Elon Musk has been talking about his plans to colonize Mars for years, most notably at a September 2016 conference in Mexico, at which he said that he would need just 40 to 100 years to create a self-sustaining civilization of 1 million people there.
At the time, he also said that an individual trip would cost around the median price for a house in the United States: $200,000. The Big Falcon Rocket is still unbuilt but is crucial to that goal, as it can carry between 100 and 200 passengers — far more than established rockets using what he calls “traditional methods.” At the time of the Mexico conference, The Verge’s Loren Grush pointed out that Musk had yet to answer some of the biggest questions about what a Mars trip would entail.
The first and biggest is that, so far, there is no plan in place to protect Mars voyagers from dying of radiation before they even get there; nor do we really even know very much about what it would entail to keep all the muscles inside a typical human body from atrophying over the course of an 80-day trip in zero gravity.
There is no plan for what the housing on Mars would look like, or what, say, would happen to an embryo if it gestated entirely in one-third gravity. We have no idea what kind of cross-contamination would result from swapping microbes between Mars and Earth, and we also don’t know if Musk is still planning to artificially raise the temperature on Mars and give it a thicker atmosphere to allow the flow of water. (At the 2016 press conference, he said he would leave many of these questions “up to the decision of the people on Mars.”)
But what we do know, without a shadow of a doubt, is that Elon Musk is a man obsessed with the highest possible peaks of human achievement, and he is also a man who talks a lot about dying.
In March 2013, he said he would be on the first trip to Mars: “I will go if I can be assured that SpaceX would go on without me ... I’ve said I want to die on Mars, just not on impact.”
In September 2016, he said it would not be smart for him to die on Mars: “I’m not really sure. I’d have to have a really good succession plan because the likelihood of death is very high.”
The same month, he turned the question away from himself and toward the broader public. “Are you prepared to die? If that’s okay, then you’re a candidate for going [to Mars],” he said in a press conference. “It would be an incredible adventure. I think it would be the most inspiring thing that I can possibly imagine. Life needs to be more than just solving problems every day. You need to wake up and be excited about the future, and be inspired, and want to live.” And die.
Elon Musk is now going to stop joking that he wants to die on Mars, he told Kara Swisher on Friday’s episode of the Recode Decode podcast.
It’s not a joke. As in, it would be so ironic, he believes, it seems almost impossible that it won’t happen. “That’s kind of the way it should go, right?” Swisher asked. “This is how Elon Musk must die! He must die landing on Mars.”
Musk agreed, and cited a belief that the more ironic something would be, the more likely it is to happen. This is a philosophy he says he learned from his friend Jonah Nolan (better known as Jonathan Nolan, writer of Memento and creator of Westworld): “He has this, like, modification of Occam’s razor where he said he thinks ‘the most ironic outcome is the most likely.’ And then I think that there’s some truth to that.” He said he also thinks the “most entertaining outcome” is the most likely, thought about it for a moment, and added, “I mean hopefully me dying on impact on Mars is not the most entertaining outcome.”
In his conversation with Swisher, Musk reiterated his plan to send SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket to Mars in 2024. But he slightly walked back the assertion — made most recently just two months ago — that this would be the first crewed mission to the Red Planet, saying now that it could be “unmanned”:
SWISHER: All right. And Mars. Last time we talked it was 2024, was it? That you talked about getting there?
MUSK: Yeah, we’re still aiming for 2024.
SWISHER: Okay. And you going? Or someone going?
MUSK: I don’t know if I will go or not. It may be just an unmanned mission, you know. I’m not sure if there’ll be people onboard or not.
But there is a Mars rendezvous opportunity, ’cause you can only do a launch to Mars roughly every two years. So around the 2024 time frame, there’s a rendezvous opportunity for Mars, which hopefully we can catch. There’s one in 2022 —
Seconds later, he said “there’s a pretty good chance” of any SpaceX rocket going to Mars in 2024, manned or unmanned, and that the company “will try”:
SWISHER: So an unmanned flight to Mars?
MUSK: Hopefully there are people on board. But I think there’s a pretty good chance of at least having an unmanned craft go to Mars. I think we will try to do this.
SWISHER: Try to do this?
Wherever the Mars mission stands, Musk is supposedly still going ahead with plans to send Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa (and several artists of his choosing) on the first private tourist trip to the moon in 2023. He has not confirmed whether he’ll be on that trip either. When this was announced in September, Musk revealed that Maezawa had paid enough for his ticket to substantially impact the development and construction of SpaceX’s still-conceptual $5 billion Big Falcon Rocket, underscoring just how much space tourism and space colonization will be the reality of the rich and the unfathomable fantasy of everyone else.
Buy a house or die on Mars? In 2018, our nationwide $1.4 trillion of student loan debt and the millennial generation’s inability to get out from under it long enough to ever buy a home or retire means that the vast majority of us will never have to answer this particular question of “Would you rather?” You will probably never be able to afford a house. On the bright side, you will probably not die on Mars.