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Elon Musk’s Mars dream is worth rooting for

LiveMint logoLiveMint 20-06-2017 Leonid Bershidsky

When I met Tony Martinez, the mayor of Brownsville, Texas, he had a somewhat wacky argument against the border fence that separated the town from Matamoros, Mexico. “We are about to become an interplanetary civilization,” he told me. “And here we are talking about a wall separating what is essentially the same community.” The reason he said so is that Brownsville is included in Tesla founder Elon Musk’s rather specific plans for the colonization of Mars, published in the June issue of the journal New Space.

Musk’s moonshot ideas—the hyperloop super-fast ground transportation, connecting human brains to computers, tunneling to make the hyperloop and other forms of fast transportation possible—all go beyond science fiction in that companies are formed, staff are hired and engineering solutions are developed. Musk makes them look real because he likes building things and publicizes them because he doesn’t seem to be able to resist publicity. Perhaps more importantly, these sci-fi-like projects help maintain investor faith in his commercial ventures, particularly in Tesla, whose $61 billion capitalization is now the same as BMW’s though the German carmaker’s revenue is higher by an order of magnitude.

The Mars plan, however, is different from the others. Musk wrote in New Space: “The main reason I am personally accumulating assets is in order to fund this. I really do not have any other motivation for personally accumulating assets except to be able to make the biggest contribution I can to making life multi-planetary.”

Musk has accumulated more than he calculates a ticket to Mars would cost using current space technology. That’s $10 billion per person; his net worth is $18.2 billion, according to Bloomberg Billionaires. But he doesn’t want to go alone: His vision of a sustainable Mars colony, which would keep humanity alive if some catastrophe wiped out life on Earth, is a city of 1 million people. So Musk’s rocket company, SpaceX, is trying to bring down the cost. Technologically, this project appears to be more advanced than the other “crazy ideas.”

SpaceX has built and tested a prototype of the Raptor engine Musk wants to use to send spaceships to Mars. It has also developed a light and strong carbon fibre fuel tank. It’s made tangible progress in developing reusable rockets and boosters, an essential part of the Mars project since Musk wants the spaceships to fly back to Earth after delivering crews and cargoes to the red planet. And it’s building a new launch pad near Brownsville because it will need more than one to send hundreds of ships to Mars.

That should make Musk’s plan more attractive to most people than an earlier iteration of the Martian dream, Mars One, a Dutch venture that started in 2012 with a call for volunteers for an eventual one-way mission. Mars One founders haven’t made much progress on the delivery technology. Musk is talking about starting to launch regular unmanned flights to Mars “in a couple of years.”

A promoter worthy of P.T. Barnum’s fame, Musk says he wants most people to be able to afford the flight at $200,000 a ticket—and even to enjoy it. It should last 80 days, he writes, but that can eventually be shortened to 30. Even so, he writes: “It cannot feel cramped or boring. Therefore, the crew compartment or the occupant compartment is set up so that you can do zero-gravity games—you can float around. There will be movies, lecture halls, cabins, and a restaurant. It will be really fun to go. You are going to have a great time!”

There’s a slight problem once his passengers arrive. “It is a little cold,” Musk concedes. “But we can warm it up.” He doesn’t provide any ideas on countering temperatures of around minus 67 degrees Fahrenheit. Nor does his vision for Martian life offer much beyond flashy promises of “everything from iron foundries to pizza joints.” But then, once the travel part is worked out, the residential bits will follow in an orderly fashion. Everything basically worked out for Matt Damon in Ridley Scott’s The Martian. Right?

Musk’s New Space piece reads as though the Tesla founder dictated it all in one breath. It contains Venn diagrams in which the circles—initially not intersecting at all—stand for “Want to go” and “Can afford to go.” It’s calculatedly deranged: No one will try to hold Musk to the timeline it contains. And yet I find it more compelling than Musk’s previous forays into public futurism.

That’s not just because the paper explains the technological evolution of SpaceX, making it look as though building the “Interplanetary Transportation System” was always the goal: It may be mere hindsight. And it’s not because of Musk’s excellence as a carnival barker: Usually, I’m able to resist it. It’s because of what mayor Martinez told me in Brownsville on a fall afternoon in 2016.

No matter how rich we make Musk by believing his stories and perhaps even buying a few of his cars and solar roof tiles, he won’t have enough money to make the Mars initiative work. He’s hoping other wealthy people will want to fund a Mars base, and perhaps there will be interest from governments. “Ultimately, this is going to be a huge public–private partnership,” he writes in New Space.

That would be nice. So what if Tesla is overvalued? Or if lionizing wealthy businessmen can lead to accidents such as Donald Trump’s election? People deserve to have more exciting goals on the horizon than border walls. It’s even more important to invest in making those ambitious dreams look like they could actually happen in our lifetimes. Bloomberg

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