Elon Musk’s Mars plan scrutinized

South African entrepreneur Elon Musk announced his plan to colonize Mars some time ago. In this post I will critically review his plan and I will compare with that other plan to colonize our Red neighbour by 2023. Of course, we of Republic of Lagrangia are quite sceptical about any plan of colonizing Mars, however for a discussion of our position we will refer to this post.

The Huffington post devoted an article to Elon Musk’s plans. According to this article Musk wants that prospective colonists should pay half a million dollars for their ticket to Mars. This amount is both too low and too high. First I will explain why it is too low. We all know that (manned) spaceflight is a very expensive enterprise, for comparison: it takes 7.5 million USD a day to keep one man on the International Space Station. Actually Dennis Tito got a huge discount for his trip to the ISS, he paid 20 million USD for something less than 8 days on the ISS.

We might assume that the costs of a manned trip to Mars will be at least of the same order, perhaps a little bit more. An educated guess for the costs of a Mars mission might be 15 million USD per crew member a day. Further Musk wants to start with 10 people, most Mars missions assume a minimal mission duration of 501 days. Total costs will be 7.515 billion USD. If Musk is seeking to fund his colonization plans with the sale of tickets only, he has to raise the price enormously or he has to find additional funding.

On the other hand the ticket price is much to high. Only multimillionaires can afford to pay this without being declared bankrupt. Unfortunately the number of multimillionaires willing to pay such amount of money in order to emigrate to an extra-terrestrial desert, will be probably very low. It would surprise me, if it would be more than a few hundred (on the whole planet).

And why should the very wealthy want to emigrate to another planet anyway? History learns us that it are the poor and disadvantaged who are most likely to emigrate, looking somewhere else for better chances in life. Yes, rich people emigrate also, but mostly to places with high and expensive services, which Mars totally lacks.

The people who are most willing to emigrate to Mars are educated young people who have not much money, and therefore almost nothing to lose. How would these people be able to pay their ticket? Not at all. Of course someone else might pay for their ticket, but why? Well it might happen that the multimillionaires who are willing to emigrate to Mars, are looking for personal on their Martian estates.

In the early days of the colonization of the America’s there was an institute called indentured servitude. Under this system young people were transported from Europe to America, while their journey was paid by someone else, mostly by a ship captain. However this was not a gift but a loan, which had to be paid off. So in return for the trip, the so-called indentured was obliged to work for several years, usually seven, in order to repay the debt. When an indentured servant arrived in America, the ship captain usually sold the indenture to people who were looking for cheap labour.

In fact indentured servitude is a kind of (voluntary) temporary slavery. It’s not hard to imagine how a spacecraft is launched from Earth with a crew of ten, of which nine are the servants of the tenth person. Since 500,000 USD for each immigrant is a lot of money, even for the very rich, those who are paying someone’s else ticket will see this as an investment. And investments are motivated by return on investment, so it’s more than likely that wealthy Martians will make their indentured servants work hard.

Maybe this is what Musk really wants: a Mars covered by large domed estates, owned by wealthy terrestrial tax-refugees, on which (nearly) all work is done by contract slaves. Sounds to me as a quite feudalist society.

Of course there are other ways to fund Musk’s dreams of establishing a colony on the Red planet with 80,000 residents. Since we can safely assume that no one will pay 500,000 USD for an one-way ticket to Mars, he should think of lowering the ticket price. However this means even less money to fund his expensive ambitions.

One solution is to use a lottery system. Suppose that there on this planet some several hundred thousand to a few million people who might be willing to emigrate to Mars, but we know there is only place for ten on the first manned spaceflight to the Red planet. Now it is possible to sell lottery tickets to everyone interested, instead of winning a large sum of money you will win a trip to Mars. What would be the price of such lottery ticket? Selling one million tickets for 10,000 USD would raise 10 billion USD, which would be enough for a manned mission to Mars (this amount is higher than 7.5 billion I mentioned above, however that was a minimal estimate).

If Musk managed to collect enough funding for his Mars program, he has only enough for sending people to Mars and setting up a colony. However he lacks any idea how such Mars colony would survive economically, the colonists should still need to import stuff from Earth. This is especially true if the colony only has a few dozen members, but also in case of just 80,000 colonists. This means that the Martians should have to export stuff to Earth in exchange for the necessary imports. The only suitable economic activity we can think of on Mars, at least in first decades after the first landing, is mining. (Transit time between Mars and Earth make space tourism very unlikely.) However mining on Mars would never be able to compete with Asteroid mining.

Our conclusion is that Elon Musk’s plan for the colonization of Mars is just another heavily flawed proposal for a manned mission to Mars by private “space” groups. Musk shows no sense of realism, either in regard of the total mission costs or what people are reasonably willing to pay for a ticket. Actually we believe that Musk suffers from what is known as planetary chauvinism, a very dangerous condition.

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