Smart Thinking

Elon Musk, do we really want to go to Mars?

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The Jackal has a question for the multibillionaire tech maverick…

Elon Musk can afford to put on a brave face when things don’t go to plan. Naturally, you don’t attain a net worth of $20.4 billion by giving up, or by failing to stand up again after the odd knock-down or two. He tweeted this morning that his rocket, Falcon X, has ‘exceeded Mars orbit and kept going to the asteroid belt’ but his company, the space agency SpaceX, has neither confirmed nor denied whether this was intentional, given the rocket’s original destination was Mars itself.

Regardless, his experiment, or statement, or whatever you’d like to call it, is a brave one – propelling an electric car to Mars is quite the mission. Particularly when it costs half a billion dollars just to get the Heavy Falcon rocket (and attached Tesla Roadster) off the ground.

I can’t help but wonder why, though? Why are we so obsessed with attempts to reach Mars? Of course, Musk has been obsessed with reaching Mars for decades (he’s also claimed that he’d like to die on Mars), but it seems a bizarre time to be pursuing something so impractical, particularly in light of Tesla’s financial position (the firm announced its largest quarterly loss to date this morning, more on that to come).

“The mission to Mars to reach Mars is impractical. We’ve got enough problems to deal with on our home turf”

And let’s not kid ourselves – the mission to reach Mars is impractical. What precisely can we hope to achieve once we get there? Mars One, the organisation that’s working to land a human crew on Mars in 2032, states its eventual aim is to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars. Mars is devoid of resources – there’s nothing there but space for us to claim that we don’t yet need. Surely, we should be focusing on maintaining the space we already inhabit, rather than preparing to land a thimble full of humans on a distant dream world.

And to those reading this thinking something fluffy like ‘but humanity’s dreams are what spur our civilisation on’ I’d much rather than men like Musk dreamed about investing half a billion in healthcare, or in developing green technologies or building clean water supply systems in remote parts of the world. We’re not going to be moving to Mars any time soon, and until that’s feasible (and I mean feasible for large parts of the civilian population, not the select few), we’ve got enough problems to deal with back on home turf.

Forgive this scepticism, but I can’t help but wonder whether this maverick experiment is an expansive publicity stunt, deflecting the fact that not all Musk’s endeavours are on track. Tesla’s quarterly losses in the three months ending 31 December 2017 were $675.4m, compared with a loss of $121m for the same period last year. Whichever way you cut it, that’s not a healthy trajectory.

Stunt or not, propelling an unmanned electric car toward Mars doesn’t seem like the most logical way to spend half a billion dollars in the current climate, although if things had gone to plan, it might have helped SpaceX to win some lucrative NASA contracts. In that light, the mission seems like an expensive gamble that’s in danger of backfiring; Musk’s Roadster has overshot Mars, and is now on course to disintegrate in the asteroid belt (or close to it).

So, Mr Musk, do you really want to go to Mars? We don’t – not yet, anyway. And we’re not sure you should be, either.