Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars. Can he? Should he?

If SpaceX founder Elon Musk succeeds, he will have humans on Mars by 2026. His big dream, however, is to establish a self-sustaining “colony”, separate from Earth and with a population of ‘a million people.

It’s extravagant, but as we speak, Mr. Musk is developing “spaceships” to transport 100 humans with cargo to the Red Planet.

“We don’t want to be one of those single-planet species; we want to be a multi-planet species,” Musk said in April after one of his rockets carried four astronauts into space.

Of course, scientists and even SpaceX admit that there is a long way to go before you can establish a colony, and at least a handful of more years before entering the planet. But the possibility seems to have slipped from our periphery to our line of sight.

Science aside, legal and ethical questions surround Mr. Musk’s dream to colonize Mars.

What do space ethicists say?

New possibilities mean new ethical questions. And there are many, said Dr Stephen Coleman, associate professor of ethics and leadership in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of NSW, Canberra.

For example, can humans really give informed consent to a one-way trip to Mars if they don’t know how or how long they are going to die? What if it was a horribly painful death? What if it was in a few hours? As it stands, it would take about seven months of travel to get there.

Is it ethical to send someone to explore Mars without knowing what effect it might have on their DNA? And if they return, what could it do to their children or others on Earth?

What if we significantly altered the Red Planet, what if we permanently destroy our chance to live on Mars in a rush to lead the space race?

The consequences could well be shattering.

In April, Mr. Musk made headlines after sharing the truth, but not for the first time, about his dream: “A group of people will likely die” in the process.

Barefoot and smiling in the interview, Mr Musk said: “It’s dangerous. It’s uncomfortable. It’s a long journey, you might not come back alive – but it’s a glorious adventure and it will be an incredible experience. “

Ultimately, sending “volunteers” to Mars to explore is ethical, said Dr Coleman. But when it comes to a one-way ticket, a line is crossed. He wonders how informed consent can really be given when humanity does not yet know or understand the details of the dangers.

“He just treats people like consumables and lets them risk their lives. He wouldn’t care if it was completely unethical, ”Dr. Coleman said.

“I can imagine people with money like Elon Musk convincing others that everything is under control, that this is a great idea.”

Billionaire Elon Musk signs autographs at a Telsa factory site.

Mr. Musk is the billionaire entrepreneur who made his name and money co-founding pioneering companies like PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX, among others. He’s been compared to Steve Jobs, and actor Robert Downey Jr is said to have modeled his portrayal of tech genius and playboy Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, on the 50-year-old.

This year, Mr. Musk’s SpaceX sent four tourists into orbit around Earth. They expect private astronauts to dress and soar above the atmosphere several times a year. It was also the year billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson took to space with their respective space companies. But Mr. Musk stayed where he was.

Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos and fellow billionaire Virgin Galactic Richard Branson were successfully launched into space this year.

Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos and fellow billionaire Virgin Galactic Richard Branson were successfully launched into space this year.


“I don’t think there is any chance that he himself will end up living on Mars because it’s way too risky and way too uncomfortable. He will send other people to do it,” Dr said Dr Coleman, adding that it wouldn’t be a possibility for decades if the risk reduced significantly.

But even on Earth, is the richest person in the world the right one to make these decisions?

Matt Beard, a moralistic philosopher interested in space ethics, said it was complex to speculate on the character of Musk. What we can do, he said, is watch his prolific public activity – and Mr. Beard calls it “reckless.”

“Some would say that Elon Musk represents the best of us. But I think his recklessness, lack of self-discipline or restraint is testament to his reliability with a project like this, ”said Mr. Beard.

The billionaire has a history of spats on Twitter and just this week called Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren “Senator Karen” after accusing her of not paying tax. Last month, Mr. Musk sold $ 6.9 billion worth of Tesla shares after a Twitter poll voted in his favor to get rid of certain shares.

Mr. Beard said that every “creative genius” required for innovation must be vetted with a keen sense of ethical restraint.

“Why do we have to adopt the colonial mindset when it comes to Mars? Why do we have to take it and make it our own? “

Elon musk

Elon Musk stands next to a rocket in 2004.

Photos archive

Within the space industry, Dr Coleman said Mr Musk is known to “burn the people” he works with.

“He doesn’t seem like he has a great reputation – let’s put it that way.”

In 2017, the day before the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Dr Coleman said Mr Musk asked to be added to the program of a conference that has been running “for years.” As a result, speaking times for other industry leaders have been cut to accommodate Mr. Musk, he said.

“I’ve never seen anything to suggest that he doesn’t think he’s the most important person in the world and that everyone should do what they think.

“He acts as if he is presenting the Word of God, and everyone has to listen to him.

New Knowledge Forum in Moscow

Elon Musk joined the New Knowledge Forum via video link in May 2021.


Is it in the public interest?

Space exploration is what Beard calls “recreation, research and development.” Whether this is essential is debatable.

In April, NASA selected Mr. Musk’s SpaceX for a $ 4 billion contract to land “commercial” humans on the moon. This is one of a list of contracts between government agencies and SpaceX that run into the millions, if not billions.

When public money is directed to private companies, especially when they are controlled by a man worth $ 386.6 billion, Mr Beard said it needs to be clear how that money is used for the public.

“With the COVID vaccines, they were making a lot of money for pharmaceuticals, but there was a clear benefit to the public. It’s unclear how colonizing Mars is going to have the same benefit back.”

Could Elon Musk legally be the “supreme ruler” of his own colony on Mars?

The Outer Space Treaty, which falls under the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, entered into force in 1967. It is signed by almost all space nations and states that outer space is for the most part. humanity and cannot be claimed by nations. By extension, this applies to individuals.

Another crucial assumption in space law is that Earth law can be applied to other planets.

“Neither the United States, SpaceX nor Elon Musk could own any part of Mars,” said Duncan Blake, space lawyer, speaker and senior research associate at UNSW Canberra.

However, Mr Blake said the International Space Station was setting a precedent that nations could instead have jurisdictional control, meaning Mr Musk could have a Martian station where his authority could derive from a nation, in this case the United States.

But that would open up visiting rights to other nations and a list of other responsibilities. How multiple colonies could coexist, divide resources, and decide who controls which area is an issue humanity will face on the moon before Mars, Blake adds.

“There is a general expectation that if a national government is able to exercise some control over space activity, then it must do so … even when a non-governmental entity operates in defiance of the national government.”

As for SpaceX’s global broadband project called Starlink, the Terms of Service suggest that Earth law enforcement could simply be rejected.

“For services provided on Mars, or in transit to Mars via a spacecraft or other spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities.” , we read in article 10.

“Accordingly, disputes will be settled according to principles of autonomy, established in good faith, at the time of the Martian settlement.”

This begs the question: if Earth-based governments have no authority, what or who does?

“Well the answer is going to be Elon Musk is in charge.”

Separately, Mr. Blake said it was almost understandable to write the clause.

“It’s a little arrogant of us as human beings, and in the future it would be a little arrogant of us as Earthlings if you will, to say that our law applies to these people on March, ”he said.

Whether Mr. Musk should have all that power is a bigger question about how we govern ourselves as a species, Blake adds. But what he does know is this.

“To put it bluntly, he’s pissed off.”

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