It seems, strangely, both inevitable and impossible that human beings will one day set foot on Mars. On the one hand, humans have always been pushing to new boundaries and territories, so we’re bound to get there eventually. On the other hand, Mars is really, really far away. Currently, it would take about eighteen months to get there—one way. That kind of distance is hard to overcome.
That doesn’t seem to bother Elon Musk very much. Musk, the owner and founder of both SpaceX (which builds rockets) and Tesla (which builds electric cars), has been long been a proponent of humanity becoming an interplanetary species. And now he’s putting his money where his mouth is, according to a keynote he gave during the International Astronautical Congress meeting last Tuesday.
At the meeting in Guadalajara, Mexico, Musk laid out his vision for achieving a viable and affordable Martian colonizing force within the next 20 to 30 years. It’s an ambitious goal—but is it realistic?
How We Get To Mars
Must has several important questions to answer when it comes to how we actually get to Mars. The most important—and even he admits this—is funding. Colonizing Mars (and that’s what he’s talking about here: colonization, not just visitation) is an expensive prospect. But so, too, was colonizing the “New World” once upon a time. The right incentives will probably take care of the funding issue.
That leaves two big challenges:
- Decreasing the travel time: When it takes 18 months to get to Mars, that translates into a great deal of resources. After all, people have to eat for all those months! So if there’s any way to reliably speed up the process, that would help immensely. Musk, of course, has an answer. Not only did he unveil the design of a new, immense booster (capable of carrying over 100 people), but he had also just released test footage of SpaceX’s new Raptor rocket. The Raptor is three times more powerful than the company’s current most-powerful rocket. That should help make the trip to Mars a little more feasible!
- Resources on Mars: The Red Planet is not really a very hospitable place. The temperatures are extreme and it’s not like you can till the land and plant some seeds. (The atmosphere is too thin, and the temperatures would kill even bacteria in the soil almost immediately.) But Musk has a few ideas. First, there’s the water that might exist on the planet (even if it’s just ice). That, combined with some carbon dioxide could provide fuel for a wide variety of purposes. Additionally, colonists could be supplied by automated drops from earth when necessary.
These two challenges aren’t the only ones—and they aren’t even totally solved. But we’re really, really close. There’s no reason to believe that these issues won’t be solved by the time Elon Musk and SpaceX are ready to launch.
When Will I Get to Live on Mars?
Let’s put it this way: Musk’s plan is incomplete, for sure—but it’s sound. It’s plausible. Right now, it would cost about ten billion dollars per person to get colonists to Mars. Obviously, Musk is getting that number down. He actually wants to get it closer to $200,000-$300,000 per person. His idea is that you could save for your whole life, then move to Mars and find a great job (since labor would be at a premium on the Red Planet).
When will this happen? Well, it’s tough to tell. It’s likely that NASA won’t even land on Mars for anywhere between ten and twenty years. There are some reasons for this—NASA has to test a lot of new technologies. But there are also some who want to very thoroughly search for life before anyone lands there (and therefore contaminates any microscopic samples we might get).
Still, a couple of decades to begin full on colonization seems optimistic. That said, I’m sure there are plenty of people who have underestimated Musk to their own peril. He seems like a brilliant, driven guy—and if anybody can get us there, I tend to think that it’s him.
Is it Worth it?
To me, living on Mars would be extraordinary. That kind of interplanetary travel is something that I’ve dreamed about since I saw my first episode of Star Trek. Would this kind of planetary travel be worth it? Think about all of the money we’re putting into NASA, SpaceX, and other agencies like that.
For me, the answer is easy. It’s plain to see that Musk tends to agree. The future of our species, I think, rests with our ability to travel to other planets. Whether Musk will be able to pull it off—and whether I’d want to be a Mars colonist—I suppose remains to be seen.
What do you think? Do you want to join Musk’s Martian adventure?