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ELON MUSTN’T: Why We Shouldn’t Go To Mars

posted by Marcus, September 13, 2016 @ 10:41 am

I’ve searched for a way around this for months.

I’m still hop­ing some­one will read this and point out where I’m wrong.

You see, I love Elon Musk. Tes­la – the cars and the house­hold bat­ter­ies – and the Hyper­loop are all inspired. All have the poten­tial to pro­vide real ben­e­fits to human­i­ty. I hope Musk makes bil­lions; a Rock­e­feller for the new age.

But there is a prob­lem with SpaceX.

Elon Musk found­ed his rock­et pro­gram 14 years ago, with the stat­ed goal of col­o­niz­ing Mars. He has repeat­ed­ly called it an insur­ance pol­i­cy against human­i­ty’s extinc­tion, adding “I think the wise move is to make life mul­ti­plan­e­tary while we can.” Check­out his inter­view with astro­physi­cist Neil deGrasse Tyson on ‘StarTalk’ (S6E10 22/3/15, ‘The Future of Human­i­ty’). And Musk isn’t alone in this view. Dr Stephen Hawk­ing has also been bang­ing on about it since the ‘90s. At an event last year Hawk­ing stat­ed again: “I don’t think we will sur­vive anoth­er 1,000 years with­out escap­ing beyond our frag­ile plan­et.”

Nev­er­the­less, despite both these men’s great intel­lects, there are a num­ber of prob­lems with the idea. One prob­lem in par­tic­u­lar ren­ders them dan­ger­ous.


First of all, let’s be clear: As far as I can tell, nei­ther Musk nor Hawk­ing are talk­ing about extra­so­lar colonies – trav­el­ling out­side our solar sys­tem. At least not yet. The search for hab­it­able extra­so­lar plan­ets is entic­ing. It appeals to our hard­wired desire to explore and acquire. Humans have fan­ta­sised about trav­el­ling the stars since before ‘Buck Rogers’ or ‘No Man’s Sky.’ But it’s a spec­tac­u­lar­ly bad idea. Even Hawk­ing admits that mak­ing con­tact with oth­er life forms should be avoid­ed. First, we’ve nev­er found anoth­er plan­et capa­ble of sup­port­ing land-based mam­mals: geo­log­i­cal­ly sta­ble, not bathed in solar radi­a­tion, just the right tem­per­a­ture, with sur­face water but not too much, and an oxy­gen-rich atmos­phere. Even then, we have to find a way to get there — anoth­er big stretch with­out fan­ci­ful excep­tions to the laws of physics.

The truth is, we won the lot­tery with Earth. And now we want to try and win the lot­tery again?

Let’s pre­tend for a moment we do find Earth 2.0 and make it there alive. Chances are we’ll be wiped out in min­utes by a pathogen, preda­tor, or exist­ing civil­i­sa­tion that sees us as food, biose­cu­ri­ty threat, or immi­grant. There are more things that can go wrong than right, includ­ing reverse-coloni­sa­tion of Earth. But here’s the most like­ly sce­nario:

I’ll write in more detail about the Fer­mi para­dox in anoth­er arti­cle. There is a rea­son intel­li­gent life isn’t vis­i­ble through­out the uni­verse. We’re not sure what that rea­son is, but what­ev­er it is, there are no vis­i­ble excep­tions. Assum­ing any species has ever lived long enough to trav­el through space, there is an equal­ly good chance the main rea­son we’ve nev­er encoun­tered them is that ‘intel­li­gent’ life under­stands biose­cu­ri­ty risk. Even humans have elab­o­rate cus­toms con­trols between coun­tries to stop some­one bring­ing a raisin across a bor­der, yet we think we can lob a whole human safe­ly into an alien ecosys­tem? Humans are rid­dled with bac­te­ria. We’d be dead with­out them. If extra-ter­res­tri­al life­forms aren’t fatal to us – or our bac­te­ria – chances are we’re fatal to them or their food sources. We’re most like­ly to get shot down before we land.

And we need to sur­vive the next hun­dred years first. But more about that lat­er.

So let’s talk specif­i­cal­ly about inhos­pitable plan­ets with no organ­ic life in our own solar sys­tem. Like Mars.


A space colony on Mars rais­es a range of prac­ti­cal, envi­ron­men­tal, eth­i­cal and eco­nom­ic prob­lems. Not least, who gets to live in the lifeboat? Vol­umes have been penned on the dilem­mas of lifeboat ethics. Or, how do we jus­ti­fy allo­cat­ing resources to space trav­el when we still have pol­lu­tion, pover­ty and injus­tice on Earth? To pre­tend these issues are less impor­tant only per­pet­u­ates them. Per­haps more impor­tant­ly, Mars is only effec­tive as a lifeboat if it is self-sus­tain­ing. It must have its own man­u­fac­tur­ing, extrac­tion of rare earth met­als, and a per­ma­nent pop­u­la­tion. This in itself will take decades, dur­ing which time Earth will need to con­tin­ue to resup­ply the colony. These are all prob­lems with pos­si­ble solu­tions. What is hard­er to over­come – and less appre­ci­at­ed – is the impact back here on Earth.

Alfred Hitchcock's 'Lifeboat'

Alfred Hitch­cock­’s ‘Lifeboat’


Musk and Hawk­ing have var­i­ous­ly cit­ed as their moti­va­tion for a Mars Colony as the pos­si­bil­i­ty of nuclear war, mete­or strike, or dis­ease. How­ev­er, the worst extinc­tion event in Earth’s his­to­ry wasn’t any of these things. If we look back through the past bil­lion years of evo­lu­tion – since the first sex­u­al repro­duc­tion in sin­gle-celled organ­isms – none of these risks have come any­where close to wip­ing out all life on earth. The sec­ond great­est risk, geo­log­i­cal activ­i­ty, has died down as the Earth has become more sta­ble. The next, gam­ma radi­a­tion burst from a super­no­va, is a mil­lion years away. We have the tech­nol­o­gy to sur­vive an ice age, and improve the sur­viv­abil­i­ty of a mete­or strike which – at worst- still has a 1‑in‑4 chance of sur­vival. Glob­al nuclear war is unlike­ly to make every con­ti­nent unin­hab­it­able. Declas­si­fied nuclear tar­get maps illus­trate the clus­ter­ing of tar­gets in devel­oped coun­tries.

That leaves only one gen­uine threat to the extinc­tion of life on earth.

Not only is it the great­est threat ever, it is more of a threat now than ever. In fact, it has already begun. Worse still, we are already fail­ing dis­mal­ly to do any­thing about it.

Oh, and we are the sole cause of the whole prob­lem.

Has It Hap­pened Before? % Loss of Life Chance of Sur­vival Avoid­able? Immi­nent?
Trig­ger? Event? When?
GLOBAL WARMING Clathrate Gun Permian–Triassic extinc­tion event 260 mil­lion yrs ago 95% (Pre-human) 5% YES OCCURING NOW
Dec­can Traps Cretaceous–Paleogene extinc­tion event 66 mil­lion yrs ago 75% (Pre-human) NO UNLIKELY
METEOR STRIKE Chicx­u­lub mete­or 25% NO UNKNOWN
SUPER- NOVA Gam­ma Ray BUrst Ordovician–Silurian extinc­tion event 443.7 mil­lion yrs ago 60% (Pre-human) 40% NO 1,000,000 YRS
ICE AGE Glacia­tion PARTIAL 1,500–80,000 YRS
PLAGUE ‘Black Death’ 1300s-1700AD 20% (Humans only) 80% PARTIAL UNKNOWN
NON- NUCLEAR CONFLICT World War II 1939–1945 3% (Humans only) 97% YES UNLIKELY
OTHER Prob­a­bil­i­ty of a new event that hasn’t occurred or wasn’t observ­able? N/A 99.9% NO UNLIKELY


In the con­text of a bil­lion years of evo­lu­tion the great­est threat to life on earth is, well… us.

For all the talk, atmos­pher­ic CO2 lev­els have con­tin­ued to rise unabat­ed since the first sci­en­tists noticed it more than 30 years ago. This cur­rent warm­ing event – com­pared to the one 260 mil­lion years ago – is more sud­den, and occur­ring against a back­ground rate of extinc­tion that is already abnor­mal­ly high.

The fact is, we need to escape our­selves long before we escape mete­ors or nuclear war.

So let’s re-test Musk and Hawking’s log­ic giv­en that we are our own great­est threat.


Shake­speare used a won­der­ful phrase in Ham­let who plot­ted that the King be “hoist with his own petard” – or blown up by his own bomb.

The Fal­con 9’s 9x ‘Mer­lin’ semi-cryo­genic rock­ets burns two pro­pel­lants, liq­uid oxy­gen and a high­ly refined kerosene-based rock­et fuel called RP‑1. Liq­uid oxy­gen burns into more oxy­gen. No prob­lems there. But RP‑1 is a fos­sil fuel. The Fal­con 9 burns around 150 tonnes of RP‑1 in two stages. Add togeth­er ini­tial com­bus­tion, oxi­da­tion of par­tial­ly com­bust­ed CO, and aerosol effects of monatom­ic ‘car­bon black’ at high alti­tude, and a sin­gle launch emits about 500 tonnes of green­house gas equiv­a­lents. Throw in the ener­gy used to pro­duce the liq­uid oxy­gen and refine the kerosene, and the total tops out at more than 650 tonnes – for one launch. For a manned Mars mis­sion we’re talk­ing about at least a dozen launch­es a year till 2024 to get start­ed, then indef­i­nite resup­ply.

Basi­cal­ly, we’re adding to green­house gas emis­sions on earth, to escape green­house gas emis­sions on earth.

It seems self-evi­dent to me we shouldn’t be adding to glob­al warm­ing, till we’ve fixed it.

Some may argue Musk is also sell­ing Tes­las. If every­one buys a Tes­la we will sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce emis­sions, in the same way every­one should have bought solar pan­els 30 years ago, or be buy­ing wind pow­er right now. We’ve had the tech­nol­o­gy to solve cli­mate change for decades. Tech­nol­o­gy isn’t the prob­lem. It’s peo­ple. The only way we can avoid extinc­tion is to change human behav­iour.

Using rock­ets that con­tribute to glob­al warm­ing to escape glob­al warm­ing is more than a point­ed con­tra­dic­tion. On a much more pro­found lev­el, colonis­ing Mars is a con­tin­u­a­tion of the same behav­iour that got us in trou­ble in the first place. Here’s why…

Dr. Lin­da Billings (PhD) is billed as a com­mu­ni­ca­tion researcher for NASA and advi­sor to the Senior Sci­en­tist for Mars Explo­ration, and Plan­e­tary Pro­tec­tion Offi­cer. In the 2007 book ‘Soci­etal Impact of Space­flight’ Billings penned a chap­ter titled: ‘Ide­ol­o­gy, Advo­ca­cy, and Spaceflight—Evolution of a Cul­tur­al Nar­ra­tive’. In it she wrote:

…exam­in­ing the his­to­ry of space­flight advo­ca­cy reveals an ide­ol­o­gy of space­flight that draws deeply on a durable amer­i­can cul­tur­al narrative—a nation­al mythology—of fron­tier pio­neer­ing, con­tin­u­al progress, man­i­fest des­tiny, free enter­prise, rugged indi­vid­u­al­ism, and a right to life with­out lim­its.”

The ‘ide­ol­o­gy’ Billings describes is basi­cal­ly a list of the rea­son we’re dri­ving toward extinc­tion – the very rea­sons we’re even think­ing about need­ing a lifeboat. ‘Fron­tier pio­neer­ing’ led to the oppres­sion of indige­nous peo­ples and extinc­tion of sus­tain­able cul­tures every­where. ‘Con­tin­u­al progress’ for its own end is worth­less where the goal is unguid­ed. Humans do not have a ‘man­i­fest des­tiny’. Des­tiny should be based on mer­it. ‘Rugged indi­vid­u­al­ism’ is a bar­ri­er to solv­ing a col­lec­tive chal­lenge like cli­mate change. And as for ‘a right to life with­out lim­its’, that’s just absurd, bor­der­ing on evil. The earth has lim­its. Oper­at­ing with­in those lim­its is essen­tial to our sur­vival. All told, if we work off Billings’ list of mer­its, the ‘Soci­etal Impact of Space­flight’ is entire­ly neg­a­tive. (Based on this one-eyed list of val­ues, there’s no rea­son for space trav­el at all.)

This may seem like an abstract obser­va­tion today, but place your­self a few decades in the future, when the Mars colony is still depen­dant on resup­ply from Earth, and the impacts of cli­mate change have become far worse. Invest­ing resources (and green­house gas emis­sions) to pre­serve an elite few on a dis­tant colony will become a more glar­ing moral con­tra­dic­tion.


DeGrasse Tyson’s pod­cast intro­duces Musk’s inter­view with the descrip­tion “why Elon feels it’s impor­tant to not be stuck here on Earth.”

Stuck’ on Earth?

For thou­sands of years humans have main­tained the illu­sion that we are some­how sep­a­rate from the nat­ur­al world. Every mol­e­cule in our DNA was formed by the light of our sun, to coex­ist with tril­lions of oth­er species. Make no mis­take, nat­ur­al selec­tion and all the forces of the Uni­verse – geo­log­i­cal and cos­mo­log­i­cal – weed­ed out bil­lions of oth­er species and per­mit­ted us to sur­vive. The chance of find­ing any oth­er home that will be so gra­cious is infin­i­tes­i­mal.

The real rea­son cli­mate change is such a threat isn’t that we’ve burned too much fos­sil fuel. It’s that when we realised it was a prob­lem, when we still had time to change, we made excus­es for inac­tion. We claimed spe­cial priv­i­lege. We main­tained this arro­gant, ungrate­ful illu­sion of our sep­a­ra­tion from the nat­ur­al world. For 10,000 years we have made every pos­si­ble excuse to avoid the ter­ri­fy­ing real­i­ty that this is the only plan­et we have, or that we have to earn the right to exist. We imag­ine after­lives, invent gods, and dream of space all to avoid tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for our mor­tal predica­ment. Pre­cise­ly because Earth is so frag­ile, it is the only plan­et we can thrive: with the right tem­per­a­ture, atmos­phere, resources, and com­pat­i­ble species — free of preda­tors, tox­ins, virus­es, or cos­mic death rays. We have evolved here over a bil­lion years for pre­cise­ly these con­di­tions, as have our food sources and sym­bi­ot­ic bac­te­ria. We enter­tain the most absurd fan­tasies to allow our­selves not to do what is nec­es­sary for our sur­vival. As long as humans think god, tech­nol­o­gy, or inter­stel­lar escape will save us, we will con­tin­ue our lack­adaisi­cal approach to the real threat here on Earth: us.

In Feb­ru­ary 2011 then CEO of Nokia, Stephen Elop sent the infa­mous ‘Burn­ing Plat­form’ memo to all 68,500 staff, relat­ing the sto­ry of “a man who was work­ing on an oil plat­form in the North Sea.” That man was Andy Mochan, a superinden­dant on the fate­ful Piper Alpha oil-drilling plat­form which explod­ed in 1988. Mochan mirac­u­lous­ly sur­vived the explo­sion by div­ing 15 storeys from the fire-engulfed rig into freez­ing waters, say­ing lat­er “It was fry or jump, so I jumped.” Nokia jumped. Sub­se­quent­ly, by adopt­ing Microsoft’s oper­at­ing plat­form, they sur­vived. When Musk and Hawk­ing cite five kinds of apoc­a­lyp­tic hell as a rea­son to leave, they sug­gest Earth is a ‘Burn­ing Plat­form.’

Con­sid­er then, 469 years before Mochan jumped off his plat­form, Span­ish Cap­tain Hernán Cortés. Cortés land­ed in Ver­acruz to attempt the con­quest of the Aztecs. Now, I’m reluc­tant to rec­om­mend the log­ic of a geno­ci­dal Con­quis­ta­dor who brought about the destruc­tion of one of the world’s old­est civil­i­sa­tions, but he is the most fre­quent­ly cit­ed exam­ple of the fol­low­ing: Cortés gave the order to his men to burn the ships after they made land­fall. Cortés under­stood that his crews would only apply them­selves to sur­vival in the ter­ri­to­ry if he removed the pos­si­bil­i­ty of escape. They went on to more than dou­ble their num­bers through alliances with local tribes, and wiped out the Aztecs. But Cortés was by no means the first to employ this strat­e­gy. There are dozens of exam­ples of the ‘Burn the Ships’ trope in every cul­ture, at every point in his­to­ry: the myth­i­cal Tuath Dé inva­sion of Ire­land, the Tro­jans (Book V, The Aeneid), the Sidon­ian rebel­lion against Ochus, Alexan­der the Great’s inva­sion of Per­sia, Chi­nese war­lord Xiang Yu of Chu, the Roman Pre­fect Ascle­pi­odotus, Emper­or Julian the Apos­tate, Tariq ibn Ziyad in con­quest of Spain, Swedish hero Styr­b­jörn, William the Duke of Nor­mandy, the 1169 free­boot­ers raid of Wex­ford, the pirate De Lus­san, Ger­man­ic war­rior Hög­ni, John Paul Jones vs HMS Ser­apis and the mutiny on the Boun­ty.

As a rule, the only way an idea is arrived at sep­a­rate­ly in every human cul­ture is if it is hard-wired into our brains.

Both the ‘Burn­ing Plat­form’ and ‘Burn the Ships’ analo­gies illus­trate the pow­er of a forced hand, and the sur­vival instinct. But they are also oppo­sites. Mochan sought per­son­al self-preser­va­tion in a des­per­ate soli­tary leap, where­as the ship-burn­ers all led armies. Musk and Hawk­ing too are sug­gest­ing a soli­tary leap to sur­vival, rather than a col­lec­tive strat­e­gy.

There’s also a ques­tion of tim­ing: For Mochan is was too late to save the plat­form, where the ship-burn­ers were all dri­ving toward a goal.

The ques­tion for Musk and Hawk­ing is much the same. Is the Earth real­ly a ‘burn­ing plat­form’? Is it too late to save the Earth? Or do we need one last big push, one last act of des­per­ate sur­vival? Are we hap­py to cel­e­brate Billings’ and NASA’s cul­ture of ‘indi­vid­u­al­ism’? Or, by relin­quish­ing the sur­vival of all humankind, are we con­ced­ing fail­ure?

And by build­ing a lifeboat are we accel­er­at­ing our defeat?

Burning the Philadelphia, 1804

Burn­ing the Philadel­phia, 1804

Imag­ine an Earth rav­aged by cli­mate change, with a Mars colony in the mix – both a phys­i­cal lifeboat and a mon­u­ment to Billings’ ‘man­i­fest des­tiny’, ‘indi­vid­u­al­ism’ and ‘life with­out lim­its.’ As cli­mate change wors­ens, pro­mot­ing polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty, eco­nom­ic col­lapse and a tide of refugees, Earth will con­tin­ue to become less attrac­tive as a home, but requir­ing an inverse­ly pro­por­tion­ate ded­i­ca­tion to the cause of sav­ing it. Mean­while, Mars – reliant on resup­ply from Earth – will become inverse­ly more con­tro­ver­sial, and with­out a sig­nif­i­cant change in human behav­iour an increas­ing sym­bol of elit­ism. The incon­gruity of con­tin­u­ing to allo­cate resources to a dis­tant colony as Earth declines, must even­tu­al­ly reach flash point. His­to­ry pre­dicts that some­one at some point will decide to ‘burn the ships’ regard­less. But more impor­tant­ly, what kind of mes­sage does it send to all those whose help we need to bail water now from our sink­ing ves­sel, if one of the heroes of the cause is plan­ning his escape?

More­so, how much then does the pos­si­bil­i­ty of escape dilute the focus of those with con­cen­trat­ed wealth and pow­er?

We must focus all our ener­gy on pre­serv­ing life on Earth. All of us. Or fail at our per­il.

Burn the ships.

You can build them again once we have saved this plan­et.

4 Responses to “ELON MUSTN’T: Why We Shouldn’t Go To Mars”

  1. Arthur Little says:

    Lay­off SpaceX for launch­ing a few small chem­i­cal rock­ets per year or men­tion in your arti­cles all the oth­ers doing so, oth­er­wise I’ll assume you are in the employ of some SpaceX com­peti­tor. Why don’t you add to your mus­ing on things bad for the plan­et the fact that Chi­na and India of have been coal burn­ing pow­er plants online at the rate of ~2 per month and between 1 and 2 per month, respec­tive­ly for the last 20 or so years. These are not even remote­ly “clean coal” plants like we are lead to believe the U.S. has these days; no sir these pow­er plants are the rag­ing, pol­lu­tion pro­duc­ing night­mare types. Sim­ply wit­ness the god awful air qual­i­ty in Bei­jing and parts of India. Peo­ple are won­der­ing why the skies over Amer­i­ca are no longer the shade of blue they remem­ber from their child­hoods, I sub­mit that Chi­na and India are to blame as their (rel­a­tive­ly) new­ly acquired abil­i­ty to pro­duce air pol­lu­tion on a grand scale now winds up in our air and blue becomes pale blue. Write about this and when you do email me a copy please.

  2. Arthur Little says:

    When you “mod­er­ate” my pre­vi­ous com­ment would you please insert the word “bring­ing” right before coal burn­ing, I thought I caught all my typos but that escaped me. And anoth­er thought… When the world sought to bring Chi­na to task about all their new coal fired pow­er plants, and asked if they would­n’t please try to clean them up, Chi­na replied some­thing on the order of, “Hey guys get off our back, you all got to pol­lute the plan­et for a hun­dred years before we even got into the game, so it’s our turn to do it now!” Spo­ken like a spoiled 8 year old child.

  3. Marcus Marcus says:

    10,000 ‘wrongs’ don’t make a ‘right’

  4. D. C. says:

    Hel­lo. Going to Mars is not exact­ly a reli­able busi­ness mod­el. There must be oth­er rea­sons for devel­op­ing large rock­ets. 🙂