Elon Musk’s Spacefaring Civilization is a Pipe Dream

Earth is like four-and-a-half billion years old. In another half billion years or so the sun will expand and probably evaporate the oceans and make life impossible on Earth, which means that if it had taken consciousness ten percent longer to evolve it would never have evolved at all. Just ten percent longer. And I wonder how many dead one-planet civilizations there are out there in the cosmos that never made it to the other planets and ultimately extinguished themselves or were destroyed by external factors. Probably a few. You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars…we must preserve the light of consciousness by becoming a spacefaring civilization and extending life to other planets…

– Elon Musk

Elon Musk surely must recognize that for the human species to become a spacefaring civilization it is going to take the world’s nations to work as one on the task. The amount of cash required is astronomical, only a little less skyward than the materials, engineering and technological resources required to get humans to live on the moon and set foot on Mars. Musk should be spending his time lobbying the world’s major space powers to work together and set aside cold war era doctrines like Great Power Competition.

As it currently stands the United States, China, Russia—and to a degree Europe–are the only nations capable of building modules for human livable space stations and the transport systems necessary to replenish the space stations currently orbiting the planet. Moreover, they are the sole nations in possession of the skills and materials to get humans of the watery rock that is Earth.

Waking up in the morning wishfully thinking, that “the future is going to be great” slams into a brick wall when thinking about nuclear weapons modernization, terrorism, perpetual war, pandemics, health care infrastructure collapse, murder rates, drug wars and a host of other plagues that the human species inflicts upon itself. Further, the human race seems to be hell-bent on destroying its only home, The Pale Blue Dot (Carl Sagan): Climate change is here thanks to the extraordinary amount of pollution that is pumped into the atmosphere and the maniacal destruction of plant life that allows the human race to breath. More depressing is the number of endangered species around the globe.

Plastic Oceans

According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species there are 38,500 of them which includes plant life, mammals, amphibians and other species that are wantonly killed like Gray Wolves and Bears (and their cubs). It is Damn! depressing and when thinking about the human polluted oceans—including barrels full of nuclear waste on the sea floor— it is enough to cause nightmares.  An As You Sow reports cites a 2016 Ellen MacArthur Study that indicates there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050 if plastic continues to be dumped into the seas at the current rates.  Consider the damage it causes to marine life and, perhaps, humans, according to the study.

Only a fraction of plastic ocean pollution is visible. Most of it consists of tiny, degraded particles swirling in vast gyres spread across 16 million square kilometers of ocean surface, an area the size of the United States and Australia combined. Plastic particles in oceans harm marine animals in two different ways.  First, they become lodged in the digestive systems of animals, leading to impairment or death. Fish, turtles, seabirds, sea lions, and whales can all die a grisly death eating or become entangled in plastic. A recent study found that a quarter of fish at markets in California and Indonesia contain plastic in their guts, mostly in the form of plastic microfibers.  Second, plastic particles can absorb toxins already in the water and spread them through the marine food web, and possibly to humans.  Much of plastic ocean pollution is packaging. Nine of the top 10 items recovered by the Ocean Conservancy’s annual coastal cleanup are some forms of packaging or fast food dining supplies.

 Go to Mars and Die

Mars is an entirely unhabitable planet for humans. Perhaps it once harbored some form of life, but its atmosphere was stripped away perhaps by its own form of disastrous climate change. Sylvia Ekström and Javier G. Nombela writing for Swissinfo.ch highlight some of the risks for human life on Mars:

Mars is not a habitable planet. This is not an exaggerated statement, but rather a reflection of the impossibility of a normal life for organisms like ours on the Red Planet. The main problem is the weak atmosphere on Mars: it has 0.6% of the Earth’s pressure at sea level, which is equivalent to the Earth’s pressure at an altitude of 35 kilometres (22 miles). This means that water cannot be found in a liquid state on Mars. The surface layer of the planet’s soil is covered with regolith (rock dust), which was recently discovered to be contaminated with perchlorates, which are very harmful to living organisms…The loss of muscle mass and the weakening of the heart can be partially countered by a strict discipline of daily exercise. On the ISS, astronauts do two hours of intense fitness (cardio and weight training) per day, and yet they are very weak when they return to Earth. Bone decalcification is also slowed down by weight training but remains one of the most worrying issues for the health of potential Martian astronauts, as a fracture could prove fatal on Mars. Vascular problems are also considered extremely dangerous.

Why send humans to colonize Mars or construct a Moon base? The answer from spacefaring proponents is typically that humans can “do science” better than probes roaming Mars like Nasa’s Perseverance or China’s Zhurong. Robotic probes like OSIRIS-Rex have touched down on distant asteroids like Bennu to sample materials dating from the earliest days of the formation of the solar system. According to an Institute for Defense Analysis report titled Evaluation of a Human Mission to Mars by 2033 there isn’t a lot of justification for the notion that humans can run science experiments more efficiently/effectively than robotic probes.

NASA states that exploration enables science and science enables exploration. NASA’s current plans and programs for robotic missions to the Moon and Mars appear to support exploration well. However, the extent of the benefits to scientific research from NASA’s human exploration plans is unclear. [Studies] provide limited insight into the scientific findings expected from human lunar and Martian orbital missions. Internal NASA planning documents reviewed… do not adequately justify why many of the scientific activities that may be conducted… could not be performed using solely robotic means.

So perhaps it’s time for Elon Musk to go to the US Congress and the Pentagon, instead of Saturday Night Live, and also the governing bodies in the other space powers (China, Russia, Europe), and convince them that becoming a spacefaring civilization is only possible if the nations of the world drop their crazed political and military competition with each other. If Musk does this will all the vigor that he used to promote Space X and Tesla, maybe there is an outside chance his dream will become reality.

John Stanton is a Virginia based writer. Reach him at jstantonarchangel@gmail.com