Colonizing Mars. Sci-fi authors fantasize about it. Scientists theorize about it. And the public believes it to be a prospect that is several hundred years away from taking place, if it ever even happens in the first place.
Elon Musk wants to change this trend of thinking. The famous billionaire, entrepreneur and space enthusiast started his company SpaceX with the specific intention of bringing commercial players into the aerospace field in a bid to speed up the process of colonizing space, starting with Mars.
So, what are the reasons?
The reasons behind SpaceX’s determination to go to Mars have been spelled out many times. Elon Musk has been quoted as saying that his dream is to see the human race become a spacefaring civilization and a multi-planet species, since that is the only way to ensure humans don’t go extinct.
This threat of extinction has been the subject of many discussions among astronomers and anthropologists. It has long been realized that there is a very real possibility of a comet or asteroid from space striking Earth and wiping out all life as we know it, in much the same manner of disaster that led to the extinction of dinosaurs.
In order to avoid such an occurrence, the idea was put forth in the last century that humans must move on to other planets throughout the galaxy to increase their chances of surviving such a planet-destroying tragedy.
It comes at a price
Unfortunately, government funded space programs operate at a snail’s pace, battling low budgets, political indifference and a public that often thinks money allocated for space research would be better used in Earth-based research relating to medicine, food, transport etc.
Mr. Musk claimed to be dissatisfied with NASA’s priorities and pace of work, and founded SpaceX as the commercial alternative that would bring in players from private sectors, infusing cash and a willing workforce into the field of aerospace research.
Mars is seen as the first frontier of space colonization. The red planet is close to Earth, similar in size and composition, and had long ago been earmarked as the planet that offers the best chance of creating an Earth-like atmosphere that can sustain human civilization.
While the planet appears dry and lifeless at this time, it is hoped that farming practices and a careful terraforming of its surface would lead to the creation of a life-sustaining atmosphere, while the vast reserves of water that have been speculated to lie beneath the planet’s surface will prove an invaluable asset during the colonization process.
The fun begins
Now comes the practical reality of finding a way to send large groups of humans to Mars to begin the colonization process. As of now, no rocket is capable of carrying such heavy loads to mars, but SpaceX is working on the problem.
There are three main aspects to the question of building such a rocket. It will need a giant engine. It will need a giant transporter, and most importantly, it will need giant piles of money to get the machine made.
At current rates, the cost of sending a single person to Mars in the spaceship that SpaceX is building has been estimated to be greater than 10 billion dollars. But Musk insists the price will go down considerably once the company brings in more investors from private and government sectors from all over the world.
It is hoped that, once the technology becomes more accessible, the cost of a trip to Mars could be as little as a $100,000.
SpaceX has already created plans for the spaceship, an interplanetary transport system (ITS) which will combine the most powerful rocket ever created with a giant spaceship capable of carrying hundreds of people into space.
The most significant fact about this new ITS design is that it allows for reusability, meaning the same machine can be used for multiple trips, which will dramatically reduce the cost of the spaceship and bring in more investors once the vehicle has been tested and proven, and space travel becomes a regular occurrence instead of a one-off project.
As of now, SpaceX’s plans are described by the scientific community as ambitious but vague. Several important questions about the Mars exodus are yet to be answered satisfactorily.
How will passengers be protected against the massive levels of potentially deadly radiation the spaceship will encounter on its way to Mars? How will passengers stand the effects of micro-gravity while aboard a spaceship for more than two months, without succumbing to the horrors of muscle atrophy, reduced bone density, and even blindness?
How will a small group of explorers terraform an entire planet, and what kind of social structure will need to be put in place in the very early days of forming a Mars colony? All these questions and more will need to be answered before SpaceX’s goal of colonizing Mars goes from being an ambitious project to a glorious reality.