Daring. Crazy. Visionary. A colony on Mars

Red planet: an artist’s impression of a spacecraft landing on Mars. © SpaceX

A billionaire inventor has announced detailed plans to establish a colony on Mars. The risk of death will be ‘high’. But for our species to survive, he says, we must become ‘interplanetary’.

The event felt like an Apple product launch, or even a rock concert. After years of talking about sending people to Mars, Elon Musk was finally going to give some details.

Musk has strong claims to be taken seriously. He has run successful businesses which have made him, by the age of 45, the 83rd richest person in the world. Among other things, he is CEO of the electric car company Tesla.

Humanity has two options, he began: stay on Earth and wait for an ‘extinction event’, or become a ‘spacefaring civilisation’. Clearly, the latter is preferable, so he and his team at SpaceX have been trying to make it happen.

A large spaceship attached to an even larger rocket will travel to Mars and deposit its 100–200 passengers on the planet’s surface. Initially the trip will take some 150 days, then later 30 — but it will not be ‘boring or cramped’. Passengers can enjoy zero-G games, movies and a restaurant.

Musk says the first of these trips will be in 2022. They can only happen every 26 months, but eventually there will be thousands at once for just £200,000 per person. To colonise the planet, they will also have to send ‘everything from iron foundries to pizza joints’.

Musk’s fans were entranced by his vision, but many scientists are sceptical. ‘Possible but not probable,’ said one; ‘bonkers’ said others.

But then, Galileo was pilloried for declaring that the Earth moved around the Sun. His fellow scientists refused to look through his telescope, claiming he had bewitched them. Four hundred years later, the Wright brothers announced they had invented a flying machine, and were quickly branded ‘the lying brothers’.

And in 1933 a scientist called Fritz Zwicky — ‘Crazy Fritz’ to his colleagues — insisted that most mass in the universe came from an unknown source. No one believed him but today ‘dark matter’ is one of the most studied areas of physics.

So should we try harder to avoid dismissing ideas that sound a little ‘unusual’?

Giant leaps

No, say some. There are famous exceptions, but most ‘revolutionary’ ideas turn out to be wrong. We must be sceptical of the things that self-declared visionaries tell us, or we will be fooled into believing almost anything. If they prove us wrong later, good for them. But let us not forget to take Elon Musk’s words with a very large pinch of salt.

Lighten up, say others. It is far better to be open minded about interesting new ideas which challenge our expectations and stretch our imagination. Even if they do not work in the end, we will still have learned something in the process. The worst we can do is close ourselves off to the people who dare to think differently. Instead, why not reach for the stars?

You Decide

  1. Would you like to help create a new society on Mars?
  2. Is it better to be sceptical of new ideas, or open-minded about their chances of success?

Activities

  1. It is 2032. You have arrived at the Musk colony on Mars, which is just ten years old. Write a diary of what happens next.
  2. Under Become An Expert is a list of scientists whose ideas were dismissed as ridiculous and implausible, but who were later vindicated. Choose one and write a short presentation which explains their ideas.

Some People Say...

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

Arthur Schopenhauer

What do you think?

Q & A

Why is anyone taking Musk seriously?
His plans are ambitious, and there are many, many problems to overcome. But SpaceX has been successful in the past: it has managed to land six rockets when they returned from space (although earlier this month one did explode at launch). NASA has also given it a $1.6bn contract to service the International Space Station.
Okay, so if I decided to go to Mars… what then?
Establishing the colony would be an extremely tricky business. There are the small matters of breathing air which is 100 times thinner than Earth’s, finding water, growing food. But, perhaps even more interestingly, the pioneers must decide what they want their new society to look like. Would it mimic democracies or dictatorships on Earth? Or would they try something new?

Word Watch

SpaceX
One of Elon Musk’s many companies, and almost certainly his favourite: ‘The reason I am personally accruing assets is to fund this. I really have no other purpose than to make life interplanetary.’
Large
Together, the rocket and the spaceship will be 122 metres tall — about the height of a 38-storey skyscraper.
Zero-G
Zero gravity. At the International Space Station, for example, Tim Peake played ‘water ping pong’.
26 months
This is the point at which Earth and Mars are closest together.
£200,000
Currently it would cost around ‘$10bn per person’, says Musk, so he will have to improve the cost by ‘five million per cent.’ He admitted this will be ‘tricky’.
Galileo
Galileo Galilei built his first telescope in 1609, and was eventually put on trial for his insistence that the Earth was not at the centre of the universe.
The Wright brothers
The American brothers flew the world’s first aeroplane in 1903, but they were ignored by the US media. When they arrived in Europe, they became instant heroes.
Dark matter
Invisible dark matter and dark energy make up around 95% of the universe.

Subjects

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