We must become a multi-planet species

23 June 2020

(Credit: Soroka / Fonwall)

With our rising planet’s population competing for space and resources, some people are convinced we need to look beyond Earth to help ensure humanity’s survival. As Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind space tourism company SpaceX told Aeon’s Ross Andersen: “I think there is a strong argument for making life multi-planetary in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen.”

Last month’s NASA and SpaceX successful launch of astronauts from US soil for the first time in almost a decade, has reignited discussion about space travel to Mars and beyond. Musk has been pushing Mars colonisation as extinction insurance for more than a decade now and he told Andersen that he would need a million people to form a sustainable, genetically diverse civilisation. Andersen reports:

‘Even at a million, you’re really assuming an incredible amount of productivity per person, because you would need to recreate the entire industrial base on Mars,’ he said. ‘You would need to mine and refine all of these different materials, in a much more difficult environment than Earth. There would be no trees growing. There would be no oxygen or nitrogen that are just there. No oil.’

I asked Musk how quickly a Mars colony could grow to a million people. ‘Excluding organic growth, if you could take 100 people at a time, you would need 10,000 trips to get to a million people,’ he said. ‘But you would also need a lot of cargo to support those people. In fact, your cargo to person ratio is going to be quite high. It would probably be 10 cargo trips for every human trip, so more like 100,000 trips. And we’re talking 100,000 trips of a giant spaceship.’

Musk told me all this could happen within a century…

But that would only be the beginning, he told Andersen. “If we can establish a Mars colony, we can almost certainly colonise the whole Solar System, because we’ll have created a strong economic forcing function for the improvement of space travel. We’ll go to the moons of Jupiter, at least some of the outer ones for sure, and probably Titan on Saturn, and the asteroids. Once we have that forcing function, and an Earth-to-Mars economy, we’ll cover the whole Solar System. But the key is that we have to make the Mars thing work. If we’re going to have any chance of sending stuff to other star systems, we need to be laser-focused on becoming a multi-planet civilisation. That’s the next step.”

Former astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman also thinks that for the long-term survival of our species, we have to become a multi-planet being. The idea of seeding Mars with life is almost an ethical imperative. “We are at the level of technology where we can imagine leaving the planet for a few nearby places in our Solar System,” Hoffman told BBC Future. “The Moon is just around the corner, and Mars isn’t that far away. We have the possibility of at least making the first steps of those voyages in our own lifetimes.”

Musk draws the line at inhabiting other stars. He told Andersen, “Alpha Centauri is four light years away, so if you go at 10% of the speed of light, it’s going to take you 40 years, and that’s assuming you can instantly reach that speed, which isn’t going to be the case… I just wonder what humanity will even look like when we try to do that.”

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