Why Elon Musk's Mars Vision Needs 'Some Real Imagination'

Mars chronicler Kim Stanley Robinson offers some pointers on the road to the red planet.

Elon Musk Reveals Plan for a City on Mars

When Elon Musk introduced earthlings last month to his vision for cities on Mars, his 90-minute remarks fired up imaginations everywhere—except on Mars. For now. 

Kim Stanley Robinson has done as much as anyone to bring the idea of colonizing Mars into the mainstream. The writer entwined knowledge, reasoning, and imagination into his landmark Mars trilogy—Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993), and Blue Mars (1996). 

And to Robinson, Musk's Martian future looks a lot like other people's familiar past.

"Musk’s plan," he said, "is sort of the 1920s science-fiction cliché of the boy who builds a rocket to the moon in his back yard."

An edited transcript of an interview follows.

President Obama extolled Mars exploration in an op-ed this week. His chief scientific adviser and NASA's administrator both backed him up in a blog post. Must be encouraging to see official support for a conversation relaunched by Musk from the private sector.
It’s really heartwarming to see the old science fiction visions of everyday presence in and use of space coming true. I also like the public sector leadership and their “off-earth, for earth” rationale, which is the strongest one by far. Wonderful stuff. 

It’s 2024. Musk figures everything out and gets funding. He builds his rocket, and 100 people take off. Several months later, they land (somehow) and have to get to work remaking a planet.
I have to note, first, that this scenario is not believable, which makes it a hard exercise to think about further. Mars will never be a single-person or single-company effort. It will be multi-national and take lots of money and lots of years.

Musk’s plan is sort of the 1920s science-fiction cliché of the boy who builds a rocket to the moon in his backyard, combined with the Wernher von Braun plan, as described in the Disney TV programs of the 1950s. A fun, new story.

What is the optimal distribution of skills among 100 people who could each afford $200,000 to $500,000 a seat for such a high-risk endeavor?
They would not pay to get in but would be selected and trained, as any astronauts are and need to be.

Has SpaceX vested authority in someone—or a group—to run Mars?
It wouldn’t be SpaceX deciding these things. 

Who’s in charge?
This would be an uneasy mix of legal rule from earth, following the Outer Space Treaty and the regulations of the organizing bodies involved (NASA, the UN, and whoever else) and local decisions made ad hoc by direct democracy.

Do they all have to wear uniforms, as on Star Trek or in Biosphere 2? Why? Why can't I wear jeans?
Indoors, people would wear what they wanted for comfort. Outside, they’d be in special Mars suits that are not like spacesuits. They would resemble diving drysuits in some respects. Getting in and out of the clothing and the shelters would be a big effort, and keeping the dust out of the shelters would be really hard but necessary.

What part of Mars is best to land in?
This is a topic much discussed! You want to find a place near the equator but with obvious water supplies. You’ll want to land in a flat spot, but near some canyons or craters or other walls that might give settlers a chance to dig sideways to get some shelter underground for protection from radiation. I’ll be voting for the place I had my First Hundred land in Red Mars.

As someone eccentrically but reasonably asked Musk in Mexico, what’s the sewage system like?
They’ll be working to create a closed biological life-support system, which is something that the Soviets studied more than the Americans during the space race. In these systems, the hope is to waste nothing, so sewage would be integrated back into the ecological system as fertilizer for the farms. People would be busy for many years trying to make such systems work.

Cosmic radiation is a real thing, even though they’re mostly protected. How many people live long enough to get cancer?
Cancer risk—and "space brain!"—would be higher than here. People would therefore live under about 30 feet of Martian soil (regolith) to reduce their cancer risk, and probably they would limit their time outdoors, where exposure would be greatest. It would make sense to send middle-aged people, to reduce the exposure times involved.

How are people responding to 38 percent gravity after the zero-g flight?
No one knows the answer to this one! We’ve seen people on the moon for a few hours, which is more like 18 percent earth-g; they bounced around okay, but there wasn’t time to judge health effects. One can guess—like, say it’s about 38 percent better than zero g, but 62 percent worse than living on earth—but this is just a guess. We will only find out by doing it.

It therefore makes sense to organize this as a long-term experiment in which crews land on Mars, work there for a year or two, and then return home for medical study. It would resemble the way we now explore Antarctica: People rotate in and out; no one lives there for their whole lives.

At what point are they able to start producing fuel for the return trip?
That could be done robotically before they even arrive.

Everyone wants sustainability and sustainable development. But it’s hard to define on earth.
Sustainability is quite definable and rests on bio-physical parameters and balances that can be measured and described. It’s an ecological equation of sorts, big but not impossibly complex. It tends to be messed up by what is often called economics.

What needs to happen for the Mars colony to live sustainably and give humanity the lifeboat Musk envisions?
It’s important to say that the idea of Mars as a lifeboat is wrong, in both a practical and a moral sense.

There is no Planet B, and it’s very likely that we require the conditions here on earth for our long-term health. When you don’t take these new biological discoveries into your imagined future, you are doing bad science fiction.

In a culture so rife with scientism and wish fulfillment, a culture that's still coming to grips with the massive crisis of climate change, a culture that's inflicting a sixth mass-extinction event on earth and itself, it’s important to try to pull your science fiction into the present, to make it a useful tool of human thought, a matter of serious planning as well as thrilling entertainment.

This is why Musk’s science fiction story needs some updating, some real imagination using current findings from biology and ecology.

In the '60s we were up against the Soviets to get to the moon, or thought we were. What will propel us to Mars, if there's no analogous existential national competition? 
Good question. I think Oliver Morton made a very good point—that we as a civilization have an intense interest in what you might call the most difficult feat of exploration possible in our time. In the 19th century, the interest was in the poles, then Everest, and in the 20th century, the moon. What might confirm this is that once we achieve these exploration goals, we lose interest. So now there are bases at the South Pole. Tourists go up Everest. We went to the moon and then cancelled missions, etc. Our interest always turns to the next-hardest thing possible.

Compared to the Mars shot, the moon shot looks like a cakewalk.
My feeling now is that faced with the extreme expense, technical challenge, and danger of going to Mars, interest is going to shift to the moon as a destination that can actually be reached and occupied during some of our lifetimes. Planning for Mars is always very enthusiastic up until the moment of realization that the project’s unavoidable realities means it is going to take decades. All these things being talked about on Mars might be doable on the moon—colonies, tourism, resource extraction. So I’m guessing we may see that shift pretty soon.

Tell me what you think of this image. It's the future red planet, imagined by SpaceX:

Red Planet no more: This image is a still from a four-minute SpaceX video illustrating Elon Musk's vision for colonizing and transforming Mars.

Red Planet no more: This image is a still from a four-minute SpaceX video illustrating Elon Musk's vision for colonizing and transforming Mars.

Source: Courtesy SpaceX

I like it. The time lapse might be 300 years or 3,000 or 30,000.

The Mars flag, as designed by the Mars Society 15 or 20 years ago, is a trio of vertical stripes: red, green, and blue. It’s the vision of terraforming outlined by the "Mars Underground" crowd in the '70s, following on visionary work by Carl Sagan and others. Chris McKay, Martyn Fogg, Bruce Mackenzie, Robert Zubrin, Carol Stoker, Penny Boston—the list goes on of planetary scientists who saw that Mars had the volatiles needed to heat up an atmosphere and see what happens. It’s a grand vision, and I was lucky to be the science fiction writer there at the time, say 1985, to pick up on it and turn it into a long novel.

These things can only be done for the first time once. So I can say, in terms of the novel, that that was me, with Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars. I feel lucky.

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