Vision without funding is hallucination. Mars is not a how problem, it is a why problem. I grow weary of pretty pictures of rockets. Musk has done the easy part of sketching the obvious destination. The hard part is why—why pay for it? And that has been on hold for decades. Musk’s rocket blueprints put us no closer today than we were half a century ago.
Elon Musk wants to save humanity. That’s his stated mission. He doesn’t want to get rich for its own sake, he wants to get rich so that he can devote his wealth to the colonization of Mars, which in Musk’s mind is not only an enticing place to live but also an effective backup location for our species should something terrible happen on Earth. He believes we need to develop a self-sustaining, independent Martian civilization, because otherwise we are limited as a species to a single planet, and subject to a single-point failure known generically as Doomsday.
On Tuesday, at an international aerospace conference in Mexico, Musk laid out his vision for how his SpaceX company will transport people to Mars in giant spaceships launched by giant rockets. On the launchpad, the booster and spaceship would be 400 feet tall, which is taller than the Saturn V moon rockets. This is why SpaceX refers to this colonial transportation rocket as the BFR, for Big [Effing] Rocket. Each spaceship will carry 100 people, or perhaps 200, Musk said. In a matter of decades, there will be 10,000 such rockets blasting off Earth every two years as Earth and Mars align in their orbits, he said.
When Elon Musk introduced earthlings last month to his vision for cities on Mars, his 90-minute remarks fired up imaginations everywhere—except on Mars. For now.
Kim Stanley Robinson has done as much as anyone to bring the idea of colonizing Mars into the mainstream. The writer entwined knowledge, reasoning, and imagination into his landmark Mars trilogy—Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993), and Blue Mars (1996).
And to Robinson, Musk’s Martian future looks a lot like other people’s familiar past.
“Musk’s plan,” he said, “is sort of the 1920s science-fiction cliché of the boy who builds a rocket to the moon in his back yard.”
An edited transcript of an interview follows:
Elon Musk recently took the stage in Guadalajara, Mexico, for the performance he’s waited a lifetime to give. Sporting a new, oddly manicured mustache, Musk did his best shy Tony Stark impersonation, informing a crowd of space enthusiasts that, yes, he does plan to colonize Mars. Musk’s aerospace company, SpaceX, will send thousands of rockets and people to the Red Planet—perhaps within the decade and perhaps at a cost of just $10 billion. Some of the astronauts will die as part of the experiment. Others will live out their days in … well, Musk was not very specific on that.
Musk continues to befuddle planet earth. He’s part techno messiah—a being sent here from the future to save mankind from itself—and part charlatan—a slick businessman dragging foolish investors along on ever grander, cash-burning bets. Every time one of his companies stumbles, Musk seems to have another spectacular thing to announce—a new mode of transportation, the space internet, or a Martian colony—to thrill and confuse. Is Musk trying to distract us from the troubling aspects of his companies, or are the doubters just the shortsighted, risk-averse people holding us all back from a fantastic future?
A group of 10 Republican members of Congress wrote Thursday that they are increasingly concerned about SpaceX’s ability to safely fly NASA astronauts and national security satellites after the company recently suffered its second rocket explosion in just over a year.
In a letter to the Air Force, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, the group said SpaceX should not be leading the investigation into its most recent failure, and that authority should be turned over to the federal government “to ensure that proper investigative engineering rigor is applied.”
Last year, an unmanned Falcon 9 rocket exploded a couple minutes after it launched a resupply mission to the International Space Station, destroying $118 million worth of cargo. Then, earlier this month, another Falcon 9 rocket blew up as it was being fueled ahead of an engine test. A $195 million commercial satellite sitting on top of the rocket was lost in the fireball.
“These failures could have spelled disaster, even loss of life, had critical national security payloads or NASA crew been aboard those rockets,” wrote the members, many of whom represent states where SpaceX’s chief competitor, the United Launch Alliance, has a strong presence.
SpaceX declined to comment. After the Sept. 1 explosion, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said on Twitter that the Dragon capsule would have been able to abort in time, ferrying the astronauts on board to safety.
The company has said it is narrowing down the cause of the explosion, pinpointing a breach in a second-stage helium system. Earlier this week, Musk said the investigation was “vexing and difficult.” He stressed that finding out what went wrong is the company’s “absolute top priority” but said what actually caused the explosion was still unknown.
Of course, skeptics say that SpaceX is trying to do too much, too fast. It’s a fair point in light of the recent accident at the Kennedy Space Center where an unmanned Falcon 9 blew up during routine pre-launch procedures. Others point out that this endeavor will cost anywhere from hundreds of billions to trillions of dollars. It’s far more than even Elon Musk, cofounder of Paypal and CEO of Tesla and Solar City, could possibly afford alone or raise collectively. These kinds of question have yet to be fully answered, although Musk does mention in the video that reusability and a strong public-private partnership will play a big role in dramatically lowering costs.
Other big questions are: where will the first assessment team land, how will they live, and what will they use for gas? Mars may look like the desert southwest in images returned by robotic explorers, with clear crisp lines of desert and dune against pink and blue skies, but it is not. The surface of Mars is instantly lethal to humans in a dozen different ways. The rarefied air is mostly carbon dioxide and nitrogen with no free oxygen at all. The surface is bombarded by radiation, even the soil is toxic by most standards, and these are just some of the hazards we know about.
But a human Mars settlement is more than just hardware. The lives of people will be at stake, and serious thought needs to be given to the safety of the first human settlers. Musk admitted that the first colonists would have to be prepared to die, but killing people either on the way to Mars or once they get there will defeat the entire purpose of creating a colony in the first place. SpaceX may consider itself just a transportation company, but if it wants to get in the business of transporting humans, the company needs to reassure the public it can get them to a destination in one piece.