In 2060, I’ll be 109 years old. Of course, the likelihood of my reaching that age is between slim and none, and slim’s left the building. But that’s ok.

Although, given advances in medicine and medical technology, not to mention the impending singularity, one can’t be completely sure. But I digress.

What’s special about 2060? According to Elon Musk—our modern-day mash-up of Leonardo da Vinci, Nikola Tesla, and Steve Jobs—that’s the year when a colony on Mars will reach one million people. Only a mere 44 years from now.

Musk, as you probably know, is the chief executive of Space-X, whose mission statement is:

SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets…SpaceX was founded under the belief that a future where humanity is out exploring the stars is fundamentally more exciting than one where we are not. Today SpaceX is actively developing the technologies to make this possible, with the ultimate goal of enabling human life on Mars.

Incredible journey—redux

A colony on Mars by 2060 is fascinating enough, but what promises to be even more fascinating is the journey that will unfold over those 44 years.

space-stationThere might be hope for me after all, as Musk expects earlier voyages to Mars to be launched within the next decade or so. Hmm…would they consider a 70-something explorer (or whatever age I’ll be when the first launch takes place)?

As the Space-X mission statements suggest, traveling to Mars is not a new idea for Musk and his team. The company was founded 14 years ago.

However, Musk’s vision of colonizing the Red Planet and projecting a population of one million inhabitants by 2060 has only recently come to light.

In a speech to the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico on September 27, Musk revealed his plan for establishing a human settlement on Mars.

“This is not about everyone moving to Mars, this is about becoming multiplanetary,” said Musk. “This is really about minimizing existential risk and having a tremendous sense of adventure.”

As the U.S.—indeed, the world—weathers an interminable and obnoxious presidential campaign, it’s nice (at least for me) to turn my gaze to more awe-inspiring things for awhile.

I grew up in the 1960s, when America’s quest for space travel was inspired by President John F. Kennedy. Musk’s “tremendous sense of adventure” reignites for me some of the collective pride and passion we felt as a country back then.

The space race in that era was more than just inspirational. It made the United States an economic and scientific superpower.

The technological advancements that emerged from that era paved the way for advancements in health and medicine, transportation, public safety, environmental and agricultural fields, computer technology, industrial productivity, consumer products—the list goes on.

Big questions

It’s worth taking a look at the presentation that Musk gave at the IAC, and which is now posted on the SpaceX website. Musk appears to be focusing mostly on the aeronautical technology that will get manned space flights to Mars.

musk-spaceshipWhy go to Mars? For one, there is compelling evidence that Mars has, or at one time had, water. And water is the stuff of life.

Might we find signs of life on Mars, and therefore answer the burning question of “are we alone?” It’s intriguing, to say the least.

Another reason—because we can. Mars is one of the closest planets to Earth.

Although the distance changes remarkably based on our different orbits around the sun, the closest distance is about 34 million miles.

Although Mars surface temperatures are cold, averaging about -80 degrees Fahrenheit, we can probably deal with that, as well. Antartica gets that cold, and people (mainly scientists) live there. So it’s not impractical to think that we can inhabit Mars under the right circumstances.

Venus, by comparison, while even closer to Earth than Mars, has surface temperatures of over 800 degrees, and would vaporize virtually anything that attempted to land on it. That would be bad.

Given our current technology, says Musk, it would take a ship about 150 days to reach Mars at its closest distance. That’s, of course, if we solved all the logistical problems, and everything went right.

Musk says we can, and must, improve on our current rocket science. Within 10 years or so, he believes we can produce ships that can get us to Mars in approximately three months.

In addition, those rockets and ships will be fully reusable, will be able to refuel while in orbit, and, once we get to Mars, will include the technology to produce more fuel. Thus, travel back and forth between the planets will be possible, and, according to Musk, affordable. And that’s key.

Sweating the details still to come

What are the downsides? Well, there could be many, and critics wasted no time in bashing Musk’s plan.

future-astronautWriting for the Verge, Elizabeth Lopatto opines that Musk’s ideas aren’t enough to make us an interplanetary species. She wanted the dream “to be real,” but ultimately she “was disappointed.” Musk’s plan is light on human safety concerns, she contends. It doesn’t account for the effects of radiation on the human body, and is “wholly uninterested in food or habitat.”

Writing for Gizmodo, Maddie Stone questions whether Musk’s “crazy plan” is even legal. Although, the FAA in America has jurisdiction to license rockets launching into orbit, after that, once a ship is in orbit and heading for another planet, there is no legal framework controlling what Musk is proposing.

OK, so Musk doesn’t yet have those “messy biology problems” or the legalities worked out. But is this strictly his purview? No. Any such interplanetary goal is going to be through cooperation by many organizations and funding sources. It will be a multi-decade mission, with trial and error, and lessons learned.

As Musk says himself, “It’s dangerous and probably people will die—and they’ll know that. And then they’ll pave the way, and ultimately it will be very safe to go to Mars, and it will very comfortable. But that will be many years in the future.”

Nonetheless, there appears to be no shortage of volunteers, despite the practical and existential risks.

In fact, a 2013 proposal for manned one-way flights to Mars (meaning folks would not be coming back), yielded 78,000 volunteers. There’s certainly a yearning among many to explore the cosmos, and I guess the thinking is “if I die, it’s someone else’s problem, but if I get there and colonize the planet, what an adventure!”

So, Musk and SpaceX want in and are eminently qualified to help with the logistics of getting people there—and back, too, if they want. That’s a better plan, in my estimation.

The human health and safety concerns must be worked out, no doubt. But we don’t need all the answers today.

Meanwhile, we can keep looking at the stars and dreaming, can’t we?

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