Elon Musk, maker of electric cars only rich people can afford to buy, unveiled his plans to terraform and colonize the Red Planet before the Royal Aeronautical Society in London on Friday November 16, 2012. Contributor Rob Coppinger at SPACE.com broke this important story in a special report called Huge Mars Colony Eyed by SpaceX Founder Elon Musk.
Elon Musk, the billionaire founder and CEO of the private spaceflight company SpaceX, wants to help establish a Mars colony of up to 80,000 people by ferrying explorers to the Red Planet for perhaps $500,000 a trip.
[Image left: This still from a SpaceX mission concept video shows a Dragon space capsule landing on the surface of Mars. SpaceX's Dragon is a privately built space capsule to carry unmanned payloads, and eventually astronauts, into space.]
In Musk's vision, the ambitious Mars settlement program would start with a pioneering group of fewer than 10 people, who would journey to the Red Planet aboard a huge reusable rocket powered by liquid oxygen and methane.
"At Mars, you can start a self-sustaining civilization and grow it into something really big," Musk told an audience at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London on Friday (Nov. 16). Musk was there to talk about his business plans, and to receive the Society’s gold medal for his contribution to the commercialization of space.
Accompanying the founders of the new Mars colony would be large amounts of equipment, including machines to produce fertilizer, methane and oxygen from Mars’ atmospheric nitrogen and carbon dioxide and the planet's subsurface water ice.
The Red Planet pioneers would also take construction materials to build transparent domes, which when pressurized with Mars’ atmospheric CO2 could grow Earth crops in Martian soil.
As the Mars colony became more self sufficient, the big rocket would start to transport more people and fewer supplies and equipment. [see Future Visions of Human Spaceflight]
Musk’s architecture for this human Mars exploration effort does not employ cyclers, reusable spacecraft that would travel back and forth constantly between the Red Planet and Earth — at least not at first.
"Probably not a Mars cycler; the thing with the cyclers is, you need a lot of them," Musk told SPACE.com. "You have to have propellant to keep things aligned as [Mars and Earth’s] orbits aren’t [always] in the same plane. In the beginning you won’t have cyclers."
There won't be any "cyclers"—at least not at first, because the thing about cyclers is that you need a lot of them and there are propellant and planet alignment issues. I'm glad we've got issue that settled
And it won't be cheap, I'm sorry to tell ya.
Musk’s $500,000 ticket price for a Mars trip was derived from what he thinks is affordable.
"The ticket price needs to be low enough that most people in advanced countries, in their mid-forties or something like that, could put together enough money to make the trip," he said, comparing the purchase to buying a house in California. [see Photos: The First Space Tourists]
He also estimated that of the eight billion humans that will be living on Earth by the time the colony is possible, perhaps one in 100,000 would be prepared to go. That equates to potentially 80,000 migrants.
Musk figures the colony program — which he wants to be a collaboration between government and private enterprise — would end up costing about $36 billion.
He arrived at that number by estimating that a colony that costs 0.25 percent or 0.5 percent of a nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) would be considered acceptable.
The United States' GDP in 2010 was $14.5 trillion; 0.25 percent of $14.5 trillion is $36 billion. If all 80,000 colonists paid $500,000 per seat for their Mars trip, $40 billion would be raised.
Here I must protest. It seems to me that terraforming and colonizing Mars would cost at least double what Musk estimates—$75 billion, or maybe even $80 billlion dollars. I really hate it when people fudge the numbers to make a project look easier than it really is! I'll bet you feel the same way
May I speak frankly? After all, this is DOTE and I've established (I hope) a tradition of being forthright about the things I write about. I'll just assume it's alright with you, OK?
Now suppose we had a guy who talks to Jesus every day—and Jesus talks back. Or suppose this guy wakes up in the morning thinking he's Napoleon and goes to bed at night thinking he's Mother Teresa. What would we say of this guy? Our wise doctors of psychiatric medicine might diagnose him as schiozophrenic, pump him full of some very powerful drugs, and sequester him in a padded cell. And why? Because he's obviously delusional. He's had a full break with Reality.
On the other hand, if some human stands up before the Royal Aeronautical Society and lays out his delusional plans to terraform and colonize the Red Planet, and does so in terms which sound "reasonable" to other equally delusional humans, the RSA gives him a gold medal. That person's crazy story gets written up at SPACE.com, Wired, CNET, the Huffington Post and a hundred other places. Countless thousands of other humans get on board with the plan because Big Technological Fantasies are always greeted with much fanfare and enthusiasm. These inspired humans sit around and discuss big reusable rockets, payload sizes, and how much it will cost to migrate to Mars.
The fully reusable rocket that Musk wants to [use to] take colonists to Mars is an evolution of SpaceX's Falcon 9 booster, which launches Dragon.
"It’s going to be much bigger [than Falcon 9], but I don’t think we’re quite ready to state the payload. We’ll speak about that next year," Musk said, emphasizing that only fully reusable rockets and spacecraft would keep the ticket price for Mars migration as low as $500,000.
So what is the difference between the hypothetical schizophrenic who thinks he's Napoleon and the genius entrepreneur Elon Musk?
To me, at bottom, there is no essential difference between them, but Elon Musk is a technological optimist of the usual sort, so he is thought a superior, pioneering member of our species. And hasn't he already created electric cars which only Tom Hanks can afford to buy? Hasn't he already developed the Dragon capsule which is designed to ferry wealthy humans to and from low-Earth orbit? Indeed he has!
Is it not just a short leap to putting 80,000 humans on Mars at $500,000 a pop?
This might be good time to recall that Homo sapiens—including these same tech-happy wackos that want to colonize Mars—has traveled well down a road which ends with the destruction of the Earth's biosphere and itself. And in so far as humans can only complete this inevitable journey, they need an escape route, what we might call a back-up plan.
But fuck that inevitable self-destruction story. Are we not great? Screw Earth. Let's live on Mars instead!
And a Bonus Video — to help you "visualize" the terraforming process from National Geographic