Expert Speak Space Tracker
Published on Nov 02, 2016
SpaceX has requested permission to send the first unmanned probe to Mars in 2018, a spaceship called the Red Dragon.
Red dragon on the horizon Earlier this year, Elon Musk, the man behind SpaceX, Tesla and SolarCity, made an unprecedented announcement at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Mexico: he unveiled his plans to take people to Mars. And while the IAC has made many speakers make these claims in the past, this announcement was very different and the effects are still sinking in. Unlike others, Mr. Musk has the track record and the resources to actually pull this off, and relatively soon. In fact, of all the potential plans to go to Mars that are out there at the moment, this is probably the most viable. This includes NASA’s own plans which, at present, remain unclear. As people are coming to grips with what SpaceX is going to undertake, it is becoming clear that there will be serious implications for all humanity. But what are those implications, exactly? Are there security consequences? Will SpaceX be claiming Mars? What about international law? All of these questions can be answered in wildly different ways, but a careful look at what is and is not being proposed reveals that while a Martian colony means a whole new era for humanity, we are surprisingly well-equipped for what is to come.

< style="color: #163449;">What is SpaceX proposing?

Many of the questions that emerged after Musk’s presentation show that many are not entirely clear on what it is that SpaceX will do on Mars. The essence is simple: build a bigger rocket and a bigger spaceship than has ever been built before. The rocket will be larger than the Saturn V, which launched the Apollo missions to the Moon. The ship, which will be larger than the Statue of Liberty in New York, will be able to transport 100 passengers and cargo. The genius of the plan, however, is how these instruments will be used. The rocket will carry the spaceship to a parking orbit around the Earth, with no fuel inside. The rocket will then return to Earth using the Grasshopper technology developed for the Falcon 9, picking up fuel which will then be taken to the spaceship in orbit. This process will be done maybe four or five times, allowing the spaceship to be filled and packed to the brim without the logistical challenge of having to launch everything at once. Finally, the spaceship will travel to Mars using its rockets as well as two solar arrays (that look like wings) for electricity. Once there, the rocket will also use SpaceX’s re-entry technology to land the rocket upright. The very first thing the crew is likely to do is set up a station that will use resources found on Mars (mostly methane) to make more rocket fuel. Given the reduced gravity on Mars (which Musk says will be "very fun"), the spaceship will be able to launch back into space and return to Earth. SpaceX has already requested permission to send the first unmanned probe to Mars in 2018, a spaceship called the Red Dragon. If successful, SpaceX plans to send the first manned mission by 2030. And while tickets for this maiden voyage are likely to be extremely expensive, it is Musk’s ambition to eventually get ticket prices down to less than USD 100,000. This will be the key to realising Musk’s Martian City.

< style="color: #163449;">What is SpaceX not proposing?

While the presentation for colonising Mars contained tremendous details about how people would ultimately get there, Musk was surprisingly ambivalent about what will be done on Mars. He had some notions of habitats and a fuel refinery, but it was clear that while SpaceX may provide the transportation, they are not necessarily in the business of building cities. Elon Musk has, essentially, proposed a railroad to Mars, but he is not planning to build the city much beyond the railway station. The other thing that SpaceX is not proposing is to claim Mars for SpaceX or the United States. While some may be concerned that this mission will somehow give the US property rights over Mars, there is no need to be concerned. For one, occupying an area in space does not give one property rights in space. This can be seen not only in international outer space law but also the new US Space Competitiveness Act. There, the US restricts property rights in celestial bodies to what can be "obtained", namely what can be collected, manipulated and transported. They also introduced a caveat that recognising property rights in "space resources" by no means is a claim of sovereignty. While US law will apply inside the space ship, it does not extend to Martian soil. And it is precisely here that there is significant room for cooperation.

< style="color: #163449;">What SpaceX could mean for the world

So if Musk will build the train, who will build the city? Fortunately, in this day and age, there is no short supply of adventurous entrepreneurs who can answer this call. Companies like Bigelow, with their inflatable habitat, are obvious potential partners for this mission. NASA will also very likely have a significant presence on board, sending scientists and equipment that will be the foundation for the first human presence on Mars. Who else can go? Well, Musk’s answer is simply anyone wishing to pay. That includes foreign nationals. There is nothing that prohibits, say, India from buying five seats on board. In fact, SpaceX is planning to build an entire fleet of these ships. Any country could go so far as to book an entire ship to carry their own nationals and land at a site of their choosing. This assumes that the US will sort out certain inconsistencies relating to informed consent and export controls, but at the moment there is no indication that they will not.

< style="color: #163449;">What about the US Government?

It cannot be denied that what SpaceX is offering will be in high demand when the time comes, but the US government will have a regulatory role to play that could bring politics into the picture. For one, the missions will have to be authorised and supervised in order for the US to be in compliance with the Outer Space Treaty. To do this, the US will probably use the Federal Aviation Administration, which has just issued the first authorisation for a space mining mission to the Moon. SpaceX will, therefore, have to comply with US laws and policies. One could potentially see a situation where the US might not allow nationals from a particular country or group to fly on a mission. However, this is unlikely. The US Government will want SpaceX to flourish, not least of all because its success is a success for the US economy. In this context, they are likely to be as liberal as possible when it comes to regulation. Until now, they have been fine with foreign nationals wanting to fly with Virgin Galactic, there is no reason to think that going to Mars will be any different.

< style="color: #163449;">So where do we sign up?

Unfortunately, it is still too early to say when the very first manned mission will take place, but according to Musk it will happen by 2030. It is also still too early to tell who will go or what the selection process will be. What is certain, however, is that it is no longer a question of "if" but "when". If all things remain as they are at the moment, there is no reason not to expect that first mission to carry representatives from a hundred countries with a hundred different backgrounds and one goal: to make humans an interplanetary species. The author is an associate for LMI Advisors in Washington DC, where he advises on international legal issues related to space activities.
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