In a highly anticipated presentation on Tuesday Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, offered his most detailed plan yet for sending humans to Earth’s neighboring planet, Mars. Before a crowd gathered at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, he outlined SpaceX's goal of sending an unmanned space craft to the red planet by 2018 and colonists there by 2024 — a full decade before NASA projects it can complete such a task.
"What I really want to achieve here is make Mars seem possible," Musk said.
Whether SpaceX can pull this off is still a matter of speculation. But the possibility raises many questions. How much will the journey to Mars cost for the first colonists, and once they get there, how will they govern themselves? Will they abide by existing international laws for outer space?
How much will it cost?
Mars' first colonists will contend with unprecedented obstacles. First there's the hefty price tag. Under current conditions, Musk estimates that a trip to Mars would cost about $10 billion per person. (By comparison, NASA pays $70 million per seat to fly on a Russian spacecraft to the International Space Station). By some projections, it would cost NASA around $100 billion over 30 years to send astronauts there and bring them back. Other predictions have attached a $500 billion price tag to the trip. As of today, there isn’t a rocket in operation that can transport humans even to the moon, which is 200 times closer to Earth than Mars.
To make colonization sustainable, Musk says, would require reducing the cost to about $200,000 per person, or approximately the median cost of a house in the United States. Achieving that would involve making rockets reusable and increasing capacity and efficiency of the Mars journey. Musk estimates that SpaceX initially would need to build a fleet of about 1,000 ships, carrying 100 people, departing from Earth every 26 months to make the venture economically viable.
"The key is making this affordable to anyone who wants to go," Musk said.
Once there, colonists will have to set up a base on a planet with no life, no surface water, and an average temperature of -81 degrees Fahrenheit.
"Early Mars was a lot like Earth," Musk said during Tuesday's talk. "It's a little cold, but we could warm it up."
They will need to produce their own food, water, and breathing air while confined to a small space.
New planet, new rules?
“I think it’s a question of their survival that will determine the kind of governance they will have,” says Ram S. Jakhu, a professor at McGill University’s Centre for Research of Air and Space Law in Montreal.
Professor Jakhu is one of many scientists, lawyers, philosophers, and science fiction writers who have pondered various scenarios of human occupation of our solar system over the last several decades. Applying lessons from Earth, some scientists have proposed establishing national parks on Mars before colonists get there to protect and preserve the land. Other ideas have ranged from taxing Martian settlers on behalf of the nations of Earth, to establishing a United Nations-type of body to help resolve conflict on the red planet.
There have even been attempts at a constitution outlining basic rights unique to the inhospitable desert of Mars, such as the right to breathe.
“If somebody gets control of oxygen, they could very well have control over the whole population and could threaten dire consequences in return for extraordinary levels of power,” Charles Cockell, an astrobiologist at the University of Edinburgh, pointed out to the BBC in 2014.
Musk has hinted at a preference for "direct democracy," which would mean Martian residents would make decisions as a group instead of electing people to represent their interests in government.
James Dator, a futurist recently retired from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he taught a class on Martian governance, has explored whether self government would work on Mars. “Direct democracy is a great system," he says, "but slow when it comes to decision making.”
Many believe that colonization of Mars or the moon is inevitable, but they find the possibility of a corporation getting there before NASA or another national agency unsettling.
“I personally would hate that: turning the cosmos into a kind of billionaires’ playground,” says Kim Stanley Robinson, an acclaimed science-fiction writer. His 1990s "Mars" trilogy features a Musk-like character and explores the drama of interplanetary governance.
Dr. Robinson thinks it would be prohibitively expensive for even the wealthiest people on Earth to set up camp on the planet. “That’s why I’m thinking this is sort of a science fiction story that [Elon Musk] is telling that rarely gets examined by the media,” Robinson says. “It’s basically a hypothetical, that is a pipe dream, that isn’t true.”
But this could soon change, given that several private companies and space agencies, including China’s, are building rockets for human travel beyond low-Earth orbit. During his presentation, Musk envisioned funding the Mars project through some form of public-private partnership, with SpaceX generating income from launching satellites and doing work on the International Space Station. The company has had a formal relationship with NASA to deliver supplies to the space station since 2014.
Who will own Mars?
When humans reach the moon or Mars – whether in a couple of decades or in a century – existing international laws offer some precedent for who can lay claim to the new lands. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) is a Cold War-era law ratified by 104 countries that aims to preserve space for the benefit of humankind and to prevent real-life star wars. The US Pentagon takes that prospect very seriously. This year the agency set aside $27 billion to protect US navigation, intelligence, and communications satellites from attack in space, according to the research firm Stratfor.
According to the OST, no country can claim or occupy the moon or any other celestial body, and space exploration and use has to benefit all countries. But just last year, the US challenged that decree when President Obama signed a law allowing American companies to mine asteroids for commercial purposes.
SpaceX is not a country, so it’s unclear whether the international law would apply if it landed on Mars first. Already this ostensible treaty loophole has been exploited. Dennis Hope, a Nevada man, has sold parcels of land on the moon and other planets to nearly 4 million people through his extraterrestrial real estate company Lunar Embassy, according to a 2009 National Geographic report. Mr. Hope claims the OST doesn’t apply to individuals, though the United Nations says it does.
The moon, Hope told National Geographic at the time, “is just another continent across a different kind of sea." As such, Earthly laws could help manage the unclaimed land there and on Mars. The Antarctic Treaty System, for instance, is a set of rules that prohibit national claims to the land around the South Pole, an area of the globe that has been used mostly for science.
But Jacob Haqq-Misra, a research scientist from Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, a Seattle-based think-tank, argues that we shouldn't rely on Earth-based ideas on Mars. Colonizing the planet offers a laboratory for trying something unprecedented, he says.
“Let’s define [Mars] as a new planet, not as an extension of Earth’s civilization,” he says. “The purpose is to try to start from the beginning.”