Terraforming Mars Doesn't Have to Be About Elon Musk

There are good reasons not to want Elon Musk to terraform Mars, but disdain for Musk doesn't need to become disdain for the dream of a multiplanetary humanity. On Monday, Discover Magazine reported on new research published in scientific journal Nature Astronomy that concludes Mars has insufficient reserves of carbon dioxide to terraform the planet "using present-day technology."

Discover's headline, "Sorry, Elon. There's Not Enough CO2 To Terraform Mars" (echoed, as well, in the last sentence: "Sorry, Elon Musk.") set the tone for media coverage to follow. "Sorry, Elon Musk: NASA says plans to terraform Mars won't work," said CNET. "Sorry to ruin your plans, Elon," read an Astronomy sub-headline. "Elon Musk Wants to Terraform Mars, and He's Refusing to Back Down," Inverse wrote. "Elon Musk's 'supervillain' plan to NUKE Mars to help humans live on red planet rubbished by experts," another headline reads.

Trending search engine keywords nudge journalists into centering their coverage around Musk, but framing Martian terraforming as a billionaire's pet project whittles down a bold future for humanity to a glib, smirking gotcha.

While leftists have long derided Musk for raking in billions of dollars in government subsidies for his companies while posing as a paragon of free-market capitalism, recent events have made him a more universal object of scorn. Particularly the way Musk inserted himself into the Thai cave rescue by inventing a useless submarine, then smearing one of the actual rescue divers. Musk still has many fans, but his public availability (see: active on Twitter), political ignorance, labor practices and affinity for bold proclamations have made him an attractive target for critics of American corporate entitlement. Musk is a face among a largely faceless billionaire class, who have spent decades absorbing all economic growth and immiserating the rest of the United States.

But are we really going to toss aside all dreams of space colonization just to target Elon Musk with snide headlines?

The glee at the apparent impossibility of Martian terraforming points to resentment built up against a plutocracy that prefers spending money on space exploration to healing Earth, but also to a strain of fatalism that presumes space will only ever be for the rich. This cynicism essentially cedes space to capitalists rather than imagining a more egalitarian, democratic mode of space colonization.

But first, it's worth considering whether terraforming is actually impossible, or merely almost impossible.

Terraforming Mars doesn't just require creating an oxygen-rich atmosphere for humans to breathe. A bigger obstacle is atmospheric pressure. Our bodies are adapted to the weight of our atmosphere—about 14.7 pounds per square inch at sea level, or just over 1,000 millibars. The top of Mt. Everest, where people struggle to breathe, is a third of that. Get down to around 121 millibars and breathing becomes impossible. Under 68 millibars and human blood begins to boil.

The atmospheric pressure on Mars is 6 millibars.

If Mars is to become livable for humans, we'll need to increase atmospheric pressure (increasing the surface temperature as well) by releasing CO2 and other greenhouse gases trapped in the polar ice caps, plus carbon-containing minerals sealed in the rocky surface.

The article that prompted swipes at Musk, "Inventory of CO2 available for terraforming Mars" by Christopher S. Edwards and Bruce Jakosky, concludes Martian resources could only be used to generate about 20 millibars of atmospheric pressure, far short of what would be needed for human habitability (and this is before we even begin to engineer a breathable atmosphere). "Terraforming Mars is therefore not possible in the foreseeable future by utilizing CO2 resources available on the planet," they write.

Musk, with the help of Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer who co-authored a 1993 paper outlining CO2 resources available for terraforming, disputes the findings.

Zubrin believes a runaway greenhouse effect can be achieved on Mars by releasing subterranean CO2, pointing out that the new research does in fact record CO2 deposits beyond the 20 millibar maximum they believe feasible. And indeed, Jakosky and Edwards catalog several possibilities, including a maximum of 40 millibars encased in Martian rock and a possible 150 millibars of gases in the polar ice caps.

In a press release regarding the Nature Astronomy study, NASA describes terraforming as impossible with current technology and "very far into the future," but few are claiming the process would be easy or quick.

A follow-up interview with Discover reveals just how much the prospect of terraforming Mars continues to depend upon subjective interpretations of future technology. "On a global scale, I can only think of two possibilities," Jakosky said, describing the use of either manufactured greenhouse gases or a giant, orbiting mirror to unlock captured CO2. Both proposals also appear in Zubrin's research (he even estimates how big the mirror needs to be: 100 kilometers in diameter). But while they agree on methodology, the two researchers disagree on the timeline: where Zubrin estimates a 500-year process, Jakosky argues it would be more like 10,000.

Either way, contemplation of centuries-scaled projects puts Martian terraforming as much in the realm of utopianism as science. Terraforming Mars (or, more modestly, making it a site of human habitation) would require the type of long-term planning corporations are uniquely ill-suited to handle, particularly if we'd rather Earth's Martian colonies weren't entirely directed at strip-mining or the building of elaborate bunkers for the rich to retreat to as waters rise on Earth.

A sunset on Mars. NASA

NASA is right to warn us against the essential improbability of terraforming Mars, but this new study deserves to be treated as something more substantial than a middle finger to Musk. By focusing coverage of "Inventory of CO2 available for terraforming Mars" on its relation to SpaceX, we cede the shape of Martian humanity to the Musks of the world. Turning away from the stars, all to spite Elon Musk, would be a terrible mistake.