Planet B? Musk’s sky-high hopes for colony on Mars

‘It would be fun to be on Mars as grav­ity is 37% that of Earth, so you could lift heavy things’

The Guardian - - NEWS - As­tro­nauts on Mars would have to bring their own air and wa­ter sup­plies and wear heated suits Im­age: Detlev van Ravenswaay/ Sci­ence Photo Li­brary

Bil­lion­aire ex­plains plan for mil­lion-strong set­tle­ment, but ex­perts are scep­ti­cal

goal – would take be­tween 40 and 100 years, ac­cord­ing to the plans.

Be­fore full coloni­sa­tion takes place, though, he needs to en­tice the first pi­o­neers to pave the way. Musk, the man be­hind the rocket man­u­fac­turer SpaceX and Tesla elec­tric cars, sums up the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion in a Venn di­a­gram show­ing two non-in­ter­sect­ing cir­cles rep­re­sent­ing, on one side, the kind of peo­ple who would be up for get­ting on the Mars rocket and, on the other, those who could af­ford it. An op­ti­mistic es­ti­mate of the cur­rent cost is $10bn a per­son.

“What we need to do is to move those cir­cles to­gether,” ex­plains Musk, whose wealth was es­ti­mated at £15.2bn in May. If the mis­sion cost could be dropped to the cost of an av­er­age US house, he pre­dicts, peo­ple would start to sign up in big enough num­bers to kick off project multi-plan­e­tary civil­i­sa­tion. “Given that Mars would have a labour short­age for a long time, jobs would not be in short sup­ply,” he points out.

Through­out, the ar­ti­cle has a buoy­ant, even joc­u­lar, tone and does not get ex­ces­sively bogged down in tech­ni­cal de­tail. One sec­tion, en­ti­tled “Why Mars?”, spells out that the red planet is es­sen­tially the best of a bad lot. “Venus is a high-pres­sure – su­per-high-pres­sure – hot acid bath … not at all like the god­dess,” Musk writes. “So, it would be re­ally dif­fi­cult to make things work on Venus.” The moon is dis­missed as be­ing too small for his vi­sion: “I ac­tu­ally have noth­ing against go­ing to the moon, but I think it is chal­leng­ing to be­come mul­ti­plan­e­tary on the moon be­cause it is much smaller than a planet.”

He adds: “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.” He pre­dicts that jour­ney times could be cut to 30 days.

The space­ship’s de­sign is summed up as “In some ways, it is not that com­pli­cated”, which crit­ics might point out runs con­trary to the rep­u­ta­tion of this field of sci­ence. Fi­nan­cially, there are some chal­lenges: “We have to fig­ure out how to im­prove the cost of trips to Mars by five mil­lion per cent.” How­ever, Musk has some ideas for how such tremen­dous sav­ings might be achieved. Reusing rock­ets could cut the cost of space­flight a thou­sand­fold and re­fu­elling in or­bit could make con­sid­er­able sav­ings too.

Space sci­en­tists re­main scep­ti­cal. In a re­cent in­ter­view, Ellen Sto­fan, for­mer Nasa chief sci­en­tist, dis­missed the idea that there would ever be a mass trans­fer of hu­mans to an­other planet, adding that trum­pet­ing the idea risked be­ing a dis­trac­tion from the prob­lems faced on Earth. “I don’t see a mass trans­fer of hu­man­ity to Mars, ever,” she said. “Job one is to keep this planet hab­it­able … There isn’t a planet B.”

Mark McCaugh­rean, se­nior adviser for sci­ence and ex­plo­ration at the Euro­pean Space Agency, struck a com­bat­ive note. “It’s a wild-eyed in­vest­ment pitch, pumped up by the en­thu­si­asm of cred­u­lous fan­boys brought up on comic book sci-fi, wrapped in evan­ge­lism of sav­ing hu­man­ity from it­self and the prob­lems we’ve wrought on this planet, a kind of mod­ern-day man­i­fest des­tiny,” he tweeted. “I’m less con­cerned about mak­ing hu­mans a multi-plan­e­tary species than I am about mak­ing the Earth a sus­tain­able multi-species planet, be­fore we go gadding off colonis­ing the so­lar sys­tem.”

Prof An­drew Coates, who works on the Ex­oMars rover ro­bot at Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don’s Mullard Space Sci­ence Lab­o­ra­tory, said that the ques­tion of whether present or past life ex­isted on Mars needed to be an­swered be­fore a manned mis­sion, which could con­tam­i­nate the sur­face, could be con­sid­ered. “There’s a moral im­per­a­tive to keep Mars as it is for the mo­ment. Un­til we’ve con­clu­sively an­swered that ques­tion we should keep our feet on the ground … go­ing there would be cos­mic van­dal­ism.”

And what is the timescale for the project? Musk states that he is be­ing “in­ten­tion­ally fuzzy” about when the vi­sion might be­come a re­al­ity, though the first flights could start as early as 2023. “If things go su­per-well, it might be in the 10-year time­frame, but I do not want to say that is when it will oc­cur,” he said.

To boldly go

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