Why Would You Want to Die on Mars?

SpaceX just hit an impres­sive new mile­stone with its lat­est rock­et launch. Last week, the com­pa­ny launched a satel­lite into orbit and suc­cess­ful­ly land­ed its big first stage on a drone barge in the Atlantic ocean — itself an impres­sive feat that now has the com­fort­ing feel­ing of rou­tine­ness. But the rock­et was most­ly reused from an ear­li­er, sim­i­lar­ly suc­cess­ful launch. My teeth nor­mal­ly grind at the self-con­grat­u­la­tion, but Elon Musk deserves to gloat over this.

Blue Ori­gin was the first com­pa­ny to launch a reused rock­et, though not for a com­mer­cial launch (they also are work­ing on a nifty engine they plan to license out to oth­er space­flight com­pa­nies to end our reliance on Russ­ian-made rock­et engines). This means there is a lot of com­pe­ti­tion now for build­ing reusable rock­ets, a devel­op­ment poised to dra­mat­i­cal­ly low­er the cost of space­flight in the future.

Right now, rock­ets are still incred­i­bly expen­sive: a sin­gle SpaceX Falcon‑9 rock­et costs a min­i­mum of $60 mil­lion to build, and that does not include the expense of the high-pre­ci­sion tech­nol­o­gy need­ed for a com­mer­cial­ly viable satel­lite. That’s on the cheap end. The Fal­con 9 has its design iter­at­ed so often it is hard to call it a sta­ble design, but the more reli­able launch­er fam­i­lies — Delta IV and Atlas V — cost much, much more per launch ($109 mil­lion for an Atlas V rock­et).

That being said, Space X is the sub­ject of slav­ish press cov­er­age, which leads to the next point: whether this means any­thing. While the reusabil­i­ty of a Falcon‑9 first stage is excit­ing, the fact remains that a lot of the promise of SpaceX remains just that: a promise. SpaceX offers the­o­ret­i­cal­ly great fea­tures, but right now it func­tions more like an inter­est­ing thought exper­i­ment with tons of vari­ables, rather than a proven method of get­ting things into orbit.

One of those promis­es, Elon Musk’s grandiose vision for col­o­niz­ing Mars, is a great exam­ple. He launched the idea with a glitzy CGI video last year, but details on how it would actu­al­ly work remain slim. Part of that is Musk’s famous habit of over­promis­ing and under-deliv­er­ing far behind sched­ule — the Fal­con Heavy launch vehi­cle is years behind sched­ule, as is the Dragon2 manned cap­sule. But the oth­er half is more basic: sur­viv­abil­i­ty, reli­a­bil­i­ty, and fea­si­bil­i­ty.

There are fun­da­men­tal ques­tions that nev­er get dis­cussed much when dis­cussing a one-way trip to Mars. Musk famous­ly said he wants to die on the Red Plan­et, but why would any­one else? In his pre­sen­ta­tion on Mars, Musk essen­tial­ly hand-waved away cru­cial prob­lems like radi­a­tion expo­sure, micro­grav­i­ty, and long-term hab­it­abil­i­ty in a closed sys­tem, two prob­lems decades of research and bil­lions of dol­lars of devel­op­ment have not yet solved. Why would some­one else trust a man who is so cav­a­lier about safe­ty con­cerns with their life? Obvi­ous­ly two very wealthy peo­ple have decid­ed to go for the risky Moon­shot on an untest­ed space­craft, but that does­n’t make them espe­cial­ly smart — just wealthy, and prob­a­bly hun­gry for pub­lic­i­ty (Neil de Grasse Tyson joked about this in a recent Red­dit AMA).

Dur­ing the Cold War, we looked at dar­ing test pilots and ear­ly astro­nauts risk­ing their lives to advance sci­ence and the fron­tiers of human exis­tence with awe. But that isn’t what is at stake any­more. Risk­ing one’s life to go on an explo­ration trip to Mars is sen­si­ble, laud­able, and appro­pri­ate — but the psy­chol­o­gy of want­i­ng to die on Mars is some­thing that should spark con­cern, not admi­ra­tion.

Put aside all of the many dif­fi­cult, untest­ed ques­tions inher­ent to such a mis­sion (since we have no idea if the water on Mars is eas­i­ly fil­tered for con­sump­tion, if there are suf­fi­cient mate­ri­als for in-situ uti­liza­tion, if any­thing will grow in its soil, and so on and so on). At a basic, human lev­el, the escapism inher­ent to such a mind­set sure­ly invites exam­i­na­tion.

It prob­a­bly is not a coin­ci­dence that the pub­lic mania for mov­ing per­ma­nent­ly to Mars is peak­ing at the same time the glob­al advance of author­i­tar­i­an­ism. The world cer­tain­ly seems to be falling off a cliff, polit­i­cal­ly, and that makes escap­ing the world very appeal­ing.

But this is a trap: democ­ra­cy on Mars would almost cer­tain­ly be impos­si­ble, at least for gen­er­a­tions. The eco­nom­ics of col­o­niz­ing space make absolute­ly no sense, and giv­en the tight resource con­straints the major­i­ty of activ­i­ty on a Mar­t­ian colony would be devot­ed to sim­ply being able to breathe and eat (and clean, since you don’t want pathogens rag­ing out of con­trol in a closed envi­ron­ment). It is dif­fi­cult to see how one orga­nizes a labor force devot­ed to basic sur­vival to an extent nev­er before seen in our his­to­ry while still main­tain­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic and free.

The false utopi­anism of space col­o­niza­tion is a stark con­trast with the real ben­e­fits of research sta­tions and explo­ration trips. A SpaceX-brand­ed space colony is not going to be filled with sci­en­tists, it is going to be filled with poor sops who emp­tied their life sav­ings to go into space (the hyper­wealthy sim­ply will not give up their accu­mu­lat­ed bil­lions to go live in a box far away). Unlike an out­right deci­sion to kill one­self, a trip to Mars, even a months-long stay, sounds great. There is a pow­er­ful case to be made for the sort of well-researched sci­en­tif­ic explo­ration-with-a-mar­gin-of-error that NASA focus­es on, but those mis­sions are too sober and slow mov­ing for an impa­tient pub­lic that wants to live in Star Trek right now.

A cou­ple of years ago, I spec­u­lat­ed about why the fun­da­men­tal ques­tions of build­ing author­i­tar­i­an com­mu­nis­tic soci­eties in space was so appeal­ing to the world’s wealthy:

…one rea­son wealthy tech-types like Musk don’t real­ly think about any of these things (pol­i­tics, admin­is­tra­tion, or even blue col­lar jobs) is because they live in a closed off bub­ble where all of the many ser­vices that make up our dai­ly exis­tence in soci­ety are so well designed and inte­grat­ed that they are effec­tive­ly invis­i­ble.

This prob­a­bly applies more broad­ly to peo­ple who dream of liv­ing in these places — they won’t be the ones pick­ing up trash or clean­ing the sep­tic tank, because they’re spe­cial and can’t be both­ered with it. Iron­i­cal­ly, it is an atti­tude that mir­rors the burn-it-down wing of the vot­ers who sup­port­ed Don­ald Trump: sure, let us dis­man­tle the gov­ern­ment, because it won’t affect me, just those dirty gross peo­ple I dis­like (which is, hel­lo). Oh, and Elon Musk is rather proud­ly serv­ing as an advis­er to Pres­i­dent Trump, so there’s a bit of syn­chronic­i­ty there, too.

It is hard to escape the con­clu­sion that these big pres­tige projects are sim­ply exer­cis­es in ego (and mar­ket­ing, some­thing where Musk is a Steve Jobs-like mas­ter). The peo­ple who want to col­o­nize Mars assume they’ll be famous for doing so, and that their deeds and words will be remem­bered. But who remem­bers the peo­ple who died at San Miguel de Gual­dape, a Span­ish colony found­ed in 1526 in mod­ern-day Geor­gia? (A lot of 16th cen­tu­ry Span­ish colonies in the Amer­i­c­as, like Fort San Juan in west­ern North Car­oli­na, sim­ply died out.) These colonies are seen more as lessons to be avoid­ed, not exam­ples to fol­low, yet their lessons — which encom­pass know­ing the land you are set­tling, learn­ing how to actu­al­ly sur­vive on it, and mak­ing sure you have an escape if some­thing goes wrong — are sim­ply miss­ing in the Mars dis­cus­sion.

Big, dan­ger­ous ego mis­sions pose a risk to sober mind­ed, sci­ence and explo­ration mis­sions. The biggest risk to the high-con­cept plans to cos­play Star Trek in the real world is not nec­es­sar­i­ly to the peo­ple who per­son­al­ly assume risk, but to the big­ger prospect of actu­al­ly build­ing a sus­tain­able pres­ence in space. That is some­thing that takes care­ful plan­ning, years of research, and enough flex­i­bil­i­ty to allow for changes after launch — some­thing that is a very long ways off. Sim­ply leap­ing into the void for the hell of it might turn off the pub­lic to these more nec­es­sary pro­grams devot­ed to under­stand­ing our place in the uni­verse and how it func­tions.

Last­ly, the urge to escape, rather than to fix, our plan­et is the assump­tion lying under­neath all of these dis­cus­sions. Essen­tial­ly declar­ing Earth a lost cause in the hope that a dif­fer­ent, less hab­it­able plan­et will be bet­ter, is a depress­ing vote of no-con­fi­dence in our species. But who knows, maybe that is the point.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.