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15 Jan

Moving Millions of People to Mars?

Mars-253x150One thing you have to love about Elon Musk is he loves to go big. In May 2012, his company SpaceX became the first private-sector outfit to send a spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station, and in October, his Dragon spacecraft became the first private craft to complete an actual cargo resupply mission to the station.  He's now in the process of developing the Grasshopper, a reusable space rocket--essentially, a 10-story tall vertical takeoff and landing vehicle, the sort of thing that we've previously seen only in 1950s sci-fi movies. In November, the Grasshopper  managed to rise nearly 20 feet, hover, and then touch back down on the launch pad at SpaceX's rocket development facility in McGregor, TX. 

But Musk has even more colossal ambitions. In March, he told BBC News that not only envisions that SpaceX will launch a manned mission to Mars by 2027, but says he's figured out how to get the cost of a round trip to the Red Planet down to $500,000 per person. (That may sound steep, but consider this: back in 2001, when Dennis Tito became the first space tourist to fly on a Russian spacecraft, it cost him $20 million just to go to International Space Station.) But that's not all. In late November, Musk set off a frenzy across the technosphere with a series of tweets, in which he revealed his vision for resettling millions of humans in a massive Martian colony.

Elon musk

As I said, this is not a guy who goes for halfway measures.

In an interview with Wired, Musk explained that started thinking about Mars practically from the moment that he sold his stake in PayPal, the phenomenally successful Web-based payment service that he co-founded, in 2002.  Musk was frustrated with NASA's sketchy plans for a manned mission to Mars--which now has been pushed back to 2033--and decided that he could get there cheaper and quicker. He actually looked into buying Russian ICBMs for $15-to-$20 million apiece and repurposing them for an unmanned demonstration mission; his idea was to land a small laboratory called the Mars Oasis, essentially a greenhouse filled with plants packed in a nutrient gel, as a way of demonstrating that life could survive on the Martian surface with the right protection.  But Musk ditched that idea, he said, when he realized that the real problem of getting to Mars wasn't feasibility, but "the perception among the American people—correct, given current technology—that it didn’t make financial sense to go."

Another big hurdle would be a series of protective shelters to protect our new human Martians from things like radiation. Check out this video to find out what kind of structures we'd need:


Musk figured he had to improve space travel technology, which he says has not improved that much since the Apollo era, so that humans not only could go to Mars, but do it more cheaply and easily. He started SpaceX to further that goal, with cargo delivery as a revenue-generating sideline. As it turns out, his Dragon spacecraft, the one that has docked with the ISS, doubles as an early version of a Mars landing craft; It can generate 6gs of thrust, about the right amount to accomplish a retro-propulsion landing on Mars. Version 2.0, which he envisions being ready in two to three years, should be capable of making a soft landing.

In an interview with, Musk filled in some of the details about his plan for colonizing Mars. The first mission would utilize a reusable liquid oxygen-methane rocketship--one much bigger than the Dragon--to transport a small group of no more than 10 explorers, plus equipment and building supplies. The team would build transparent domes, which would be pressurized with carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere, and then utilize machines to make fertilizer to enrich the Martian soil. Then they would plant Earth crops and produce food, and tap into the planet's subsurface ice for water. Eventually, as the colony became more self-sufficient, successive return trips by the reusable rocket would bring fewer supplies and more colonists. He estimates that establishing the colony would cost around $40 billion (presumably, in present-day dollars). 

Sounds intriguing, doesn't' it?  

Putting a human colony on Mars might not be as difficult a proposition as it once seemed. For long, scientists have worried that since Mars has no magnetic field and not much of an atmosphere to provide protection from radiation, camping out on the planet for any period of time might prove to be a fatal adventure. But instruments on NASA's Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in mid-2012, reveal that radiation levels on the Martian surface aren't' any higher than those of the International Space Station. Microgravity, both on the long trip and on the planet's surface where colonists would experience only 40 percent of Earth gravity, could wreak havoc with Martian colonists' bodies. NASA has been looking into ways to create artificial gravity  in spacecraft and on other worlds for a while, but I haven't seen any recent reports on progress. 

A bigger question, though, might be how a Martian colony would support itself economically.  In sci-fi novels and movies, Martian colonists usually seem to earn their keep through mining. But as this 2011 Discovery News article details, scientists increasingly doubt whether the planet contains big enough deposits of valuable minerals that exporting them to Earth would be lucrative. If we're going to set up factories that would take advantage of microgravity and/or a thin atmosphere to manufacture computer chips or some other commodity, it would make a lot more sense to do that on the Moon, which is a lot closer.

Indeed, the big value of Mars might turn out to be the real estate itself. A few years back, I wrote this blog post about the idea of terraforming Mars, which would involve actually creating a new, thicker, breathable atmosphere for the planet. If that worked, we might actually be able to turn Mars into a sort of Baja Earth, capable of supporting overflow from the Earth's burgeoning population, and perhaps even functioning as a backup home for humans, in the event that we continue wrecking our native planet's ecosystems to the point where life become untenable here.

So what do you think about Musk's proposal for establishing a Martian colony and eventually moving millions of people to Mars? Express your opinion below.

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