If someone on a street corner told you he wanted to send people to Mars, you’d probably calmly nod your head and look for the quickest way to remove yourself from the immediate vicinity of that person, posthaste.
When Elon Musk tells you that, well, it makes sense. Even if you don’t know why you should go to Mars, aside from decades of pulp fiction and cinema dedicated to the red planet (see: Barsoom/John Carter, Total Recall, War of the Worlds). The guy on the street corner also doesn’t own a company that’s done what was once the domain of governments — send vehicles into space.
Granted, Musk has been lampooned as being one white cat away from being a Bond villain. Musk seems to embrace the trope, his Twitter profile photo featuring a white cat being cradled in one hand, while the other looks like it’s in a Doctor Evil-esque pinkie-to-mouth gesture. If he does turn out to have a volcano full of captured nuclear ballistic submarines and henchmen in matching jumpsuits, at least he’ll have a sense of humor while making his ransom demands to the world.
Jokes about Musk aside, he has vision and he’s also not someone that’s making money for the sake of hoarding it, like a dragon in Middle Earth. Instead, Musk’s vision is, to paraphrase XTC’s “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead“, to show the one percenters on Wall Street what gold’s for.
Slate writer Phil Plait was invited to Musk’s SpaceX facility in Hawthorne, Calif., about 15 minutes away from LAX. He describes it as one part corporate office, another part Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. It’s a fascinating read that gives a glimpse into what happens when someone who dreams with his eyes open intersects with unbelievable business success.
Why is Musk so interested in going to Mars? It’s not for the reason reported in the Guardian, apparently. His reason is much more altruistic — “Humans need to be a multiplanet species,” he tells Plait plainly.
Plait also points out that Musk’s reasoning has been mentioned by past supporters of space exploration, and quotes rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky: “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in the cradle forever.”
A sudden planetary catastrophe is remote, at best. But there’s evidence of five mass extinction events during the Earth’s history. The sixth might be of our own making with global warming and out of control environmental damage. A very strong argument could be made that with Musk’s other ventures, Tesla Motors and Solar City, are his way of trying to stem the inevitably of that event and that his vision is grander than just moving people from planet to planet.
Musk is right that the humanity must look toward to sky to ensure our continued survival — and maybe while we’re getting there, we can make things right on Earth before it’s too late while getting it right the first time on Mars.