Originally posted by Slate.
Why is Elon Musk so hellbent on going to Mars?
There are two answers to this. One is the actual answer. The other isn’t exactly wrong—it’s technically correct—but it’s incidental. And it turns out that’s not even really the right question.
Bear with me a moment. You need a little background.
I’ve been interested in SpaceX for a while now. Years ago, when Musk announced he was going to launch the first privately funded liquid fuel rocket into orbit, I figured he might be able do it—it’s a daunting but not impossible task. Still, I was pretty skeptical. But he did have a bit of a leg up: He’d been pouring money into SpaceX, a personal fortune made from running earlier companies like PayPal and X.com (and now SolarCity and Tesla).
It takes more than money, of course, to build a successful rocket program. But my doubts were lessened considerably in September 2008, when, after three previous rockets had failed to achieve their mission goals, a Falcon 1 rocket reached orbit around the Earth. Now, years later, with the Falcon 9 proving to be a reliable vehicle and several successful launches to the International Space Station and beyond under its belt, SpaceX has shown it can look even farther.
This was all on my mind when I got a chance recently to take a tour of the SpaceX construction factory and corporate HQ in Hawthorne, California. I had been invited by Musk, who, to my surprise, follows me on Twitter and reads this blog. (Full disclosure: SpaceX paid for the trip.) I was excited by the prospect—duh—and the place did not disappoint.
As I walked in, for a brief moment it felt more like a company office than a factory. But after a short walk from the front door and past the lobby it’s like, seriously, the scene in Willy Wonka when everyone steps off the elevator into the chocolate factory.
Hanging from the high ceiling is the actual first Dragon capsule to be sent into orbit, scorch marks from its atmospheric re-entry licking up the sides. Nearby, two other capsules are in various stages of construction. A half dozen Merlin engines are lined up, already tested once under fire, now being retooled and checked out for their next launch. Two enormous Falcon 9 boosters lie side by side in one corner of the factory. From the café on the mezzanine I can see twin enormous nose cones sitting in the next room, waiting to be used on the demo flight of the Falcon Heavy, a huge rocket that is the next generation of SpaceX boosters. And all this is open, on the floor, available to be gawked at.
During the tour I also saw dozens of people working on the various components of the Falcons 9 and Heavy. It was hard not to notice that they all seemed to be in pretty good spirits—smiling, laughing, talking, gesticulating. Looking around, that wasn’t too surprising. A sense of pride and excitement would be natural working in such a place. But there was something else, too, that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
Before the thought could crystallize, the tour was over. I was brought over to the admin section of the factory to meet with Musk. I’ll spare you the personal details; you can find those all over the Web. What impressed me the most was his matter-of-fact attitude; not surprisingly he is a man who knows what he wants and how to achieve it. With his track record, he’s earned that confidence.
We talked about various topics for a while—the movie Interstellar, the history of SpaceX, terraforming Mars … and that was when I said something dumb.
“I know Mars is a long-term goal for SpaceX,” I started. Then, pretty much as an aside, I said, “because you want to retire on Mars … ”
Musk got a pained look on his face. “No, that’s wrong. That’s not why I want to get to Mars. That quote is from an article in the Guardian. They pushed me for a sound bite, asking if I wanted to retire on Mars. I eventually said yes. When I retire—hopefully before I go senile—and eventually die, then Mars is as good a place to die as any.”
That line made me laugh; it’s far better than anything printed in the Guardian article.
But still, I was taken aback. “OK then, the article wanted a sexy quote and got one. But if that’s not the reason, what is it?”
Musk didn’t hesitate. “Humans need to be a multiplanet species,” he replied.
And pretty much at that moment my thinking reorganized itself. He didn’t need to explain his reasoning; I agree with that statement, and I’ve written about it many times. Exploration has its own varied rewards … and a single global catastrophe could wipe us out. Space travel is a means to mitigate that, and setting up colonies elsewhere is a good bet. As Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (the father of modern rocketry) said, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in the cradle forever.”
Read the full article here.