Last year, Elon Musk caused a stir when he said something provocative, but ultimately correct: there’s a “good chance” the first Mars settlers will die. Now, the SpaceX mastermind, who is dead set on colonizing the Red Planet, is doubling down on that sentiment.
In a recent livestream touting his $100 million XPrize reward to whoever can figure out carbon removal, Musk dispelled the notion that the initial Mars journey will be “some escape hatch for rich people.”
Of course, wealthy people and explorers aren’t two mutually exclusive groups. Deep-pocketed daredevils like James Cameron, for example, have made dangerous exploration their business, because having generational wealth often goes hand in hand with funding these kinds of expeditions.
In his comments, Musk referred to Sir Ernest Shackleton, who led the first attempted trans-Antarctic crossing in 1914. Shackleton was highly decorated and honored during his lifetime, but he definitely wasn’t wealthy—at least not for long. He came from a working class family and was usually trying to accumulate wealth somehow, whether by making risky business investments or spending all his money on expeditions.
The key to surviving the desperate conditions that await the first Martian settlers isn’t having money—it’s balancing their response to predictable events (limited water, no atmosphere, radiation) and developing a resiliency against unpredictable events, Jennifer Buz, Ph.D., an areologist at Northern Arizona University, told Pop Mech last year.
“There’s a lot you can plan for,” Buz said, “so you could kind of prolong your life to an extent, but there’s always going to be something that’s not perfectly accounted for.”
Mars settlers will likely need to live in underground caves and carefully monitor and dole out all the necessary resources—certainly no place for anyone’s economic status to make a difference. Even the popular “first Mars city” plans put an emphasis on the per-person cost of buying uniform housing and travel, not of an optional economy of luxury goods once you’re there.
That Musk called Mars “tough sledding” speaks directly to Shackleton and other Antarctic explorers’ trips across the ice on sleds or sledges. No, Mars won’t literally involve sleds, but we’ll have to carry all the resources we need all the way to the Red Planet, and then into the sheltered human settlements, and then out with any waste products.
In fact, our lives on Mars will need to be part of one of the most closed, circular systems ever devised—quite the opposite of the way Earth’s economies are often stratified and unjust. Musk’s urge to go to Mars is caused in part by the way previous generations of explorers have colonized and exploited resources around the world.
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