Last Week in Tech Law & Policy, Vol. 38: Colonizing Mars—Fact or Fantasy?

(by Jodi Wallace, Colorado Law 2L)

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong proclaimed, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Buzz Aldrin followed, describing the moon’s surface with the words “magnificent desolation.” For a few short hours, the two men explored the lunar surface, gathered samples, and then climbed back aboard the lunar modular to come back to Earth.

47 years after Apollo 11 was launched to take the first astronauts to the moon, Elon Musk  (chief executive of SpaceX) has announced his plans to create a permanent human settlement on the surface of Mars. But Elon Musk is not alone in this ambition—his announcement is only the most recent, and perhaps the broadest in scope.

In 1952, Wernher von Braun (a German aerospace engineer that later helped design the rockets for NASA’s Apollo Program) published Das Marsprojekt (The Mars Project), a novel that envisioned a mission to Mars. His concepts were so popular that some of NASA’s first studies as an agency was an outline of operations for a manned Mars mission. President George W. Bush later called for the creation of the Constellation Program (now disbanded), a plan to once again set human boots on the moon and to develop technology that would lead to human exploration of Mars. President Obama, in an editorial for CNN this month, wrote about his hopes to send “humans to Mars by the 2030s . . .  with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.” The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee has recently passed a bipartisan bill supporting President Obama’s ambition, authorizing almost $20 billion in funding for NASA, with a mandate that the space agency launch a manned mission to Mars within the next 25 years.

SpaceX’s Red Dragon Project and Elon Musk’s Plan to Build an “Interplanetary Colonial Transporter”

How will these ambitions become a reality? There are a variety of plans, many of which are still vague in detail. The earliest on the horizon will be SpaceX’s Red Dragon project, which aims to send a Mars lander in 2018. The Red Dragon project would be the first spacecraft to land on the red planet with rocket engines (thrusters that will ignite at supersonic speeds, slowing the spacecraft down until landing legs deploy as the craft settles on the Martian surface) rather than with braking parachutes.

NASA has provided some labor and expertise to SpaceX—at a value estimated to be over $30 million—in exchange for information regarding how the supersonic retro-propulsion system works in the Martian atmosphere. NASA’s ambition is to use the information gathered from SpaceX’s Red Dragon project to help NASA plan its own project to Mars—and the information from Red Dragon will be significantly cheaper and arrive more quickly than that which might be derived from a NASA-run mission.

Reusable rockets will also be necessary for Mars colonization, according to Elon Musk. By 2025 or so, the entrepreneur hopes to build and launch what he calls an “Interplanetary Colonial Transporter” that will be capable of shuffling groups of a 100 people from Earth to Mars in around 80 days. By 2060, Musk believes, these trips will lead to over one million people having settled on the red planet.

Getting to Mars is a Long Trip, But SpaceX Just Made it Shorter with the Raptor Engine

Musk’s plans are eccentric, but they may also be within the realm of possibility. According to NASA, current missions take about 8 months to travel from Earth to Mars (when Mars is in its closest orbit to Earth). If humans were to travel to Mars, they would have two options: (1) to stay on Mars for only a few weeks before traveling back to Earth, or (2) to stay on Mars for almost a year until Mars and Earth pass by one another again.

SpaceX has recently developed and tested their Raptor interplanetary transport engine—a necessary component of its Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). ITS would have 49 Raptor engines and, according to Musk, could improve travel time to where a trip to Mars would only take 80 days (and maybe even just 30 days in the near future).

However, funding a project for interstellar travel isn’t cheap, and SpaceX will mostly likely need assistance from private and public funding. Currently, Musk estimates colonizing Mars might take $10 billion, though this early in the project, that estimate is likely imprecise.

Other Problems that Arise When Planning a Colonization Effort for Mars

Besides the technological and funding issues, a colony on Mars will face a multitude of other hurdles. The Martian atmosphere has less protection from solar radiation, and the planet has a very weak magnetic field, which may be essential for protecting the planet from solar wind. Gravity on Mars is roughly a third of Earth’s, which could have untold health effects on humans over long-periods of time. National Geographic, in response to Musk’s announcement, pointed out that a trip to Mars “is like visiting an even more inhospitable Antarctica, and its unbreathable atmosphere is less than two percent of what you’d find on Everest’s summit.” Creating sustainable living conditions will be herculean tasks (which SpaceX is not planning on contributing to—its plan is to provide the interplanetary transportation, not the tools to build a city on the red planet).

A mission to Mars may indeed be possible in the near future—we’ve already successfully sent unmanned missions to the Martian surface—but a colony on Mars is a colossal undertaking that we may or may not be ready to take. Presidential candidate Donald Trump has suggested that it is an undertaking that we should not invest in, given the multitude of issues we could spend the money on at home on Earth.

Other Questions Still Remain Unanswered

Is a plan to colonize Mars revolutionary, or unrealistic? Even if the mission is possible, is such an ambition a worthy goal, or would the funding for a Mars mission be better spent improving life on our own planet? Is a mission to Mars the ultimate multicultural task, uniting countries from around the world in developing technology and raising capital, or is it another way—and another place—for America to fight for dominance? Should space travel be a private enterprise, or public? National or international? Should NASA use government funding to help private companies in space travel? If private companies do colonize the red planet, should there be a national or international body approving each mission? And, if a mission to Mars was possible, would you go?