Elon Musk Says Life on Mars Will Be Very Hard

Elon Musk indicated that life on Mars will be very hard. It will like Shackelton’s expeditions to the Antarctic. It will not be an escape hatch for the wealthy.

During the Heroic Age the Antarctic continent became the focus of international efforts. It resulted in intensive scientific and geographical exploration. 17 major Antarctic expeditions were launched from ten countries. The expeditions had limited resources available to them before advances in transport and communication technologies revolutionized the work of exploration. Each expedition became a feat of endurance that tested, and sometimes exceeded its personnel’s physical and mental limits. The “heroic” label recognized the adversities which had to be overcome by these pioneers.

Nineteen men died on Antarctic expeditions during the Heroic Age. Of these, four died of illnesses unrelated to their Antarctic experiences, and two died from accidents in New Zealand. The remaining 13 perished during service on or near the Antarctic continent. Another five men died shortly after returning from the Antarctic.

Below is a review of three of the expeditions involving Shackelton. There was one other Shackelton expeditions.

Endurance 1914-1916

In 1914, members of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition watched as their ship, the Endurance was crushed by the frozen sea. They were left with no radio and no hope of rescue. For more than a year, they drifted on packed ice, surviving on seal, penguin, and eventually dog meat, while battling freezing temperatures and mind-numbing boredom. Shackleton, along with all 28 members of the expedition, emerged at Stromness whaling station in May, 1916, almost two years after their departure.

Discovery Expedition of 1901-1904

The Discovery Expedition of 1901–04, known officially as the British National Antarctic Expedition, was the first official British exploration of the Antarctic regions since James Clark Ross’s voyage sixty years earlier. It launched the Antarctic careers of many who would become leading figures in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, including Robert Falcon Scott who led the expedition, Ernest Shackleton, Edward Wilson, Frank Wild, Tom Crean and William Lashly.

Ernest Shackleton was designated Third Officer in charge of holds, stores and provisions, and responsible for arranging the entertainments. Although the expedition was not a formal Navy project, Scott proposed to run the expedition on naval lines and secured the crew’s voluntary agreement to work under the Naval Discipline Act.

The total cost of the expedition was estimated at £90,000 (2009 equivalent about £7.25 million). The main geographical results of the expedition were the discovery of King Edward VII Land; the ascent of the western mountains and the discovery of the Polar Plateau; the first sled journey on the plateau; the Barrier journey to a Furthest South of 82°17′S. The island nature of Ross Island was established. Mountains and other features were charted and heights calculated.

Scott, Wilson and Shackleton left on 2 November 1902 with dogs and supporting parties. On 30 December 1902, without having left the Barrier, they reached their Furthest South at 82°17′S. Troubles multiplied on the home journey, as the remaining dogs died and Shackleton collapsed with scurvy. There was a relief ship. There was a second year of exploration and another relief ship.

Nimrod Expedition

On 1 January 1908, Nimrod sailed for the Antarctic from Lyttelton Harbour, New Zealand. Shackleton’s original plans had envisaged using the old Discovery base in McMurdo Sound to launch his attempts on the South Pole and South Magnetic Pole.

The “Great Southern Journey”, as Frank Wild called it, began on 29 October 1908. On 9 January 1909, Shackleton and three companions (Wild, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams) reached a new Farthest South latitude of 88° 23′ S, a point only 112 miles (180 km) from the Pole. They became the first persons to see and travel on the South Polar Plateau. Their return journey to McMurdo Sound was a race against starvation, on half-rations for much of the way. At one point, Shackleton gave his one biscuit allotted for the day to the ailing Frank Wild, who wrote in his diary: “All the money that was ever minted would not have bought that biscuit and the remembrance of that sacrifice will never leave me”. They arrived at Hut Point just in time to catch the ship.

They discovered the approximate location of the South Magnetic Pole, reached on 16 January 1909 by Edgeworth David, Douglas Mawson, and Alistair Mackay. Shackleton returned to the United Kingdom as a hero, and soon afterwards published his expedition account, Heart of the Antarctic.

In 1922, Shackleton’s death marked the end of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, a period of discovery characterized by journeys of geographical and scientific exploration in a largely unknown continent without any of the benefits of modern travel methods or radio communication.

42 thoughts on “Elon Musk Says Life on Mars Will Be Very Hard”

  1. Until we see nanogoop so good we can build a shining city in, say, Antartica or the deep Sahara, complete with all of its own food supplies etc. and starting with only a few shiploads of equipment and supplies, I can no longer see good old squishy organic humans making a viable go at this.

    Cyborgs? Maybe. Inorganic humans? Quite possibly, although it is difficult to see what would attract them to the bottom of a gravity well.

  2. Speaking about hard, I wonder if a perfectly-reasonable first attempt might be to just launch a BFR or Falcon heavy … to orbit, and then deorbit the business end (that might ostensibly go to Moon or Mars, or Asteroid X), land it in either the Antarctic (“Dry Valley” would be perfect) or the Namib Desert (again, nearly perfect), or perhaps on the uppermost staging camp of Mt. Everest (again, possibly perfect)…

    In order to set up camp in a hostile environment, get everything unpacked, and go for simulating the endurance needed for a Mars or Lunar landing. And semi-permanent habitation.

    The ONLY support afforded these sim-teams would be once-every-6-months (Mars) or 6-weeks (Luna) rocket launches, LEO insertion and deorbiting-to-land the support stuff. The landing team, for authenticity, would have 1 milliwatt transmitters, crap communications antennae, and only the food and oxygen that they landed with, to start.

    No rescues by helicopter (or land team) no matter what. None at all.

    Just saying, GoatGuy

  3. I was very unclear. What I mean is that we can try lots of stuff using a computer simulation but not that, that is sufficient, just a sieve to then try the more promising stuff in more concrete ways on Earth.

    We can simulate nuclear detonations and may other things very accurately. But that is not really what I am talking about. I am talking strategy…the plan. I am talking various automation schemes. The sequence and organization of activities. I am not talking about simulating exotic physics, just variations on plans.

  4. There’s no LNT to it, ans it’s NASA’s math anyway. If it’s conservative, so what?

    What’s BS is the idea you just wrote anything that matters.

  5. Humans definitely could use the kick in the rear. We have it way too easy nowadays.

    Thinking in terms of a solar system “world” instead of only Earth, and in terms of hundreds and thousands of years instead of years or decades, is going to have some very good consequences for humanity.

  6. If Musk’s definition of hard was bad enough for people to burn out here on Earth, what’ll it be when it’s harder work in harder environment, on *Mars* where Earth is a grain of light in the sky…

    It’s going to be really awesome if occasionally tragic. I’m already saving up and getting in shape for a ticket if I’m eligible.

  7. All of these replace . with _
    and / with —

    Proposed ITS Cargo Modules to Initiate a Chemical Industry on Mars

    Power options for a Mars settlement 

    Cargo manifest for first Starship (BFS) Mars mission

    Envisioning Amazing Martian Habitats

    The Mars settlement / Martian homesteading narrative 3

    Predicting Details of Elon Musk’s Mars Colony

     ISRU – mining ice without digging

    Development of a Martian export economy

    There’s lots more if you dig

  8. AFAIK, the plan is to refuel the BFS in-situ and eventually send it back. I suspect it could accommodate the few colonists that decide to (or have to) go back, as long as there are enough to run the ship’s systems, so they won’t die on the way. So I would say mostly (and intended to be) one way, but not without the possibility of return.

    The more people go to Mars, the more will want to return, so over time, the return trip option will become both more practical and more significant.

  9. Yep. The goal of manned space missions is to learn how to live in space for eventually doing it.

    Which certainly requires a lot of learning and new technologies. Just don’t get the goal wrong.

  10. “Simulate”
    Garbage in, Garbage out.
    You need quite a lot of real world testing to confirm that your programming isn’t garbage.

  11. If it is that hard, they need to rethink the plan. We have the means to simulate virtually anything. We can try thousands of plans and their combinations. We have the technology or we have the means to create the technology we need.

  12. Of course it’s going to be hard. Who thought it wasn’t?

    I’d think any glib Muskovites would be aware that Musk has all along been saying that there’s likely to be a very high mortality rate among the early colonists. He compared it to the legendary Shackleton ad:

    “Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.”

    Except that the colonists’ trip to Mars would be one way, of course, and they’d be expected to pay for the privilege.

  13. “There may be a minimum that the body can handle and anything up to x/4 is fine, or maybe not.”

    There used to be a long term government program doing research on this very question, but it was canceled just short of issuing a report during the previous administration, rumors being that they didn’t like the report’s likely conclusions. (That the LNT model was bunk, and low levels of radiation were basically harmless.)

    In all likelihood, low level radiation exposures will be the least of the early colonists’ worries, being ignored in favor of starvation, freezing, and explosive decompression.

  14. Under a previous comment system I proposed what GoatGuy dubbed the “dirtbag” system: An inflatable bag habitat that would be buried under enough local soil to counter most of the internal pressure, drastically reducing the structural requirements. That thickness, coincidentally, is also more than adequate for radiation shielding and thermal stability.

    It’s potentially manufacturable on Mars, since polypropylene is easily manufactured from CO2 and H2O, using the Methane that would be manufactured locally for fuel as part of the initial synthesis.

    For the necessary compression loads, your best bet would be soil baked dry, graded to have a high packing fraction, and bound together by a small fraction of polypropylene. Though if enough salt were available as a byproduct of water mining, that would also serve as a fine binder for structural blocks. I like the polypro, though, because it’s inherently water proof, and buried structures could be exposed to brines as the soil around them warms from waste heat.

    I think even the first Martian habitats could be mostly composed of native materials with this approach, provided the right equipment on the early flights. Digging a hole, burying a bag, and dumping sand on it as it is gradually pressurized is not a complex task.

  15. But it will take some time. Anyone expecting a tourist resort on Mars on the first years, maybe decades, will be sorely disappointed.

    It will be an encampment, where the first arrivals will be living on tin cans and tubes until they can bury themselves underground, with the perennial risk of radiation, airlock or air pumps failure.

    The biggest occupation will be growing the livable spaces and making yourself useful on any of the many things required by human settlements.

    Making pre-fab habitats in-situ will probably be the way to go. With all the basic elements for survival (like sealable doors and autonomous energy and comms) integrated in a modular shape, capable of being buried and assembled into bigger modules. Similar to Bigelow’s inflatable modules and probably derived from them.

    Legit Martian habitats designed and built there will probably be quite bland and made in series, to ensure the basic requirements of survival with high redundancy.

  16. Seems to me that Elon is a clear-headed, science-savvy, neoindustrial genius. When he says, “its going to be hard”, it should be a wake-up to the glib Muskovites that it will be hard. Very hard.  

    Just saying,

  17. 5 years seems like a lot. I looked into that once, I thought it was months, not years, but I can’t remember where I got that information.

    But you think about it, the planet will block 50% of cosmic radiation right away (everything from the horizon and below). Set up camp in a canyon, and it could block something like 70% of cosmic radiation. You still have solar radiation, so some kind of shielding would be desirable.

    There’s large uncertainty about those minimum doses. You can’t just say that since a dosage of x results in 50% chance of cancer that a dosage of x/10 would have a 5% chance of cancer. There may be a minimum that the body can handle and anything up to x/4 is fine, or maybe not. At those lower levels there’s so much background radiation, toxins in the environment, genetic susceptibilities or protections, that it’s really hard to tease out what causes what. Of course it’s unethical to put hundreds of humans in isolation chambers for decades and test different inputs and really see what causes what.

    The good news so far is that astronauts and cosmonauts that have spent a good deal of time in space, or have gone to the moon, have normal lifespans.

  18. Throw around that LNT math like you’re a trained health physicist.

    Having quite some training in health physics, I say any calculation such as your 5% increased chance for cancer, are TBS (Total BS).

    What type of cancer? TBS. Unfounded.

  19. Because it doesn’t matter. A few feet of dirt and there’s no more danger than at seal level. The atmosphere is already thick enough you could be on the surface for almost 5 years before acquiring the NASA lifetime limit for radiation, which only raises the chance of cancer by 5% anyway.

  20. The problem is thinking that it’s just about learning stuff. Manned space exploration isn’t fundamentally about learning anything except how to become a species that isn’t restricted to just one planet.

    Suppose the first lung fish could have learned everything about the land without emerging from the water. Would that have been better than conquering the land?

    We’re not conquering space to learn about it. We’re conquering space to become a species with a wider habitat.

  21. We’re busy ‘terraforming’ Antarctica at the moment, in a few centuries Shackleton wouldn’t recognise the place. It was more hospitable to humans even in his day, though. Warmer, lower radiation, breathable air, standard gravity – we should all move there !

  22. NASA can learn far more per dollar from unmanned missions. (Cue the movie ‘The Martian’, where the Americans and the Chinese had to repurpose two science programmes to save one astronaut. If a cute robot pops its clogs, they just send another.)

  23. NASA is convinced that the public doesn’t actually support space exploration, and will turn on them if even one more astronaut dies.

    I suspect it would be more accurate to say that NASA doesn’t actually support manned space exploration, but only pursues it because it’s demanded of them.

  24. If you saw NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine’s comments during the InSight post-landing press conference, he said that America was first returning to the Moon (to stay), and would use that to prove out technologies to apply these for Mars. His estimation for first manned mission to Mars was in the mid-2030s.

  25. Magnetic field is to deflect solar wind which can erode the atmosphere. That erosion takes millions of years, so even if Mars had enough atmosphere (which it doesn’t), then it wouldn’t just disappear overnight in the absence of a magnetic field.

  26. Modern governments seem too risk averse to accept “Shackleton” levels of danger. So we get proposed plans like a crewed Mars fly-by, which sounds like a Mars mission, but accomplishes almost nothing that couldn’t be done in high Earth orbit.

  27. Can anyone give me a valid explanation for why we think we can live on Mars when it doesn’t have a magnetic field? We are told all the time about how vital it is to protect Earth and that all life would vanish if we didn’t have it. So… teraform Mars all you like but what about the lack of a magnetic field?


Leave a Comment