Elon Musk’s age of exploration
Next year on Mars.
Well, not quite, but entrepreneur Elon Musk told the tech confab South by Southwest that the interplanetary spaceship he’s building will be able to do short “up and down” flights by next year.
Musk’s goal is to colonize Mars, a delightfully daft idea that has had a persistent hold on our imagination — German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun wrote a piece for Collier’s magazine in 1954 titled “Can We Get to Mars?” — and that is a fit object of Musk’s vaulting ambition.
The founder of Tesla and SpaceX is, through his brio and technological prowess, bringing back a whiff of the Age of Exploration, the time when men launched across oceans in rickety ships in pursuit of the unknown (and perhaps untold riches).
NASA used to partake of this same spirit. Once upon a time, American kids had glossy photos of rockets and astronauts on their walls. That was before the end of the Apollo program and the advent of the white elephant space shuttle that, by the end, had all the glamour of a very expensive and clunky (not to mention hazardous) crosstown bus.
All you have to know about the exuberant sensibility of Musk’s operation is that the rocket he’s going to colonize Mars with is named BFR — The Big (expletive deleted) Rocket. Or that last month he launched the new Falcon Heavy rocket into space carrying a Tesla Roadster as the payload with a mock astronaut behind the wheel — because, why not?
Musk’s ambitions — electric cars, driverless cars, powerful, reusable rockets — are more in keeping with visions we once had of the future. We live in an age of technological miracles, especially related to computing and medicine. But the innovations that are now ubiquitous, the iPhone and Facebook and other social media platforms, aren’t the futurist imaginings of yore. They are great tools, but often inward-looking (they have arguably made us smaller rather than bigger).
Colonizing Mars would, in contrast, be an inarguable giant leap for mankind. Settlers traveling to the red planet would replicate the Atlantic crossings of the 17th century, which took months and deposited people in a forbidding wilderness that they often didn’t survive. But Mars isn’t like North America, a fertile continent stocked with wildlife and fish for the taking. It is a vast, cold desert without enough oxygen to support human life.
Could we pull it off? The killjoys at MIT released a study pouring cold water on the very loose plans of the so-called Mars One project (not associated with Musk) to settle people on Mars beginning in 2025. The MIT researchers pointed out that if crops were grown within the habitat of the settlers, the plants would set off a chain reaction rendering the space uninhabitable. Details, details.
Elon Musk’s chipper take is that Mars is “a fixer-upper of a planet.” He joked with Stephen Colbert that the rapid way to warm the place up would be to “drop thermonuclear weapons over the poles.” His more modest idea is to place small, continuously detonating fusion bombs at the poles — you know, like little suns.
Musk conceives of a colony on Mars as a hedge against a planetary catastrophe on Earth. You can never be too careful. But the more compelling rationale for the venture is the sheer audacity and challenge of it. Why did we colonize Mars? Because it was there.
The great science fiction writer Ray Bradbury enthused when we landed the Viking 1 probe on Mars in the 1970s: “Today we have touched Mars. There is life on Mars, and it is us — extensions of our eyes in all directions, extensions of our mind, extensions of our heart and soul have touched Mars today. That’s the message to look for there: We are on Mars. We are the Martians!”
He wasn’t quite right. At least not yet.