Elon Musk is at it again. During the 67th International Astronautical Congress held in Guadalajara, Mexico, last Tuesday, Sept. 27, the billionaire entrepreneur formally presented his grand vision to send humanity to Mars.
“What I really want to try to achieve here is to make Mars seem possible, make it seem as though it’s something we can do in our lifetimes,” Musk announced to a lecture hall filled with eager listeners (Business Insider, “Here’s Elon Musk’s complete, sweeping vision on colonizing Mars to save humanity,” 09.29.2016).
In his presentation, Musk provided everything from engineering details to timelines and even a video simulation of an enormous spacecraft carrying passengers to the Red Planet to show how much thought he and his company, SpaceX, have put into this incredibly ambitious plan. The audience was electrified as Musk talked about how he would use a huge 40-story rocket with 42 new and powerful Raptor engines to blast through space at tens of thousands of miles per hour (Wired, “Elon Musk Announces His Plan to Colonize Mars and Save Humanity,” 09.27.2016).
Then, when he vowed to establish a self-sustaining Mars colony of one million people in the coming decades, the crowd cheered as if they were at a rock concert (The Verge, “The biggest lingering questions about SpaceX’s Mars colonization plans,” 09.28.2016).
There was certainly a lot of excitement and fervor at the conference. Not only did Musk declare that the first trip to Mars could take place as early as 2024, but he also promised to make the voyage reasonably affordable for everyone (The New York Times, “Elon Musk’s Plan: Get Humans to Mars, and Beyond,” 09.27.2016). According to his calculations, the first few trips may cost about $500,000, but the price may drop to only one-third of that as time passes.
But here’s the thing: Musk is a madman. Humanity has made incredible technological leaps in recent times, but space travel isn’t something that should be accomplished on a whim. A lot of logistical issues and complications have to be addressed.
At least under Musk’s current plan, it would be nearly impossible for this “Mars colonization” scheme to ever succeed.
First and foremost, the rocket has to travel across 54.6 million kilometers of outer space to get to Mars. According to Musk’s blueprint, the SpaceX rocket (nicknamed “BFR” by the company’s employees, and yes, the acronym is exactly what you think) will have 13,000 tons of thrust to launch the spacecraft all the way to Mars, all powered by extremely cold liquid methane as fuel (Slate, “Elon Musk Wants to Put a Million People on Mars,” 09.29.2016).
The rocket’s main selling point is that most of it, especially the propellant, will be reusable, which will allow the rocket to refuel itself in space and significantly cut down the cost. However, the big issue here is that no one knows if any of this technology can actually be built. Nothing like this has been done before. While the plan may seem feasible on paper, constructing the right machinery and making sure every facet of the spacecraft works properly is an overwhelming task.
To put everything in perspective, the largest and most powerful rocket ever launched, the Saturn V, had a thrust of 3,500 tons.
Musk has not only promised to build a rocket with boosters that are 3.5 times more powerful than that of the Saturn V (Slate), but the rocket must also be twice the size of Saturn V to effectively protect all of its passengers (Inc, “Here’s What an Astronaut Thinks of Elon Musk’s Plan to Colonize Mars,” 09.30.2016). Don’t forget that this rocket is also planned to utilize 42 high-powered engines.
The record-breaking Saturn V could manage only five (Inc). Most importantly, there’s the issue of cost, about which I won’t bother to go into detail, because at this point, anyone can tell that money is definitely going to be an obstacle for an endeavor like this. Yet despite all of these factors, Musk thinks that he can build his revolutionary Mars rocket in just a couple of years.
But let’s give Musk the benefit of the doubt. Say that the rocket was successfully built according to his blueprints and the Mars mission was ready for takeoff. Then the problem changes to making sure that all of the passengers survive the voyage. According to Musk’s estimates, the trip would take 80 to 150 days (Business Insider). Scientists find these numbers difficult to believe.
“I couldn’t quite follow where [the estimate] was coming from,” said Bobby Braun, Associate Professor of Space Technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “When we send robotic missions to Mars, they tend to take nine months to get there” (The Verge).
There’s also the issue of radiation exposure. The spaceship must have a shield in place in case a solar flare occurs and discharges dangerous waves of subatomic particles (Slate). For some reason, Musk didn’t felt the need to take this issue into account, calling it a “relatively minor” concern (The Verge). Given how he envisions numerous rockets making over 10,000 trips, the odds of a solar flare happening and killing all the passengers is not something for him to casually brush off.
We also have to examine the plan as a whole. Musk is thinking big. He’s not satisfied with just visiting Mars; he wants humankind to claim it for future civilizations. Musk has stated that his ultimate goal is to turn humanity into a “multiplanetary species” so that our kind doesn’t die out in one fell swoop when an asteroid hits Earth (New York Times).
But this goal introduces a plethora of questions that Musk has failed to address in his talk. How will this self-sustaining civilization be created? How will the inhabitants acquire essential life-support systems that create breathable air and obtain water? How will they obtain food?
Since initial trips between Earth and Mars will be few and far-between (speaking of which, how will the rocket have enough fuel to travel back to Earth?), the first inhabitants will have to live off of the land. Unfortunately, the soil on Mars is suspected to contain deadly concentrations of perchlorates, which are toxic for humans (The Verge). Not only that, Mars itself has dangerous levels of radiation due to its thin atmosphere. These are all logistical issues that Musk never really addressed. He didn’t even mention exactly where on Mars would be most suitable for human life.
Last but not least, Musk doesn’t have a particularly impressive track record. He is rather infamous for falling short of his ambitious promises. Several times, his company, Tesla Motors, has failed to reach over 20 targets for improvement that Musk himself had set (The Wall Street Journal, “Elon Musk Sets Ambitious Goals at Tesla– and Often Falls Short,” 08.15.2016).
It also doesn’t help that just recently, one of his rockets exploded during fueling just two days before it was scheduled to launch (NPR, Elon Musk Unveils His Plan for Colonizing Mars,” 09.27.2016). Honestly, this is the guy who spoke on live television about nuking Mars to create two mini-suns in order to make the planet inhabitable (The Verge). He’s not exactly someone I would trust with my life.
But if nothing else, Musk is getting people to talk excitedly about space exploration again. Considering how NASA is in constant danger of being defunded due to dwindling public interest, this is quite a feat. Maybe Musk’s ambitious, if not fantastical, plan to colonize Mars may inspire others to form a more legitimate one.
Former astronaut Tom Jones comments: “I think he’s not going to be able to deliver on those promises…[but] I think it’s less important to him that he actually get to Mars personally than that he lay down some steps that will help somebody else get there” (Inc).