Works in Progress - Autumn 2015

To Mars and Beyond

Five questions about the future of space colonization.

By Stephen L. Petranek | September 7, 2015



The technology to reach Mars has existed for three decades, and writer Stephen L. Petranek predicts humans will get there in just over a decade from now. In his new book, How We’ll Live on Mars, Petranek, a former editor of Discover magazine, describes the major players in the race to Mars: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and the Dutch company Mars One. We asked Petranek to pose five questions about the future of space colonization.

1. In 2006, Discover magazine published a story on Elon Musk’s new private rocket company, which had a singular mission—to put humans on Mars. No fewer than 40 engineers, scientists, and administrators at NASA, the Jet Propulsion Lab, and the Goddard Space Flight Center called to say I had lost my mind. No one could start from scratch and build a successful rocket, they said; only nations had such resources, and very few nations at that. Today, Musk’s company, SpaceX, can do something even NASA can no longer do: launch a human being into orbit. Musk’s resupply vehicles for the International Space Station, which can already accommodate humans, are scheduled to go there in 2017. And SpaceX can launch satellites into orbit more cheaply than even the Russians. Now Musk is telling us he will put humans on Mars in 2025 or 2027, and that he will build as many as 1,000 Mars colonizer spaceships that can accommodate 80 to 100 people each. He predicts that SpaceX will begin sending thousands of people to Mars as early as 2030, and by 2050 he intends to send all 1,000 ships at once, carrying a total of 80,000 people. This is the same person who was told no one could build a good electric automobile for at least another 50 years, but whose Tesla Model S electric is considered by Consumer Reports to be the best automobile ever produced. Why is it so difficult for the public and the media to accept the new reality in space that Elon Musk is very likely to create?

2. Although the odds are small (about one in 700,000) that on any given day the Earth will collide with a massive asteroid, the probability that it will eventually happen—as it did 65 million years ago in the age of the dinosaurs—approaches 100 percent. Humans, as a species, are not likely to survive such a collision, but we now have the technology to alter the course of an asteroid heading our way. We can only do it, though, if that technology is designed, deployed, and ready to launch. A defensive strategy—for example, spray-painting one side of the asteroid so that the power of the Sun’s photons alters its trajectory, or landing on it and firing a small rocket engine to change its course—would cost about $2 billion, the price of a single bomber. Why haven’t we started to create this insurance policy?

3. In the 1960s, NASA’s budget was nearly five percent of our federal budget. The U.S. space program gave us solar panels and MRI scans and inspired two generations of citizens to become fascinated by science and engineering, which is arguably the driving force behind our technological superiority among nations. Today, NASA scrapes by, still doing remarkable things with rovers and probes, on less than half of one percent of the federal budget. How can we help more Americans understand the value NASA has for our advancement?

4. Living on Mars will be very difficult until we begin “terraforming” the planet and making it warmer. The environment we will face is far harsher than that of Antarctica. People will have to live underground to avoid radiation, and even so, exposure to radiation from cosmic rays will mean they will live shorter lives on Mars. Their diet will consist largely of freeze-dried food sent from Earth, and they will have to make all their oxygen.

Yet we know that thousands of people would eagerly climb aboard a spaceship bound for the Red Planet tomorrow. Homo sapiens left Africa as early as 100,000 years ago and then slowly but surely explored and settled just beyond the next horizon until they occupied the entire planet. They may have moved on to locate new, more abundant sources of food, but whatever the reason, moving on assured survival. Is the desire to establish a settlement on Mars partly based on an evolutionary survival strategy that is built into our DNA?

5. The universe outside Earth’s atmosphere is regulated by an agreement signed by more than 100 nations. The “Outer Space Treaty” states that no nation is allowed to put an offensive weapon of mass destruction in Earth orbit or on the Moon. (Normal weapons are not forbidden.) It further states that no nation can own anything in space and that each nation is responsible for any damage it does there. Thus no nation can own land on Mars, which, though only about a third as big as Earth, has an equivalent land area because it lacks oceans. The treaty states that outer space, “including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” Since the treaty was ratified by nations, it may not apply to private enterprises, which are far likelier to settle and control Mars. How will landownership, laws, and enforcement be managed in settlements on Mars?

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