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’
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