SpaceX: A Blessing or a Disaster?

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A man runs away in a spaceship to land on another planet and either colonizes it or notes its threats to the human species. It’s an idea—an idea that’s worked time and time again in novels and movies, from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles to Andy Weir’s recent book and the accompanying movie, The Martian. This particular destination—Mars—and the speculations behind it strike a chord within our collective human mindset, activating a thirst for something new, something more than this. It is also a charming notion to run that far, to another planet!

The possibility of making humans a multi-planetary species has been on our minds since the beginning of astrological science, since science fiction and space dreams, since Galileo first decided to peer into a telescope and point it towards the night sky, since Neil Armstrong bounced on the moon and officially made outer space a new frontier.

Photo from NASA, taken by an instrument aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. It shows dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks on the surface of Mars that scientists believe were caused by flowing streams of salty water.

Photo from NASA, taken by an instrument aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. It shows dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks on the surface of Mars that scientists believe were caused by flowing streams of salty water.

Maybe that’s why it comes as no surprise that a high-tech company recently announced a plan to get humans to Mars. Founded in 2002, SpaceX is one of the many high-profiled technological projects created by a tech-entrepreneur and businessman named Elon Musk. According to Headlines & Global News (HNGN), Elon Musk plans on making Mars colonization a reality by 2024.

Many people are in love with the concept of running away to another planet—in love with the promise of exploration, travel, and the guarantee of strange new things never seen on Earth. Others are fearful of the thought of abandoning our homes, carrying ourselves and our fears and memories with us to possibly harm another cosmic entity in our not-knowingness. For me, the very real possibility that “anything could happen” on Mars is both a blessing and a disaster.

I think it’s too soon, frankly, for us to consider this great journey. 2024 is still eight years away, but eight years will flicker by within the blink of an eye if we’re not careful. We haven’t yet established a fully-feasible plan for colonization, a plan that not only ensures our safety and retention of culture/humanity, but a plan that also addresses the potential of alien encounters, of ethics regarding foreign concepts and matters we cannot yet fathom as earthlings, and a plan that assures long-term survival after the charm of being on another planet fades away. We also need to carefully consider our energy usage and sustainability, since present climate change facts on Earth have shown our tendency to disrupt natural cycles. Furthermore, there are the ever pressing issues of war and violence, race relations, religious disagreements, and other conflicts that we seem to carry with us as humans. In the past hundred years on Earth, we’ve seen TWO World Wars, and countless other wars, with bombs and pollution destroying the very planet we’re living on, as well as innocent lives. Before we pack up our things and move anywhere, we must first sort out our own baggage.

According to Business Insider, In April 2016 SpaceX announced that by 2018 it aims to send a Dragon space shuttle to orbit around Mars and eventually land. The purpose of this test is to make sure that SpaceX’s technology can safely land on Mars without causing a crater or blowing up. That gives the company approximately six years for improvements, ground tests, and simulations before this first space trek would begin a Mars colonization plan. Will six years be enough to properly calibrate all safety protocols on such an elaborate piece of equipment?

Photo from Business Insider. Elon Musk stands with a model of SpaceX's Dragon Space Shuttle

Photo from Business Insider. Elon Musk stands with a model of SpaceX’s Dragon Space Shuttle

Furthermore, SpaceX may be talking about Mars colonization, but not with the necessary transparency. Up to this point, Elon Musk along with the company have been particularly mum about certain details of the colonization project. During a 2016 International Astronomical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, Musk presented his optimistic 4-step plan to colonize Mars, but left the audience with a room full of questions instead of answers.

 

Here were the steps as he outlined them:

  1. Send out scouting missions
  2. Drop off a full-scale fuel factory
  3. Send pioneering crewed missions
  4. Colonize Mars

 

Well first off, I don’t think a bullet point of a plan to anything should start with the term “colonize,” but perhaps that’s just a me problem, being from a country that was once colonized by another.

Second, his 4-step plan explained nothing, which prompted a lively conversation later that week on Reddit, an open-forum discussion-based platform. That following weekend, Musk opened up an “Ask Me Anything Q&A Session” on Reddit for fellow scientists and Mars enthusiasts. While no new information has been officially revealed, some longer explanations were given…

 

Here are the amended steps, after some probing and elaboration:

  1. TEST if the Dragon space shuttle and SpaceX’s technology can safely land on Mars
  2. Use unmanned shuttles to drop off materials for a full-scale fuel factory and propellant plant, so that when manned rockets get to Mars they have a way of getting out and not just build up a graveyard of rockets
  3. Begin sending volunteers to Mars with tickets priced around $200,000 and each rocket holding 100-200 passengers with journeys lasting up to a year, perhaps more
  4. Colonize Mars

 

Again, “colonize” remains a problem. How does he want us to colonize? Who/what does he want to colonize? And why use the term “colonize?” Remember in history, when Manifest Destiny struck European minds, and next thing you know a new country nearly-decimated an entire continent of people? “Colonize America” was probably a step in someone’s plan back then, too.

Photo from SpaceX Flickr

Photo from SpaceX Flickr

For Musk’s plan, “colonize Mars” is perhaps the most important step, which he did not elaborate on. This plan does not inspire much confidence. Think about it.  This businessman is asking people to simply trust him with their lives and futures and go colonize Mars—he’ll sort out the rest if and when they get there.

If you see holes within Musk’s present 4-step plan, you’re not alone. John Logsdon, a space policy expert and historian at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute states: “He minimizes things that will require a fair amount of further research and work. All the drawings of the spaceships, you don’t see where 100 people are going to live for months at a time as they wait for the Mars journey out…” Logsdon’s sentiments accurately summed up the general confusion and thirst for details in the room when Musk left the International Astronomical Congress.

Don’t get me wrong—I like the idea of going to Mars. To be honest, I like the option of an escape plan, just in case something goes wrong on this planet. The escape plan is essentially what Musk is after. He is genuinely terrified that an apocalyptic event will force us to have to abandon Earth, so the man has set out to create a back-up plan. I admire that, especially after taking a look at all the unfortunate events of 2016, including the unreasonable number of iconic celebrity deaths (perhaps not apocalyptic, but still), and the result of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. An escape plan is very much necessary if someone as temperamental as Donald Trump has access to the nuclear codes. But right now, as desperate as things may seem, I don’t think we’re ready to just pack up and go.

When asked about his plans for climate control, by both his fans on Reddit and fellow scientists, Musk exhibited a rather casual approach to the matter, suggesting that he hadn’t even given it thorough thought and considered all parameters just yet. He remarked ideas on nuking the poles of Mars, to warm up the climate and make it livable for humans, without considering the after-effects of nuclear energy and radiation on a foreign planet. Already, he’s considering bombing the planet, when one of the reasons we may be running away from the one we’re on is because of bombs.

There are plenty of other colossal concerns that Musk has not addressed. How would we go about the governing and politics of the new world? Since Musk’s company is the organizer of the project, and people are paying him for tickets to go, would that mean control of the new world be defaulted to that of a corporation? Would that mean we wind up following corporate rules with profit-seeking as the primary mission, kind of like a more wildly-evolved form of capitalism, and are people really going to be okay with that? It would kind of be like us agreeing to all live by rules issued in something like the Apple Terms and Conditions statement—something no one reads, but signs anyway, and can wind up proving trouble for them in the future.

If a system of governing could be decided on ahead of time, and somehow all interested parties agreed to the same conditions, how would we maintain the rules and address violations? Aside from wars, there are hate crimes and smaller acts of deviance that we have to worry about. Maybe a serial killer goes on board one of the rockets, because anyone can go to Mars. What happens if someone gets killed? Certainly, Elon Musk would be against the idea of strictly policing his clients. The potential clients would have to be extremely well-off and financially-stable, since ticket prices are quoted at $200,000. How would the upper class, used to the extreme freedom wealth provides, take to being policed by something they paid for? I contend there would be major disagreements within the first batch of passengers alone.

Graphic from theverge.com

Graphic from theverge.com

Next, we also have to consider the very real ramifications of regret. What happens when people on Mars miss their families, or just the way Earth looks, and want to return home? How possible would that be, and what about the cost of getting back? Musk has expressed wishes to make these rockets reusable, which is great considering one day we’ll really be ready to leave for Mars, and wasting rockets is absolutely stupid. But right now, while the project is rapidly expanding, it is still in its very young stages. Rockets are limited. Research is still being done, and nothing is really conclusive. The cost is still high, and those who left but want to return may find themselves in a bit of a rut for years, if not forever.

Perhaps Mars colonization by 2024 is a bit scary for people like me. Again, that’s only eight years, and who knows what would happen after four years of a Trump/Pence presidency? According to TechCrunch, Silicon Valley is already losing its damn mind, and this will definitely impact the brains behind SpaceX. I don’t think it will be easy for us to reach Mars by 2024. I understand that humans like to challenge ourselves, but I don’t think that a sense of competition is called for right now. It would be more feasible for us as a species to first stabilize some of our own crises on Earth, like solving the food and medicine shortage problems in many countries and the hate and violence in others, before we decide to run away for good.

2024 is much too soon. Perhaps 2030, or 2034.

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