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Elon Musk’s Mars base visions are fundamentally flawed

Elon Musk’s Mars base visions are fundamentally flawed

Elon Musk’s Mars base visions are fundamentally flawed
February 10
13:00 2023

Few people shape our perceptions of the future like Elon Musk. Through companies like SpaceX and Tesla, he’s presented an optimistic vision for the technologies of tomorrow and endeared himself to millions. Out of all his stated goals, one stands out in particular creating a permanent base on Mars. 

Musk appears to care deeply about this. He’s regularly discussed his goals with the media, spoke at the Mars Society conference in 2020, and even said in 2014 that his purpose behind creating SpaceX was to develop technologies necessary for “a self-sustaining, permanent base on Mars.” The idea is a central part of his brand of futurism, and it’s easily his most ambitious proposal.

However, those goals fall apart when faced with reality. Creating a Martian colony would be highly challenging and unnecessarily expensive.

To discuss why let’s start with an obvious factor: space is big. On average, Mars is 140 million miles away from Earth, a distance that takes light and radio signals over 12 minutes to cover. Under ideal circumstances, rockets take nine long months to complete this journey.

However, even that ideal transfer window only occurs for 30 days every 26 months. Outside that window, rockets need substantially reduced payloads to allow for higher fuel loads. For a permanent settlement, this is highly impractical.

We also have to consider the substantial environmental and health risks of living on Mars. The thin atmosphere and extremely low temperatures would require expensive and complex life support systems. The Martian soil is toxic and unsuitable for crop growth, and the low surface gravity would have major long-term effects on colonists’ bodies.

Perhaps the biggest hazard on Mars is radiation. Without the Earth’s magnetic field or ozone layer to protect them, Martian colonists would be exposed to dangerous cosmic rays, substantially increasing cancer risks. 

Admittedly, radiation doses could be lessened by building shelters underground with few or no windows. However, confining stressed colonists to cramped quarters that are isolated from almost all of humanity could cause the colonists mental strain. Combined with the difficulties of maintaining the colony, psychological breakdowns would be inevitable for the colonists.

In Antarctica, researchers enduring the continent’s brutal winters often develop “winter-over syndrome,” with symptoms including depression, insomnia, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and aggression. Even then, Antarctica has a breathable atmosphere and relative proximity to civilization. Mars lacks both, so living there would be even more miserable.

Between research, development, transportation, equipment and construction costs, colonization would also be highly expensive. Musk estimated a total cost between $100 billion and $10 trillion, but even the higher figure might be too optimistic. 

SpaceNews magazine estimated a cost of $1.5 trillion for just nine manned missions to Mars. Meanwhile, establishing a colony would require dozens, if not hundreds, of missions. Musk himself proposed launching 1000  heavy rockets in each transfer window, which would make the mission even more costly.

There’s also no good reason to spend all that money. Mars has few natural resources to harvest, but even if it did, shipping them back to Earth would be prohibitively expensive. Our current rovers and landers can create scientific advancements while being substantially cheaper, safer, and easier to operate than manned missions.

Musk says colonizing Mars would make humanity a “multi-planet species” so that cataclysms on Earth don’t lead to our extinction. As he said at South by Southwest in 2018, “If there’s a third world war, we want to make sure there’s enough of a seed of human civilization somewhere else to bring it back and shorten the length of the dark ages.” 

However, there’s a better way to achieve this: building a moon base. While a lunar colony would face similar environmental challenges and health risks, the moon is much closer to us, and the technologies for getting people there are tried and tested. This would reduce travel times to three days, bring communication delays down to three seconds, and lower startup costs to between $10 billion and $35 billion

The lower distance would also substantially decrease transit costs, allowing the base to turn a profit. A lunar colony could financially sustain itself with new potential industries, such as space tourism, low gravity manufacturing, and mining the moon’s substantial natural resources.

It’s easy to see why Musk is so enthusiastic about colonizing Mars. Humans, by nature, have a thirst for exploration and a willingness to adapt to new circumstances. For someone like Musk, who wants to sell us on their visions of the future, the red planet is the ultimate manifestation of that desire. However, even with modern technology, his ambitions exceed his capabilities.

Maybe someday in the far future, technology will advance enough to make Mars colonization feasible, but for the time being, that thirst for exploration will have to go unfulfilled.

Featured Illustration by Isabella Isquierdo

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Ian Cropper

Ian Cropper

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