Musk, the company’s CEO and chief engineer, refers to his interplanetary ambitions more like a sci-fi protagonist with a moral calling than an entrepreneur with a disruptive business plan.
But the agency has not indicated how much the latter could cost, either.
And that begs the question: Is there money to be made on Mars?
SpaceX is likely still many, many years from developing all the technology a Mars settlement would require. The company is in the early stages of developing its Starship, a massive rocket and spaceship system that Musk hopes will ferry cargo and convoys of people across the at-minimum 30 million-mile void between Earth and Mars. Musk has estimated Starship development will cost up to $10 billion, and Musk said Aug. 31 that SpaceX will look to launch “hundreds” of satellites aboard Starship before entrusting it with human lives.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” Musk said. “Good chance you’ll die, and it’s going to be tough going…It’d better be pretty glorious if it works out.”
The idea of terraforming arose from scientists who were kicking around ideas, Meyer said, but not from anyone who thought it was something humans could or should do.
“It was an intellectual exercise,” Meyer said. But there’s barely any oxygen in Mars’ atmosphere. And there’s an infinitesimally small amount of water, meaning it will be extremely difficult to grow crops, much less create a Mars-wide water cycle. It’s not even clear if there are enough resources on Mars to make terraforming possible at all.
“I think ‘Total Recall’ has the right idea,” he joked. “You’d need to use some alien technology.”
Musk has also acknowledged that terraforming will be extremely resource-intensive. But the concept is ingrained in SpaceX lore, so much so that the company sells t-shirts saying “Nuke Mars” and “Occupy Mars.”
Musk is frequently seen wearing one.
Values and valuations
There are no known resources on Mars that would be valuable enough to mine and sell back to Earthly businesses, Meyer said. “Part of the reason [scientists are] interested in Mars is — it’s pretty much made of the same stuff as Earth,” he told CNN Business.
Money-making ambitions aside, the idea that Mars could one day become home to a metropolis and — potentially — a tourist destination is acknowledged by mainstream scientists like Meyer, NASA’s lead Mars expert.
Meyer said that, 20 years ago, he attended a presentation about Mars business and tourism. “I went in pretty skeptical of this… and coming away I was thinking, ‘Well, [there are] some pretty reasonable ideas,” he said, adding that he now embraces the idea that businesspeople could make space travel more accessible.
Meyer added that, in his mind, it’s not if Mars travel will one day be a profitable venture, but when.
“Ideas may be another possible export for Martian colonists,” Zubrin, who heads the Mars Society, wrote in his oft-cited 1996 book, “The Case for Mars.”
To look towards a potential future of humanity, Zubrin looks to its past.
“Just as the labor shortage prevalent in colonial and 19th century America drove the creation of Yankee Ingenuity’s flood of inventions, so the conditions of extreme labor shortage…will tend to drive Martian ingenuity.”
In a recent interview with CNN Business, Zubrin stood by those ideas, arguing American colonization has worked. Zubrin again harkens back to the colonization of North America as an example of how would-be Mars colonists might fund their trip, either by liquidating their Earthly possessions to fund the trip or by “indentured servitude.”
“If you say, okay, you want to go to Mars, you’re going to want to offer something,” Zubrin said. “If you look at Colonial America, a middle-class person could travel to America by liquidating their farm. But, the proceeds would give them a one-way ticket. But if you are working, what you could do is sell your labor for seven years.”
Zubrin, who has worked with conservative think tanks but says he is not politically affiliated, also acknowledged that colonization can go hand-in-hand with exploitation: “If somebody says, ‘But won’t there be exploitation there?’ Well sure, that’s what people do to each other all the time.”
To be clear: The story of American colonialism also included chattel slavery and the brutalization and erasure of many native populations.
“There aren’t native Martians,” Zubrin said.
But Damien Williams — a teacher and PhD student at Virginia Tech who studies the intersection of advanced technologies, ethics and societies — warns that the stories we may tell ourselves about America and exploring outer space can leave out key context.
Musk’s use of the word “colonization” also belies a long history of Americans and other Western nations enriching themselves by exploiting and enslaving others. And when it comes to colonizing another planet, it’s not just the microbial lifeforms that may exist on Mars that should be concerned. Without clearly defined objectives and agreements, SpaceX’s colony could create a “contentious sphere of conflict,” Williams said.
“The values that we take with us into space exploration should be front and center,” he added.
SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment for this story.