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A Martian Dilemma

IS HUMANITY’S LATEST PERSEVERING AMBITION OF COLONISING MARS ECONOMICALLY FEASIBLE AND ETHICALLY VIABLE?

The Red Planet, Mars, has always been a fascinating and intriguing exploration spot for the denizens of the Earth. From Mars being worshipped as the Roman God of War1 to it being the ultimate dream home of Elon Musk’s fantasy, it has enthralled our minds and our wallets, for sure. Pacing along with the relentless ambition of humans, the question is not about whether we will establish a Martian civilization or not, rather when and how we will establish it.

Stephen Hawking has said that humanity will face a choice between space colonisation and extinction. According to him, space colonisation is absolutely central to humanity’s future2. Elon Musk thinks of Mars as a “life insurance” for Earth3 in case of a World War III or an asteroid collision. However, our species’ ambition of colonising Mars and industrialising space eventually boils down to the economics of being able to use space resources to make space technology that can be profitable in the future.

ECONOMICS OF MARS

The discovery of water4 has been an instrumental catalyst for the ambitious mission of providing a livelihood for the fellow residents of Earth on Mars. It is the only planet other than Earth that we can think of as being capable of sustaining our lives. Despite the obvious hindrances of technical constraints and biological sustenance of humans on the Red Planet, the financial and economical bottlenecks are quite apparent and unrealistically huge.

Mars One, a non-profit organisation that aimed to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars (now bankrupt and dissolved) estimated the cost of putting four people on the planet to be $6 billion.5 To put this in perspective, the cost of organising the Olympics is $5.2 billion on an average.6 On the face of it, this amount seemed quite low but the catch was that the mission did not allow a return-ticket. This meant that it would have continued to become more expensive in the long run, to sustain lives and carry on maintenance, there would have to be continuous relaunches of supplies and equipment. Elon Musk estimates the current cost of having a self-sustaining civilization on Mars is between $100 billion to $10 trillion.7 However, with the reusable rocket technology being developed by SpaceX, travel to Mars is expected to become affordable. Elon Musk claims that it can go as low as $200,000 ( Rs 1.42 crore)8, which is less than what it would cost to buy a Range Rover in India or a one-bedroom apartment in Mumbai. However, the implicit costs are fatal since the travel to Mars is going to be authorised by a one-way ticket. Even if cost-effective travel can be attained, Mars is still not a profitable venture. According to the current research base, there is very little that Mars has to offer to Earth in terms of resources. It can only be capitalised by those who are planning to establish industries on Mars. Space Moguls are only expecting the trade of intellectual property to and from Mars. The cost-benefit analysis here is a major setback to private players who wish to invest in it and the taxpayers, who would not want their money to be spent in an apparently proliferating manner.

Moreover, the economic nature of Mars’ civilisation is clearly going to be characterised by a public-private partnership. This raises a lot of concern regarding the power concentration in the hands of a few entities or governments and the subsequent monopolistic exploitation that could follow. This might also lead to “colonisation” retaining its literal meaning. Thrill-seekers and adventure tourists, who do not have the luxuries at their disposal, might enter into contracts with the respective private entities in order to reach Mars. Private entities can quite comfortably exploit these people in order to work for them on Mars. This draws a close parallel with the 19th century colonies and the tradition of slavery.

INTERPLANETARY TRADE

Mars, though not economically competitive as an individual entity, does hold a positional advantage in Space with respect to the Earth, the Moon and asteroids. An asteroid less than a mile in diameter can hold $20 trillion in value of precious and industrial metals.9 Asteroid mining is another space-centric industry and it definitely has profitable returns. However, asteroid miners will need a lot of resources and supplies on a continuous basis that can be shipped from Mars in a more feasible manner as compared to the Earth. The metal ores extracted from the asteroids can be processed on Mars, and can be easily shipped back to Earth with natural advancements in technology.

Another case for colonising Mars as presented by Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer, is the idea that Mars could pay for itself by transporting back ideas.10 The conditions of extreme labour shortage on Mars combined with technological advances and relentless innovation will drive Martian ingenuity to produce wave after wave of inventions in energy production, automation and robotics, biotechnology and other areas. These inventions, licensed on Earth and financed on Mars, will be able to enhance the terrestrial life on Earth in the same way as 19th century American inventions changed Europe and the rest of the world. Moreover, this will also lead to another wave of job creation on our planet.

THE FORKS

The journey to Mars might be easily attained and the prospect of living there may seem extremely beneficial and fascinating, but there are a few dilemmas that need to be addressed.

First and foremost, it is necessary to acknowledge that our bodies are made to sustain under conditions that are present only on Earth. It might be possible to make Mars more Earth-like and liveable for humans by processes such as terraforming (artificially introducing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere) or a more tyrannic approach of nuclear bombing. However, in the whole process of making Mars for humans to live and sustain, we are transforming it into another Earth. The planet loses its relevance as after a ballpark figure of a century or so, it will become just another place where humans leave their indelible mark of contamination and exploitation. This puts the entire species into an abysmal loop of shifting from one planet to another post ruining the former one.

The ethical constraints also pose another dilemma with respect to the sustainability and limitation of resources. Mars acting as a supposed “life insurance” for the species as a whole will require an astronomical level of inputs with respect to resources and brain drain from Earth. This might eventually lead to a shortage of already limited resources on our planet, if there is not a positive return of ideas, inventions and R&D from Mars. In the race of creating a safe haven for Earth, keeping in mind some far-fetched apocalypse, we might end up making Earth a living hell for its population in the present.

THE JUDGEMENT DAY: DOOM ON EARTH OR DAWN ON MARS

The above-mentioned points deliberate on the question of, why we are spending so much on the unrealistically distant future proposed by Mars and when we can make today better on our planet in the same, if not less amount of currency. Currently, the population stands at 7.6 billion, which might increase to 9.8 billion by 2050.11 The total expenditure as estimated by the SpaceX founder to establish a self-sustaining human base on Mars can go upto $10 trillion.7 This is about one-eighth of the global economy. 8 Does it really make sense to spend so much on Mars alone? Elon Musk calculates the cost of survival on Mars from $100 billion to $10 trillion,7 whereas the cost of cleaning 42 per cent of the entire garbage patch of the Pacific Ocean is estimated at around $390 million.12

After looking at this disbalanced outlook of statistics, we realise that our mankind is either chasing unhealthy expenditure on disastrous consumption instead of spending it on vibrant and sustainable living or we are relentlessly pursuing a future, being completely oblivious to our current problems. Furthermore, the earthly finances should be implicitly earmarked to support the exponentially increasing population on Earth. Even if we are able to make Mars a home for our species, it will only be able to provide residence to one per cent of the entire population of our planet. It clearly is not justified to spend a significant amount of our resources on something that will not even lead up to a fraction of benefits.

Invest in the future undoubtedly, but do not forget to secure a present. Our planet faces two extremely important concerns at the moment: an increasing climate crisis and a global economic crisis. The ambitious plans on Mars make sense when out of $750 billion, we spend $20 billion on our extraterrestrial explorations, while the rest goes on to make our planet a more inclusive and sustainable place to live. The list of requisite changes begins from a better set of policies for environment and humanity, an efficient spending of money on development and upliftment of communities and a blanket of peace and cooperation instead of pall of trade wars and despotic rule.

Taking in all possibilities, Mars might be our saving grace in times of unexpected disasters. So, better keep those Bitcoins* ready to have a wonderful evening in “The Mars Bar”, but make sure that you do not lose the value of your dollars, euros or rupees.

*In my personal opinion, due to the increasing influence of SpaceX over the Mars colonisation and the current news regarding the preference of Elon Musk for accepting payments in Cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin might be used as the currency of Mars.

Ananya Tripathi
First Year Undergraduate Student
Shri Ram College of Commerce

 

References

1. Mars | Roman God. (n.d.). Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mars-Roman-god
2. Kharpal, A. (2017, May 5). Stephen Hawking says humans must colonize another planet in 100 years or face extinction. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/05/05/stephen-hawking-human-extinction-colonize-planet.html
3. Colonizing Mars could be dangerous and ridiculously expensive. Elon Musk wants to do it anyway. (2020, September 8). CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2020/09/08/tech/spacex-mars-profit-scn/index.html
4. NASA Confirms Evidence That Liquid Water Flows on Today’s Mars. (2015, September 28). NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-confirms-evidence-that-liquid-water-flows-on-today-s-mars
5. What is Mars One’s mission budget? (n.d.). Mars One. https://www.mars-one.com/faq/finance-and-feasibility/what-is-mars-ones-mission-budget
6. Rio 2016 price tag rises to $13.2 billion. (2017, June 15). Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-olympics-brazil-cost-idUSKBN19539C
7. Building city on Mars could cost up to $10 trillion. (2019, August 14). Tribune India. https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/archive/science-technology/building-city-on-mars-could-cost-up-to-10-trillion-elon-musk-817877
8. BUILDING A CITY ON MARS COULD COST AN EIGHTH OF THE GLOBAL ECONOMY: SPACEX CEO ELON MUSK. (2019, August 14). Firstpost. https://www.firstpost.com/tech/science/building-a-city-on-mars-could-cost-an-eighth-of-the-global-economy-spacex-ceo-elon-musk-7161401.html
9. The Theory and Economics of Mars and Moon colonisation. (n.d.). EU Journal. https://eujournal.org/index.php/esj/article/download/10056/9546
10. The Case for Colonizing Mars, by Robert Zubrin. (1996, August). Space, National Space Society. https://space.nss.org/the-case-for-colonizing-mars-by-robert-zubrin/
11. World population projected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050, and 11.2 billion in 2100. (2017, June 21). United Nations Organisation. https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/world-population-prospects-2017.html
12. The cost to clean up the great pacific garbage patch. (n.d.). Overture Global. https://www.overtureglobal.io/story/the-cost-to-clean-up-the-great-pacific-garbage-patch

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