The Man Who Wouldn't Wait for Mars

Stephen Petranek says the Red Planet isn't the ultimate goal for manned missions. It's the logical place to start.

Getty Images / NASA

Stephen Petranek thinks we should have gone to Mars years ago — decades even. We’ve had the technology. We had the money. We just didn’t get around to focusing our time, resources, and energy on the Red Planet. Until now. With the world — and Elon Musk in particular — getting serious about Martian settlement, Petranek is preaching the gospel of plausibility. His book, How We’ll Live on Mars, which served as source material for the National Geographic miniseries MARS , is terraformed on the premise that an interplanetary human migration is both a bold endeavor and a logical one.

Inverse spoke to Petranek, the former editor of Discover magazine, about why he decided to become an advocate for Mars missions and what SpaceX, NASA, and Blue Origin watchers can realistically expect over the coming years.

What was your reason for writing the book now, as opposed to five or 10 years ago? What makes traveling to Mars more relevant and important today than anything before?

I wrote the book to be a wake-up call. I wanted to tell people we’ve had the technology to send astronauts to Mars for at least 30 years and maybe 50 years. But now, there’s been a tectonic shift in who can afford to do it, and the data has moved to private industry and away from governments. It’s going to happen much sooner than you think. In the book, I predict that humans will land on Mars in 2027. That’s after many discussions with Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX.

Musk actually believes he’s going to land humans on Mars before 2025. As he says in the book, he will be extremely disappointed if this does not happen by 2030. No government agency, including NASA, has any plans to land humans on Mars until at least the late 2030’s.

Stephen Petranek speaks at the National Geographic Channel 'MARS' premiere.

Getty Images / Jemal Countess

This is happening. We have the technology. We’ve had the technology for a long time. We need to be asking ourselves questions about why we want to do this, how we want to do this. Do we want to treat Mars as a scientific park?

You seem to see this voyage as being, in part, about understanding humanity’s relationship with Earth in a broader context.

We could all, in fact, be Martians — life could have actually originated on Mars and come to Earth with this theory called panspermia. We know that’s actually possible. We’ve never had a good explanation for how life formed on Earth.

If life went to Mars, what do you think would be required for it to thrive?

People like Elon Musk believe that you will not have a successful settlement on Mars unless you have hundreds of thousands of people, actually millions of people. I think that’s true. Our experience in space is to go someplace like to the moon, turn around and come back and forget about it. That would probably be NASA’s typical role in exploring Mars. That would be the Chinese role in exploring Mars, the Russian role. Yet, here’s this private company that says, ‘We’re going to start sending 80,000 people at once to Mars by 2050.’

The Curiosity Rover took a selfie.

Getty Images / NASA

You have an extraordinary shift in power and ability and financing that has never occurred before in human history. Things that only governments could do, private industry can now do and private industry is going to do it. That’s why I’m so optimistic it’s going to happen. I know that in the late sixties and the early seventies when the Apollo missions had proven to be a great success and NASA suddenly had to decide, what’s next? Richard Nixon decided to build a space shuttle but Wernher von Braun was trying desperately at that time to convince him to create a manned mission to Mars. He always wanted to go to Mars. Nixon chose instead to build the space shuttle and then the whole space thing went sideways for another 50 years.

Everything is about funding, isn’t it?

We launched 135 shuttle missions. Each one of them cost a billion and a half dollars. If we had only launched half as many shuttle missions we could more than afford to have also landed people on Mars by now.

What’s been the role of public opinion in this new thrust to get to Mars?

I think the public wants this. I remember as a kid the thrill of the Apollo missions. I remember the tension that was around Apollo 13 and whether or not those guys would get back alive. Everyone on Earth was focused on people going to the moon and it made us all seem larger than ourselves. It made our own existence, no matter how small it was, seem part of a much larger vision and great imagination. We also saw what it did for scientific fields and for bringing young people into science.

Science is what really makes human life better in the end. Whether it’s a medical cure or being able to make a computer as small as a cell phone, a lot of that comes out of space missions. I think the public is hungry for something larger than just our existence on this planet and 42 wars at the same time and our inability to get control of the Earth’s climate and using our air and our water as waste disposal systems. Everybody wants a grander vision. There can be no grander vision than becoming a multi-planet species. We are a nomadic species that will move on from star system to star system if we’re to survive — artificial intelligence doesn’t get us first.

Guests attend the premiere part for the National Geographic Channel's 'MARS' miniseries.

Getty Images / Jemal Countess

Where else in the solar system do you imagine humans might want to travel to? How can we use Mars as a launching pad towards other worlds?

Mars is a great launching pad because it only has 38 percent of the gravity of Earth. It takes so much energy to get out of this gravity well that we have on Earth. It’s so much simpler to have smaller rockets that can go farther from Mars.

Think of airline hubs. Mars would be like the biggest and best rocket hub we could possibly have. There are many other places in our own solar system we are just discovering that may be habitable to life forms. Titan has seas of gasoline and liquid methane and so forth. Those are hydrocarbons. We could find a hydrocarbon-based lifeform as we understand it on Titan. Europa — everybody’s very excited about Europa because there’s so much water there. We know that there’s a crust on a frozen ocean. Wherever we see water we go “ding! must be life! There are a number of places that are really worth exploring will be a lot easier to get to from Mars.

It’s basically this solar system’s version of Atlanta.

You know, Mars is 1,000 times farther away from the Earth than the moon is. It literally is 1,000 times harder to get there and to establish a permanent base there. It’s a million times more difficult if not 10 billion times more difficult to get from Mars to outside the solar system, find another Earth-like planet and try to go there. That will be the next step.

The Red Planet is ready for its close-up.

Getty Images / NASA

How do you feel about your time working with National Geographic on the Mars series? Were you concerned that the producers would be stretching the limits of scientific and technological feasibility?

I think if anything the drama is actually conservative. It’s exciting but it’s actually a conservative viewpoint of what would have happened. I’m not sure that the first rocket that goes will only have six people in it. I’m not sure that when we make the first human voyage to Mars it’ll only be one rocket. It might be two or three. A lot of other scenarios make sense. I’m pretty sure that there are going to be some extraordinary failures along the way. You know, SpaceX is going to launch a Dragon capsule on a Falcon heavy rocket with a cargo delivery in advance of humans coming in 2018. I have friends at NASA who are absolutely positive that system is going to fail.

Everybody’s thrilled that a company like SpaceX, which can accommodate failure, can do something so early and in a risky way. NASA can’t do anything that’s risky. They do something that’s risky, they look stupid to the Congress, and they don’t get the funding. They’re extremely cautious.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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