Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of SpaceX, has laid out ambitious plans for humanity's future on Mars. At last month's International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Musk revealed new details about his Interplanetary Transport System and the possible costs of colonization.
But Mars travel is a daunting undertaking, and the conference left some lingering questions. Where would colonists live? How might they govern themselves? Are humans psychologically prepared for life on the Red Planet?
On Sunday, Musk fielded questions from space-travel enthusiasts during a Reddit AMA session meant to supplement his previous IAC address. But did he deliver?
This AMA is a techie treasure trove, filled with talk of rocket specs and new metal alloys. Musk clarified SpaceX's current refueling plan: a preliminary ship (dubbed Heart of Gold, a nod to the sci-fi novel "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy") will deliver equipment to build a propellant plant on Mars' surface, to be completed by a subsequent crewed mission.
From there, the spaceflight company would attempt to double Earth-Mars rendezvous, which are slated to occur once every 26 months, until the settlement could grow independently. According to Musk, a permanent human habitation on Mars would look a lot like the dome-based enclosures popularized in science-fiction stories and concept art.
Oh, and there will be droids, too.
“Initially, glass panes with carbon fiber frames to build geodesic domes on the surface, plus a lot of miner/tunneling droids,” Musk wrote. “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 while Musk’s session was rich in technical details, it skimped on more conceptual questions about life on Mars. One Reddit user asked the entrepreneur how Martian radiation might affect the bodies of settlers over time, but the question went unanswered.
There are psychological concerns, too. In preparation for future crewed Mars missions, astronauts must complete rigorous, year-long isolation training sessions. There would be no such requirement for civilian travelers.
“They get to miss the feeling of wind on their faces,” Gloria Leon, a University of Minnesota psychologist who advises NASA on astronaut selection, told The Christian Science Monitor in August. “They miss the smells of nature, or the smell of food cooking. On a Mars voyage, Earth will be out of view. It will be the equivalent of twilight, looking out of the porthole. So there will be boredom – monotony, really – in terms of the environment.”
Nor did Musk answer long-standing questions about the legality of space colonization. It’s still unclear what form of government future Mars colonists might adopt, or if SpaceX actually wants a say in that conversation.
"SpaceX is not a country, so it's unclear whether the international law would apply if it landed on Mars first," the Monitor’s Lonnie Shekhtman reported in September:
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.