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.