In Jan 2020, Elon Musk made a series of tweets about his grand ambition to establish a Mars colony of a million people by 2050. Musk is known for setting ambitious targets, but his history of failing them is also extensive. He has claimed multiple times in the past that fully autonomous Teslas were just around the corner, but the promise never materialized.
Even in theory, there are several challenges to colonizing Mars. The atmospheric pressure on Mars isn’t even 1% of the Earth. Mars doesn’t have a magnetic field, which makes it vulnerable to harsh solar radiation. The time window where Earth and Mars are closest comes once every 26 months. Practically anything needed to sustain living—from water to food—would need to arrive via spaceships.
But I am not opposing the idea on these grounds. Let’s assume all these are solvable problems. The harder problem is the lack of an incentive. What can we possibly achieve by colonizing Mars?
- Human population will probably peak in the second half of this century, and gradually decline from there. We are not growing exponentially requiring another planet to sustain us. The fertility rate is declining in most developed countries and this trend is unlikely to be reversed irrespective of technological advancements.
- Elon musk says that a Mars colony will start with humans living in biodomes. Assuming that becomes feasible, why would we want to stay on a frozen, desolate wasteland? Life inside the domes would exist, but how invigorating is the idea of staying in a prison-like structure all day?
Mars’ unique landscape might have some tourism value but a lifeless planet can only be exciting for so long and even the most fervent explorers would balk at spending months in a spaceship.
Antarctica is probably 100x more hospitable than Mars and establishing a colony there must be a thousand times easier. Even then, except for a few research stations—which are also only inhabited during summers—humans have largely avoided living in Antarctica. Why make a settlement in a place where everything is significantly harder?
- Musk thinks we need a backup plan if we manage to destroy Earth or a giant asteroid hits our planet. Even in the worst-case scenario—nuclear holocaust, climate change-induced mega-disasters, or even a giant asteroid—rebuilding Earth would still be easier than terraforming mars.
There’s only so much science can help here. Mars’ gravity is 37% of Earth. Humans can survive in that, but the long-term effects of low gravity are known to be damaging. Astronauts have to work out for nearly 2.5h every day to fight muscle atrophy. We can’t magically increase the gravity of a planet.
- The spark for European colonization efforts was the industrial revolution and the domestic industries’ insatiable appetite for resources. Could something similar make a case for Mars? The times have changed now. Resources are far less valuable than they used to be. More precious is the technology to make better and more efficient products. If something valuable turns up on Mars, it’s unlikely that mining it and bringing it back to Earth would be profitable. From an investment perspective, a Mars colony sounds pretty terrible.
This isn’t a critique of exploring Mars or trying to get humans there. I am sure it will eventually happen. In the distant future, we might have a few scientific outposts, and maybe a few people living there for an extended period. But the idea of a self-sustaining colony is not grounded in reality.
Even if it becomes technologically possible, why would anyone pour a fortune into something which will barely resemble Earth? Except for scientific research and exotic adventures, there’s nothing that can be done on Mars that can’t be done on Earth. We won’t colonize Mars for the same reason we don’t colonize several remote regions on our planet: better, more hospitable places exist.