Making it to Mars: Is SpaceX a promising answer?

By Prashansa Srivastava

The subject of life and the colonisation of Mars have been of significant interest to scientists. Even science fiction writers have played around with the subject for years. SpaceX, an American aerospace manufacturer and space transportation company, is all set to turn these voyages into reality and make humans a multi-planetary species. It’s CEO, Elon Musk, outlined his vision in a recent paper published in New Space. There, he explained and elaborated on the path to establishing a human colony on the Red Planet.

Mars: A possibility for an alternate civilisation

However, why have there been so many ardent speculations and eager fantasies about Mars? Why not Saturn or Venus or Jupiter? According to Musk, Mars, whose surface is clearly visible to us, is extremely Earth-like. It has drifting white clouds, polar ice caps, seasonally changing patterns and even a twenty-four hour day. He envisions Mars as a kind of “backup drive” for civilisation.

Musk seeks to build a fully sustainable colony on Mars in case an apocalypse strikes the Earth. The voyage will be on a massive interplanetary spaceship carrying high quantities of propellants. Although the ship will initially be launched empty, it will still need a big booster. It will then be followed by a series of tankers carrying fuel. His ultimate goal is to create a fully self-sustained civilisation of about one million people, which would take around 40–100 years.

He discusses life on Mars and the possibility of warming the planet so that it can have thick atmospheres and liquid oceans. Atmospherically, Mars is primarily composed of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, argon and a few other trace elements. Warming would make it possible for plants to grow and life to get sustained by compressing the atmosphere.

Economic hurdles on the way to Mars

Financially, SpaceX will have to overcome many obstacles in setting up a city on Mars. It is not possible to create a self-sustained civilisation if the ticket is priced $10 billion per person. Musk believes that the cost of moving to Mars should be roughly equivalent to a median house price in the United States, which amounts to nearly $200,000.

This involves the herculean task of improving the cost of trips to Mars by five million percent. SpaceX aims to achieve this by sending only those materials to Mars that are fully reusable. For example, we may buy flight tickets for cheap and travel on an aeroplane that costs $90 million. If we used each aeroplane only once, the cost per flight would be exponentially high. When similar reusability is applied to our flight to another planet, the cost of each Earth-Mars trip is also reduced.

Refilling in the orbit is an essential factor in lowering development costs and the prices of tickets. This will also reduce the susceptibility of the space transportation system to a performance shortfall. Methane has the highest reusability and the lowest cost. Building a methane-propellant plant on Mars will drive down costs and help in sending the used ships back to the Earth.

Making it there

Musk’s paper further outlines early designs of the colossal spacecraft, designed to carry the required cargo and the first settlers. Musk, however, failed to elaborate on the kind of long-term infrastructure that would keep people alive once they got there.

The effectiveness of such a journey largely depends on the efficiency of SpaceX to gather funds. Musk plans on investing personal wealth into the project along with proposing a plan for public-private partnerships.

Possibilities and pitfalls

Mars has become a sort of mythic arena onto which humans have projected their earthly ambitions and hopes. The promise of establishing a colony on another planet will help to ensure our survival as a species. Our survival on the tiny blue dot is by no means guaranteed. The possibility of some kind of a doomsday event putting an end to the Earth is high. Here, dinosaurs are a classic example. They roamed the Earth for 165 million years. Wiped out by a colossal asteroid, now only their fossils remain.

With the right technology, this trip to Mars would open the door to even greater space exploration. However, many scientists believe that the colonisation of Mars would be akin to cosmic vandalism. Past or present life on Mars is bound to be contaminated by this mission, as it indicates an inevitable misuse by humans. Instead of making humans a multi-planetary species, what we must focus on is making the Earth a sustainable multi-species planet.

 A step towards conserving our own kind

Since our planet is the only one known to inhabit life, destruction of this planet could mark an end to all life in the known universe. Putting humans on more than one planet would ensure our existence for thousands or millions of years from now.

Further, it’s impossible to predict how the cutting-edge technologies that would be used to develop manned missions to Mars, might benefit other fields like medicine or agriculture. The discovery of life on Mars may also hold promises of spectacular proportions such as interplanetary commerce and exchange!

Mars may be teeming with life but it is still mysterious to humans. A step towards exploring the unknown will not only push the limits of space exploration but also embolden humans to look beyond the familiar to secure their future.

Featured Image Credits: NASA