Would Carl Sagan have agreed with Elon Musk for wanting to settle on Mars?

Elon Musk

As Space News reports, SpaceX launched the third iteration of its Starship rocket.

It rose into the afternoon south Texas sky, did the belly flop maneuver, then descended. At the last moment, the Starship SN10 righted itself and touched down on a tail of flame. At long last, SpaceX had landed its stainless-steel rocket ship.

The triumph was to be short lived. A few minutes later the Starship, swaying to one side like a metal Leaning Tower of Pisa, exploded.

Still, Musk and his hard-working SpaceX engineers have taken a baby step toward the dream of a rocket that can cross interplanetary gulfs and, in time, convey the first settlers to the planet Mars.

Not everyone is enthused about Musk’s desire to build a city on Mars. A recent article in The Atlantic written by Shannon Stirone suggests that it is unseemly and unethical for a capitalist like Musk to even think that he can build a Mars settlement, thus presuming to “own” the Red Planet like one of his companies.

Musk is compared unfavorably to the late Carl Sagan, a celebrity scientist from the 20th century. Sagan also advocated for the exploration and eventual settlement of Mars. Indeed, he believed that a joint American-Soviet mission to Mars would have been a great way to resolve the Cold War. Sagan turned out to be wrong, but his motives were “purer” than those of the 21st century billionaire rocket baron.

The Stirone attributed Musk’s desire to go to Mars to his “ego.” She also said he is, “no explorer; he is a flag painter.”

That Stirone presumes to know what is in Musk’s heart without evidence seems manifest. One suspects she is wide of the mark. No one can know what Sagan would have thought of Musk. Sagan died a few years before Musk founded SpaceX. However, Sagan might have found Musk to be a kindred spirit in certain ways. Like Musk, Sagan had a healthy ego. Like the man of business, the man of science had a fascination with the possibilities of space travel.

It is by no means certain, but had Sagan lived on he might have been intelligent enough to recognize that people who dream of traveling to Mars to study its secrets would need someone like Musk to pay the bills. Musk’s city on Mars would serve many purposes, including acting as a base from which to conduct scientific exploration.

Stirone also stresses that Mars is, currently, not a very nice place to live. It is cold, arid and without a breathable atmosphere. The surface is bathed in radiation that, if not shielded against, would be fatal to any human venturing outside without proper protection.

On the other hand, people have survived and even thrived in hostile environments since humans first walked the Earth. Given technological fixes, people can do the same on Mars. Indeed, in the long-term, terraforming could change the Red Planet into a sibling of Earth, just as it was billions of years ago.

Stirone offered another profoundly unfair criticism. She suggested that Musk is engaged in a frivolous pursuit of colonizing Mars when he ought to direct his ingenuity and wealth to saving the Earth from climate change, among other problems “Someone in his position could do so many things on our little blue dot itself to help those in need.” Stirone seems not to have heard of Tesla, Musk’s electric car company, or its subsidiary, which sells rooftop solar power systems. Whatever one thinks of climate change or the efficacy of electric cars and solar power, one cannot say with seriousness that Musk is neglecting the home planet while proposing to gallivant over to Mars. Musk knows how to multitask.

People who choose to cross a 100-million-mile gulf to become Martian settlers will have a real possibility of suffering a premature death. A Mars settlement will be an uncomfortable, dangerous place to live, at least in the early years. However, the choice to live on Mars will be theirs alone and should not be prescribed by anyone who would place limits on human aspirations. Indeed, a great reason to go to Mars would be to get away from people like that.

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