Illustration by Michael Marsicano
Elon Musk argues that we must put a million people on Mars if we are to ensure that humanity has a future
by Ross Andersen
(Ross Andersen is deputy editor at Aeon Magazine. He has written extensively about science and philosophy for several publications, including The Atlantic and The Economist.)
Fuck Earth!’ Elon Musk said to me, laughing. ‘Who cares about Earth?’ We were sitting in his cubicle, in the front corner of a large open-plan office at SpaceX headquarters in Los Angeles. It was a sunny afternoon, a Thursday, one of three designated weekdays Musk spends at SpaceX. Musk was laughing because he was joking: he cares a great deal about Earth. When he is not here at SpaceX, he is running an electric car company. But this is his manner. On television Musk can seem solemn, but in person he tells jokes. He giggles. He says things that surprise you.
When I arrived, Musk was at his computer, powering through a stream of single-line email replies. I took a seat and glanced around at his workspace. There was a black leather couch and a large desk, empty but for a few wine bottles and awards. The windows looked out to a sunbaked parking lot. The vibe was ordinary, utilitarian, even boring. After a few minutes passed, I began to worry that Musk had forgotten about me, but then suddenly, and somewhat theatrically, he wheeled around, scooted his chair over, and extended his hand. ‘I’m Elon,’ he said.
It was a nice gesture, but in the year 2014 Elon Musk doesn’t need much of an introduction. Not since Steve Jobs has an American technologist captured the cultural imagination like Musk. There are tumblrs and subreddits devoted to him. He is the inspiration for Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. His life story has already become a legend. There is the alienated childhood in South Africa, the video game he invented at 12, his migration to the US in the mid-1990s. Then the quick rise, beginning when Musk sold his software company Zip2 for $300 million at the age of 28, and continuing three years later, when he dealt PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion. And finally, the double down, when Musk decided idle hedonism wasn’t for him, and instead sank his fortune into a pair of unusually ambitious startups. With Tesla he would replace the world’s cars with electric vehicles, and with SpaceX he would colonise Mars. Automobile manufacturing and aerospace are mature industries, dominated by corporate behemoths with plush lobbying budgets and factories in all the right congressional districts. No matter. Musk would transform both, simultaneously, and he would do it within the space of a single generation.
Musk announced these plans shortly after the bursting of the first internet bubble, when many tech millionaires were regarded as mere lottery winners. People snickered. They called him a dilettante. But in 2010, he took Tesla public and became a billionaire many times over. SpaceX is still privately held, but it too is now worth billions, and Musk owns two-thirds of it outright. SpaceX makes its rockets from scratch at its Los Angeles factory, and it sells rides on them cheap, which is why its launch manifest is booked out for years. The company specialises in small satellite launches, and cargo runs to the space station, but it is now moving into the more mythic business of human spaceflight. In September, NASA selected SpaceX, along with Boeing, to become the first private company to launch astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Musk is on an epic run. But he keeps pushing his luck. In every interview, there is an outlandish new claim, a seeming impossibility, to which he attaches a tangible date. He is always giving you new reasons to doubt him.
I had come to SpaceX to talk to Musk about his vision for the future of space exploration, and I opened our conversation by asking him an old question: why do we spend so much money in space, when Earth is rife with misery, human and otherwise? It might seem like an unfair question. Musk is a private businessman, not a publicly funded space agency. But he is also a special case. His biggest customer is NASA and, more importantly, Musk is someone who says he wants to influence the future of humanity. He will tell you so at the slightest prompting, without so much as flinching at the grandiosity of it, or the track record of people who have used this language in the past. Musk enjoys making money, of course, and he seems to relish the billionaire lifestyle, but he is more than just a capitalist. Whatever else might be said about him, Musk has staked his fortune on businesses that address fundamental human concerns. And so I wondered, why space?
Musk did not give me the usual reasons. He did not claim that we need space to inspire people. He did not sell space as an R & D lab, a font for spin-off technologies like astronaut food and wilderness blankets. He did not say that space is the ultimate testing ground for the human intellect. Instead, he said that going to Mars is as urgent and crucial as lifting billions out of poverty, or eradicating deadly disease.
‘I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary,’ he told me, ‘in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen, in which case being poor or having a disease would be irrelevant, because humanity would be extinct. It would be like, “Good news, the problems of poverty and disease have been solved, but the bad news is there aren’t any humans left.”’
Musk has been pushing this line – Mars colonisation as extinction insurance – for more than a decade now, but not without pushback. ‘It’s funny,’ he told me. ‘Not everyone loves humanity. Either explicitly or implicitly, some people seem to think that humans are a blight on the Earth’s surface. They say things like, “Nature is so wonderful; things are always better in the countryside where there are no people around.” They imply that humanity and civilisation are less good than their absence. But I’m not in that school,’ he said. ‘I think we have a duty to maintain the light of consciousness, to make sure it continues into the future.’…