why getting humans to mars will not come cheap

December 29, 2011

Predictions for space exploration projects have to be bold to inspire imaginations and recruit daring talent, as recent history seems to show quite clearly. How much can one get inspired by a space exploration plan with little vision and uncertain deadlines, or being given ideas for projects that will last for centuries, implying a necessity to treat entire generations of engineers and scientists as replaceable cogs in a machine? But there is a fine line between bold and crazy in this realm and Elion Musk may just have crossed the line with a claim of being willing and able to land 10,000 people on Mars for just $5 billion, as a precursor to millions whose lives will continue on the Red Planet. Now, I could buy the lowballed figure of $150 billion for the project with a very aggressive and well-coordinated plan and even 800 astronauts on Mars sounds somewhat doable, but a population of 10,000 Martians for less than the cost of three shuttle launches? Sorry, but absolutely no way it’ll happen simply because the hurdles of living on another planet are so difficult and expensive to overcome.

Now don’t get me wrong, we definitely need a kick in the rear to explore space and reap the benefits of a tightly focused and bold set of R&D programs, especially since simply sloshing money around banks isn’t helping a moribund global economy. But we also need to be realistic about what it takes to explore other worlds. We are going to be sending humans to live and work in a place to which humans have never been before, where we’ll have no air to breather, only a third of the gravity we’re used to, and the surface is bathed with lethal radiation, none of which makes for even a remotely hospitable environment for life. The medical enhancements that will be involved with protecting them would easily exceed Musk’s overall budget for the entire mission. Ideally, we would want to send not just well trained humans but much tougher cyborgs with longer lifespans and abilities which allow them to navigate an alien environment without getting severely sick. Anything less means that the crews would be subject to two years of life-threatening radiation while their muscles waste away. Granted, we do make it clear to astronauts that what they do carries risk, but we owe it to ourselves to minimize it.

We have to keep in mind that the technology we develop to shield astronauts from the harm of alien worlds is useful to us as well because we can use it to fight degenerative diseases, extend our lives, and join them on those alien bases. Ultimately, we’re doing this not to plant a flag, but for our own benefit as a civilization which is exactly why we should be willing to invest the money in such a long term goal. But this brings up the source of the funds required. Who will be willing to spend the billions to get us to Mars and who will be willing to unite the many companies which will have to be involved into such a large project? It would have to involve a mix of government agencies, private corporations, and newly created GSEs to host competitions, dole out contracts, and make sure that the objectives are being adequately met. The organizations don’t have to be large and we should do all we can to avoid budgetary and staffing bloat, but they need to exist in some way shape or form to provide expert advice and oversight of the projects involved, as well as create the spinoffs to keep cash flows steady since just traveling to Mars won’t provide us with anything valuable by itself.

We can’t set up a profitable mining operation there, and we are incredibly unlikely to find deposits of insanely valuable unobtanium laying under the desert rocks. But we can learn immensely from our attempts to live on another world and travel through the vast expanses of space and apply this knowledge to reshape Earth. And over the long term, the returns from such an ambitious project will be worth far more than any mining mission or space tourism business (though these are definitely viable options for Martian exploration), just like a brief burst of lunar excursions provided countless bold ideas for new technologies and provided the basis for new devices we don’t even bother to think about twice today. We desperately need a new kind of global economy, one based on innovation and ambitious research and development projects, but we also need to be realistic about what they’ll take and avoid pulling an Elion Musk by claiming we can change the world on the cheap.

[ illustration by Zane Bien ]