Colonize Mars: Can This Dream Become a Reality?

Why Mars?

Mars is the strongest candidate for colonization in our solar system. It is the most Earth-like and potentially the most habitable planet after earth. It has a moderate gravity, plenty of water and carbon dioxide. Moreover, it’s the easiest planet to get to from earth, save for Venus.

Ever since the astronauts set foot on the moon in 1969, people have wondered if we could also travel to Mars. Many organizations are engaged in extensive research to figure out exactly that. These include NASA, the Chinese space agency – CNSA, the Russian space agency, SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing.

If Elon Musk has his way, he would like to colonize Mars within the next twenty years, with dreams of the colony reaching 80,000. His corporation is already developing a spacecraft bound for mars that will carry cargo.  If it were possible to make this dream a reality, how much would it cost?

But before it this dream is materialized, we need to overcome quite a few novel ethical, political, economic, engineering, logistical and biological challenges.

Who is Elon Musk and why does he think he can get humankind to Mars?

Elon Musk has accomplished quite a bit in his 41 years. A native of South Africa, Musk is the co-founder of Tesla Motors, which designs and builds electric vehicles. He also founded PayPal, arguably the most well-known internet payment systems. However, most people will recognize him as the founder of SpaceX.

SpaceX began in 2002 and has the goal of making it possible for people to travel to and inhabit other planets. The company has already begun designing and manufacturing their own rockets. In fact, their Dragon spacecraft launched in May 2012 traveled to the International Space Station and returned safely to Earth. The Dragon spacecraft repeated this feat in October 2012; this time, however, they were carrying official National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) payload to resupply the space station. Previously, only governments have accomplished this.

The company won a $440 million contract to continue developing the Dragon spacecraft to transport people into space. It is with the knowledge gains through this partnership with NASA that SpaceX is moving forward with their plans to explore and colonize Mars. Obviously, it would not be possible to take 80,000 people to Mars right away. A smaller settlement would be required to build a habitable base for future colonists.

Musk expects the one-way tickets to Mars would cost $500,000 USD. He estimates the entire project at a cost of $36 billion and hopes to receive government funding of 0.25 or 0.05 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product to aid in building this Martian colony.

Along with traveling to the ‘red planet,’ all colonists would be expected to work. They would take equipment to build housing and to transform the planet into one that would be self-sustaining. Housing would include transparent domes, pressurized with carbon dioxide, which would make it possible to grow crops for food on the planet rather than having to send food to the colonists on a continual basis.

It takes almost 9 months to make a one-way trip to Mars. If you burn more fuel you can cut that time down to four months. Aside from the standard chemical rockets, other means of transport are also being explored. VASIMR, nuclear and photonic propulsion rockets shorten the trip to a few weeks or even days.  

SpaceX is not the only group discussing colonizing Earth’s closest neighbor. In fact, NASA’s Hundred Year Starship project is also under development and trying to raise funds. Mars One, a Dutch company, also hopes to begin colonizing Mars 2023. It appears, with at least three major pushes to colonize the planet, it might be good to start saving for the $500,000 one-way ticket now.

Downsides of this endeavor

Mars is mostly inhospitable to human life. Mars’ gravity is nearly one-third of that of Earth’s.  This microgravity can weaken astronauts’ muscles and bones. When astronauts who spend time in such conditions return to earth, it takes a considerable amount of time to recover from the ill-effects of living in a weaker gravity.

Unlike Earth, Mars does not have any radiation belts to protect its inhabitants from dangerous radiation. Additionally, its thin atmosphere allows most of it to make it to the surface. These radiations mutate DNA and cause cancer. Astronauts receiving this dosage of radiation will be at a much higher risk of dying from cancer.

We don’t have the technology required for a manned mission to Mars yet. For instance, rocket scientists will have to develop new landing mechanisms for Mars-bound spacecraft. Apollo missions relied on thrusters to land on the lunar surface because there is a much weaker gravity on the moon and no atmosphere. Mars, however, has a weak atmosphere and a stronger gravity which make it tricky to land a spacecraft with the aid of thrusters. Unfortunately, the atmosphere is not dense enough to make use of aerobraking either.

As fascinating as this dream is, it’ll cost us billions of dollars. We need a proper financial justification for colonization of Mars, which proves that the benefits outweigh risks and expenses.

Upsides of colonizing Mars

We might discover alien life. Rovers on Mars have provided us with clues to show the presence of water on the red planet. Since water is the basis of all life on earth, it might just be possible that the case is the same for Mars.

There’s a staggering amount of natural resources on planet Mars, just waiting to be harvested for profit. The raw minerals could be mined for building new settlements or even new spacecraft without relying on resources from the earth.

If we want to ensure humanity’s long-term survival, we cannot confine ourselves to Earth. There are a number of different scenarios which could lead to human extinction: meteorite impact or a large volcanic eruption, overpopulation, advanced rogue AI, nuclear apocalypse or biological warfare. The only surefire method to survive this extinction is human expansion beyond our home world.

Quotes and thoughts on colonization on Mars and other planets:

“We are all tired of being stuck on this cosmical speck with its monotonous ocean, leaden sky, and single moon that is half useless. Its possibilities are exhausted, and just as Greece became too small for the civilization of the Greeks, so it seems to me that the future glory of the human race lies in the exploration of at least the solar system!” ~ John Jacob Astor, Journey in Other Worlds: A Romance of the Future.

“To our knowledge, life exists on only one planet, Earth. If something bad happens, it’s gone. I think we should establish life on another planet—Mars in particular—but we’re not making very good progress. SpaceX is intended to make that happen.” ~ Elon Musk of SpaceX

“In time, [a Martian] colony would grow to the point of being self- sustaining. When this stage was reached, humanity would have a precious insurance policy against catastrophe at home. During the next millennium, there is a significant chance that civilization on Earth will be destroyed by an asteroid, a killer plague or a global war. A Martian colony could keep the flame of civilization and culture alive until Earth could be reverse-colonized from Mars.” ~ Paul Davies, ASU physicist, cosmologist, and astrobiologist.