Elon Musk recently let loose on Twitter with juicy details of his plan for a Martian city: 1 million people strong by the year 2050.
His fully reusable starships will ferry folks from Earth to the crusty brown in a 1,000 ship fleet over a decade, or 100 ships per year. He divulged the goal of launching an average of three starships per day and to make the Mars trip available to anybody willing to go.
He added it: “... needs to be such that anyone can go if they want, with loans available for those who don’t have money,” He sweetened the deal by adding: “There will be a lot of jobs on Mars!”
Starting to sound pretty good... But what's the kicker?
According to Musk, poeple are going to kick the bucket.
The first pilgrims will transport megatons of food, water, building materials, tools, life support systems, plus whatever else you need to live on an unlivable planet. And Musk knows their efforts will cost lives.
"The fundamental issue is building a base, building a city on Mars that is self-sustaining. We're going to build a propellant plant, an initial Mars base – Mars Base Alpha – and then get it to the point where it's self-sustaining. I want to emphasise that this is a very hard and dangerous, difficult thing. Not for the faint of heart. Good chance you'll die, it's going to be tough going, but it will be pretty glorious if it works out."
Decent enough pep talk. We can see why he's opening the first round of tickets to volunteers!
But the efforts of the first travellers are (hopefully) not in vain and the first to Mars will sacrifice for those that follow in the unforgiving and hostile conditions. Their sacrifice will realise Musk's goal: a sustainable city on Mars for humanity.
And that's what he calls the "acid test".
"The acid test, really, is, if the ships from Earth stop coming from any reason, does Mars die out?"
Musk went on to explain that the window to populate Mars in a self-sufficient utopia is dwindling.
He continued that the sustainability required for a functioning megacity "proabably wouldn't happen in my lifetime" and that "we're not in a secure place. Are we going to create a self-sustaining city on Mars before or after World War III? I think the probability of it [a Mars civilisation] being created after... hopefully there's never a World War III, but after [the odds of building a Mars city] is low."
But let's unpack what that sustainability means.
Restocking ships, or lack of, creates a very different idea of space colinisation. Those in support of Musk have historically been optimistic about his grand plans for Mars. However, most of the time his schemes have included a reliable stream of Starships to nourish his Mars colony.
Once the colony build is underway in earnest, resupply efforts will be few and far between. Partially because the initial colonisation effort can't be sustained for long (ten years). Also because the distance between Earth and Mars is changes over time. Because of orbits and all.
This means only the necessities are sent to Mars for the mission, while cramming as much in there as possible because the next supply wagon could be 6 months away. Even if new supplies come a few times a year, settlers will have to adopt a survival mindset and become accustomed to rationing carefully. But if done correctly, and with the right number of human sacrifices, a self-sustaining Martian city could be the future of humanity.
Only, not as we might expect.
Reaching the milestone of a self-sufficeint population sans Earth could ensure we endure as a species and it will ask greater questions about ourselves as interplanetary beings. Jim Pass, the CEO of the Astrolsociology Research Institute believes the relationship with Earth and Mars could become similar to the nations we have today.
If, or when, Mars becomes self-sufficient as a colony we could see less of a struggle for independence and more of a realisation.