Elon Musk wants to build a city on Mars — a project that would be a precursor to making the planet more Earth-like.
On Wednesday, the SpaceX CEO explained via Twitter that this city would involve "life in glass domes at first." The planet would "eventually" be "terraformed to support life, like Earth." While the planet-changing process would be "too slow to be relevant in our lifetime [...] we can establish a human base there in our lifetime." If the worst comes to the worst, Musk explained, "at least a future spacefaring civilization — discovering our ruins — will be impressed humans got that far."
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The comments outline what is perhaps SpaceX's most ambitious plan: send the first humans to Mars, build out a city, and establish a permanent settlement. No biggie.
While Musk does not believe humans will terraform the planet in his lifetime, he said in 2019 that SpaceX's plan would enable humanity to "become a multi-planet civilization while that window is open."
The company is currently developing the Starship to fulfill the first step in this plan. The fully-reusable ship, measuring around 400 feet tall when paired with the Super Heavy booster, is designed to send over 150 tons or 100 people to space at once. SpaceX launched a full-size prototype of the ship in August to an altitude of 500 feet, and plans to launch even higher over time.
Its Raptor engines use liquid oxygen and methane as fuel as opposed to the kerosene-fueled Merlin engines on the Falcon 9. That means humans can land on Mars, harvest fuel from the planet, and either return home or venture out further. New York-based Air Company released designs in October for such a fueling station.
SpaceX confirmed a fuel station would form part of the initial base, with the ships acting as the initial habitats. Musk claimed in October that the first crewed Starship missions to Mars could launch in 2026.
From there, the firm plans to expand the base and make it self-sustaining. SpaceX engineer Paul Wooster explained in September 2018 the initial focus would be on establishing life support systems, enabling surface power, developing habitats, and building greenhouses. As the city expands, it could support scientific research projects in a similar fashion to the International Space Station. Musk has previously suggested the planet could even host pizzerias.
Terraforming would come much later, possibly after releasing carbon dioxide stored inside the planet. In August 2018, Musk shared a 1993 research paper that claimed humans could release the stores, walk around Mars with just a breathing apparatus, and ditch the need for a spacesuit. One of the author's papers, Mars Society president Robert Zubrin, claimed the soil may hold enough carbon dioxide to create an atmosphere of 300 millibars — comparable to that of Mount Everest.
The Inverse analysis — Musk may never see his long-term goal come to fruition, but the vision does generate excitement around the Starship project and SpaceX's plans to improve rocket technology.
There are some questionable elements of the plan. Researchers Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado Boulder and Christopher S. Edwards of Northern Arizona University found in August 2018 that Mars may only have enough carbon dioxide to create an atmosphere of 15 millibars.
Chinese billionaire Jack Ma clashed with Musk in August 2019 over the plans, which could cost up to one percent of global gross domestic product, declaring that Earth "needs more heroes."
But the excitement generated by the long-term proposal could help support the shorter-term goals, like establishing a base and supporting scientific discovery. These goals are more likely to see results in Musk's lifetime.
Update 11/20 6 a.m. Eastern time: The article has been amended to clarify that 2026 refers to the first crewed Starship missions to Mars, rather than the first crewed Starship missions.