How Mars Will Be Colonized Within Our Lifetime

NASA has been developing plans and technology to send humans to Mars by sometime in the 2030s, but by that time they may arrive to find that Elon Musk -- the mad genius behind Tesla Motors, the Hyperloop, PayPal (which seems totally random) and the commercial space exploration company Space X -- has already beaten them there.

A Mars colony still sounds like science fiction, but the more I read about Musk’s plans not only to send people to Mars -- but to colonize it within most of our lifetimes -- the more I find my doubts vanishing. And yours might, too. Tim Urban of Wait But Why spoke with Musk for this exhaustive and incredibly compelling long-form explanation of how Musk will make a Mars colony happen, which you should definitely take the time to read. But in the meantime, catch up on our quick and dirty summary to get an idea of the plan Musk is putting together. It's pretty impressive.

Step-by-step, here’s how it'll go down... see you in Mars:

First step: send an unmanned spacecraft on a round trip to Mars

2018 or 2020

Before we send people to Mars, we have to prove that we can send a spacecraft to Mars -- and back. Every 26 months, Earth and Mars sidle up to each other in their orbits, so logistically it’s best to launch missions when our planets are closest. The next time this will happen will be in 2016, which is too soon in SpaceX’s development to expect them to be ready. But come summer 2018 when we’re in range again, the time will most likely be right for Space X to make an attempt.

Once we get there and back, cargo dumping from other launches can begin to prep the planet for human habitation. Think water, materials for shelter, the tools to convert Martian compounds to oxygen, and fertilizer to grow crops. This all sets the stage for the next step.

Send people to Mars and begin homesteading

2025 - 2031

The first human who will step on Mars is alive right now -- and probably thinking about that moment 24/7. As depicted in this fall’s Hollywood release The Martian, the first crew of SpaceX-trained astronauts to land on Mars will face a unique set of challenges: first the three- to six-month voyage to get there, then the first steps on the planet, and the logistics of setting up shop for their two-year stay on Mars. Space pioneers are already training for missions to Mars, honing their survival skills and psychological stamina in some of the most extreme and isolated conditions on Earth. Musk predicts we’ll send the first manned mission to Mars as early as 2025, though it could be as far off as 2031.

Once the first group establishes that they can survive on Mars, they’ll need to prove that they can thrive there. The key is to build a settlement that can sustain not only the initial groundbreaking crew, but also allows for additional growth as more and more people arrive on the Red Planet every two years. That won’t be easy -- they’ll need to use the materials dropped from the unmanned launches to build shelter, produce their own food and water, and learn more about the environment so they can decide how best to proceed.

Work toward semi-sustainable domed cities full of brave human pioneers

2031 - 2040

Once the first homestead has dug into Mars and made at least a temporary place to live, the dominos will really start to fall. Shuttles will go back and forth between Earth and Mars every 26 months when the planets align, with tickets going for around $500,000 -- but this won't be light-hearted space tourism. Think more along the lines of the pioneers who first colonized the Americas, centuries ago.

“It’s not going to be a vacation jaunt,” Musk told Aeon. “It’s going to be saving up all your money and selling all your stuff.” In other words, Space Pilgrims! And to support them, we’ll have to send an estimated 10 supply ships for every one passenger ship, to keep up with the demand of what the Martian humans will need to survive.

What do those supply ships deliver? All the essentials for Martian livin’:

  • Energy: Likely nuclear or solar.
  • Oxygen: We’ll need to make more oxygen-producing plants within the domes, considering there’s not much to be had on the planet’s surface.
  • Water: We’ll eventually need a means to extract water that is frozen at Mars' poles, but in the meantime we’ll just need to ship it in.
  • Food: Like water, we’ll need both a way to make it ourselves on Mars, plus additional shipments for immediate consumption.
  • The Great Indoors: With no atmosphere, we can’t yet live on the planet’s surface. The first Martian colonists will most likely live in huge domed structures, and as more people come, more materials will be needed.
  • Rocket Fuel: Being able to go back and forth means we’ll have to be able to refuel on the planet itself, so we’ll need to be able to produce new fuel, likely methane.
  • Internet: To stay connected to Earth, and for your iPhone 19s. SpaceX is already working on this one.
  • Other vitals: Supplies for on-planet communication, construction, and medical care.
Once these essentials are taken care of and more and more people are going to (and staying on) Mars, the settlement will take off. As time passes and technology develops, the trip will get cheaper, opening the floodgates to more brave souls. Other space companies (and other countries) will jump into the mix, looking to profit off the now booming industry, likely making the process even easier, and innovating in ways Musk himself hasn’t even foreseen. All things considered, Musk believes that by 2040, there will be a thriving human city (or cities) on Mars -- just 25 years from now.

Make life on Mars sustainable without support from Earth

Around 2070

After some infrastructural development and innovation, all of those essential supplies that the Martian cities originally needed to import from Earth will be produced on-site. So all of those supply shuttles we were just talking about? They'll stop being so necessary, and human life on Mars will sustain itself. By the time Musk dies, he said, he wants to know that we’re “on our way to the threshold at which even if the spaceships from Earth stop coming, the colony doesn’t slowly die out.”

Create an Earth-like atmosphere on Mars

2070 to 3015(ish)

Since we’ll be on Mars to stay, we might as well make ourselves at home. That means terraforming the planet so that eventually we can leave the dome cities behind and, essentially, have a whole new Earth complete with an atmosphere, oceans, and ecosystems. That’s going to be a multi-step process.

  • Step 1 - Melt the ice on the south pole: There’s enough ice on Mars’ south pole to cover the whole planet with an ocean 36 feet deep, but we don’t need it all converted to water right away. We could simply start a chain reaction by melting some of that ice, which will release greenhouse gases which will densify the atmosphere, further heating up the planet. This all starts a cycle of melting to give us a new ocean.
  • Step 2 - Pump greenhouse gases into the air: We’re already really good at this one here on Earth. This accelerates the cycle from the first step.
  • Step 3 - Plant things: Once the cycle from the first two steps is in place, we can begin inserting plantlife onto the Martian planet.
  • Step 4 - Make the surface air breathable: Using both the new Martian plant life and man-made photosynthesis factories, we’ll make it so you can step out your front door on Mars just like you do here on Earth.
The craziest thing about all this is that other than Step 4, all of the technology needed to terraform Mars already exists. Scientists estimate the whole process might take somewhere between 300 to 1,000 years -- but they’re basing those numbers off the current tech we have. With another 55 years of technological development, who knows how much faster this could be accomplished.

Now we are ready to colonize the whole solar system… and beyond

In Musk's own words: “If we can establish a Mars colony, we can almost certainly colonize the whole Solar System, because we’ll have created a strong economic forcing function for the improvement of space travel. We’ll go to the moons of Jupiter, at least some of the outer ones for sure, and probably Titan on Saturn, and the asteroids. Once we have that forcing function, and an Earth-to-Mars economy, we’ll cover the whole solar system.” But, he added, “The key is that we have to make the Mars thing work. If we’re going to have any chance of sending stuff to other star systems, we need to be laser-focused on becoming a multi-planet civilization. That’s the next step.”

Onward and outward to Mars, everyone. Buckle up.

Brett Williams is an editorial assistant at Supercompressor. After gathering all this evidence, he's convinced both that he'll be able to visit Mars... and Elon Musk isn't human.

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