Ideas in Motion

The Colonization of Mars—At What Cost?

Jul 30, 2021 6:00:00 AM

The space race between the old Soviet Russia and the United States is over, but that doesn't mean interest in the moon has waned. In recent years, multibillion-dollar corporations are working with national governments to explore the Moon and Mars a priority.

SpaceX is one of the leading lights, having recently confirmed that their first crewed mission to Mars could be completed in as little as four years. In December of last year, the company's founder and CEO said that he is "extremely optimistic" that SpaceX could launch humans to Mars by 2026.

This will give us the technological capability to travel to Mars within the next ten years. But the real question is, should we be going at all?

Musk, as expected, passionately believes we should. He has long stated that the primary reason he created SpaceX in 2002 was to assist humanity in becoming a 'multiplanet civilization.' Musk echoed this goal in a recent interview, telling astronomer and Slate science blogger Phil Plait, "Humans need to be a multiplanet species."

However, as we'll see, there are costs associated with traveling to Mars that must be seriously considered. Let's take a look at each one in turn.

The costs of going to mars

Financial costs

Has working from home got you thinking of relocating somewhere quieter? If so, a move to Mars might be on the cards. Elon Musk said that he believes that one day, traveling to Mars would cost less than $500,000 and possibly even less than $100,000. The cost of moving to Mars, according to Musk, would be "low enough that most people in advanced economies could sell their home on Earth and migrate to Mars if they wanted."

Even by Musk's standards, though, this might be too ambitious. You only need to look at the cost of the most recent mission to Mars. Several billions of dollars have been spent on the latest 'Perseverance' mission. According to research from The Planetary Society, NASA's budget for the mission will increase to $2.9 billion when inflation is factored in at the end of its lifetime. The spacecraft itself received $2.2 billion in funding, while launch services for the Atlas V rocket accounted for $243 million.

An unjustifiable use of government resources

The cost of Mars exploration will also hit the pockets of the American people in a big way.

It would be less egregious if advocates of going to Mars were to collect $600 billion out of their pocket to stage their expedition, but as we see in the case of NASA, much of the cash will come from the taxpayer.

As such, adherents of space exploration are required to make their case against a slew of other pressing financial needs. When weighed against the pressing needs for health care, education, poverty reduction, military reinforcement, and reduction of the federal deficit, the argument for massive investments to send humans to Mars using current technology becomes less of a priority.

Potential human cost

The risk to the astronauts is also considerable.

Sending humans to Mars is extremely risky. There are several possibilities for things to go wrong. People could starve, freeze, run out of oxygen, or be exposed to lethal doses of radiation, not to mention the weeks-long planet-wide dust storms on Mars. Then there's the possibility of mechanical failure in space, crash landings, oxygen tank holes, and so on.

Should a tragedy occur on Mars, rescuing people is not as simple as sending another spacecraft to assist them. People could be trapped on Mars for up to two years before a window of opportunity for an Earth-based rescue mission opens up.

Time to send robots instead?

Finally, there is the argument about whether humans should even be going at all when AI robots and drones are now at our disposal.

There is a strong argument for sending up robots instead of sending people to colonize the red planet. Of course, today's generation isn't close to replacing humans, but NASA isn't planning a mission to Mars until the mid-2030s, and robot technology continues to advance at a breakneck pace. Consider what human-like robots would be able to do in two or three decades.

The safe exploration of other planets and moons is still a way off. We should only take this giant scientific leap when we are sure the risks are low. We should not put our brave astronauts—or the missions' success—at unnecessary risk. Sending humans on missions to Mars for exploration or colonization would therefore be unwise.

Stephen Hoang

Written by Stephen Hoang