“There’s a fine line between madness and genius, and you need a little bit of both to really change the world.” — Chris Anderson, WIRED
Mars, the legendary red planet observable with the naked eye, has captured the imagination of scientists, authors, filmmakers, and laypeople for centuries.
From Galileo, the first human to view Mars through a telescope in 1609, to NASA’s Curiosity Rover, which landed on the planet in 2012 and continues to send back photos and data, the human obsession with Earth’s inspirational planetary neighbor has never abated.
Elon Musk is CEO of two companies: Disruptive electric car maker Tesla Motors and SpaceX, the ambitious company he founded in 2002 with the goal of privatizing space exploration and extending humankind beyond its planet of origin. In interviews with media outlets, Musk has talked extensively and frankly about his vision of establishing a human colony on Mars.
In March 2013, during a keynote address at SXSW in Austin, Musk said his biggest disappointment would be if humans don’t make it to Mars during his lifetime (he’s currently 44). “It’s the first time in four and a half billion years that we are at a level of technology where we have the ability to reach Mars,” he told the audience. Musk said he believes that space travel is necessary to “extend the life of humanity.”
What about opponents who claim space exploration is a waste of money and resources? What is Musk’s response to those who believe the efforts of humanity should be focused exclusively on planet Earth and the people who live on it? “It’s sort of like why you buy car or life insurance,” he told British newspaper The Guardian in July 2013. “It’s not because you think you’ll die tomorrow, but because you might.”
He continued, “There could be some series of events that cause [the] technology level to decline. Given that this is the first time in 4.5 billion years where it’s been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, it seems like we’d be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact it will be open a long time.”
In a 2013 interview with PJ Media, Musk was asked, “Why is space exploration important? Shouldn’t we be focusing on what’s going on here?” He responded, “I largely agree that we should have 99 percent plus of our energy focused on solving problems on Earth. But I think we need to preserve a small amount for a future beyond Earth. You can say, well, how much money should we spend on extending humanity into space? And certainly it should be far less than we spend on health care, but maybe more than we spend on lipstick.”
Actually Doing It
It’s one thing to have this vision, but another to actually accomplish it. During his interview with The Guardian in 2013, Musk said, “The key thing for me is to develop the technology to transport large numbers of people and cargo to Mars.” And how does one fund this technology? “But of course we must pay the bills along the way. So that means serving important customers like NASA, launching commercial broadcasting communication satellites, GPS satellites, mapping, [and] science experiments,” he told the newspaper.
“A future where we’re a spacefaring civilization is a far more exciting and inspiring future than one where we are not.” — Elon Musk, 2013
In September 2014, NASA selected SpaceX to shuttle American astronauts to the International Space Station by utilizing the pioneering company’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft. According to the SpaceX website, “The Dragon spacecraft currently resupplies the space station under a $1.6 billion Cargo Resupply Services contract with NASA.”
Let’s dig a little deeper. Simply snagging a few NASA contracts doesn’t give a company the ability to establish a human colony on a neighboring planet that’s between 34 and 100 million miles away. After all, companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin have been winning NASA contracts for decades.
The Trick = Reusability
Musk has emphasized that the development and evolution of space travel will be possible only if reusable rockets and spacecraft are employed. He claims it’s this reusability that will enable the economic feasibility of space exploration and the eventual human colonization of any planet in the solar system—Mars or otherwise.
SpaceX has been developing and testing what Musk calls a “fully and rapidly reusable” rocket. He points out that the fuel to propel a rocket outside the atmosphere is only 0.3% the cost of the rocket itself (about $200,000). Thus, simply throwing away an uber-expensive rocket (which costs about $60 million) after each use is, understandably, so massively inefficient that it is arguably stupid.
Thus, a $60 million dollar rocket that can be used, say, 30 times, obviously equals a per-flight cost of only $2 million, a mere 3.3 percent the cost of a one-time use rocket (SpaceX has already reused rockets up to 20 times). It’s easy to see how the old model of a one-use rocket results in a prohibitively expensive method of space transportation, one that even the governments of wealthy nations like the United States, Russia, and China find politically challenging to fund.
During an October 2014 interview by the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department, Musk emphasized the reusability issue from an economics perspective. “It is a chicken and egg sort of situation. The reason that there’s low demand for space flights is because it’s ridiculously expensive. At some point, somebody has to say, ok, we’re going to make something that’s much more affordable and then see what applications develop.”
Musk went on to analogize rockets to jet planes. He asked the audience to imagine if a modern jet, like a Boeing 747 costing $250-300 million, provided only a single-use (meaning two would be required for a round-trip). “Nobody’s paying half a billion dollars to fly from Boston to London. And, if that were the case, there would be a very small number of flights for scientific and military purposes [only]. People would say, wow, the market for aircraft is so tiny. People really love going by boat [laughs].”
To help put things in perspective, Musk told WIRED editor-in-chief Chris Anderson during an October 2012 interview, “America would never have been colonized if ships weren’t reusable.”
The lowest cost estimates for a four-person mission to Mars are around $100-200 billion (one 1989 study figured a cost of $500 billion). Musk told the MIT audience that he estimates a 10,000-fold reduction in this cost will be necessary to enable people to afford the trip, and that this would be facilitated only through the reuse of rockets and spacecraft.
Musk—typically considered to be a pretty smart guy—has said that he wishes to take millions of people to Mars. When asked by PJ Media how this could be afforded, he responded, “The key threshold, I think, is half a million dollars to move to Mars. In order to achieve that, you have to, first of all, have a fully reusable system that can travel to Mars and back. If someone were to work hard and save their money and really have that as their goal, then by the time they hit their mid to late 40s, most people in America could do that—if that was their goal.”
He added, “Of course, you’d sell your house and all your belongings on Earth, because you’re moving to Mars.” Musk admits that half a million dollars for a vacation “would be crazy,” but suggested “If you want to move there, you don’t need your house on Earth, that’s for sure.”
“I’d like to die on Mars, just not on impact.” — Elon Musk, 2013
When compared to the $35 million trips to the International Space Station that were being offered by the Russians in the past, Musk’s vision certainly seems more financially feasible. The charismatic dual-CEO has stressed that it’s not just an issue of reaching Mars, but rather of establishing a permanent colony on the red planet. “The thing that really matters in the long-term is to have a self-sustaining city on Mars, to make life multi-planetary,” he said.
Don’t assume that a flight or two can pull off this monumental task. According to The Verge in October 2014, “In [Musk’s] vision, 100,000 flights over the next century will allow us to build a sustainable colony of a million people on Mars.” One-tenth of a million flights. Over the next century. More inhabitants than Austin, Texas. Extending life beyond Earth is no trivial exploratory mission. Establishing the colony is one thing. Sustaining and growing it is another. Over time, it would involve literally trillions of dollars.
This effort would begin with a colony of 80,000 inhabitants who were stocked with the supplies to construct a city on Mars, complete with a pressurized transparent dome and everything necessary to farm on Martian soil. Musk views the establishment of this initial colony—with the eventual goal of a million Martian citizens—as a joint effort between the private sector and government that would cost, in today’s dollars, roughly $36 billion.
Many of you are probably pondering how humans can withstand the harsh radiation that penetrates the thin atmosphere of this storied planet. A November 2012 article by Forbes reported, “Thankfully, radiation isn’t a worry, as Mars’ atmosphere was recently revealed by NASA to shield radiation to the point where humans can survive on the surface.”
Lest you consider Musk an insane genius, he’s always focused on the real risks of such a venture. In April 2012 he told Forbes reporter Alex Knapp, “It’s a terrible risk-adjusted return. But it’s gotta happen. I think that for me and a lot of people, America is a nation of explorers. I’d like to see that we’re expanding the frontier and moving things forward. Space is the final frontier and we have to make progress.”
Not all fans of technology and space travel agree with Musk.
Noted astrophysicist and media personality Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of them. During an August 2013 interview, Tyson stated, “Private enterprise will not ever lead a space frontier. Not because I don’t want them to, but because my read of history says they can’t. It’s not possible. Space is dangerous. It’s expensive. There are unquantified risks. Combine all of those under one umbrella; you cannot establish a free market capitalization of that enterprise.”
Eric Mack, a writer for CNET, in an October 2014 article questioned the practicality of Musk’s vision. “I wonder if this new interplanetary society and economy is further away than Musk believes…maybe SpaceX hasn’t really commercialized space travel so much as it has just established itself as a reliable government contractor for the same old space program we’ve had for decades now.”
Mack continued, “I think my Martian condo and the Earth-to-Mars economy that will make it possible are a little further off than some billionaires would have you believe.”
Despite such opinions, Musk has never been one to cave under the pessimism of critics. In fact, the greater the odds against his goals, the more motivated and determined he seems to become.
In August 2012, during an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Musk said, “The thing that got me started with SpaceX was the feeling of dismay—I just did not want Apollo to be our high-water mark. We do not want a future where we tell our children that this was the best we ever did.”
Whether you’ll be able to purchase a $500,000 ticket to Mars in 2030, however, obviously remains to be seen. But if Musk has anything to say about it, your biggest quandary may be deciding if you want an aisle or a window seat.
The following videos provide informative interviews with Elon Musk regarding his dream of colonizing Mars:
- One-on-one with Elon Musk (AeroAstroMIT; 1:15)
- Colonizing Mars: The Future Belongs to SpaceX (PJ Media; 11:19)
- Elon Musk Speaks About SpaceX (Vanity Fair; 36:26)
- SpaceX Looks to Blast ‘Millions of People to Mars’ (PBS NewsHour; 10:58)
All text Copyright © 2003-2016 Gooey Rabinski. All Rights Reserved.
Gooey Rabinski is an author, freelance writer, and instructional designer who has contributed long-form and feature articles to magazines and media outlets such as High Times, The Kind, SKUNK, Cannabis Culture, Heads, Green Flower Media, Weed World, Whaxy, Cannabis Health Journal, Green Thumb, and Treating Yourself.
He is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana, available on Amazon Kindle.