Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to Mars we go


SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk made a splash at the International Astronautical Conference in Mexico with his plans for an interplanetary transport system, along with a disturbingly inspirational ultimatum.

“There are really two fundamental paths. One path is we stay on Earth forever and there will be some eventual extinction event … The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilisation and a multiplanet species, which, I hope you would agree, is the right way to go.”

Unless we slip the surly bonds of Earth, humankind is doomed. The only alternative is to colonise Mars.

Musk’s plans for a giant 42-engine rocket leave little doubt that we will one day have the technology to send humans to the Red Planet.

Artistic renderings of space colonies depict plexiglass domes full of green plants and grow lights. But even if we develop the technology to build pressurised hamster balls, it needs to be recreated on Mars.

The average temperature on Mars is –26.6°C. Even during the warmest part of the year, temperatures reach a high of 20° near the equator and still fall to –37.7°C at night. Without the dense atmosphere of Earth, temperatures can fluctuate dramatically, causing powerful dust storms that shroud the entire planet.

Also unlike Earth, Mars doesn’t have a global magnetic field. Combined with the thin atmosphere, there isn’t much to shield its inhabitants from the gigantic nuclear reactor that is our sun. Surface conditions on Mars are comparable to life near Chernobyl in the late 1980s, and no amount of suntan lotion will protect humans from the deep-space radiation burn. That is, we can expect to live in underground burrows, like rabbits.

The expected price for a ticket to paradise? Early trips might go for as much as $10-billion a seat, but Musk envisions an eventual one-way fare of $200 000.

“I think that Mars is gonna be a great place to go,” Musk says. “It will be the planet of opportunity.”

During the Age of Exploration, a large number of immigrants to colonial North America were dragged there as slaves. During the 1700s, only a quarter of American immigrants arrived with their freedom. Those who came voluntarily did so largely to escape religious persecution.

After the American Revolution, the story repeated itself in Australia. Most early colonists in the New World died of disease or starvation in the foreign climate.

At best, Mars will be the destination of the tired, the poor and the marginalised. Which means SpaceX will need to reduce the ticket price drastically or come up with a financing programme more palatable than indentured servitude.

Perhaps, after a few centuries of development and inevitable lost lives, the planet can plausibly become a destination for wealthy libertarians. — Bloomberg

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg’s and its owners’.

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