There’s a fine line between “visionary billionaire” and “huckster,” and Elon Musk just soared right over it.
On Tuesday, Musk gave an overview of SpaceX’s plans, such as they are, for a rocket transportation system that would colonize Mars.
All of this is pure Elon Musk, his by-now familiar pattern of distracting from an immediate, practical failure by asserting some new, exciting, impossibly ambitious goal. A guy gets killed using Tesla’s Autopilot? Time to announce Master Plan Part Deux. A SpaceX rocket goes boom, and you’re not quite sure why? Time to announce the plan to colonize Mars.
Look, I get that this is the sort of thing a guy like Musk says to bolster his reputation as a forward-thinking visionary. And if he doesn’t come through, I don’t think anyone is going to hold him to it because we always thought it was kind a long shot to begin with. Unfortunately for Musk, the markets will hold him to his more mundane promises, like being able to build 500,000 cars in a year.
Nonetheless, isn’t there some value to dreaming big and imagining unlikely but incredibly aggressive goals? It is certainly inspiring to imagine mankind’s future as a spacefaring “multi-planet species.”
Too bad it doesn’t really make any sense.
I’m not just talking about the implausibility of Musk’s specific proposal, which is extremely vague on a lot of really crucial questions. The key observation is that Musk estimates it would require only a $10 billion investment to start putting people on Mars. As one observer noted, this is no more than twice the amount of capital Musk has raised for the much more prosaic task of starting a small electric car company, which is still bleeding cash. So either one of these things is way too cheap or one of them is way too expensive. I’m guessing Musk’s estimate for the Mars mission is the one that’s way too cheap.
The bigger question is whether it makes sense for anyone to try to colonize Mars in the foreseeable future.
Remember that we’re not just talking about a small, short-term Mars mission of the kind depicted in last year’s blockbuster film The Martian, where six people are sent to Mars for a month (and one of them unexpectedly ends up staying a lot longer). Musk’s plan is to send tens of thousands of people to Mars with the goal of eventually having a million people living there in a “self-sustaining city.”
But why? Why would they go there?
There’s plenty of reason to go to Mars for scientific curiosity, though with current technology, we can accomplish that with robots—as NASA has been doing brilliantly for so long we’ve grown to regard it as routine. It’s an approach that is much less expensive, since robots don’t need food, heat, and air, are less sensitive to radiation, and don’t need to lug a whole artificial habitat along with them. And they don’t need to come back home, either. So if we go through the trouble of sending humans to Mars instead of just robots, it’s not because we need to but just to show that we can.
Which is fine. In many ways, that’s what landing on the Moon was about. The Apollo program would have been worth it if all it did was give us the phrase, “If we can land a man on the moon…”—which means: “anything is possible.” If landing humans on Mars helps renew that sense of unlimited possibility, there’s a definite case for doing it.
But a whole permanent colony of human settlers is a very different proposition, and it makes a whole lot less sense.
Space exploration sounds exciting and futuristic, and we’re all encouraged by years of watching science fiction to agree that becoming a spacefaring civilization is the path toward the future. But that all crashes up against some very basic scientific and economic realities.
The problem with human settlements in space—given what we know now and the technology we have today and can expect in the next fifty years or more—is that there is nowhere to go.
The history of settlement on Earth is a history of finding new places to settle and live, places that were not barren and did not need to be coaxed into supporting life. On Earth, colonization was usually fueled first by the quest for high-value commodities that were worth the cost of shipping back home: precious metals, exotic furs, sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco. Or the refined products of agriculture, like rum and whiskey. Consider the causes of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, which was set off by a tax on whiskey. The reason this tax was so incendiary is that farmers West of the Appalachians could not easily send their grain to market, so instead they distilled it into whiskey and sold that. That’s why they saw a special tax on whiskey as a punitive measure unfairly targeting them.
This is why asteroid mining is the only space exploration idea with any semi-plausible economic potential. The theory is that asteroids are unusually high in precious metals like gold and platinum, which would—again, in theory—make it worthwhile to send robots to mine them and bring the products back to Earth. There are still a lot of assumptions there that have yet to be tested, and the first step will be NASA’s Osiris-REx probe, which will test the actual composition of an asteroid. But none of this applies to Mars.
What usually comes next as an engine of colonization is regular agriculture, as settlers spread and create farms and produce a self-sustaining economy. Then as the last stage, a new settlement grows to the point where it has sufficient wealth, population, and skills to produce its own manufactured goods.
So what is Mars going to produce? It is not likely to be a source of minerals, at least none that would be economical to send back to Earth. Its barren soil and frozen atmosphere are definitely not ripe for agriculture, and even in artificial greenhouses, nothing is going to grow there that doesn’t grow much more easily here. Economically speaking, a Martian colony would have to be supported almost entirely from without for the indefinite future. As for Martian manufacturing, this is the worst outsourcing idea ever. Anywhere on Earth can make it cheaper.
The basic problem is that Mars is a dead planet. You can coax life to exist on it with a great deal of effort, but you’re up against some fundamentally hostile physics, and boosters for Mars colonization tend not to be straight about this.
The biggest thing the Earth has going for it is that we have a giant spinning ball of molten iron at the core of our planet, which generates a strong magnetic field. That magnetic field diverts a lot of outside radiation and especially the solar wind. The solar wind is a constant flow of charged particles cast off from the surface of the sun, which encounter the Earth’s magnetic field and are channeled to the poles, where they light up the atmosphere as the Northern Lights.
This turns out to be crucially important, because planets without magnetic fields tend to get their atmospheres stripped off by the solar wind. Such as Mars. This, by the way, is a bit of planetary science that was not well understood thirty years ago, which is when a lot of the plans for colonizing and terraforming Mars were hatched. It’s a sobering scientific update.
The most likely reason Mars has such a thin, cold atmosphere and no liquid water is because of a combination of its small size and lack of magnetic field. This allows the solar wind to rake across its atmosphere. Meanwhile, the planet’s low gravity means that lighter molecules that tend to gather at the top of its atmosphere, like hydrogen, can easily drift away, depriving the planet of one of the key components for water.
Low gravity, intense radiation, thin atmosphere, and lack of water are huge, immediate problems for would-be Mars colonists. The thin atmosphere and the radiation it lets through mean that humans can’t really live on the surface of the planet but have to tunnel underground. Nobody even knows what would happen to humans who tried to live long-term (let alone have children) in a mere 38% of Earth’s gravity. And the lack of water makes agriculture on any large scale impossible. (Note that in The Martian, our hero has to synthesize water from rocket fuel, which is not the safest activity.) And the basic planetary physics of Mars means that none of these conditions are likely to change.
Maybe someday we’ll find a way to counteract all of these problems, and maybe we’ll even be able to afford to do it. But the idea that Elon Musk is going to do this in the next five, or fifteen, or fifty years is—well, let’s be kind and say that it is very implausible.
In the end, Musk basically admits that a Mars colony has no economic viability. That’s why he begins by pitching us on the idea that we need to become a “multi-planet species” to avoid “existential risk,” i.e., the chance that some great cataclysm could wipe out the human race on Earth. You can see the huckster’s sale pitch: I mean, seriously, do you want human beings to go extinct? No? Then you’d better get behind a “public-private partnership”—translation: lots of federal dollars—to fund Elon Musk’s dreams.
In reality, there are very few things that would make Earth as incredibly inhospitable as Mars. A giant meteor strike? Maybe, but it would be far cheaper and easier to devise a program to spot and divert incoming asteroids. A gamma ray burst from a nearby supernova? But that would fry Mars, too. Maybe a supervolcano, but that doesn’t seem to quite fit the bill, either. After all, the Earth has been through numerous similar mass extinction events over its history, and none of them has ever wiped out all life or made the planet uninhabitable.
In effect, Musk’s “existential” argument amounts to telling us to that he’s worried about a planet that has supported life for three and a half billion years—so let’s set up shop on a planet that has never supported it. It doesn’t make nearly as much sense when you put it that way, does it?
Maybe in the very far future, in the 22nd Century or beyond, we will figure out a way to settle Mars. Then again, maybe we’ll also figure out faster-than-light travel and head off in search of a much more promising exoplanet to settle on. At the very least, if we get rich enough and technologically advanced enough, maybe we’ll use the solar system for some really awesome space tourism, which is basically what is depicted here. To attempt to make any real prediction that far into the future would be foolish.
But in this century, it’s likely we will settle Mars in the only way that makes sense. My local coffee shop used to have a daily trivia question, and they really stumped me with this one: Which continent has the highest average level of education? The answer wasn’t Europe or North America. It was Antarctica, because almost everyone who lives there has a Ph.D. That’s what the real Martian colonies will eventually look like: a set of small research stations populated by scientists who stay for a limited time and depend almost entirely on supplies, tools, and materials sent from Earth.
When you think about, that’s a pretty ambitious and inspiring plan in itself—nor is there any shortage of interesting, ambitious, and inspiring goals back here on our lovely, friendly blue planet. We have plenty of options to choose from to take us boldly into the future, and we don’t need the ticket to nowhere that Elon Musk is trying to sell us.