Yes, we’ll deal with both of the statements in the title of this article. Amazingly, they are both true. (although the second one is a bit more amazing than the first.)
First of all, I’d like to say that I’m definitely in favor of someone going to Mars. Just not me.
It wasn’t always this way. In the 1960s, during the actual “space race” to the moon, I was a geeky little kid, obsessed with all kinds of science and science fiction, which, at the time, were two subjects that seemingly were getting more and more mixed together every year. I was nine years old in 1965 when the original Lost in Space television show aired. That was a whole year before Star Trek came out, and it was my favorite thing. I even play acted “John and Maurine Robinson” with a girl friend using my back yard tree house as the spaceship. I think my dog may have sometimes been the monster of the week. And I would have loved to go to Mars.
I don’t remember if we had figured out by then that Venus is hotter than the Devil’s pizza oven, but it’s covered in clouds and we pretty much figured it’s hot. On the other hand, we can see the surface of Mars, both with our telescopes and from orbit around the planet even before we landed, and it looks kind of like home (a bit like Arizona, actually.) So it’s always been an intriguing place to imagine visiting. And with advancing modern technology, and I think with the landings on the Moon being on the edge of recent memory, there are people now who are itching to go there – and who just might have the capacity to do it.
Elon Musk, a guy who made a couple hundred million dollars, primarily from his early participation in the invention of PayPal, has spent the past decade or so parlaying his internet business winnings into two successful (so far) companies: Tesla electric cars and SpaceX space launch vehicles.
He’s a bit of a genius (nobody launches either a successful start-up mass production car company or a successful space launch company from scratch, let alone both at the same time) as well as, in my opinion, just a bit crazy (I guess “eccentric” would be a more polite word.) And he has a reason for going to Mars that sounds just as eccentric: He says mankind should become a “multi-planetary species” for the sake of our own survival. And he’s got a company full of people, including a large number of very brilliant engineers, who are just as enthusiastic as he is about making it happen.
An important note here: Some people deride Elon Musk, claiming that all he does is mooch off of the American taxpayer by getting his funding through NASA. This is not true. He got a NASA contract for delivering hardware to the International Space Station. But NASA made him prove that he could launch hardware into orbit all by himself first before they paid him a dime. He did what no other privately funded company had ever done before, and then he got the NASA contract. Not the other way around.
And this all happened at a time when the U.S. had started to severely lag behind Russia in space launch capability with the upcoming cancellation of the Space Shuttle, so it was very much in our national interest to get a commercial space launch venture started which had the goal of launching humans into orbit.
The best part is, they’re doing it at a fraction of the cost of previous and other existing space launch companies because SpaceX has figured out how to land and reuse their rockets. They are already making other companies (including the European Space Agency and Roscosmos in Russia) rethink the way they launch things into space because they realize that will not be able to compete. We need innovation like that.
Now, even though his motivation for going to Mars is to create a “backup” plan for humanity, Elon Musk is not one of the doomsday predictors who seem so popular these days. He is actually fairly optimistic about mankind’s future on Earth. He just thinks that being “out there” in a sustainable way, with a colony on another planet would be good for our long term viability. And the present time, in addition to being the first time in human history when we could realistically contemplate such a venture, is when he is alive, so now is when he wants to do it. He even jokes that, after he gets his multiplanetary venture off the ground (so to speak), he looks forward to retiring on Mars, and, eventually, dying on Mars, “just not on impact,” as he says.
I personally don’t think it’s necessary for our survival to go and live on Mars any time soon (or perhaps at all). We’ve got a couple hundred million years before the sun does anything drastic enough to make Earth uninhabitable. And, when that happens, I don’t think Mars is going to be the place to go.
People talk about “terraforming” Mars (making it like Earth).
But I don’t think they have a realistic view of how hard that would be. And if they’re afraid of something happening to Earth so that we would need to go to Mars, I think they misunderstand both Earth and Mars. There is nothing that we could do (or that anything else would be even remotely likely to do) to Earth that could possibly make Earth less livable for humans than the best that we could ever hope to make Mars.
Even if all the predictions about global warming and sea level rise are true, nothing about that entire scenario could make Earth worse for living on than the best terraformed Mars – even if such a thing were to wipe out a significant portion of humanity. Even if an asteroid the size of the one that impacted at Chicxulub, Mexico that wiped out the dinosaurs along with 75% of all life on Earth were to hit us now, Earth would still be a thousand times better for life – even human life – than Mars will ever be. And we no longer have the nuclear weapons capability to wipe out even all of civilization, let alone all human life (and, in my opinion, we never really did have that capability to the extent that some people claimed, but that’s a separate issue.)
And this is only partly because of any limit on how bad Earth could get.
It’s mostly because of how bad Mars already is for life. Its nearly all carbon-dioxide atmosphere is only 0.5% as dense as Earth’s. And the surface temperature is often sufficiently low to freeze that carbon dioxide right out of the air. And, even though Mars used to have liquid water on its surface, we figure that most of that water, along with its former atmosphere, probably got blown away into space due to a combination of Mars’ low surface gravity and its lack of magnetic field to protect it from solar and cosmic radiation.
All of this means that we can’t live on Mars without a tremendous amount of effort. It’s almost as bad as living on the Moon. People would need to dig underground habitats and basically live in caves most of the time to protect themselves against the radiation raining down from the skies. And we’re unsure of how well humans can survive in the reduced gravity of Mars, which is 1/3 of the gravity on Earth. We do know for certain that people lose both bone and muscle mass by living in effectively zero gravity in Earth orbit for too many months at a time.
There’s talk of enhancing the atmosphere and perhaps the surface water of Mars by melting water that is trapped underground and/or bombarding it with asteroids that contain water. Someone even suggested that we could put a nuclear reactor in orbit near Mars to establish a magnetic field for radiation protection. But I’m highly skeptical of all of these schemes. It’s easy to do a gross chalkboard calculation regarding the physics of an idea while making lots of assumptions. It’s harder to actually engineer something that works.
But even if we got near to solving all of those problems about Mars, I still don’t think I’m going there. The thought of traveling 200 million miles across space for six to nine months with nothing more than a fraction of an inch of stainless steel between myself and an infinity of vacuum in all directions just isn’t as appealing as it was when I was a kid. I’ve gotten much too accustomed to having air around me that I can breathe.
Like I said, though, I’m all for someone going.
We should be out there.
The solar system should be mankind’s back yard.
And, as long as Elon Musk has a bunch of people at SpaceX all enthusiastic about making our access to space cheaper and more reliable, I’m all for it.
He’s not the only one, either. We don’t hear too much about it, because he’s developing things quietly off to the side pretty much in private. But Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is working on 100% reusable space launch vehicles, too. He can do that because he’s got a lot more wealth in his personal fortune than Elon Musk had when he started. Musk only started off with a couple hundred million dollars.
Bezos already has a rocket that goes up to space and back. Next, he’s working on going into orbit. But he has his sights set on the moon. And he wants to put people in space, too. Lots of people.
And note that all of this — fulfilling age-old dreams of mankind — is a feature of capitalism and “wealth inequality.”
Our economic system can concentrate wealth into the hands (and projects) of ambitious and visionary individuals and their companies.
We’ve been relying on the government for the development of spaceflight technology for well over half a century. We went to the moon because we were in an ideological and military contest with a huge potential enemy and we needed to prove our technology quickly. But what have we done since then? We’ve been just going around in circles. Literal in circles. Over the past 20 years, the International Space Station has done something like 115,000 orbits around the Earth at a distance that could be measured in thicknesses of sheets of paper on your living room globe. And it’s not capable of doing anything else. That’s not space flight. It’s certainly not real exploration.
And it’s because it still costs the government $10,000 to launch a single pound into orbit on the kinds of rockets that we’ve been using for 60 years. That’s a million and a half dollars just to put one 150 pound guy (or girl) into orbit. And that’s by themselves, naked, without their space suit or even anything to eat.
In the 1970s, it cost the government (the taxpayers) a billion dollars (today’s dollars) each time they sent just three guys to the moon and back to pick up a sack of rocks. And they had no way of doing it any cheaper.
With the power of capitalistic innovation, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are changing all that. Their target is a few hundred dollars per pound for the cost to orbit.
They can’t afford to bilk the taxpayer like the government can for every launch of their rockets into space. Because, like most other things in business, they’re going for volume. And volume requires cost cutting. And cost cutting requires innovation of the kind that the government never does.
And they’re not the only ones.
Have you ever heard of Robert Bigelow?
He owns Budget Suites of America, an extended stay hotel/apartment chain.
He started his real estate development company specifically so that he could get rich enough to start a space flight company. Because he was born in 1945 and he grew up in Las Vegas and, while he was watching the government test nuclear bombs out in the distance in the desert, he decided at the age of 12 that he wanted to go into the space flight business.
So, in 1998 he started Bigelow Aerospace. But it’s not another rocket launch company like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are developing. He’s in the hotel business on Earth. So he’s specializing in space habitats. His company has designed a habitat module that can be sent up in a compact form and then can be expanded so that its interior volume is more than twice the size of the entire International Space Station all in one module. (The ISS required dozens of launches to put up and piece together multiple small modules.) Bigelow’s habitat module requires a heavy lift launch vehicle, though. It requires the kind of rocket that NASA currently does not have. The kind that Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are currently working on as their next project. Robert Bigelow’s product has already been tested in space, though. There’s a prototype version of it currently attached to the International Space Station as one of its habitat modules.
Did you know that we recently discovered water on the moon? We can use it to make air to breath and rocket fuel to launch back into space. So it might be a lot easier to live and work on the moon than we thought it was going to be. The thing is that it’s at the poles where it can stay frozen and not along the equator where it’s easier to land where we explored 50 years ago. But we haven’t sent anything to land at the poles yet, or on the back side of the moon, either. So far, only China and India are doing that. Do we want China and India to get ahead of us?
Yes, we should be out there.
Maybe we can colonize Mars. But that’s just one of lots of different things to do. We should be doing archeology on Mars. And we should be exploring the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Some of them might have life of a kind that we can’t imagine. We don’t know yet. So far, we’ve only seen hints in traces of chemicals. We should be setting ourselves up to mine asteroids. Some people say that there are precious metals on them – the kind that we need for our electronics and high technology – worth maybe as much as a trillion dollars per square mile. And we should be doing astronomy – particularly radio astronomy – from the far side of the Moon, completely away from interference from Earth.
We should do all of it.
And we are finally, through the power of capitalistic enterprise, starting to make a credible effort at it.
So yes, you might actually some day in this lifetime be able to go to Mars.
But I’m not going to Mars. Whoever goes to Mars is gonna have a lot of work to do.
I think I’d rather go to the moon and check out one of Robert Bigelow’s space hotels. It’s a lot closer. And it sounds like fun.