On September 27, 2016, at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico, Elon Musk gave a presentation titled “Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species”, in which he laid out his logistical plans for transporting human beings to the next planet in the Solar System for colonization. The billionaire visionary gave the same reason for colonizing Mars as he always has: the possibility and inevitable likelihood of some kind of doomsday event putting an end to the Earth, which, due to the fact that our planet is the only one known to inhabit life, could mark an end to all life in the known universe.
This logic, while seemingly absurd, is surely grounded in much truth. It is well known that the Earth will not last forever, since, aside from somewhat imminent threats like climate change and overpopulation, our home planet will be engulfed by the Sun once the star reaches its red giant phase several billion years from now. Ultimately, we will need to leave the Earth. Why not start now?
Of course, this belief is the force behind the monumental passion of Mr. Musk, who states that Martian colonization is possible with what he is calling the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). The ITS involves a spaceship that he and SpaceX would like to design in the near future, through partnerships and funding from different private and public organizations. This would be composed of a crew vessel, which would hold up to 100 people and rest on top of a massive rocket standing about as tall as a 40-story building.
Powered by 42 of SpaceX’s new Raptor engines, the rocket is planned to have an immense 13,000 tons of thrust, 3.5 times as much as the current most powerful rocket ever launched (the Saturn V). This powerful spacecraft would carry its passengers out into orbit, be refueled using multiple launches, and, after entering the Martian atmosphere, would use aerodynamic braking to slow and land on its tail.
SpaceX has put together an animation simulating this flight:
Musk further stated that these trips could commence by 2024 if everything carries out as planned. According to him, we would need 1 million Martians to create a sustainable society on the planet. Since each flight would carry 100 people, this would take 10,000 flights. Realistically, these flights would occur once every 26 months, when Earth and Mars are closest to one another. With the introduction of multiple rockets per launch as time passes, Musk estimates that it could take between 40 to 100 years to create a self-sufficient Martian civilization. The initial cost of a voyage would be about $500,000, but ticket prices would drop over time.
Since this reveal, the subject has been a popular topic of discussion, with some discounting the possibility of Musk’s vision, and others claiming it to be plausible. However, let’s not examine the likelihood of success for his ITS. Of course, if he does get people onto the red planet, there is still the issue of inhabiting the rusty red ball, which would ultimately require efforts made in terraforming (planetary engineering), extraction of local materials, and other requirements needed to make Mars livable. Let’s not look at that either. Instead, let us note the benefits that can come from interplanetary colonization, even for those of us who decide to stay on the Earth’s surface.
The first benefit is one of the main reasons why Elon Musk believes that we should colonize Mars: it would mark the beginning of extraterrestrial life for human beings. Even if the Martian civilization wouldn’t exist to house our species until the end of time, it would still demonstrate that interplanetary travel is possible, and advancement of the same efforts made to bring us to Mars could take us to other parts of the Solar System (Musk has even stated that his rocket could go as far as Jupiter’s moons).
With this, Mars would merely be a jumping off point and would give us the capability to explore and inhabit the Universe. Traveling outside of our Solar System and even the Milky Way Galaxy, we would surely be able to find other suitable planets to reside. We might even be able to find one virtually identical to Earth in atmosphere, temperature, and gravity (a “New Earth”, if you will).
The second benefit, however, is less direct, but still remarkably important. Space exploration has long made advancements in science and technology, even in fields that you might not expect, such as medicine. For example, NASA was responsible for the development of red light emitting diodes (LEDs), which are used for space shuttle plant growth experiments. Back here on Earth, the same technology was adapted to relieve pain, promote muscle relaxation, and increase local blood circulation. Additional medical breakthroughs by NASA include infrared ear thermometers, ventricular assist devices, and robotic artificial limbs.
Outside of medicine, NASA is responsible for many other technological advancements that benefit people’s lives every day, including anti-icing systems, improved rubber tires that were adapted from space probes, fire-resistant reinforcement of steel, temper foam, and even portable cordless vacuums. All of these breakthroughs emerged because of the diligent and reliable efforts that are needed to manage the high stakes of the space program. With this, space organizations have always advanced science and technology simply because they needed to.
For SpaceX’s ITS, the risk is much higher, and advancements made to complete the company’s goal will need to be greater than those ever before. The aforementioned developments of NASA came through work done within the Earth’s orbit and on probes sent throughout the Solar System. But Musk’s plan could be much bigger than these things, since it involves bringing humans farther than they have ever been before and making an alien planet suitable for them to live. If the ITS plan is to work just as expected, we will surely see some miraculous technology coming out of it in the next few decades. SpaceX’s Raptor engine already serves as a good example of this.
However, the colonization of Mars won’t be painless. Musk himself has stated that, since the first journeys will be unsettlingly dangerous, the early candidates should be prepared to die. In fact, it is very likely that, with 1 million people being sent to Mars, at least some will not make it. So, you might very well die in the dark void of space as your crewmates reach the new Martian society.
That being said, the overall plan of SpaceX’s ITS is not remarkably ominous, and, despite seeming like the opening credits of a science fiction film, is not impossible. And, with Elon Musk at the helm, the very same individual who has been known for giving the world his “Master Plans” on the development of electric cars, solar power, and high-speed transit systems and following through with them, it is certainly possible that the SpaceX CEO will someday live on Mars . He just needs $10 billion to get started.