If you want a thought-provoking peek at possible near futures, you could read a sci-fi book. Or you could just have a read through Elon Musk's recently released plan for establishing a colony of a million people on Mars.
The entirety of Musk's September talk on SpaceX's plans to get the Mars colonization ball rolling in the next decade (transcribed by an energetic Redditor) was recently published online. In it, space nerds of all stripes will find a ton of engineering to marvel at, including a 35-story space vehicle (and even the prospect the intercontinental rockets that could get you from London to New York in under a half an hour), as well as plenty of discussion of the many technical challenges to realize this dream.
But according to Andrew Maynard, the director of the Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University, what you won't find in the document is any information about some of the most likely reasons the awe-inspiring project might fail. While Musk is busy building rockets, he's not addressing one of the most significant hurdles facing any attempt to establish humans on the Red Planet -- politics (at least he's not addressing it publicly).
In a fascinating post on The Conversation blog, Maynard makes an argument that won't surprise anyone who has read any fictional account of human's interplanetary future -- colonizing other planets probably won't bring out the better angels of our nature, and any attempt to put people on Mars will require overcoming serious social and political problems, such as: ?
1. Angry astrobiologists
As a species we've spent countless hours worrying about the health of our home ecosystem. Certainly, we'll need to think just as carefully before we go tinkering with whatever may or may not be alive (or once have lived and left a trace) on Mars before we arrive.
"Imagine there was once life on Mars, but in our haste to set up shop there, we obliterate any trace of its existence. Or imagine that harmful organisms exist on Mars and spacecraft inadvertently bring them back to Earth. These are scenarios that keep astrobiologists and planetary protection specialists awake at night," writes Maynard.
Up to now, Musk doesn't seem particularly concerned. Maybe he should be, Maynard suggests: "The last thing Musk needs is a whole community of disgruntled astrobiologists baying for his blood as he tramples over their turf and robs them of their dreams."
Not everyone is super psyched about us meddling with our own planet. There is bound to be resistance to the wholesale transformation of another, Maynard warns. Perhaps even violent resistance.
"Musk's long-term vision is to terraform Mars -- reengineer our neighboring planet as "a nice place to be" -- and allow humans to become a multiplanetary species. Sounds awesome -- but not to everyone. I'd wager there will be some people sufficiently appalled by the idea that they decide to take illegal action to interfere with it," he says.
3. Space politics
On the extremely unlikely chance you haven't already noticed, humans haven't been doing too well lately at governing just one planet. Can we handle the challenges of two? And more immediately, can Musk prevent our problematic politics here on Earth from messing with his grand dream?
"Under the United Nations Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, for instance, states agreed to explore space for the benefit of all humankind, not place weapons of mass destruction on celestial bodies and avoid harmful contamination," Maynard explains, but that was way back in 1967.
Clearly, companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have changed the situation mightily, and this agreement will have to rethought. The rules that come out of those eventual negotiations could hamstring SpaceX's plans, so "Musk needs to make sure he's not left out in the cold," advises Maynard.
While Musk is clearly smart enough to have considered all this already (or at least to pay someone else to consider it), Maynard ends with a word of caution for the SpaceX team: "If enough people feel SpaceX is threatening what they value (such as the environment -- here or there), or disadvantaging them in some way (for example, by allowing rich people to move to another planet and abandoning the rest of us here), they'll make life difficult for the company."