Why is Elon Musk so hell-bent on Mars?



This article was originally published in the Bristol Post and written by Ashley Dove-Jay.


Last week, Elon Musk walked onto the stage of the world’s most prestigious annual space conference, the International Astronautical Congress, and delivered the keynote lecture. Over a period of an hour, he laid out the mission architecture, roadmap, spacecraft, and rockets SpaceX is building for delivering a million people to Mars in the coming decades.


Elon Musk is the only person I can think of that would not be laughed off the stage for making this ambitious announcement. He is the modern-day equivalent of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Isambard Brunel rolled into one person.


Over the past decade, almost simultaneously, Elon has willed three recently thought impossible companies into existence: Tesla, SolarCity, and SpaceX. Each rapidly growing company is now worth about £10 billion, and is transforming the automotive, energy, and space industries in radical ways.


What is Elon’s reasoning for a Mars colony? He has put it upon himself to maximise the possibility of a positive and long future for humanity. Through Tesla and SolarCity, he is pushing us towards truly compelling sustainable transportation and energy generation. Through SpaceX, he is enabling us to spread our eggs.


It is all well and good living in a happy-clappy world of peace and abundance, singing Kumbaya. But locked to one planet, we are vulnerable. Asteroids, super pathogens, solar super storms, super volcanoes and artificial super intelligence are but a few of the looming disasters that could knock us back to the Dark Ages or wipe out our species entirely.


I know you’ve heard this story many times. It is often told quite badly. Cinemas and newspapers are so engorged with disaster stories that many of us have become desensitised, and almost react to these topics flippantly because of this association. However, these existential problems are real.


Mitigation of natural global disasters for the most part is completely out of our control. Mitigation of human-caused global disasters is getting harder. In recent decades, we became the first species capable of destroying itself. As time goes on, we are becoming ever more capable.


The advancement of knowledge and technology cannot be assumed to progress steadily. The more elaborate our technology, the more vulnerable it is to being lost. The number of links in the chain required to make a plough is very different to the number of links required to make a spacecraft.


There are many instances in history where a human act has drastically knocked back the wealth of knowledge in a civilisation by hundreds of years. We are now for the first time only just capable of sending people to space. Elon worries about how long we’ll be capable of doing so, and if this will be our only opportunity.


From a technical, economic and planetary resource perspective, Mars is the next logical step for human colonisation. It won’t be easy, but it is a feasible and a necessary step to make if we are to continue as a sentient species. Like in the previous age of exploration out of South-Central Africa, we will need to engineer ourselves and the environment around us to survive. It is that adaptability to a wide range of environments that distinguishes us from the rest of the animals.


A colony on Mars will not only act as a life and knowledge insurance policy for humanity, from a space exploration perspective it will act as a much easier platform from which to send our descendants to colonise the hundreds of worlds in our solar system.


You can find the talk Elon gave last week online by searching: “Elon Musk unveils plan to colonise Mars (2016.9.27)”



Ashley Dove-Jay has a PhD in aerospace engineering from the University of Bristol and is a space engineer at Oxford Space Systems with a broad background in the space arena.