Last month, SpaceX founder Elon Musk activated the Isaac Asimov fan in all of us. He declared that within 40 to 100 years he’s going to send 1 million people to Mars on a giant interplanetary spaceship. The first crews would be mostly cargo, but later Mars colonials with $200,000 and a desire to live in a glass dome or underground could jettison themselves into space.
Many of the details are still pretty hazy. What will life be like in the Mars colony? Would people be safe from radiation and microgravity? Could you take hikes searching for aliens? What’s the sales tax rate on Mars? On Monday, he clarified some of the technical aspects of the trip in an Ask Me Anything on Reddit. On the question about how Mars colonials would live, he said, “Initially, glass panes with carbon fiber frames to build geodesic domes on the surface, plus a lot of miner/tunneling droids. With the latter, you can build out a huge amount of pressurized space for industrial operations and leave the glass domes for green living space.”
But Musk was clear on one thing in his presentation at the International Astronautical Congress: “I think the first journeys to Mars are going to be really very dangerous. The risk of fatality will be high; there’s just no way around it. It would be, basically, ‘Are you prepared to die?’ If that’s OK, then, you know, you’re a candidate for going.” He said kids shouldn’t go.
If you’re the kind of person who loves to travel, explore new places, push your personal limits — is this your new Mount Everest? Musk’s ambition to open up interplanetary space travel to “average people” (or at least the decently wealthy) changes the dynamic of this moonshot. That is, it’s not a moonshot: because the only people who’ve been to the moon were fighter-jet-pilot-physicist types. This isn’t even a trip to the bottom of the ocean, another kind of frontiersmanship available only to the rarest type of person.
The obvious first reaction to all of this is to think it will never happen. But two things are clear to me: One, we’re talking about Elon Musk, a guy who created the go-to rocket company for NASA by sheer force of will. And two, he’s not bullshitting. Just read the AMA. He’s working on this. He’s deeply intellectually and financially invested. In a few decades, we could conceivably add a new Mars colonials section to Compass Cultura. It could be Fodor’s next travel guide.
What I’m wondering is who goes? Is the person who goes to Mars adventurous or misanthropic? Is she making a legacy play? Is he escaping his bad conscience? Or is this the next terrain for the GoPro and DJI market? In any case, it’s fun to think about.