Elon Musk wants to build a city on Mars, but Werner Herzog says the plan is unequivocally a "mistake."
SpaceX CEO Musk has a plan to send the first humans to Mars in the mid-2020s, using the under-development Starship rocket. Once they get there, Musk wants to build out a self-sustaining, million-strong city on Mars by 2050.
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But famed film director Herzog tells Inverse there is a massive flaw in the latter half of Musk's plan.
In a blistering criticism, Herzog describes the idea as "an obscenity," and says humans should "not be like the locusts."
In the interview, conducted earlier this month prior to the release of his documentary on asteroids, Herzog also compares Musk's plan to the rise and collapse of communism and fascism in the 20th century. The 21st century will "quickly" end the "technological utopia like colonizing Mars," he says.
Herzog is not opposed to going to Mars at all. In fact, the German filmmaker would "love to go [to Mars] with a camera with scientists." But the long-term vision of a Mars city is a "mistake."
Herzog's main concern is that humanity should "rather look to keep our planet habitable," instead of trying to colonize another one.
"We should not be like the locusts, coming, grazing empty our planet, okay, and now where we go next?"
In short, Mars is not a livable place. There is no liquid water at the surface, or air to breathe. Solar wind means inhabitants would be "fried like in a microwave," Herzog says.
Musk has responded to this kind of criticism before. In 2018, he shared research suggesting water ice exists on Mars in the Korolev crater, and hinted the planet "needs a warmup." Over time, researchers have detected more than 1.2 million cubic miles of water ice at or near the surface of Mars.
Musk has repeatedly mooted a plan to heat up the planet and release stored carbon dioxide, citing a 1993 research paper as evidence it would work. He claims doing so would enable humans to walk around Mars with just a breathing apparatus.
This claim is controversial, to say the least. A 2018 study found that if scientists released Mars's carbon dioxide stores, it would generate an atmosphere of around 15 millibars of pressure — far below the 1,000 millibars found at Earth’s sea level. Musk responded to the research by writing that "there’s a massive amount of CO2 on Mars adsorbed into soil that’d be released upon heating," but the evidence is lacking.
"The thought alone is an obscenity."
Researchers have also voiced concerns about the effects of space radiation on Mars. Musk said in 2016 that it's "not deadly" and "not too big of a deal," but studies done on the International Space Station and Earth suggest time spent in space does have significant health consequences. To get around the problem, in 2017 Musk proposed solar storm shelters on the ships designed to double up as the first habitats. NASA scientists have proposed a magnetic shield to protect against solar winds, too.
Another problem Herzog has with Musk's ambitions is to do with the plan to use the refuelable Starship to fly to Mars, set up a base and means to create more fuel, and then let the ships return home or venture out further by establishing bases along the way. While Musk's plan for a "multi-planetary species" is ambitious, Herzog is not convinced.
"I think Elon Musk stylizes himself as some sort of a technological visionary," Herzog says. "Because he has to sell his electric cars, wonderful that he does that. He has to sell his reusable rockets. Wonderful that he's doing it."
"But I disagree with him when he postulates and preaches about colonizing Mars," Herzog says.
"And I have to tell not only Elon Musk, but everyone. And so I say it as straightforward as it can be... it is an obscenity. The thought alone is an obscenity."
Musk has been criticized before for focusing on moving to Mars rather than fixing Earth. In a 2019 on-stage appearance with Jack Ma, the Chinese billionaire told Musk that Earth "needs more heroes...improving things every day."
The SpaceX CEO replied: "I think important for us to take the set of actions that are most likely to continue consciousness into the future" — in case something happens to Earth, in other words.
Herzog compares Musk's utopian vision to that of communism and fascism. Herzog says the 20th century was "in its entirety a mistake," which brought "the demise of great social utopias" like communism "as being the paradise on earth."
"No, it failed," Herzog says. "Second failure, fascism, Aryan master race will dominate and improve our planet Earth and really improve humanity. Thank God, both these gigantic utopias were brought to an end."
The same will happen to Musk's Mars city, Herzog predicts.
"Our century very quickly will bring to an end technological utopia like colonizing Mars. We will end this utopia very, very quickly within this century."
Herzog has discussed Musk's Mars ambitions with him before. In the 2016 documentary Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Herzog asked Musk during an interview for a "one-way ticket" to Mars, adding that "I'd be your candidate."
Musk's response at the time suggested that he's aware not everyone shares his enthusiasm: "I do think we'll want to offer round trips because a lot more people would be willing to go if they think that, if they don't like it, they can come back," Musk said.
But if the reason humanity leaves Earth is because our own planet is in a mess, returning home might be easier said than done.