Musk's Mars colonization plan: Time to get real?

On Tuesday, SpaceX founder Elon Musk is expected to unveil technical plans to colonize Mars. But will his approach square with international standards?

Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP/File
In this 2015 file photo, Elon Musk speaks at a California product launch for Tesla Motors. Musk, who also heads SpaceX, is expected to reveal his Mars colonization plans at a conference on Tuesday.

SpaceX has one goal that supersedes the rest: to make humanity a “multiplanetary species.”

After 14 years, Elon Musk might finally explain how. On Tuesday, the SpaceX founder will deliver a keynote address at the International Astronautical Congress, an annual convention held in Guadalajara, Mexico. The speech will outline the technical details of Mr. Musk’s ambitious master plan – which is, of course, to colonize Mars within the next few decades.

But the entrepreneur’s rapid-fire approach to progress has been criticized before. Will the SpaceX plan square with international standards of space travel, or will it embody Musk’s freewheeling spirit?

In its 58-year history, NASA has only briefly considered settling people on other planets. In 1977, the agency published a comprehensive – if theoretical – report addressing the technical, economic, and sociological challenges to such a settlement. But exploration soon overtook colonization as NASA’s main priority.

“I don’t think it’s a lack of vision on the part of NASA,” Ram Jakhu, the director of the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University, in Montreal, tells The Christian Science Monitor. “For NASA, the vision is determined by the government. Why did the US go to the moon? Because there was a kind of political challenge from the Soviet Union. The United States’ vision is political, economic, and strategic.”

But SpaceX isn’t NASA, nor is it bound by the same red tape. NASA, which receives funding only through congressional support, must justify its initiatives to 100 senators and 435 representatives. SpaceX, by comparison, must only convince its investors of the profitability of space travel.

“By its nature, science moves at a slower pace through bureaucracy than it can move through industry,” Gloria Leon, a University of Minnesota psychologist who advises NASA on astronaut selection, tells the Monitor.

That’s why SpaceX is able to work at such a blistering speed. SpaceX hopes to send a crewed mission to Mars by 2025, some five years before NASA, using a rocket booster and a spaceship, dubbed the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). 

But there is one benefit to the bureaucratic approach: time.

The challenges to Mars colonization are complex, and there are a lot of them. How will Musk’s “Interplanetary Transport System” generate enough thrust to carry colonies to Mars? Once there, how will SpaceX provide food and water to human communities? How will scientists neutralize Mars’ toxic soil? How might radiation and decreased gravity affect the bodies of settlers?

Musk is expected to address these questions on Tuesday, but many are doubtful that he will actually be able to solve them before his company’s deadlines. Several weeks ago, one of the company's semi-reusable Falcon 9 rockets exploded during a firing test at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida – a major setback that some attributed, in part, to SpaceX's ambitious schedule. 

“I personally don’t think it’s realistic,” Dr. Leon says. “Shooting off a rocket without the rocket exploding – that is still a technical obstacle at this moment in time.”

That said, private space companies in the US still require government authorization. Most likely, SpaceX’s colonization plan will ultimately be subject to federal standards and safety precautions – even if it doesn’t meet the rigorous schedule set by Musk.

“For that, I think SpaceX has to establish its credibility and prove it has the technology before the United States will issue a license,” Dr. Jakhu says.

It’s not as though the public and private space programs have been at odds. For most of the company’s history, SpaceX has worked closely with NASA and the International Space Station. In fact, Jakhu says, it’s this kind of collaboration which drives modern space travel.

“Taxpayer money has been spent, basic technologies have been developed, research has been done and the knowledge has become quite common,” Jakhu says. “So you need the public and private sectors playing roles at different stages and at different times.”

Over the last 50 years, governments – China, Russia, Canada and so on – have laid the groundwork for prolonged space travel. Now the space agencies can focus on research, Jakhu says, and leave colonization to companies like SpaceX.

“The government has decided, and rightly so, to let the private sector to take care of this,” Jakhu says. “You need people like Mr. Musk doing these things, and he’s doing a pretty good job.”

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