At a small Future Tense gathering last night, Elon Musk—he of PayPal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX—discussed the privatization of space travel and exploration with Robert Wright, host of “The Wright Show” on Slate. Musk explained the technology he envisions for SpaceX, like “full and rapid reusability” of spacecraft and methane as fuel; he also expressed his disappointment with the space industry’s post-Saturn V progress—or, rather, decline: “We take for granted that technology improves, but that’s not been the case” with space, he said.
When the discussion turned to space tourism, Musk suggested that in 10 years, a person might be able to buy a trip to space for the relative bargain of $100,000 to $200,000. But “I don’t know if there’s enough interest in just going to orbit,” he said. When it comes to bringing lay people into space, his focus is on getting them farther afield: Mars. He imagines that it would be possible to start bringing everyday people to Mars for a self-sustaining colony perhaps 10 years after first landing there, once there’s a high flight rate, a reusable launch system, and a low-cost source fuel—perhaps methane—he envisions a self-sustaining colony. He wants a trip to Mars to cost about $500,000, or “roughly the cost of a middle-class house in California.” Why that price point? Musk imagines that then, “enough people would choose to sell all their stuff and move to Mars.”
In January, Newt Gingrich’s space ambitions were mocked by many experts as well as the public, particularly his vow that a moon colony would be established by the conclusion of his “second term.” Musk isn’t committing to a timeline nearly so ambitious; when pushed by Wright, he suggested that this could be a reality within the next 30 years.
The obvious question is: Why should public or private enterprise spend this much money on a venture that seems unnecessary in a time of austerity? Musk suggests that “making life multiplanetary” might be a worthwhile insurance policy for humanity. But it would also be “the grandest adventure … like, a really fun thing.” There will always be problems on Earth, he says, so if we wait for a better moment, it will likely never come.
The 40-year-old Musk, who thought as a child that we’d be on Mars by now, says he’d sign himself up to be a colonist. “I would definitely like to go to Mars. I think it would be cool to be born on Earth and die on Mars,” he said as the night wrapped. “Hopefully, not at the point of impact.”