The roadmap to Mars

Elon Musk's target of 2024 seems ambitious, so how realistic is this goal?
25 January 2017

Interview with 

Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars


Figure 3: Mars. This image illustrates the amount of detail that can be generated from the Hubble telescope. It captures details only 16 km across, even though it is operating at 68 million km from the planet.


6 years seems like an incredibly ambitious timeline to get people on Mars, especially given Elon Musk’s Falcon rocket explosions and European Space Agency’s crash landings onto the Martian surface. If we can’t get cargo off the ground, how will we get humans out there? Graihagh Jackson put this to Stephen Petranek...

Stephen - I’m Stephen Petranek, I wrote the book “How We’ll Live on Mars.”

Graihagh - How will we live on Mars?

Stephen - Very successfully and much sooner than anyone expects. Elon Musk says he’ll land people on Mars in 2024. I’m giving him about a two-year break, so maybe 2026/2027. He’s the most optimistic person on the face of Earth. I honestly think that that there’s a better than 90 percent chance there’ll be people on Mars by 2030.But the real kicker is how many people will be on Mars by 2050? Because by 2050, if Elon Musk is correct, he'll have 1,000 rockets leaving at one time, each with 80 people in them. That's 80,000 people going to Mars in one trip, so it's highly conceivable that by 2040 there are 10,000 people on Mars, and very conceivable by 2050, there’s 100,000 on Mars, and you're going to need 1 million people to actually create another civilisation and a real backup for humans.

Graihagh - Well we’ll come to that in a minute. But I just want to unpick this 2027 because I mean, we've had problem after problem. I'm thinking with the Falcon rockets, the last one exploded back in September, right? And then we've just had the ESA Mars rover crash land on to Mars, not to mention Beagle…

Stephen - Don't get me started on ESA and Beagle.

Graihagh - If we can't get rovers to Mars and if this is only ten years away, how are we going to get people?

Stephen - This is a matter of money, and it's a matter of playing the odds in the space game. Rockets are binary - they work or they don't work. About 20 percent of the time they don't work. We had two shuttles that went down with eight people in each one of them. This is a dangerous business. It's not like getting in an aeroplane. There was a time when getting in an aeroplane was almost as risky as going to Mars. And going to Mars is going to be very risky for a long time, but that is not going to stop anyone from going.

Graihagh - Well, why wouldn't it though? Why would we even want to go?

Stephen - Well we really need a backup for civilisation on Earth. I mean we are long overdue for being hit by a major asteroid, larger than the one that took out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. There’s 100 percent probability and that's just one of many, many, many extinction events for humans on Earth.  And we also know that Earth is going to look a lot like Mars in about 100 million years. There isn’t going to be an atmosphere here, it’s going to be a cold place, all the water on the surface will be frozen. We've spent 95 percent of our existence as humans moving beyond the horizon into the next wilderness because it's a matter of survival. And we have to learn to be a spacefaring species and move onto other planets and then move on to other solar systems.

I mean frankly, think of everything we’ve accomplished in art and culture and learning and to have all of that just literally get exploded and go up in smoke one day from an asteroid - it’s crazy.

Graihagh - ‘I'm sort of imagining something like Noah’s Ark. Surely all these beautiful, amazing things that nature has made should be coming along with us too - right? Otherwise, that’s a human, centric view of things.

Stephen - Yeah, that’s a very good question as to what kind of life forms you want to take with you. I don’t think we’re really going to have a lot of choice about that over the long haul because first of all there’s about 100 million different living creatures in our gut - right? And they’re coming with you.

Graihagh - What about my cat?

Stephen - Your cat may not come with you. It may be a very expensive trip for your cat - it’ll cost you 100,000 dollars to take your cat. If we find that we can create a good environment for living on mars relatively easily and that Mars can become its own economic system and be self-supporting and self-sustaining, it will be very interesting what kinds of animals we choose to put on that ark and bring with us.

Graihagh - I’m wondering if people will bring their Tamagotchis as a surrogate instead. Do you remember Tamagotchis?

Stephen - No.

Graihagh - They’re like these little toys that I had when I must have been about ten.

Stephen - Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. You had to press their buttons every so often to keep them alive, yeah, yeah.

Graihagh - And you had to pick up their poo otherwise they died and all sorts of thing like that. Teaching responsibility to children.

Stephen - Those little Japanese things… you notice they didn’t last.

Graihagh - Okay. So let’s turn to say we managed to overcome so many problems and we do end up on Mars, as you say, in 2027.

Stephen - Listen. The whole point of this, the whole point of my book is to go - hello people, we are going. This is not a fantasy, this is not something people are making up. I mean, we’re going, there’s no if, ands, or buts. It’s happening.

Graihagh - It just sounds very abstract to me… still.

Stephen - Well, wake up! If you think this isn’t happening you’re dreaming. This is happening!

Graihagh - Okay then.


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