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Wanted: 80,000 future Martians. Must like space travel

November 27, 2012|By Paul Whitefield
  • Photo taken by Curiosity; will the Mars rover someday have human companions?
Photo taken by Curiosity; will the Mars rover someday have human companions? (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin…)

If space truly is the final frontier, does that make Elon Musk a real-life Capt. Kirk?

Musk, the founder of SpaceX -- which has a $1.6-billion contract with NASA to ferry cargo to the International Space Station using its private Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule -- last week laid out an even bolder vision: a colony of 80,000 people on Mars.

The price of a ticket? About $500,000 a colonist. (And no, this deal doesn’t include a bridge in Brooklyn. The guy’s already done the math. He’s serious.)

But first, he said, SpaceX has to design what he calls a "rapid and reusable" rocket that can land vertically. "That is the pivotal step to achieving a colony on Mars," he told an audience at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London last week.

Which is somewhat like saying time travel is possible -- all we have to do is invent a time machine. Except Musk has a track record of success in space, and he’s a billionaire, so he gets the benefit of the doubt.

Musk told his audience that he’s talking a 10-to-15-year window for a manned mission to Mars. First, 10 hardy pioneers would make the trip, build structures and start growing crops. As the colony became self-sufficient, future missions would bring more people and fewer supplies.

As for the estimate of 80,000 colonists, that’s just math: Musk figures that 1 in 100,000 people would be be willing to take the journey to Mars, out of Earth’s projected population a decade or so from now of 8 billion.  

Which, given the percentage of folks -- on both sides -- who were ready to abandon the United States if their candidate lost the Nov. 6 election, is probably about right.

But Musk isn't the only one thinking long term. NASA just announced that it has selected two astronauts -- an American and a Russian -- for a yearlong stay on the International Space Station, so scientists can get more information on how prolonged time in space affects humans.

(I wonder, though, why NASA chose two men; wouldn't it be more interesting to send a young, single man and a young, single woman and see what happens?)

Still, I know what you’re thinking. The whole Mars colony idea seems a bit, oh, far-fetched? After all, it’s probably a one-way ticket. Sure, man got to the moon, but that was 40 years ago. And that was a trip you could do in a week or two. Flight time to Mars is half a year or more.

But c’mon. We're Americans, owners of "can do." After all, did Columbus say, “Oh, America is too far away. How about we stop at the Azores?” Did those first English settlers in the New World just give up? (OK, never mind that “Croatan” deal.) Did the Pilgrims quit when the going got tough?

No. And thanks to them (and the Native Americans who fed them and showed them how to stay alive in this new land, in return for which we stole their land and pushed them on to reservations) we now have Thanksgiving.

Sure, as far as we know, there aren’t any Native Martians waiting to help out our hardy Red Planet pioneers. 

But look at is this way: We’ve already left a bunch of junk on Mars. We might as well colonize the place -- and really trash it.

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