(credit: Space X video)
Musk Endeavors to Make Reality Catch Up with Science Fiction
Elon Musk is nutty as a fruitcake. He has to be to dream this big and have any chance of reaching those dreams. Musk and others like him are the only ones with enough passion who can.
Of course, it helps to have a lot of money, and Musk has accumulated plenty of it, mostly on risky ventures and big dreams. But none of those dreams compares to what he placed on the far horizons Monday for his company SpaceX – a fleet of massive rockets, each capable of carrying 100 people to colonize Mars, or even travel farther out in the Solar System. His goal: to seed a million-person colony on Mars.
This isn’t a shoot for the Moon space race. It’s an interplanetary triathlon, with the aim of not who can cross the finish line first, but who can get there at all. Musk is determined to get there, and hopes other space initiatives spawned by similar dreamers are inspire to set forth on their own adventures. Mars is a small planet, but big enough to host a number of interplanetary visionaries with their own plans on how to reach and colonize the Red Planet.
Driven by Science Fiction
There’s no mistaking the impact that science fiction has had on Musk’s vision of future reality. The passenger ship for Mars colonists and explorers has an Art Deco aesthetic to it, similar to rocket ships flown by Flash Gordon in 1930s’ movie serials or portrayed on pulp SF magazine covers from that era and well into the ‘50s. Indeed, the passenger ship of the Interplanetary Transport System, as it’s now inelegantly called, reminds me of the rocket in the movie “When Worlds Collide.” That rocket had much the same purpose as the design proposed by Musk, to deliver a large group of people from Earth to hurriedly colonize another world.
It’s unlikely that Musk will stick with the acronym ITS for this interplanetary fleet. He already described ships making their way to Mars as a “colonial fleet,” admitting it was a reference to the TV series Battle Star Galactica. With his dream propelled as it is by his own internal “improbability drive,” Musk thinks he’ll name the first ship of Space X’s colonial fleet the Heart of Gold, after the ship of that name in Douglas Adams’ BBC radio serial and subsequent movie, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
Perhaps the most influence science fiction has had on Musk is the big dream itself. It is not enough to set foot on Mars. SpaceX is attempting to build an interplanetary culture, and he’s in a hurry. He sees the first landing of a crewed spaceship on Mars happening in the 2020s with the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, and “if everything goes really well,” he sees the first flight of the Heart of Gold within 10 years, as improbable as it may seem.
But What of Reality?
On Tuesday, Musk laid out a plan, a concept, a dream. At present, however, his vision is as much fiction as the stories that have inspired him. If SpaceX embarks on Musk’s plan, and if other private or public/private ventures join his company in his quest to reach and settle the Red Planet, NASA’s path to land astronauts there by sometime in the mid 2030s will be left in the dust. On the other hand, dust burying the remnants of Musk’s efforts may be all the NASA explorers find.
To dream big is to dream risk. Humans, particularly Americans, are enamored with setting a goal of 10 years to reach some momentous milestone, to fulfill a dramatic purpose “before this decade is out.”
And those of use who believed after we landed on the Moon that we would simply go on to reach Mars 10 years later have become increasingly frustrated as those 10 years have continually been pushed back to 20, 30, 40, nearly 50 years. If we wait for NASA, it may be close to 70 years, or more, before someone takes the next giant leap and steps onto the Martian surface. It has been too long. Musk outlined a transportation system that will begin in the 2020s to bring explorers and then colonists there a decade sooner, and to continue bringing more to that colony for decades after. Yet Musk presented no plan for how the proposed colony would be built and populated. His dream is one of rockets bringing colonists to Mars. He leaves it to other dreamers to come with a way to survive and prosper.
Musk’s envisioned colonial fleet is meant to inspire But what is the penalty of an overreach, of a rush to colonize? Mars is hard. It’s hard technologically, though our robotic explorers seem to finally be getting the upper hand. It’s hard physiologically, as the radiation issues on the trip to Mars for humans remain a concern. It is hard biologically. We don’t yet know what waits for us on Mars. The planet is a difficult place for life to exist, but we’ve already discovered on Earth that life finds a way, no matter how difficult, to exist and thrive as long as there’s water and energy. And we do know there is water on Mars, buried below the surface,
The question of Martian life remains unanswered, but there has been tantalizing evidence that life could have existed there in the past, and may still exist in some locations on Mars. Sending colonists there too early to begin a settlement could end that life before we have a chance to understand it, or the microbial Martians may strike back and end the lives of the colonists.
The Heart of Gold and the grand ships planned to follow are an inspiring design and concept, and may prove vital for humans to advance as a spacefaring race. But if we are to become an interplanetary species, we should tread carefully with our next small step. We could trample our future beneath our feet.