A Two-Planet Species

When humans first landed on the moon on July 21, 1969, many people believed that we would have visited Mars before the end of the century.  However, the year 2000 came and went, and dreams of going to Mars felt no more realistic than they had in 1969.  Our species underestimated the challenges that sending humans to Mars posed.  Although we discovered several challenges that needed to be overcome with scientific and engineering ingenuity, the biggest obstacle was with government funding.  The richest country on the planet during the past four decades has been unwilling to invest the funding it would take to make us a two-planet species.  As a result, people pushing for Martian colonization are looking to private industry.  In 2012, two companies have made firm proposals with the goal to colonize Mars this century: Mars-One and SpaceX.

Mars-One

On May 31 2012, Mars-One announced plans to establish a human settlement on Mars by 2023.  This would be a one-way mission with four astronauts that would be followed every two years with more astronauts.  By 2033, they intend to have a colony of 20 people living and working on Mars.  Throughout the year Mars-One has been acquiring more donors, collaborators, and supporters.  Bas Lansdorp, co-founder and President of Mars-One shirks any suggestion that these goals are unrealistic:

“Since its conceptualizations, Mars-One has evolved from a bold idea to an ambitious but feasible plan. Just about everyone we speak to is amazed by how realistic our plan is. The next step is introducing the project to the world and securing sponsors and investors. Human exploration of Mars will be the most exciting adventure mankind has embarked upon in decades.”

— Bas Lansdorp

He also believes that going to Mars is something that will inspire us for generations to come and garner the attention of the entire planet:

“It will inspire a new generation of engineers, inventors, artists, and scientists. It will create breakthroughs in recycling, life support and solar power systems. It will create a new generation of heroes – the first explorers to go to Mars will step straight into the history books. Finally, we expect it to capture an audience of millions, culminating in several billion online spectators when the first crew lands on Mars.”

— Bas Lansdorp

In order to make this dream a reality, Lansdorp has a very clear and thorough timeline:

  • 2013: first 40 astronauts will be selected; a replica of the settlement will be built for training purposes
  • 2014: The first communication satellite will be produced
  • 2016: A supply mission will be launched during January (arriving October) with 2,500 kilograms (5,500 lb) of food in a 5 metres diameter variant of the SpaceX Dragon
  • 2018: An exploration vehicle will launch to pick the location of the settlement
  • 2021: Six additional Dragon capsules and another rover will launch with two living units, two life support units and two supply units.
  • 2022: A SpaceX Falcon Heavy will launch with the first group of four colonists.
  • 2023: The first colonists will arrive on Mars in modified Dragon capsule
  • 2025: A second group of four colonists will arrive
  • 2033: The colony will reach 20 settlers

Mars-One plans to build a global audience and fund this project with a reality television show.  This show would start filming the astronauts as they are selected and as they start to train between 2013 and 2023.  Mars-One claims that the astronauts would continue to be filmed during the journey to Mars, and during their stay on Mars.  Their hope is that a reality television show will galvanize the world to support this project.  However, Mars-One isn’t without competition.

SpaceX

Elon Musk started the company SpaceX with the long-term goal of establishing a permanent human colony on Mars.  Unlike Mars-One, there is no specific timeline, however, SpaceX has a massive financial advantage and a more ambitious proposal: a Martian colony 80,000 people strong.  There is no set date yet as to when this 80,000 people colony will be established, but their approach to colonization seems well developed.

Like Mars-One, Elon Musk envisions this project to begin with a pioneering mission of fewer than 10 individuals.  However, instead of starting a reality television show to raise the necessary funds, Musk plans on charging a $500,000 ticket price.  He believes that there are enough upper class individuals who would both be willing to go to Mars and pay the ticket price.  But a $500,000 ticket price alone will not get this project off the ground.  Musk is also looking for collaboration with the United States government.  He claims that if the United States contributes 0.25 per cent of GDP, $40 billion would be raised, which would cover the necessary equipment and operating costs.  However, it is yet to be seen whether the United States will support this venture, despite Musk’s vision:

“This is not the path to go to maximize riches. It’s a terrible risk adjusted return. But it’s gotta happen. I think that for me and a lot of people, America is a nation of explorers. I’d like to see that we’re expanding the frontier and moving things forward. Space is the final frontier and we have to make progress.”

— Elon Musk

Two-Planet Species?

So will Mars-One or SpaceX be successful?  Will they both achieve their goals?  At the moment I’m still unsure which project sounds more plausible.  To me, Mars-One still sounds too unbelievable to be true.  They came out of nowhere, and have goals that seem to be unachievable for such a new start up.  However, I obviously support their ambition and really hope they are successful.  SpaceX on the other hand seems to have a better organizational infrastructure in place, and a more realistic approach.  My concern for SpaceX is that the United States government will remain unwilling to assist in the funding of a permanent human settlement on Mars.

The Long Term

If either, or both projects are successful becoming a two-planet species may be our most important achievement to date.  Some may think that this is an over statement, but I am of the firm belief that it is remarkably foolish to remain a one-planet species.  As far as we know, there is nothing else like us in the entire universe.  We know that it took a process of biological evolution 3.5 billion years to produce an organism with the capability understanding the processes that created it, and ask what it means to exist.  It may be the case that entities with our capabilities are common throughout the universe, but I find it equally plausible given our current data to suggest that intelligent life is a very rare phenomenon.  If we make the right decisions, our species has the capability to do great things.  Think about the progress that has been made in just the past 100 years.  What will our descendants be achieving 100, 1,000, 10,000 years from now?  Becoming a two-planet species makes us a little safer.  As Carl Sagan said: “Our remote descendants […] will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of all our potential once was.  How perilous our infancy, how humble our beginnings.”  Early humans were far more vulnerable than we are today.  A large earthquake, volcano, or tsunami could have ended their existence.  Today, those events do not jeopardize our existence, but there are other natural phenomena that could easily end it.  Establishing a sustainable civilization on Mars makes us even safer.  It ensures that if anything catastrophic happens to Earth, we have another planetary civilization to help, and migrate to if necessary.  By colonizing, and eventually terraforming Mars, we also learn a great deal about how our species should best approach colonization at a larger scale.  For those reasons I hope that Mars-One and SpaceX are a success.  I hope that the world supports the reality television experience that develops around Mars-One.  And I hope that the United States government contributes the relatively small amount of GDP necessary to fund SpaceX.  For our species’ long-term good, there is no greater investment.

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About Cadell Last
Hello. I'm probably drinking coffee and reading.

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