "Making Life Multiplanetary." It was delivered on the final day of the International Astronautical Congress, where Musk also presented an update on his Martian plan last year. Since 2016, Musk says that SpaceX has engineered the spacecraft for the mission and figured out how to pay for it.
The "code name" for this spaceship is the BFR, short for "Big Fucking Rocket."
Basically, Musk said the BFR is a combination of SpaceX's existing spacecrafts—namely, the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon—within a single ship. You might know the Falcon 9 for its "precision landings," meaning it touches down in the upright position rather than crashing itself.
Musk specifically mentioned investors' desire to see flight demonstrations before giving more money, so using elements of existing, successful spacecrafts also seems to be Musk's way of addressing these concerns.
In order to make missions less expensive, Musk said that the BFR would first be sent into orbit, where a small vehicle would refuel its tank before departing for Mars.
This strategy enables a more weight-efficient fuel tank that can depart for Mars holding its full, 150-ton fuel capacity. This tank would be aided by solar arrays, which would deploy as the BFR coasts between Earth to Mars. A series of videos posted to Musk's Instagram on Monday depicts what this would look like.
Musk outlined the BFR's engine, heat shield, and reusability. He also showed a brief video representation of a precision-landing in Mars's thin atmosphere.
The cargo area of the BFR is designed to accommodate one hundred people comfortably in forty cabins for three to six months. There's also a solar storm shelter and an "entertainment area" (though Musk did not elaborate on what this "entertainment area" is).
But most importantly, Musk said that the BFR will begin construction in six to nine months, in which case it will be ready to send cargo to Mars by 2022. If this sounds impossible to you, it doesn't to Musk.
"I feel fairly confident that we can complete the ship and be ready for a launch in about five years," he said. "Five years feels like a long time to me."
Since Earth and Mars are physically at their closest to one another every two years, Musk cited 2024 as an alternative date. However, Musk's vision is to send people to Mars in 2024. He plans to launch two BFRs containing people, and two containing cargo.
As more people are sent to the Martian base, Musk envisions a city to emerge.
But Musk doesn't only plan on using the BFR technology for Mars. He plans to establish a lunar settlement called "Moon Base Alpha," and use BFR as an alternative to commercial airlines. If implemented, Musk said people could go anywhere on Earth in under an hour.
Musk did not present timelines for the construction of Moon Base Alpha, or a commercial BFR system for intraplanetary flight.
"It's 2017, we should have a lunar base by now," Musk said. "What the hell is going on?"
While the minds at SpaceX have clearly spent tremendous energy perfecting the engineering of the BFR, it's not evident that the same thought has been put into governance, and the vague proposition of terraforming. The IAF, ironically, was celebrating the signing of the Outer Space Treaty, which forbids claims of ownership of celestial territory on behalf of a nation state.
However, it's important to note that there's a precedent for company rule transitioning to nation-state rule.
Most notably, the British East India Company violently colonized land in India on behalf of the company, and ownership of this land gradually shifted to the actual nation of Great Britain. Obviously, the Indian subcontinent is fundamentally different from Mars. But since SpaceX already has a working relationship with NASA, the history of company-lead settlements is relevant.
Musk has not presented a clear picture of what his Martian settlement's relationship to the US government would be—if there ends up being one. He also has repeatedly called this settlement a "colony," a term explicitly associated with conquest and violence.
Musk also never elaborated on how he would terraform Mars, despite explicitly mentioning it and depicting it in an Instagram video from Monday. "Over time, [we'll be] terraforming Mars and really making it a nice place to be," he said. "It's really quite a beautiful picture."
The only problem is, it's impossible to terraform Mars. In order for a planet to support life, it has to be able to retain crucial elements, such as oxygen, in its atmosphere. A planet can't have an atmosphere without a magnetosphere, the electrical field conjured by the motion of a planet's burning, molten core.
But Mars has an atmosphere that can only be described as thin, if we're being generous. This is because Mars's core has almost completely stopped burning. Put simply, Mars just doesn't have a magnetosphere that's able to support an atmosphere.
Based on current scientific understanding, it's impossible to change the composition of Mars's core so that it can support an atmosphere-friendly magnetosphere. But even if Musk did figure out how to achieve this, is he ready for the ethical implications of fundamentally changing a planet's natural state?
"On Mars, dawn and dusk are blue, and red during the day," Musk said during his presentation as an aside, seemingly in awe. "It's the opposite of Earth."
Has Musk considered the possibility of eliminating this phenomena?
At the beginning of his presentation, Musk very briefly justified becoming a multiplanet species.
"I think fundamentally, the future is vastly more exciting and interesting if we're a space-ranked civilization and a multiplanet species than if we're not," he said. "You wanna be inspired by things. You wanna wake up in the morning and think, 'The future's gonna be great.' That's what being a space-ranked civilization is all about. It's about believing in the future, and believing the future will be better than the past."
A multiplanetary existence can easily be described as "exciting and interesting," but Musk hasn't presented a clear path for making this existence "better than the past."
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.