November 16, 2017
PALM BEACH, Fla.—Elon Musk is not going to Mars in 2022.
I hope I’m wrong.
I hope I’m one of those guys they make fun of in the history books, the ones immortalized by George Gershwin:
They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round.
They all laughed when Edison
They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother
When they said that man could fly.
Why, they told Marconi, wireless was a phony,
It’s the same old cry.
Unfortunately, Fred Astaire is not around to sing it anymore, but if he were here, I would hope for a supplemental verse:
They all laughed at Elon and his rocket
When he said that Mars was swell—
Biospheres are silly, plus the air is chilly,
Joe Bob did foretell.
Nevertheless, Elon Musk is not going to Mars in 2022.
Elon Musk also says that his BFR, or Big Fucking Rocket—and yes, that’s the actual name the engineers use, indicating shenanigans on the whiteboards—will be ten times more powerful than the Falcon 9, and that four years from now the BFR will be used for a mission to the International Space Station.
It gets better. By 2025 the BFR will take passengers to Mars. The fare will be $200,000.
If you want to go as a tourist, the round trip will take three to six months.
If you want a job, you can stay and help build the fuel depot. They’ll need that because a fleet of Interplanetary Transport Systems—that’s a BFR and a spaceship working as a unit—will be ferrying people from planet to moon to planet to Earth in an outer-space version of Uber.
That won’t happen either.
They all laughed at taxis in the heavens,
Uh-uh, no way, nohow—
But ha ha ha, who’s got the last laugh,
Hee hee hee, who’s got the last laugh,
Ho ho ho,
Who’s got the last laugh now?
It’s not Elon Musk.
The most chilling thing to me about the specs for the Mars voyages is the capacity of the spaceship: 100 people.
This is basically the same capacity used by all the ships that set out on polar expeditions in the 19th and early 20th century, many of which never came back. These were voyages to mysterious places considered to be the ultimate test of human endurance and bravery, and their half-baked goals were the same as today’s:
(1) No one has been there before, so we have to go.
(2) The status of England as ruler of the seas must be maintained.
(3) Maybe we can find some economic reason, some product that the world needs, attainable only at the North Pole.
(4) Eventually people will live there, forming self-sufficient colonies of a sort the world has never seen, and so we need to be the first in.
(5) We’ll figure out the climate later.
Remember the Franklin Expedition? 1845. Two ships. Twenty-four officers, 110 crewmen. Both ships trapped in the Canadian Arctic ice, forcing the men to abandon ship and set out by sledge. Scurvy. Starvation. Hypothermia. Cannibalism. No survivors.
Hasn’t Elon Musk seen Alien? Actually, there are any number of films I could recommend, including last year’s underrated Passengers. Unfortunately, in real life, Laurence Fishburne doesn’t show up at the end of the second act to answer all the questions.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t explore space, probe space, send professionals into space for scientific reasons. But why so fast on colonization, which should be the last thing we do? The experts at NASA say we need at least another twenty years to do a proof-of-concept colony safely, and it would still be something similar to the Amundsen-Scott research facility at the South Pole where, yes, civilians occasionally visit but, after sixty years, only about 200 people live there, a number that goes down to fifty during the six months of night. Mars fanatics who write all the articles about “space mining” projects scoff at the NASA guys as typical government bureaucrats: slow dullards.
Even if we get lucky and the passengers on the BFR don’t end up eating one another, we still have the problem—mostly left unresolved—of what kind of government we would set up on Mars for those who choose to stay there.
There’s only one kind that makes any sense: a dictatorship backed up by a lethal militia. And that government will only work so long as the dictator remains alive. Given what we know about wilderness settlements throughout history, the chances of everyone acting like the civilized crew of the USS Enterprise are slim and none. Mars and Earth are aligned for space missions once every 26 months—that’s a long time to wait for the Space Cavalry.
What would make more sense—I’m talking to you, Mr. SpaceX CEO—would be to start now on a 100-year plan. The science and engineering are the easy part. Everything else requires a brain trust and a massive number of trial-and-error projects on Earth before the first voyage.
Unfortunately, we don’t do 100-year plans in America. We mostly do three-month plans, all the better to satisfy those pesky Wall Street analysts. Looking one century ahead doesn’t interest us. (Neither does looking one century behind. The commemorations of World War I this year were puny compared with the attention we gave to, say, the death of Hugh Hefner. We are far more likely to honor the American individual instead of the American nation. This is partly why so many people root for Elon Musk.) The occasional visionary CEO who ignores the stock market and does plan for the long haul—Jeff Bezos comes to mind—still has to think in terms of decades. He has to think in terms of his own life span.