Even if you're not a sci-fi buff, you've probably imagined what living on Mars would be like — it's been a part of the popular imagination for hundreds of years.
We're getting closer to that reality. Many humans alive today will probably see the first people on the planet during their lifetime — and if Elon Musk's plans are realized, they might even travel there themselves.
Mars has been a goal for human space exploration from the beginning: Writers as early as the 1600s imagined ways to get there, and in the late 1800s, stories of voyages to the red planet became a genuine trend in pop culture. Thomas Edison visualized voyaging there in his 1910 short film "A Trip to Mars," and Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles" was a huge hit in 1950. After NASA was founded in 1958, officials only took six months to start studying the feasibility of going there.
In 1965, NASA's Mariner IV probe took 22 shots of Mars as it careened by the red planet, but instead of increasing enthusiasm, the pictures showing an uninteresting surface pocked with craters — photos that were a disappointment to many. Then a series of earthly problems, from the Vietnam War to budget deficits and a launchpad fire quashed the costly dream for a while.
SpaceX reboots the dream
Recently, humans have been seriously dreaming of Mars once again, and Musk, the billionaire behind Paypal and Tesla, wants SpaceX to take people there. At an hour-long presentation, "Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species" to an international audience in Mexico earlier this week, he stated: “What I want to do here is make Mars seem possible, like something we can do in our lifetimes. And that you can go.”
Here's a look at what he said:
It's a lofty goal, but not an impossible one, especially based on some recent milestones SpaceX has reached. The successful test of the Falcon 9 rockets, which are self-landing, was a huge step forward. That's because perfecting supersonic retropropulsion, which allows large payloads to brake in Mars' light atmosphere, is key to Musk's Interplanetary Transport System. See the full explanation in the video below:
That system, which is being shared with NASA, relies on a host of reusable parts, including rocket launchers.
“I just don’t think there’s any way to have a self-sustaining Mars base without reusability. I think this is really fundamental,” Musk told National Geographic. “If wooden sailing ships in the old days were not reusable, I don’t think the United States would exist.”
It's not just about getting there
Of course, getting to Mars is just the first hurdle. If we want to send tourists there — or as Musk outlined in his speech, have a million people living on the planet by the 2060s — we have a lot more work to do beyond a safe landing.
That brings up a host of interesting questions, like how we'll find enough water to sustain us and our food crops (suggestions of nuking Mars' polar ice caps have been made), and what kinds of buildings we could live in to protect us from the harsh Martian elements. (Using local materials is one suggestion, so bricks made from Martian soil could be a solution, as could strong plastic habitats that could be blown up on site, like a giant inflatable tent.)
And then there's the question of who gets to go. "What are the requirements? Who are the people we want to send to Mars, and who is the 'we' who decides that?" science journalist Nadia Drake, a space exploration expert for National Geographic, asked me in a conversation. "We, the United States? People with money? SpaceX? We need to consider these questions ahead of time," she suggests.
And beyond the basics, Mars could bring up other issues that we need to prepare for long before we make boot-tracks in Martian dust: "We will need fundamental psychological research to see how humans behave in an environment that they were never meant to live in," says Dr. Alex Probst, a scientist with University of California, Berkeley who has worked with NASA for almost a decade.
The purpose of going to Mars
Plenty of people have asked, what's the "point" of going to Mars? For Musk, it's because he thinks that being multiplanetary is key to humanity's survival.
"History is going to bifurcate along two paths," said Musk in his presentation. "One path is we stay on Earth forever and eventually there will some extinction event. The alternative is becoming a space-faring civilization and a multiplanet species."
Of course, that's not the only answer to the question. "Why are we trying to scare people into thinking that Mars means survival? For me, what’s more compelling is the sense of adventure and exploration. Humans are innate explorers, and we want to see what’s there," says Drake.
As with most scientific endeavors, there are unforeseen advantages of exploring. The unpredictability of new information means we can't know in advance what new things we'll learn, just that based on past experience, we know they'll happen. For example, LEDs, solar panels, water purification and lots of software are the result of what we've learned from past NASA missions.
Musk even suggests that some of our sustainability problems on Earth could be problem-solved during Mars missions.
And there might be another advantage to exploring Mars and trying to make a go of it in such harsh conditions, suggests Probst: "I believe that our society will learn that Earth is an amazingly hospitable planet compared to Mars, and our current lifestyle of consuming all resources on this planet will hopefully change."