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Elon Musk's Mars metropolis: Insane but not impossible

Commentary: SpaceX has advanced a vision of a city built on Mars as soon as the 2060s, but a galaxy of technical, ethical, legal and other questions need to be answered first.

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Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
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Eric Mack
7 min read
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Elon Musk and SpaceX want to build a new city and help up to a million people move there over the next 40 to 100 years. There's just one catch -- it's on Mars. If you've followed the news this week, you've probably heard the outline of this bold plan.

Now that we know the infinitely ambitious Musk is serious about making a real-life "Space Jam" prequel, it's time to ask a few basic questions. Is this an ethical thing to do? Is it even legal? Is it all just part of the video game Musk thinks we're living in?

But first off, does colonizing Mars even make sense as humanity's next big venture into space?

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Madman or master of the universe?

Óscar Gutiérrez/CNET

Ahead of Musk's big talk at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico on Tuesday, I went through a book's worth of notes I gathered last year from so-called "new space" scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs at the inaugural New Worlds conference.

If Musk has anything close to peers on humanity's future in space, this was a gathering of them. Musk buddy and SpaceX investor Richard Garriott noted there how obsessed Musk is with Mars.

I listened as people with decades of experience at NASA or in the commercial space industry outlined highly detailed visions for venturing further into space. The notion of building a small colony on Mars, let alone a metropolis like Musk envisions, was not high on anyone's list. There was talk of settling the moon, building solar power stations in orbit and constructing cities on huge orbiting space stations a la "Elysium" or "Ringworld." But on a panel titled "How to Settle Mars," much of the discussion was about all the ways to die there.

Consider this for a second. Some people who are serious about living in space think it would be easier to build a floating city in orbit from scratch than to colonize Mars. That's kind of like saying, let's build a house in the middle of the ocean rather than the Sahara -- the desert's a nice place to visit and maybe set up an outpost or a mine, but I'll take a houseboat and the open sea any day.

Why Mars?

The next important question: is Mars really a place we want to go? After all, there's another place we see much bigger and brighter in the sky every night. We've already been there and even left some vehicles behind.

"Settling Mars is physically possible, but I have questions about whether it's desirable," Pascal Lee, chairman of the Mars Institute, said at that conference.

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NASA's 1970s vision or an orbiting colony

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That's right. The chair of the MARS INSTITUTE can't be sure Musk isn't totally wasting his time with the Red Planet. Dr. Jim Logan, who spent two decades as a medical expert in various capacities at NASA, noted at the same conference that roaming around Mars wouldn't really be like Mark Watney's adventures in "The Martian."

"There's too much radiation for just hanging out in spacesuits and rovers," he said. Humans would need to be several feet underground or behind some other serious radiation shielding to survive.

During his presentation Tuesday, Musk dismissed that medical concern.

"The radiation thing is often brought up, but I think it's not too big of a deal," he said.

Um, OK. Let's grant Elon this one. We've got a few decades to invent amazing new radiation-shielding technology and there's some really cool stuff going on in materials science, so maybe that will be dealt with by the time we're ready to build homes on Mars.

But there are other long-term concerns. For instance, raising a family on Mars could weaken children's bones and muscles so much they wouldn't survive Earth's gravity if you ever brought them back to the old country to visit grandma and grandpa.

"We know absolutely for sure that kids will grow up weak on Mars," Al Globus, a big proponent of orbital space settlement who worked at NASA's Ames Research Center for years, explained at the conference. "[They] would probably never be able to visit Earth."

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Watch this: Elon Musk reveals grand plan to colonize Mars​

We haven't even delved into the challenges of building a new society from scratch in a hostile environment once Musk provides the transportation. But Musk clearly loves overcoming obstacles and finding solutions, so I can't imagine what I've written here so far would give him much pause.

"Technology does not automatically improve," he said near the end of his presentation Tuesday. "It improves if a lot of strong engineering talent is applied to a problem."

Much has been made over the years about Musk inspiring the Tony Stark character from "Iron Man," but he's really more like Mark Watney, just wanting to "science the shit" out of the most ambitious challenges in the universe.

Still, even if Musk is right to think that money, audacity and marketing flair can help him achieve anything, there's the question of whether settling Mars is something anyone should do.

A look at Elon Musk's plan to move us to Mars (pictures)

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A question of ethics

Without getting too much into the history and politics of colonization, I think it's safe to say that in Earth's experience it hasn't always turned out well for all parties involved.

Granted, colonizing space, and in particular a planet unlikely to be occupied by much more than microbes (despite "evidence" to the contrary), is a little different, but scientists tend to see it as imperative that we tread lightly on our journeys through the solar system.

"Privately funded missions still have to abide by the rules that are there to protect the science while they are on the planet, and then to protect Earth on their return," Louisiana State University geology and geophysics professor Peter Doran said via email. Doran also serves on a planetary protection subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council.

"The big issue with all missions to Mars is we don't want to create a situation where we are impacting future life-detection science," Doran said. "Picture humans like the Pigpen character in the 'Peanuts' cartoons: Walking around shedding microbes everywhere we go. Space suits as we know them do not take care of this problem."

There's a pretty huge disconnect there, between the scientist's desire to treat Mars as a pristine wilderness so it can be studied in its natural state and Musk's desire to build a metropolis and possibly nuke the place to kickstart global warming. Still, Doran doesn't pooh-pooh the notion of humans on Mars.

"It will definitely add a layer of complexity to getting to Mars and back," he said just before Musk's speech. "Everyone involved wants to maintain appropriate (planetary protection) protocols to protect the science on Mars (and the planet if they come back) while not making it an impossible engineering challenge."

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Watch this: The CraveCast crew debates joining Elon Musk's million on Mars, Ep. 28

But is it legal?

For now, the Outer Space Treaty, first signed in 1967 and now respected by more than 120 countries, governs human activity on Mars, despite what any as-yet-unseen Martians might think about that.

Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, editor-in-chief emerita of the Journal of Space Law, told me that article IX of the treaty states that parties must "avoid harmful contamination [to celestial bodies] and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter."

Can you build a city of a million that likely includes mines, fuel-manufacturing facilities and nuclear power stations without "harmful contamination"of a planet? Maybe. But our existing data set of exactly one planet does not demonstrate that humans have much of a track record for such capability.

Gabrynowicz added that the US government would have to take responsibility for making sure an American company like SpaceX doesn't go to Mars and turn it into a big red landfill.

SpaceX and the feds "should begin speaking with one another early enough to allow the government to understand a company's needs and for the company to understand US legal obligations," she said. "That way, they can fashion the least restrictive regulations possible."

We can imagine sketchy scenarios in which a US company might relocate its operations to a country with a government more willing to flout the Outer Space Treaty, or maybe a place like Belize, which never signed the treaty and could make a nice scenic place for a launch.

So, is this really going to happen?

Even ardent space enthusiasts have to react to Musk's dream with healthy skepticism. Remember: Despite decades of intense progress into space, humans have traveled no farther than the moon.

Right now, SpaceX's proposal is quite impractical, possibly unethical and in a big legal grey area. But none of these problems are insurmountable, no matter how daunting.

A 23rd-century tourist guide to the galaxy

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Musk is now selling a fancy electric car that required the installation of its own charging infrastructure, and his introduction of reusable rockets changed the way orbital payloads are delivered. Nobody was really clamoring for electric luxury cars or different rockets when Musk started these ventures -- he just thought they were good ideas and now they're both a thing. That's reason alone not to write off his Mars plan completely.

The real madness lies in Musk's unrealistic schedule. On stage Tuesday, he even joked that he's not very good with timelines. Yet he's still telling us he could have his space city up and running by the 2060s.

Yeah, maybe. Just as soon as the bazillion science, engineering, ethical, legal and fundraising issues are all worked out. Musk noted that SpaceX is devoting less than 5 percent of its resources to "working on planetary transport stuff."

So is this going to happen? I'd say we should start taking it seriously just as soon as SpaceX does.