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Illustration by Brandon Celi

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law. Aaron Boley holds the Canada Research Chair in Planetary Astronomy. They teach at the University of British Columbia and co-direct the Outer Space Institute.

Ursula K. Le Guin imagined a massive rocket that would land eight times a year on the austere landscape of Anarres, an inhabited moon of the planet Urras. As the great sci-fi writer explained, the Anarresti had left Urras to pursue their right to self-determination, with such rockets being one of the few connections between the worlds.

A major step toward inhabiting Mars might be taken this weekend, with SpaceX attempting to fly a prototype of its Starship to a height of 12 kilometres before attempting to land it on six stubby legs at its launch site in Texas. Made of polished stainless steel, Starship stands 50 metres tall and 9 metres wide. When joined with its first-stage “booster” – Super Heavy – it’s 120 metres tall, making it the largest and most powerful rocket ever constructed.

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Elon Musk’s space company has embraced the risk inherent in rocketry. Using a self-described “iterative approach,” design flaws are rapidly identified and resolved. The software guiding the rockets “learns” from every launch, even if it ends in an explosion, as did the previous two high-altitude tests of Starship.

The first successful landing of Falcon 9, the workhorse of the SpaceX fleet, was preceded by a series of tests that saw rockets lowering themselves into the ocean at predetermined coordinates, as well as two later explosive crashes onto a barge. In the five years since then, Falcon 9s have made 74 successful landings, allowing the first stages to be used multiple times.

SpaceX's Starship prototype lifts off for a Feb. 2 test launch in Boca Chica, Texas.

Miguel Roberts/Brownsville Herald via AP

Starship, unlike Falcon 9, has been designed for deep-space missions where fuel is at a premium and the return to Earth takes place at a higher speed.

When Starship re-enters the atmosphere, it does so with a belly flop, using the atmosphere to slow the spacecraft down without expending fuel – the same strategy employed by robotic spacecraft landing on Mars. To shield Starship from the extreme heat of re-entry, one side of the spacecraft will be covered with ceramic tiles, similar to those that were used on the Space Shuttle.

Starship does not have a parachute, nor does it glide to a runway. Instead, it skydives almost to ground level and then, just before landing, flips itself into a vertical position, uses its engines to slow the descent, and touches down on its legs. Despite the spacecraft’s size, the touchdown itself is not the challenge, since SpaceX perfected this with Falcon 9. The challenge is to restart the engines and use them to conduct the flip, stabilize the descent, and make the necessary gentle landing – all within the span of a few seconds.

The spaceship’s still-untested first stage, Super Heavy, will not require a last-minute flip, since it will only be lifting Starship through the atmosphere before returning to the launch site, which means it does not need to preserve fuel. It will operate just like a Falcon 9 first stage, re-entering the atmosphere backwards, while using its engines to slow down.

Both stages will be reusable, saving time and expense by avoiding the need to build new ones for each flight. The same reusability means that Starship will be able to fly to Mars, land there, take off and return to Earth. For Elon Musk, this has been the grand plan since at least 2002, when he founded SpaceX with his portion of the sale of PayPal.

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Illustration by Brandon Celi

National space agencies have been sending robotic orbiters, landers and rovers to Mars since the 1970s. NASA presently has two operational rovers on the surface, with the most recent, Perseverance, landing last week. A Chinese rover, Tianwen-1, hopes to join them in May.

Sending robots is one thing, human beings quite another. Mr. Musk’s driving ambition is to create a self-sustaining community on Mars, although he is not committed to our species, at least as we know it. The imperative, as Mr. Musk sees it, is to preserve consciousness in the face of an extinction-level event on Earth. This consciousness could exist in computer-enhanced versions of humans. True to form, Mr. Musk is already directing some of his money into an experimental venture called Neuralink, boldly treading on one of life’s fundamental questions: What does it mean to be human? Again, sci-fi has been here already, in Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell.

SpaceX is on a fast track to fulfill the first part of Mr. Musk’s ambition. Further prototypes of Starship will likely make it to Earth’s orbit and back later this year, at which point the rockets could be used in the ongoing construction of the company’s Starlink mega-constellation – delivering 400 broadband satellites at a time to a system that could ultimately comprise 42,000 satellites. This will provide many more opportunities for testing the spacecraft. Launching humans will require a crew version of Starship, but SpaceX knows how to do this, having built a smaller version, Crew Dragon, which has already carried astronauts to the International Space Station. Flights around the Moon will test the technology further, before the biggest test: a crewed mission to Mars.

A SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule is pictured about 20 metres away from the International Space Station's Harmony module in 2019.

NASA via AP

Getting to Mars is only one hurdle. The first humans to arrive will need to find water for drinking, generating oxygen for breathing, and manufacturing fuel to power their habitats and eventually take them home (Starship won’t have enough fuel to return to Earth without a top-up on Mars). Assessing, extracting and processing permafrost, ices or hydrated minerals will be an essential and daunting task.

Radiation exposure is another challenge. Solar storms during the six- to eight-month transit would be especially dangerous, necessitating a safe place within Starship where the crew can gather, shielded by the water supply carried on the trip. On Mars, there are some residual magnetic fields from ancient magnetized planetary crust, as well as some magnetism induced by upper-atmosphere interactions with the solar wind, but none provide the protection that Earth’s internally generated magnetic field does. Long-stay habitats may need to be constructed with thick layers of Martian soil to provide adequate shielding.

Inhabiting Mars will cost an exorbitant amount of money, which Mr. Musk is busily amassing. Satellite launches for NASA, the U.S. military and hundreds of other customers have lifted the value of SpaceX to US$74-billion, and the company’s new Starlink satellite system will probably take that number higher. Musk owns the majority of SpaceX’s shares. Then there is Tesla, which in addition to selling more than a million electric cars has benefitted from widespread speculative investment that increased its share price sevenfold in 2020. Mr. Musk owns 21 per cent of Tesla, making him one of the richest people in the world, with an estimated net worth approaching US$200-billion. The two companies are also synergistic: The artificial intelligence that enables self-driving cars is a testbed for rockets and other machinery destined for deep space and Mars.

The rim of Mars's Jezero Crater, as seen by the Perseverance probe on Feb. 24.

NASA/JPL-CALTECH/AFP via Getty Images

Getting to and living on Mars will pose psychological and physiological challenges. What will happen when the crew can no longer see Earth apart from a dot in the sky, and one-way radio signals take up to 20 minutes to cross the void? How will human bodies change after the prolonged weightlessness of transit, followed by a return to just 38 per cent of Earth-weight on Mars? What about reproduction in space? Will fetuses develop normally while in a continuous state of free-fall during the voyage or in the lower surface gravity on Mars? Mr. Musk, who seems focused on the engineering, might not be giving these challenges as much attention as they deserve.

What about possible environmental impacts? All the robotic spacecraft sent to Mars have been sterilized to reduce the possibility of introducing microscopic life forms from Earth. Humans will bring many species with them, mostly in their digestive tracts, and this could prevent a clear answer to one of the greatest of all scientific questions: Has life naturally developed on another world?

There will also be a potential risk to life on Earth whenever humans and spacecraft return from Mars. Although asteroid impacts exchange material between the planets, the possibility of contact with microbial alien life should be treated with caution. We should also be alert to viruses from Earth mutating within humans living on another planet and then finding their way back home.

Manufacturing a fleet of large spacecraft could affect vulnerable communities. Where will SpaceX source the necessary resources? Will all this extraction take place in a manner that reduces the environmental damage and respects human rights? Last year, Mr. Musk was challenged on Twitter about “[t]he U.S. government organizing a coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia so you could obtain the lithium there.” Mr. Musk replied: “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”

Inhabiting Mars will raise governance issues, as well. To what degree, if any, will a Martian society be allowed to regulate itself? Would governments on Earth respect a claim to self-determination?

SpaceX is about to become the modern-day equivalent of the overseas trading companies of the 17th and 18th centuries, which governed vast areas of North America, Africa and Asia under charters issued by European monarchs. These arrangements delivered vast wealth to the colonizers, but their fortunes were built on exploitation, repression and slavery, the repercussions of which continue to this day. Although there are no Indigenous Martians for Mr. Musk to colonize, the people he brings to that planet, and their descendants, will need protections against corporate decisions and managerial abuses. This need is rendered all the more acute by the hostile Martian environment. There is no frontier into which victims and dissidents can escape; anyone who leaves the machines and structures provided by the company will die.

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Elon Musk attends a news conference at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., in 2020.

Steve Nesius/Reuters

Mr. Musk himself may wish to leave Earth’s governments behind. He has a history of challenging U.S. regulatory agencies, from the Security and Exchange Commission, which oversees public companies like Tesla, to the Federal Aviation Authority, which licenses rocket launches. Recently, SpaceX purchased two oil platforms that will allow the company to launch and land Starships at sea, including on the high seas, beyond the exclusive economic zone of any country. The two platforms are registered in Liberia, a flag-of-convenience state.

Even more provocatively, the terms of service for the Starlink satellite system include the following provision: “For services provided on Mars, or in transit to Mars via Starship or other colonization spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities.” One could hardly imagine a more explicit repudiation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which specifies that international law, including the United Nations Charter, applies in space and that Earth governments are responsible for all “national activities,” including those of companies.

Of course, the “free planet” provision could simply be Mr. Musk having fun, as he frequently does with his companies. Tesla owners are accustomed to discovering “Easter eggs” in their vehicle’s software, including a “whoopie cushion” option that can be applied to their choice of seats. During the conception and design phases of Starship, Mr. Musk repeatedly referred to the spacecraft as the “BFR,” explaining with an almost straight face that this was short for Big Falcon Rocket. More recently, Mr. Musk told podcaster Joe Rogan that his engineers had been instructed to make Starship “more pointy” – a clear reference to Sasha Baron Cohen’s movie The Dictator, in which the lead character issues a similar command because “pointy is scary.”

Most likely, Mr. Musk’s challenges to national regulatory agencies are part of a strategy of loosening, not eliminating, the many ties that bind. If so, he would also be wise to respect the considerable amount of international cooperation that takes place in space, including between otherwise distrustful countries such as the United States and Russia. Some of this cooperation is driven by the fact that space is hard, making working together a prerequisite for significant progress. Even China, the most independent-minded of the spacefaring states, participates actively in space diplomacy and cooperative ventures such as COSPAS-SARSAT, a satellite-based system supporting search and rescue worldwide.

Any attempt to inhabit Mars will require the best science and technology, as well as skilled people from around the world who understand and accept the risks. It will also require regular provisioning from Earth – at least for the foreseeable future – and options for rescue in case things go wrong. In the long term, it will need to provide something of value, perhaps as a way station to the outer solar system. The Anarresti that Le Guin wrote about were dependent on Urras for a variety of staples, for which they traded minerals. They saw themselves as free; the Urrasti saw them as a mining colony.

It’s difficult to imagine SpaceX or the inhabitants of Mars achieving unfettered independence. Although Earth governments will not worry about a war between worlds – a common storyline among sci-fi authors – they could foresee that a corporate colony or Mars society might seek to restrict Earth-based entities from having free access to the planet. The solution might be some kind of interplanetary federation, much like the United Nations on Earth.

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To many, this might still seem too farfetched to be taken seriously. Indeed, we don’t know whether Mr. Musk and the tremendously talented engineers at SpaceX will succeed in their effort to inhabit another planet before national space programs do. All we know is this: The technology to put people on Mars is being tested right now in Texas.


Meanwhile, on Mars …

Watch: Perseverance has a complex mission ahead of it to look for signs of ancient life on Mars by collecting and examining rocks. Chris Herd from the University of Alberta is on the team that will decide where the rover will take samples. The Globe and Mail

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