Elon Musk, the billionaire inventor and CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, announced Tuesday his ambitious plan for turning humans into the “first multiplanetary species” by 2070: by building a sprawling self-sustaining colony of a million people on Mars.
"It's going to be very dangerous," Musk admitted during the presentation. "The risk of fatality will be high. I would not suggest sending children. Are you prepared to die? If that's ok, you're a candidate for going."
Sign us up! Space X’s primary purpose, thus far, has been assisting NASA with launching satellites and shuttling cargo to the International Space Station. But that’s not enough for Musk, who reiterated that he established Space X in 2002 with the sole purpose of making humans space-faring creatures.
Here's Musk's plan. During the six month period in which Mars and Earth are rotating closest to each other, Musk plans to send Space X rockets called “Dragons” to the red planet. The trip will take about three months. New "Dragons," carrying up to 100 people, will be sent every two years, according to the Earth-Mars window, with constructive materials, resources, and, of course, former Earthlings to build a space station.
As the supply drops continue, ideally, the Martian colony will become completely self-sustaining, with livable colonies and bioengineered plant life. Through selective breeding, Musk has also hypothesized animals will eventually be able to survive the terrain as well.
All that for the reasonable ticket price of $100,000. So what happens once you actually get to Mars? Musk essentially said that's not for Space X to decide:
"The goal of Space X is to build the transport system. It's like building the Union-Pacific Railroad. And once that transport system is built, then there's a tremendous opportunity for anyone who wants to go to Mars to create something new or build the foundations of a new planet. Who wants to be among the founding members of a new planet and build everything from iron refineries to the first pizza joint? That's really where a tremendous amount of entrepreneurship and talent would flourish."
This is where the wide-eyed idealism of the otherwise impressive presentation faltered. There was very little rumination on what people will do once they get to Mars or what life on Mars will be like. Musk's presentation didn't offer many details about what awaits people when they make the 180 day voyage. Will there be currency? Entertainment? Exploration? Will there be a governing body? What will the laws be? And, crucially, what about sex?
In an earlier piece on sex and space travel, Fusion reported that interplanetary travel can be dangerous to the reproductive system:
The effect of radiation on sperm and ovum health could result in sterility in human beings while in space, even on short trips. Pregnant women on Earth can’t be x-rayed without robust shielding to protect their fetus, and women on the space station are exposed to many times the amount of radiation produced by a single x-ray.
Musk told an audience member that radiation "isn't really an issue" due to advances in magnetic shielding, but again, when so much of longterm space travel and interplanetary colonization is an unknown, the specifics are crucial. And this presentation, as inspiring and transgressive as it was, lacked any specifics on the human element of space travel. (Also, no one brought up aliens.)
In fact, returning to Musk's point about the Union-Pacific "transport link," it seems Musk's only goal was to find a new resource rich space and fill it with inventive people capable of (maybe) doing something unheard of one day. It's the mythos of Silicon Valley, a place of invention, disruption, and entrepreneurship, writ in the stars.
In fact, Musk compared Mars explicitly to California, saying people thought it was stupid to build a railroad to the state originally because nobody lived there. But because of the railroad, he said, the state flourished and became the cultural and economic mecca it is today. He imagines SpaceX doing the same thing for our planetary neighbor.
It's a lofty, hazily defined goal, but Musk's idealism-first mentality has brought us breakthroughs in everything from electric cars, autonomous driving, solar panels and battery science. It's spacey and fantastical, but by harnessing the power of "what if," Musk may touch off a chain reaction that just may send us to Mars one day.