SpaceX CEO Elon Musk outlined his grand plan to turn humans into a multi-planetary species before a crowd of thousands yesterday at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. There is plenty to talk about as far as this plan goes, especially concerning the crazy technology involved in getting humans to Mars. But despite Musk's promise to take everyone who wants to go along with him on his journey to the Red Planet, odds are you are never going to afford a SpaceX ticket.
As someone who is writing this in the Guadalajara Expo Center where the Astronautical Congress is wrapping up its second day, I can tell you that the above video is a pretty faithful version of Musk's speech. Yet what wasn't captured on the video, unfortunately, were the hordes of Musk-worshippers that massed outside the conference hall for hours leading up to the talk.
Packed shoulder to shoulder, the conference attendees spent about two hours bathing in their own sweat and the drool induced by speculating about what miracle the darling of Silicon Valley might be about to unveil. As a member of the press, I had the pleasure of wedging myself into the throng of journos who had also gathered outside the hall two hours before the event. Here we jockeyed for position, each hoping for the best spot in the press box. Two rows over from me, Bill Nye mingled with normies and rocket scientists near the head of a line.
As the scheduled time of the conference came and went—you must wait to hear Musk speak, and then wait some more—the air outside the conference venue became electric with anticipation. When the doors finally opened to allow the press first access to the conference hall, several members of the fourth estate took off running toward the stage. Once the media folk were all settled and the doors were opened for the rest of the attendees, I couldn't help but think about what Rome must've looked like when the barbarians arrived at the gates: waves of people galloping forth and gnashing their teeth, their eyes wild with Musk frenzy.
The last time I saw this many people work themselves into a fury to worship a billionaire, I think that billionaire was selling us an iPhone. Such behavior has come to be expected at Apple releases where there is something tangible to buy at the end of the presentation, and not acting like an animal means you might have to wait a few extra weeks to buy it. But at the IAC, the behavior seemed out of place because Musk wasn't selling anything…right?
Like Steve Jobs, Musk was here to sell us something we all seem to desperately want, but can't really afford—few of us have a spare $800 lying around for the latest iBauble, much less the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would take to get ourselves to Mars. Luckily for us, there are things called payment plans and they make the impossible possible—like affording an iPhone.
Musk has set himself a similar task, insofar as he is creating a luxury product nobody (not even NASA) can afford and he wants to sell it to the masses. Except rather than consumer electronics, Musk's product is a "fun and exciting" 122-meter spaceship bound for Mars, outfitted with "pizza joints" and lots of space for "zero-G games" to make your 3-to-6 month journey across the void slightly less miserable.
Pizza on Mars? Who could say no! But the question, Musk said, is how to bridge the gap between the people who want to go to Mars and the people who can afford it.
I couldn't help but think about what Rome must've looked like when the barbarians arrived at the gates: waves of people galloping forth and gnashing their teeth, their eyes wild with Musk frenzy.
Ultimately, Musk's goal is to lower the cost of a ticket to Mars so that it is "roughly equivalent to a median house price in the US, which is around $200,000." By Musk's estimates, this is about a 5 million percent reduction on the current cost estimates of going to Mars (about $10 billion per person, according to Musk). Still, he maintains that eventually "almost anyone, if they saved up, could buy a ticket and move to Mars."
Unfortunately, even if Musk makes buying a trip to Mars like buying a house, the reality is that most people in the United States can't afford to buy a house. Or maybe Musk will come up with some subprime mortgage scheme to finance everyone's journey to the Red Planet—although we all saw how that worked out in 2008. The main difference is when you foreclose on your Mars home and landlord Musk kicks you out, you quickly die from exposure to the hostile Martian environment, tens of millions of miles away from home.
Still, the fact that only the wealthy will ever be able to afford a ticket to Mars did not seem to dampen the crowd's enthusiasm for Musk's Martian ambitions. Perhaps most of the crowd belonged to a tax bracket where the prospect of $200,000 interplanetary ticket is not as impossibly out of reach as it is for the vast majority of people. Given the large contingent of students at the Astronautical Congress, who are not likely to make more than $1 million in their lifetime, that seemed unlikely.
Instead, I chose to believe the audience was more enthused about the prospect of sending a million people (the threshold for a sustainable Martian society, according to Musk) from the upper class to an entirely different planet.
At least the technical aspects of Musk's plan to make humans an interplanetary species seemed feasible. Indeed, just hours before his talk, a team of SpaceX engineers gave the Raptor, the rocket engine that will power Musk's interplanetary fleets, its first test run. According to all involved, the test was a resounding success. The other planned technical innovations unveiled today were equally as impressive and, based on their stunning track record, I have no doubt that Musk and his team of engineers at SpaceX are capable of realizing them.
But as Motherboard staff writer Jason Koebler has pointed out, the problem with Musk's plan to turn humans into an interplanetary species is not a technical one, but a monetary one. Traditionally, Musk has relied on large NASA contracts and commercial actors to finance his projects—according to him, these make up about one-quarter and three-quarters of SpaceX revenue, respectively. But NASA is already pretty far along with its own plans to get to the Red Planet, and at this point there doesn't appear to be much commercial incentive to colonize Mars.
Ultimately, Musk is hoping that other countries, corporations and private individuals paying their own way will help turn his fantasy of humans as an interplanetary species into a reality. In the meantime, Musk vowed to increase his own wealth so that he can invest as much of his own money as possible in his Martian space plans.
"Personally, I'm accumulating assets to fund this," Musk told the audience. "I don't have any other personal motivation to accumulate assets except to make life multiplanetary."
In this sense, the sole purpose of the frenzied crowds at the Astronautical Congress seemed to be to convince those who are able to invest in Musk's vision of Mars. We were a studio audience watching a drama unfold on stage, but we'll never be an actor in the narrative Musk is writing because we can't afford it.
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