‘History suggests some doomsday prophecy will happen.’
The words, uttered softly, ominously, seemed to hang above the heads of the hushed crowd. Yet the dead silence slowly gave way to gasps of awe as the speaker revealed his grand solution: a simple trip to Mars. On September 27th, Mr. Elon Musk revealed his revolutionary Interplanetary Transport System, the spaceflight system that would reduce the price of traveling to Mars from ten billion to merely two hundred thousand dollars per person. This stunning reduction in price will be made possible due to three key innovations. First is a super heavy-lift vehicle that will take a reusable spacecraft into orbit using a reusable booster. The ability to re-use both parts of this vehicle is crucial to saving money. Secondly is the ability to refuel in orbit, which greatly reduces fuel costs, as most fuel is consumed when trying to escape Earth’s gravitational field. Lastly is the spacecraft being powered by methane and oxygen, which are possible to produce on Mars, meaning it can be refueled away from Earth. Musk’s goal, to make spaceflight accessible to the average consumer, is very noble, yet his plan is merely getting people to Mars, not helping them inhabit it. So the question remains, what would a martian colony look like?
The initial colonization of Mars will require immediate access to the following vital resources: energy, water, oxygen, food and shelter. The most crucial of these resources would be shelter, as the average surface temperature of Mars is -55 degrees celsius, and the atmosphere allows in an instantly fatal amount of solar radiation. Tim Urban, writer and editor of waitbutwhy.com envisions this shelter as a ‘fishbowl’ for humans, sheltering us on Mars much like a fishbowl does a fish on land. Up to the point of shelter completion, oxygen will have to be derived from Earth’s reserves. Once the shelter is complete, the lack of oxygen can be readily tackled with the carbon dioxide available on Mars through planting of vegetation. The plants, and indeed our pressing need for water, will have to be dealt with using the same resource; extracting water from the significant frozen reserves found on Mars. Moreover, the plants themselves can then become a food source. Finally, according to Musk himself, the energy will primarily have to be solar – which is one way Mars’ thin, flimsy excuse for an atmosphere can be useful, as the absurd amount of radiation can be converted to power.
The experiences of the initial colonists, living in these little Martian bubbles, will be isolation, a far cry from glamorous civilization many watching Musk’s presentation were envisioning, with access to much of Mars impossible. However, these colonists will have the essential role of making the entire surface of the red planet hospitable, which will be possible through a process known as terraforming. Terraforming is the process of changing the conditions of an extraterrestrial body to that of Earth. On Mars, this would be a three-step process. Initially, the ice caps would have to be melted enough to release some of the carbon dioxide trapped under them (it may itself exist as dry ice, and thus have to be heated up). Once enough carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are released, they will begin a chain reaction by heating up the planet enough to melt more ice, thus again, releasing more gas. This process would result in the creation of both a denser atmosphere and oceans. Now, plants could begin to be planted outside, where the soil (which would be close to Earth’s), water, and carbon dioxide could allow them to grow. Finally, these plants will begin to produce oxygen, and this can be continued until the air on Mars is breathable.
However up until now, we have only covered the conditions necessary for human survival, not for human civilization. A paradox arises from this situation, due to the fact that our current national governments will have no interest in attempting to colonize Mars – it is of absolutely no benefit to their citizens. Consequently, the colonization process for Mars will have to be private enterprise. A company or several, similar to SpaceX, which is responsible for transportation of people, will have to be responsible for all the aspects of Martian survival. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 stipulates that no country may claim sovereignty over extra-terrestrial land, as it belongs to all of humanity. However it does not address private ownership. Regardless of whether or not the company is allowed to keep the land, the legal questions that arise are incredibly complex. If the company is not allowed to keep it, which body will establish jurisdiction over the project? It could not possibly be any national ones due to the 1967 Treaty. However, if the company is allowed to keep that land, is it responsible for dictating the laws and regulations that will govern life on Mars? Such a concept, where a private enterprise would have to establish a legal system, would be historically unprecedented. The catch-22 between the necessity for private enterprise to develop space exploration and the legal consequences that this will ultimately have on any space-related enterprise is one that will challenge many aspects of the industry.
Resources themselves will eventually be managed by a free-market economy that develops on Mars. Different corporations will send representatives to mars to purchase its most abundantly available resource: land. The initial martian economy will be primarily agrarian, until enough food is produced to sustain a sizable population. Eventually, a strong manufacturing industry can develop on the planet, due the presence of metal ores such as lead, steel and silver. Finally, due to further technological advancements by the time colonization of Mars is completed, a strong service economy can also develop. Land for residential use will probably have to be reserved by the corporation responsible for terraformation, as corporations will initially price them out. The presence of people will be necessary for the consumption of the goods generated on Mars, as well as for the development of them as corporate employees. Alternatively, the industrial corporations could themselves reserve land for their employees. Moreover, the unique physical and chemical conditions available on Mars provide a great opportunity to conduct scientific research.
Ultimately, regardless of what questions we pose and how we pose them, it is inevitable that we will continue to push towards Mars. As our population continues to increase, the demand for resources will continue to mount. Outer space contains just the er… space as well as the other resources we need to meet this demand. In unveiling his scheme, what Musk has done is bring the exploration of Mars to the forefront of every person’s mind, which will expedite the colonization process as more companies scramble to join the race. It would be foolish to bet against Musk’s grand design, and not just because the man is regarded as one of humanity’s foremost inventors. No, it would be foolish to bet against Musk’s plan because our species has shown time and time again our limitless capability and determination to innovate, constantly making today’s impossibility into tomorrow’s reality.