Flawed Dreams: Elon Musk and the Colonisation of Mars

At the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico, Elon Musk announced his highly ambitious plans to establish a colony of one million people on Mars within 100 years. Musk was greeted rapturous energy. Despite this enthusiasm, is the colonisation of Mars feasible?

Musk, founder of the private space company Space X, aims to offer tickets to Mars at around $200,000 each. To achieve this low price, he wishes to create a reusable spaceship and booster combination which will be able to take about 100 people at a time to Mars, taking a period of 80 days to reach the red planet.  This Interplanetary Transportation System (ITS) will have an ‘occupant compartment’ for Mars colonists. Musk wishes to keep costs low in order to “make Mars seem possible, something we can do in our lifetimes…”

The first flight of the proposed spaceship is due to occur in 2022 – a mere 6 years away. How Musk aims to fund such a rapid program at such a low cost remains unknown. Proposed sources of income are sending cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station and launching satellites, which are already part of Space X’s business model. Musk is also prepared to fund the Mars project himself: “The main reason I’m personally accumulating assets is to fund this.” Yet whether the program will accumulate the resources to establish a colony on Mars so quickly remains to be seen.

The risks associated with colonising Mars are innumerable. Pascal Lee, chairman of the Mars Institute, notes that the dangers of the Musk’s program mean that “settling Mars is physically possible, but I have questions about whether it’s desirable.” One of Nasa’s greatest concerns with the Mars missions is that without the Earth’s protective magnetic field, any travellers will be exposed to high levels of radiation and have an increased risk of cancer. Children born on Mars will be unable to leave; Al Globio, who has worked for NASA’s Ames Research centre, says that “kids will grow up weak on Mars. [They] would probably never be able to visit Earth.” Even the otherwise optimistic Musk grimly admits that the first Mars colonists should be “prepared to die.”

The grand scale of the Mars colonisation program gives it an air of science fiction. Musk is even aware of this; he has christened the planned prototype vessel as ‘The Heart of Gold’ after a spaceship in Douglas Adams’ hit sci-fi comedy ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’. While it is impossible to not have doubts about Musk’s Mars vision, the endeavours and ideas of the private sector should be admired in a time when public spending on scientific institutions such as NASA is low. In a public statement, NASA has endorsed Musk’s plans. They “applaud tall those who want to take the next leap- and advance the journey to Mars.” Even if Musk’s dream of Mars is not written in the stars, there is much to learn from his pioneering spirit.


Billie Mills-Pullan

(Image courtesy of The Red Dress)

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