- Elon Musk knows that any successful Mars settlement must be able to survive on its own.
- He also knows that Mars settlers will likely die on the Red Planet.
- Humankind could be cruising toward a new existentially threatening Great Filter.
Elon Musk recently said that the true test of his major plans to colonize Mars is simple: Will a human settlement on Mars survive if new resources and people from Earth eventually stop coming to the Red Planet?
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The reason for Musk's speculation links with his expressed worldview about the future of humankind. There are a lot of factors at play in what could sound like a simple comment. Inverse reports:
"The acid test, really, is, if the ships from Earth stop coming from any reason, does Mars die out?" Musk told interviewer Robert Zubrin during the livestreamed event. "For any reason. It could be banal, or it could be nuclear armageddon," he added.
Let’s unpack some of the questions this open-ended comment raises. First, Musk recently also said that he expects many Mars settlers will die during the process of traveling to and settling on Mars in the longer term. That’s a common theme, from imperialist settlements like Jamestown or Roanoke to the explorers who first crossed Antarctica or sailed across the Pacific Ocean.
But the idea of restocking ships, or the lack thereof, is a key distinction between different schools of thought about space living. Musk’s supporters are pretty literal and optimistic when interpreting his comments about Mars plans, but Musk has always planned for some steady stream of new traffic to bring fresh supplies or passengers. And depending on how the technology evolves, those ships could even bring back what very little waste the settlement produces.
The thing is, they’ll likely be very rare. The distance between Mars and Earth varies a great deal, with the shortest trip expected to take at or over six months. That means both a ton of pressure to include everything and to edit down to only the barest essentials in order to keep payloads feasible.
If new supplies only come, let’s generously say, a few times a year, that means the settlers on Mars will already have the mindset of scarcity, careful use, and circular economy. But it’s still very different to plan to use just one, say, bottle of aspirin versus no aspirin ever again. If the right thing goes wrong in the right way, settlers could lose access to 3D printing, for example, or environmental heating.
So how do you plan in a way that includes resiliency on this level? That’s a really tough question, and that’s why it’s at the front of Musk’s—and any Mars settlement advocate’s— mind. In Star Trek properties, characters effortlessly recycle goods back into raw materials. In real life on Earth, we can barely recycle plastic into reusable kinds of plastic.
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As for what will cause the end of supply shipments, Inverse suggests Musk’s interest in the “Great Filter,” a large-scale event that will either destroy or extremely limit almost all the life on the planet, is playing a part. There have been a handful of major extinction events in Earth’s life so far, from the well-known dinosaur die-out to the much more deadly—as in 95 percent of life on Earth—mass extinction about 250 million years ago.
Existential threat experts have suggested that one of any number of events could befall humankind and act as a next Great Filter, from a climate event that kills all living things to, much further out, the heat death of the sun.
One way or another, Earth is gonna go. And like any sensible technology entrepreneur, Musk wants to make sure he has a backup stored somewhere else.