Elon Musk’s plans to start colonizing Mars in six years is just the start
Yesterday, Elon Musk unveiled the new SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), the most powerful rocket ever built. The rocket will lift a new spaceship designed to carry at least 100 people to Mars each flight, and flights could begin as early as 2022. That means humans could be living on an alien world within six years.
Musk’s goal is nothing short of colonizing Mars, but it won’t be easy. SpaceX is hoping to send around one million people to Mars in order to create a self-sustaining colony. If each ship carries 200 people it will take anywhere from 40 to 100 years and thousands of trips, but with help from Earth, a stable colony could be operating in a relatively short period of time.
This might seem like an eccentric turn from a well known billionaire, but it is more than that. Musk went on to say that humanity has two options going forward: “One is that we stay on Earth forever and then there will be an inevitable extinction event,” he said. “The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilization, and a multi-planetary species.”
Before the colonization can begin, there are two major questions that still need to be answered. To begin with, sending people to Mars is one thing, but the question of where and how they will live remains. The spacecraft is meant to send humans with some materials, but people on Mars will need a lot of materials to build a habitat. Musk has stated that his company is dedicated specifically to the transport, so SpaceX may be hoping someone else steps up for the next part.
One option may be to send machines capable of harvesting materials from the surface of Mars and then create shelters using an industrial-sized 3D printer. The process could be done remotely or even automatically. Once the first few structures are built, settlers could then have a base of operations to work out of, making the rest of the construction significantly easier.
Alternatively, SpaceX (with help from others) could send a base before any humans land on the surface, but that would require a sophisticated effort. The company is planning on sending payloads to Mars in 2018 and beyond, so the first structures may be ready and waiting for early colonists, but it’s one thing to send a small shelter for a few people and another to construct a base big enough for hundreds of people.
The other big question is where the money will come from.
Musk estimates that the cost of colonizing Mars will be around $10 billion to start, but that seems optimistic. Still, the costs will go down over time, and there are ways to make up the difference.
Once a settlement is active on Mars, the Red Planet could supply the fuel the rockets need to make the trips back and forth, and – although it would be much more difficult – it might be cheaper to harvest the fuel on Mars. It would essentially be SpaceX fueling SpaceX, so there would be no middleman. Over time, as with anything, the costs would continue to drop as the technology becomes more readily available.
There are other ways to mitigate the costs too, including SpaceX’s push for reusable rockets and capsules, but eventually, the capsules setting down would need to refuel on Mars to make it cost effective. Probes currently being sent to the Red Planet can deploy parachutes to land safely, but a larger ship with humans onboard would need a controlled landing, which would require fuel. That, plus the take off to re-enter orbit would take huge amounts of fuel. In the short term, a fuel depot could be established in orbit of Mars that is stocked from Earth, but that would just make for more trips and more expenses.
There is also the possibility of charging tickets, although they would be extremely expensive at first. Musk estimates that after the initial costs plateau, SpaceX could sell tickets for around $200,000 per person. That would decrease and could quickly reach $100,000, but the cost would lower the pool of the people that could actually go, and there would be a need for specific skills. It might be possible for a doctor or an engineer to buy a ticket, but laborers, artists, and anyone in a role that doesn’t earn hundreds of thousands would need to find another way. NASA and the European Space Agency are both working with SpaceX, so government funding is also a possibility, at least in some cases.
“The reason I am personally accruing assets is to fund this,” he said. “I really have no other purpose than to make life interplanetary.”
Some of the costs could be mitigated by Musk himself. Musk recently claimed that his driving force for making money is to make the colonization of Mars possible. Although he has had a relatively rough year, losing as much as $3.3 billion on paper due to plunging stock prices, as of June 2016 he was estimated to be worth $12.3 billion. The vast majority of that isn’t liquid assets, but he could personally help to supplement the costs.
Finding applicants may not be as easy as it sounds. There will certainly be a lot of people willing to flee the Earth and be one of the first humans to live on an alien world, but it will be extremely dangerous. The first settlers will need to accept that their lives could be short and difficult.
“Are you prepared to die? If that’s okay, then you’re a candidate for going,” he said. “This is less about who goes there first… the thing that really matters is making a self-sustaining civilization on Mars as fast as possible. This is different than Apollo. This is really about minimizing existential risk and having a tremendous sense of adventure.”
Musk himself is hoping to make the trip one day, but only after he is able to mitigate the risks for his company and future missions.
“I would definitely like to go to orbit and visit the space station and then ultimately go to Mars,” he said. “I have to make sure if something goes wrong on the flight and I die there’s a good succession plan and the mission of the company continues.”
Not everyone is excited as Musk though. While accidental deaths will be a frequent and constant concern, the isolation is potentially a bigger issue.
“I’m open-minded but skeptical that anyone actually wants to live out his or her life on Mars any more than anyone wants to colonize Antarctica,” Bill Nye told The Huffington Post. “Mars is an exotic place and in some ways very romantic. But it’s cold, barren and you can’t even breathe.”
Colonizing Mars is step one
While the colonization of Mars would be a major moment in the history of mankind, Musk sees it as the first step, which is why the ITS is no longer known by its original name, the Mars Colonial Transporter. Along with Mars and possibly the Moon, Musk is looking deeper into the solar system for potential colonization. He hopes to one day create a fuel station in orbit, possibly near Mars, which would then make the trip beyond significantly easier.
“If we have a propellent depot, you can go from Mars to Jupiter, no problem,” Musk said. “It means full access to the entire greater solar system.”
Europa is an especially attractive target, as are dwarf planets located in the asteroid belt – although those may be more for mining than long-term colonization.
For now though, the focus is on reaching Mars with the Dragon capsule, then sending crewed missions there with NASA. Test flights from SpaceX and other space-faring companies are expected to begin within the next years.
“The plan is to send a Dragon-2 to Mars in a few years, and then another in 2020,” Musk said. “We want to establish a steady cadence, with every Mars rendezvous.”
If you are a fan of space exploration, the next few years are going to be interesting, to say the least.