The American billionaire Jeff Bezos he did not escape the common-sense question put to him last year by an interviewer in Washington. Why spend so much money on space travel when there are still serious problems to be solved on Earth? His answer was: “Looking into the future, this planet is too small to supply more than 10,000 million inhabitants. And the resources are going to have to be found sooner or later outside the Earth. That is why it is necessary to work in the here and now, but also to think about how we are going to survive in the long term”. In this sense, he clarified that allocates much more budget to the Bezos Foundationwhich works on projects to increase natural resources and against climate change, than to its space company Blue Origin.
The other billionaire with whom Bezos alternates in the first place of the richest men in the world, the South African Elon Muskalso works on his own project with his company SpaceX so that Humanity can develop in space, and even proposed that within 40 to 100 years there will be a million people living on Mars. The goal seems distant, but the details given by both Musk and Bezos serve as an indicator of how is the future imagined by those who, unlike the rest of mortals, do not have the limit of money to make their dreams come true.
With the habit of thinking “outside the box”, Bezos launched the following reflection last year during the “Our Future in Space” conference at the Washington National Cathedral: “In the history of humanity, the ‘dreamers’ first appear, and then the ‘realizers’ who give shape to those dreams. From this realization, the ‘dreamers’ set new goals and the ‘realizers’ materialize them. That is the virtuous circle of human progress.”
NASA and other space agencies are also advancing with their projects in space, on the Moon and on Mars, but the leading role today is held by private companies. Beyond the enthusiasm of Bezos, Musk or Richard Branson -another multimillionaire involved in the space race-, the experts take private projects very seriously and see them heading towards their realization, especially after the last trips that managed to overcome historical technical problems to take a dozen “tourists”, without knowledge of astronautics, at the limit between the atmosphere and outer space, the Kármán Line, about 100 kilometers from sea level.
“We’re At the dawn of a new era in space exploration, there are enormous advances”, recently stated Christian Davenport, author of the book The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos. “The race that in Cold War times led by the Soviet Union and the United States, is now in the hands of private companies that put an end to the long monopoly of the States in space”, Davenport said.
Bezos and Musk have different ideas for the long term, but they agree on identifying the difficulties of the present to lower travel costs and bring transportation to a price that is not exclusive to billionaires. “My goal is that a trip to Mars, which would take about 80 days, would in the future cost the equivalent of the average value of a home in the United States, which today is around $200,000.Musk said.
In effect, the owner of Tesla imagines that at some point humans will become a “multiplanetary species” that will inhabit different planets. “Humanity today does not have a plan B if the Earth, for example, is hit by an asteroid or if living conditions here get much worse,” said. Therefore, the goal is to start “terraforming” Mars to recreate life conditions on Earth there.
The businessman explained that, although the idea of a “nuclear bomb” terrifies most humans, with a development objective it could be detonate such devices at the poles of Mars to melt the ice that exists there. This would release water vapor and carbon dioxide that would help generate a greenhouse effect and raise the planet’s temperature and air pressure.
But his rival, the creator of Amazon, does not see it viable to settle on that planet instead. Bezos says that going to live on Mars, where temperatures can reach -140°C, “at best would be like trying to live on top of Everest or in the coldest places in Antarctica. They are not places where humans want to live”.
Bezos, on the other hand, sees the idea of self-sustaining space colonies in which people live permanently. In a few centuries the Earth would then be a kind of large “national park” where only “light industries” would be allowed. All heavy industry, its workers, their families, and their material resources would be in space. The men of the future will travel to Earth “How can we go spend a weekend in Yellowstone Park?” Bezos said.
Unlike Musk, what motivates the founder of Amazon is not to imagine a Plan B for an eventual destruction of the Earth, but to offer a solution to the natural process that Humanity will lead to overpopulation, and the need to seek alternative resources to the terrestrial soil. “With the current increase in energy use, at a rate of 3% per year, in a few centuries the resources of this planet will inevitably run out“, said.
For Bezos, the great inspirer of the idea of space colonies is Gerard O’Neill (1927-1992), who was his physics professor at Princeton. O’Neill theorized in the 1970s about some “cylinders” several kilometers long, with buildings, parks and agricultural sectors, which could accommodate a million people each.
Both billionaires agree that the biggest obstacle to their extraterrestrial project is the cost of transfers.
Until now, rocket travel was a luxury enjoyed by a few. Since Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made the first flight in 1961, only about 600 people had the opportunity to travel to space. And the difficulty is fundamentally economic. The Apollo program cost between 100,000 and 200,000 million dollars to send just 12 people to the Moon. Today the launch of a manned rocket costs between 100 and 400 million dollars. In the particular case of Russia, it charges 85 million dollars to the United States every time it takes an astronaut to the International Space Station with its rockets.
Musk summarizes in four the challenges to overcome to reduce the costs of a trip to Mars: reusability of rocket boosters, in-orbit refueling, fuel production on Mars, and finding the right fuel on the Martian surface.
As for the first challenge, the oceans of the northern hemisphere have been filled in recent decades with expensive booster rockets that fell discarded after completing their mission. But after several failed attempts, SpaceX made history in 2016 with the Falcon 9, the first reusable rocket. However, the industry still needs to move forward.
Regarding the supply of fuels, the red planet has an atmosphere of carbon dioxide and ice in its soil. With CO2 and H2O, methane CH4 and oxygen O2 can be produced. According to Musk, The most appropriate fuel to produce on Mars then seems to be from methane, the fuel’s technical name is deep-cryo Methalox.
Lastly, an insurmountable difficulty in going to Mars is that, as it has a different orbit from Earth, the “window” to travel there occurs every 26 months when both planets are at their closest point. “After the first mass passenger trip, it would take 20 to 50 launch windows, 40 to 100 years, to bring a self-sustaining population of about a million people to Mars.”Musk estimates.
When Bezos is told how fanciful both his and Musk’s ideas about mass travel and space colonies are to the common ear, he often recalls an anecdote.
“Imagine a peasant who in December 1903 looked on the prairie of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, that biplane that the Wright brothers had flown for the first time with great difficulty. What would that observer have thought if someone had told him that some 60 years later there would be planes crossing the world with almost 400 people on board? And today there are permanently around 10,000 planes overhead with 1,300,000 passengers in the air.… In the same way, I believe that today the era of massive space travel is not so far away.”