It's worth paying close attention to Elon Musk, one of the true visionaries we have in our midst who is clearly willing and able to successfully bet his own fortune on his dreams. And his latest -- a plan to take up to 80,000 people a year to Mars in the near future to create a very large base there -- is clearly out of the box. But it isn't crazy, not by any means.
Musk, whose Tesla Model S electric car is the nearly unanimous choice as everyone's car of the year in 2013, is a soft-spoken entrepreneur who is willing to think big and bet big. His other company, SpaceX, almost ran out of money before finally proving, on its fourth try, that it could create a private rocket capable of doing NASA's heavy lifting in space.
And SpaceX is clearly now headed in the same direction as Tesla Motors – toward unparalleled success at a time when big powers like NASA and the federal government seem dream-impaired and nearly incapable of delivering on even modest ambitions.
Establishing a colony on Mars as a backup plan just in case we humans decide to make Earth nearly uninhabitable from greenhouse gas warming? No problem, Musk told members of the Royal Aeronautical Society in London Nov. 16. SpaceX is ready and willing to start that process, perhaps within the decade, he said.
"Mars…is a place where one can establish a self-sustaining civilization, and really grow to something significant…really big," Musk told the RAS audience hanging on every word. "And, in a worst-case scenario, if something were to happen to earth, we'd have a redundancy."
At first, Musk said (and clarified days later with a series of posts to his Twitter page), SpaceX would begin the process by establishing a small colony of up to 10 people on Mars to get the ball rolling --- build a dome, perhaps with an oxygen-rich atmosphere underneath, combined with efforts to pull carbon dioxide and nitrogen from the existing Mars atmosphere.
Musk speculated such a small colony could, in fact, grow plants for food in Martian soil.
"We just have an enormous number of resources on Mars," he said. And the atmosphere has some necessary building blocks to support such a colony. "It's not perfect…but it's pretty good. You could actually grow earth plants in Martian soil."
The Martian soil isn't toxic, Musk said, so growing plants is just a question of "heating it up and pressurizing it with CO2." Meanwhile, the atmosphere has 2.7 percent nitrogen in it, "which means you can synthesize fertilizer as well," he said. I love the way Musk just talks about such things in a matter-of-fact way. You know, as in: we can do this. Yeah, it will be expensive – the first 10 Mars colonists would likely pay $500,000 each to be part of that first exploration 10-15 years from now – but not out of the question. And, really and truly, not crazy – though Musk did feel compelled to defend himself on Twitter Nov. 27 after news of his RAS speech started to circulate.
"But if humanity wishes to become a multi-planet species, then we must figure out how to move millions of people to Mars," Musk posted to his Twitter account. "And, yes, I do in fact know that this sounds crazy. That is not lost on me. Nor do I think SpaceX will do this alone."
But Musk then concluded the plan is, in fact, pretty straightforward. Use the technology and knowledge we have at hand, right now, to establish a small colony on Mars to see how it works, then expand it to a steady stream of people going to Mars, with a goal of bringing millions of people there.
"Millions of people needed for Mars colony, so 80K+ would just be the number moving to Mars per year," Musk tweeted.
After his RAS talk, Musk answered a few questions from the crowd. Why Mars? Someone asked. "If you're talking about people coming from Earth, it's actually going to be easier to go to Mars" than travelling to the asteroid belt, he answered. "And we just have an enormous number of resources on Mars."
In fact, he said, Mars is the "only option" for a colony outside Earth within our solar system. "I think that would make for a very exciting future."
Musk may be a dreamer and a visionary – but the truth is that he crosses the finish line when others are still wandering around in a fog. So if Musk says he's going to take 10 people to Mars in the next decade or two, and that investors will come forward to fund the $36 billion enterprise, I believe him. And both new technology and innovation will surely follow.
"You know, once we go to a planet and have a large base on Mars, and there is a lot of travel between the planets, that's going to create a great forcing function for the improvement of space transport technology," Musk said. "I think we'll see all sorts of improvements and inventions that we just haven't seen yet."
He's right. And I sure hope lots of people pay attention to him -- because, right now, vision and leadership are in short supply in this country. If Musk says that SpaceX or others will someday work on ion drives and electromagnetic sails to improve inter-planetary travel, then I'd bet that he's right. He was right with the Tesla electric car. He was right with the ability of SpaceX to do NASA's heavy lifting.
He just may be right about a colony on Mars.