Elon Musk in 2014. Photo via Tesla Club Belgium
Elon Musk, the tech mogul who aims to reinvent the way humans get around the planet with his company Tesla and one day colonize other planets with his other company SpaceX, tends to sound like a sci-fi character whenever he opens his mouth. So when he took the stage at Vox Media’s Code Conference on Wednesday to be interviewed by tech journalists Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, he naturally threw out some big ideas. For one thing, he said we’re probably living inside a simulated reality whose purpose we have no hope of understanding. But while that’s cool and fine and whatever, the really otherworldly stuff he discussed was, well, actually otherworldly.
Musk has made no secret of his dream to get the hell off of Earth, which makes sense, because most of the time this planet is too hot or too cold, and the good stuff, like TV, isn’t even that good. His dream is to be born on Earth (check) but to die on Mars—”If you’re going to choose a place to die, then Mars is probably not a bad choice,” he said at the Code Conference—and talks about his colonization plans with the casualness of an 18-year-old chatting about his college choices.
His plan is to send a rocket to Mars by 2018 (yes, SpaceX is apparently serious about this), and to get humans on the red planet in 2025. He demurred when asked if he’d be one of the first colonists, and when Swisher pressed him about whether he’d go to space before shooting off to Mars, he shrugged and replied, “I’ll go at some point.”
It’s easy to respond to Musk’s low-key arrogance with disbelief. Is Tesla really going to, for instance, jump to building 500,000 cars a year by 2018? If you give SpaceX $62 million, will it really send your stuff to Mars? And how feasible are actual Mars colonies, considering that the much-ballyhooed Mars One scheme—which would use a SpaceX rocket to send humans to live on Mars, paying for the mission with revenues from a reality show about the effort—seems like a lot of bluster without much behind it?
On the other hand, Tesla is really building a “gigafactory” to manufacture batteries (which Musk said at the Code Conference has the biggest footprint of any building on the planet), and SpaceX is really landing rockets on barges, after a few failures.
So why not skip ahead and get to the important stuff, like how will Martian colonies govern themselves?
When that question was asked by an audience member, Musk didn’t skip a beat, envisioning a system where people would vote on laws directly. Specifically, Musk mused about a system “where it’s slightly harder to put laws in place than to take them away and where laws don’t automatically just live forever.”
Having everyone vote on everything, even renewing old statutes, seems crazy, as Vox’s Ezra Klein pointed out. Life on Mars is going to be hard enough already without entrusting power to ordinary Martians, who probably aren’t going to be any more rational and level-headed than ordinary Earthlings. What happens if the only guy on Mars who thought to bring a gun tried to seize power? What’s to stop the very nice people at SpaceX, who would presumably control the distribution of supplies to the colony, from turning it into a company town? And you wouldn’t have a fancy telecom infrastructure on Mars to start off, so people couldn’t vote on stuff via their iPhones—do you, like, get everyone together for a town hall meeting to decide what crops to plant and whether to ask for mining equipment or Night Court DVDs in the next shipment from Earth?
In the past, Musk has said that a one-way ticket to Mars would cost $500,000, which actually doesn’t seem that high, all things considered, but presumably people outside of the One Percent will have a hard time scrounging up that kind of bread (I’m guessing no bank is going to lend anyone money so he or she can leave the planet forever). If a crew of millionaires want to ditch the planet for a Martian colony where they’re going to have to agree on a set of laws or else perish amid the desolate red rocks—well, I don’t think anyone is going to have a problem with that.
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