Earlier this week, SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced his plans for colonizing Mars by the middle of this century, using a humongous new spacecraft design called the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), which would be capable of carrying a crew of 100 people to the Red Planet at a time. Musk's sincere belief is that this system can and should ferry up to a million Martian colonists by the 2060s.
The plan, which you can read more about in detail here, is incredibly ambitious and plenty outlandish. It's has already drawn its fair share of critical dissection by those of us in the sci-tech media. But how does it stack up to what we've learned about traveling to Mars from sci-fi? To find out, we asked Andy Weir, the author of the bestselling realistic sci-fi novel-turned film The Martian.
"The mission profile is definitely achievable, there's nothing unreasonable in it, but there's also nothing really innovative about it either," Weir told Motherboard in a phone conversation.
"I'm a huge SpaceX fanboy, I think they are the best commercial spaceflight company out there."
Weir also thinks that SpaceX's cost estimates—$230 million for the booster rocket and a $10 billion total development cost, according to Spaceflight Insider—are optimistic. "A Boeing 777, the workhorse of international travel, costs $320 million," Weir said. "SpaceX is saying that they can make a long range spacecraft for less than it costs to buy a long range aircraft, I don't think those numbers add up."
Don't get Weir wrong though, he loves SpaceX. "I'm a huge SpaceX fanboy, I think they are the best commercial spaceflight company out there," he told me. "They're innovating and forcing other space industry to actually get off their asses and innovate rather than enjoying their big contracts."
Musk and his SpaceX team have been criticized for years about their lofty plans for reusable rockets and getting to space with people in tow; the new ITS plans will no doubt incite a new level of skepticism.
One of the biggest questions raised yesterday was who would want to be crammed into a spacecraft with 99 other strangers for a minimum of three months.
Weir's not too worried about that, though. "People once gathered together in vomit encrusted boats to come to the New World," Weir said, referring to the Age of Discovery (1500s-1800s) "I did some math on the crew cabin [for the ITS] and it's actually got a huge internal volume. There's enough room for everyone to almost have their own dorm room and common spaces."
According to Musk's presentation, the ITS passenger vehicle would be 49.5 meters (162 feet) in length, and have a diameter of 17 meters (55 feet).
Weir makes a good point, as humans have put themselves through some pretty harrowing situations in search of new lands and opportunities.
But unlike the first European settlers who came to America —a land rich with soil for farming, lumber, minerals, people, and trade opportunities—Mars is a barren, lifeless, cold deadly place. "There is literally nothing on Mars that's not in abundance on Earth. So why go?" Weir asked. "The only reason I can imagine people would want to go is because humans have an inherent instinct to spread out, explore, and live in weird places."
During the Q&A portion following Musk's talk yesterday, when someone asked the space-loving entrepreneur if he planned on going to Mars someday, he seemed a bit hesitant about answering.
"I like Earth. I like the internet. I like Diet Coke. I have cats. I write about brave people —I'm not one of them."
You might expect that Andy Weir, who literally wrote the book on traveling to Mars, would be one of the first on board of Musk's ITS system, but this is not the case. So would he go?
"No, not at all," Weir said. "I do not have that explorer's instinct. I don't have 'the Right Stuff.' I wouldn't even go to low Earth orbit. If someone offered me a free trip to the International Space Station, I would decline. I like Earth. I like the internet. I like Diet Coke. I have cats. I write about brave people —I'm not one of them."
Musk's plans for SpaceX may seem a little mad or brilliant or the stuff of science fiction, but as he pointed out in his talk on Tuesday, SpaceX has delivered on some ambitious goals, goals like landing upright rockets on floating barges and becoming the first private company in history to send cargo to the space station; goals that were previously relegated to science fiction from the 1940s and 50s. (Back then, it was assumed if we ever were a legitimate space faring people than of course we would re-use our rockets!)
Transporting humans en masse to other planets like Mars has been present in that art, too. If we are to really go to the Red Planet or worlds beyond, maybe Musk and SpaceX will have proved instrumental in that process. Just don't expect Andy Weir to be along for the ride.
Correction: an earlier version of this article misidentified Spaceflight Insider as Spaceflight Now. We regret the error.
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