The short answer as to whether humans can live on Mars is probably, but it won’t be easy. Both Elon Musk’s SpaceX and NASA are projecting that there will be humans on Mars sometime between 2025 and 2030. How long we can stay there or how long we’ll want to stay there remains to be seen. Living on Mars will never be cheap because getting there and back will never be cheap and a constant background of lethal radiation will mean it’s never safe. Then there’s the ongoing costs of maintaining a Martian colony, which will be significant. Elon Musk jokes that he wants to die on Mars, just not on impact. But is that really feasible and what’s it going to cost to establish a colony on Mars and who’s going to pay for it?
As far as the technology goes, it’s in the testing phase today. The Flying Dragon, otherwise known as the SpaceX Dragon 2 or V2, is in the testing phase now and Musk says test flights to Mars could start as soon as 2018. It should be noted that in 2014 Musk said test flights would start by late 2015 and piloted test flights by mid-2016. Well, it is mid-2016 and the piloted test flights by both SpaceX and Boeing have been pushed off to 2017. It’s going to be hard to get to Mars if we can’t even get people off the ground.
No Space Taxi
Right now the U.S. doesn’t even have a way to get astronauts into low earth orbit or the International Space Station. It’s an ongoing embarrassment to the U.S. space program that we’re still dependent on the Russians to get crew to and from the ISS. It’s a monumental step between low earth orbit to getting humans to Mars orbit and we’re not even on first base yet.
Some Measure Of Success
All the same it’s a bad idea to underestimate Musk. SpaceX has now returned first stage boosters safely to earth four times; once landing the booster on land and three times aboard robot barges bobbing in the ocean. That is a jaw-dropping technical feat that doesn’t lose its astonishment, no matter how many times you see it. Many declared such a feat impossible and impractical. Those who said it wasn’t possible have been effectively silenced, though the practicality has yet to be determined.
Reusable boosters could reduce the cost of payloads to Mars far enough that the cost of a sustainable Martian colony could be manageable.
Mars Has Resources
Unlike the moon, Mars has resources that can be used to harvest water, oxygen and building materials. While NASA currently has no plans to send people on a one-way trip to Mars, some of Musk’s comments seem to suggest that one-way travel to Mars might be an option. There are several independent groups planning for “Mars To Stay” missions, where returning to earth is optional.
A Lot Of Details
Just because we have the individual components of the technology we’d need to live on Mars, that doesn’t mean putting them together and proofing them is going to be easy. We’re currently testing only a handful of the components we’d need for the entire mission. Reusable boosters, inflatable transport modules and experiments to grow food in space are currently being tested. Those efforts represent only a tiny fraction of the technology testing we need to get done between now and 2024.
Right now the current timelines seem impossible. I do believe humans will live on Mars someday, just not in the next eight years. How soon we get there will depend a lot on our collective determination, expressed by the budget we’re willing to set. We should also remember that space is not much more daunting than the oceans were 700 years ago and we managed that. Never underestimate the human race.