Home on the Red Planet

By Andrej Mrevlje |

Four years ago, when Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich pledged that, if elected, he would create a new space program that would include a human colony on the moon and a new Mars rocket program capable of getting to Mars in a remarkably short time, everybody ridiculed him. The highbrow, lefty online magazine, Slate, even went so far as to contradict Gingrich’s plan point by point, demonstrating that his plan had no substance.

We are now in a new political season, and with only one month before the elections for a new president, we have another plan — this time for a human colony on Mars. Except that this time, the plan seems to be real, and does not come from a politician.

It’s coming from a dreamer, a brilliant madman — Elon Musk. The founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, the 45-year-old billionaire runs several projects that  include reducing global warming through sustainable energy practices and reducing the risk of human extinction. Musk presented his project to the audience at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. The Guardian reported on the presentation:

“What I really want to try to achieve here is to make Mars seem possible – like it’s something we can achieve in our lifetimes,” Musk told an audience in his keynote speech at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Tuesday.

He said there were “two fundamental paths” facing humanity today. “One is that we stay on Earth forever and then there will be an inevitable extinction event,” he said. “The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilization, and a multi-planetary species.”

In order to achieve this goal, Musk outlined a multi-stage launch and transport system, including a reusable booster – like the Falcon 9, which SpaceX has already successfully tested – only much larger. The booster, and the “interplanetary module” on top of it, would be nearly as long as two Boeing 747 aircraft.

The first ship to go to Mars, Musk said, would be named Heart of Gold as a tribute to the ship powered by an “infinite improbability drive” from Douglas Adams’ science fiction novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Similar modules, also launched using reusable boosters, would remain in Earth’s orbit to refuel the interplanetary craft to be able to use multiple trips, including to other parts of the solar system such as Enceladus, a moon of Saturn on which Nasa’s Cassini mission recently found evidence of a polar subsurface water ocean that could harbor life.

“Musk envisions a self-sustaining Mars colony with at least a million residents by the end of the century,” Eric Berger writes in his report for ArsTechnica. The cost to travel and settle on Mars will be $200,000 per person — the same price as a middle-class home in America, according to Musk, who hopes that enough people will be able to afford a trip to Mars to find permanent new homes there. Musk believes that it is feasible to launch the initial ITS mission to Mars in 2024, just eight years from now, and reach the Martian surface by 2025. “‘That’s optimistic,’ he admitted during a teleconference with reporters after his speech. ‘I would describe that as an aspiration. But if it did go later, I don’t think it would go a lot later than that,’” Berger reports. He continues to say that:

Perhaps the biggest contribution from Tuesday’s speech will come from Musk’s clarion call to make humanity a multiplanetary species. In a particularly poetic moment, Musk expressed the need for “ensuring that the lamp of consciousness is not extinguished.” What would happen if we fail to act upon his vision, or something like it, to have humans settle other worlds? “We’re confined to one planet until an extinction event,” he said.

Here, Musk differs markedly from NASA and the US government. For the agency, spaceflight can be measured a series of discrete goals. Now NASA would like to begin with a few brave astronauts on the surface of Mars beginning in the late 2030s. It is about going, doing, proving, and then coming back. For Musk, though, it is about releasing the masses into space, and letting them create a new life in space.

That is the ethos espoused by Musk and the “new space” movement. They seek not to explore space to plant flags, but rather to open up new frontiers and provide humanity a backup plan. “This is different from Apollo. This is really about minimizing existential risk and having a tremendous sense of adventure,” Musk said.

An opposite — and quite negative — opinion on the projects comes from the cold, pro-Putin online publication, Sputnik. The Russian site quotes military expert Vasiliy Kashin, who claims that the idea of colonizing Mars is really just a propaganda exercise by the SpaceX CEO, who wants to attract more funding for the development of the project:

“Musk is talking about ‘colonization,’ and creating a relatively autonomous base on Mars. That means that there needs to be not just fully-fledged production of fuel, food and medicine, but a whole industrial economy in miniature. Of course, the reaction of the human body to a long stay on Mars after space flight is also a difficult scientific problem which has only been partially solved during lengthy medical and biological experiments carried out in the US and Russia,” Kashin said.

There is no doubt that Russians are experts on propaganda. And when it comes to science, they are good, too, but conservative. As it is true that Americans are good at doing business. But what Kashin seems to be ignoring is the fact that the private corporations of the so-called “free” West have taken over the economy, have sway over politics, and are occasionally — as in this case — in a better position to project a vision of the future than many of the world’s stagnant governments.  

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