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Is Mars Planet B?

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, plans to colonize Mars. The Chinese government also plans to set up a base there. Are they crazy? Or is Mars our Planet B — a place where humans can survive after they mess up Planet A, the Earth?

by Stephen Shenfield



6 min read

There is no Planet B

For most people that is obvious. No proof is required. I just examined a book and a website, both entitled There Is No Planet B. Neither contained any arguments to change the minds of those who believe that there is a Planet B. Because such people do exist. They say that to ensure its survival Homo sapiens must turn itself into ‘a multi-planet species,’ initially by colonizing Mars. Planet B is Mars. Nor do they exclude a more remote Planet C —  a moon of Saturn, perhaps. 

But why do these people matter? Aren’t they just nutcases? Unfortunately, they do matter. Because one of them is Elon Musk, CEO of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) as well as electric car maker Tesla and other companies and the wealthiest person in the world, with a net worth of over $300 billion. He is devoting his energy and fortune to an attempt to accomplish a mass colonization of Mars, hoping to ‘kickstart a million-strong self-sustaining city on Mars as early as 2050.’ 

These people matter also because the China National Space Administration (CNSA) plans to create a manned base on Mars by 2060. The United Arab Emirates also plan to establish a settlement on Mars by 2117. 

The latest version of the SpaceX timeline envisions the first two cargo flights in 2029, followed by two more cargo flights and two crewed flights in 2031. But to reach his goal Mr. Musk intends to expand the scale of the operation until a fleet of 1,000 starships is leaving for Mars with 100 passengers each every 26 months (the interval between successive dates on which the alignment of Mars with Earth makes possible a relatively short voyage of seven months), presumably accompanied by other ships carrying 100 tons of cargo each. 

The CNSA plan is much more modest and therefore much more realistic. The first stage is to land robots to explore Mars, collect samples, and help select a location for the base. The first such mission was in 2021; the next is scheduled for 2028. Next astronauts will be sent to build the base. Then over the decade 2033—2043 five large-scale missions will deposit cargo. Only after that will work begin to establish ‘a sustained human presence.’  

An Inhospitable Environment

Mars is an inhospitable environment for humans. The average temperature is 60 degrees C. below zero; in a few places it rises briefly above freezing point in summer. The atmosphere is unbreathable — only 1% as thick as Earth’s and consisting of 95% carbon dioxide and 4.5% nitrogen and argon. The ‘city’ is therefore envisioned as a sealed interconnected network of chambers of various shapes and sizes, linked to an outer periphery of launch pads for spaceships. To go ‘outdoors’ a colonist will have to wear a spacesuit, as in outer space. 

A major peril that is sometimes overlooked is the exposure of the Martian surface to radiation from space. Mars lacks a strong global magnetic field of the kind that deflects this radiation away from Earth. One advocate of colonization, concerned with this danger, suggests building a ‘city’ underground, in a cave or tunnel, but worries about the mental health of colonists locked inside a wholly artificial world, with ne’er a glimpse of the sun, the stars, or the gray Martian landscape.

What will the colonists eat? They will take with them a year or two’s supply of dry food that they will mix with water. Mars does have plenty of water, mostly as ice under the surface and in pools inside some craters. Water can serve as a source of oxygen for the ‘indoors’ atmosphere and as a medium for growing edible plants and rearing fish (hydroponics). The range of foods available will be quite limited: when Mr. Musk speaks of ‘pizzerias’ on Mars he is indulging in fantasy.  

For energy it is proposed to lay solar panels on the Martian surface. How effective they will be is doubtful in view of the weakness of the sun’s rays by the time they reach Mars and the frequent dust storms. A way will have to be found to keep the panels free of dust. 

The low gravity on Mars – 37.5% of Earth’s – has its advantages. It facilitates construction as well as movement. But the advantages are outweighed by disadvantages: the low gravity is why any atmosphere Mars may acquire tends to float off into space. And low gravity, like the zero gravity of weightlessness, destroys human health. Exposure to it for any length of time causes loss of bone mass and muscle tissue. Colonists will no longer be capable of re-adapting to the higher gravity of Earth. There will be no return home. 

Enthusiasts hope that the colonists will be able to ‘terraform’ Mars – that is, engineer changes in the Martian atmosphere, terrain, and climate that enable them to support plant, animal, and human life. This is a highly speculative concept. A recent NASA-sponsored study concluded that terraforming would require ‘technology well beyond today’s possibilities’ and may become feasible only in the very distant future (https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/goddard/2018/mars-terraforming). Arguably, however, the dream of a terraformed Mars may help sustain the morale of colonists, enabling them to bear their drab existence.  

Correcting Malfunctions

The survival of the colonists depends on the reliability of their life support systems and on the competence of the technicians who design, maintain, and when necessary repair them. We know from long experience that complex technological systems can malfunction or break down, even with – though especially without — adequate built-in redundancy. 

Consider the position of technicians in the Mars colony who are trying to diagnose and correct a malfunction in the system that generates the ‘indoors’ atmosphere. They have a strictly limited time to solve the problem, or else the entire colony will die of suffocation. Possibly they will have enough time to consult with colleagues on Earth (a radio message takes 20 minutes to reach Earth from Mars or vice versa). They will certainly not have enough time to request a new device or some special material from Earth and await its arrival on the next cargo ship. 

Viewing the situation in the light of Murphy’s law – ‘Anything that can go wrong will go wrong’ — it is clearly quite likely that the colony will perish. This Damocles’ sword hanging over the heads of the colonists will also affect their mental health.

Unfortunately, there are two problems with Mr. Musk and his plans that make this outcome more likely than it need be.

First, the character and workstyle of Mr. Musk himself are bound to generate technical defects. Current and former employees testify that as a boss he is brilliant, passionate, and inspiring but also impatient, demanding, and short-tempered. Even the most senior of his subordinates are allowed very little autonomy: Mr. Musk is the only real decision maker. Employees work long hours (often 70—80 hours per week) under high pressure. Crucially, many dare not express their disagreements with the boss. Many of the potential benefits of teamwork and specialized knowledge are thereby foregone.

Second, Mr. Musk is in too great haste to send to Mars large numbers of people, irrespective of whether or not they possess needed skills and specialized knowledge. Trying to run the project along commercially viable lines, he will surely be loath to postpone the migration of individuals willing and able to pay millions of dollars for their passage. However, the chance of survival would be maximized by giving consistent priority to transporting specialists in a wide range of relevant sciences and technologies as well as equipment and materials. 

Capitalism on Mars?

Mr. Musk makes the facile assumption that capitalism will continue to exist in the Mars colony. For example, he foresees that many people will take out personal loans to cover the cost of their tickets to Mars and then pay them back from wages they earn doing various jobs in the colony. In fact, capitalist relationships on Earth are sustained by a whole complex of specialized institutions such as banks, police, and law courts. These institutions buttress Mr. Musk’s own authority as an employer. None of them will exist in the Mars colony, at least for a long time to come – the colonists will have many much more urgent concerns. 

Power will fall into the hands of the technicians who control the life support systems (the means of life). Mr. Musk and his Earthside managers will retain a certain amount of leverage, for it will be they who determine which things and people are shipped to the colony, not necessarily in strict accordance with the requests of the technicians on Mars. Those colonists who lack relevant skills and knowledge will constitute a parasitical and despised underclass. Should it prove necessary to sacrifice any lives, those left to die will be members of this underclass, however much they may have paid to come to Mars.     

US—Chinese Relations on Mars 

American and Chinese colonies will coexist on Mars. The extent of their cooperation will no doubt depend on the tenor of US—Chinese relations back on Earth. As the Chinese colony will have been better planned and organized and will have a more favorable ratio of cargo from Earth to population, the American colony will certainly stand to benefit from cooperation. 

However, if space exploration continues in a spirit of US—Chinese rivalry, then the two colonies may ignore one another. They may even compete to occupy the same site, for – as on the Moon — although there is plenty of room for both a few spots may be especially desirable in terms of climate, smoothness of terrain, supply of water and other resources, and exposure to radiation. 

It is even conceivable that the American and Chinese colonies will be armed against one another. The accidental or deliberate launch of colony-to-colony missiles is another way in which human colonization of Mars may come to a sudden and ignominious end.    

The Rationale for Colonizing Mars

Mr. Musk has not clearly explained which threats to human survival he has in mind when he argues the necessity of human colonization of other planets. He has alluded to the extinction of the dinosaurs as a result of a meteor impact. 

In comparing the expediency of different means of ensuring human survival, it is helpful to distinguish between temporary and permanent threats. The threat of human extinction arises in the event of a meteor impact, supervolcanic eruption, or nuclear war not from the immediate effects, which will be confined to certain regions, but from the possibly global ‘winter’ caused by the diffusion of masses of sunlight-blocking material through the upper atmosphere. The cold and darkness may continue for several years but not indefinitely. Under these circumstances, the best way to ensure human survival is surely to maintain a network of well-stocked and well-ventilated shelters deep underground on Earth.

Some threats to human survival may be likely to last for centuries or millennia or even prove permanent. There is a rapidly developing threat of this kind – the threat of runaway global heating, which has the potential to turn Earth into a second Venus. Should this process really escalate to a point where it is no longer feasible to stop it, human survival may become possible only beyond the confines of Planet Earth. 

Even then, however, colonization of Mars would not be the sole option. An alternative is the Moon, which also has plenty of water and is very much closer to Earth. Moving cargo and people to a Moon colony would be far quicker and much more convenient than shipping them to Mars. 

Another near-Earth alternative has been suggested by Jeff Bezos, former CEO of Amazon and founder of another private spaceflight services company, Blue Origin. His idea is to construct ‘cities’ inside artificial satellites in Earth orbit.     


We cannot altogether exclude the possibility of self-sustaining colonization of Mars. However, it would be very easy for a Mars colony to fail catastrophically at any time. So yes, there is a Planet B, but it is an extremely poor substitute for Planet A. It is the mission of all responsible human beings to concentrate on saving Earth, our home world, while that is still possible. Schemes to colonize Mars divert human attention and resources away from this mission.  


Jonathan Clark. 12 Things You Should Know About Living on Mars: What You Need to Know About the Colonization of Mars

Shannon Stirone. ‘Mars is a hellhole: Colonizing the red planet is a ridiculous way to help humanity.’ https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/02/mars-is-no-earth/618133/




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I grew up in Muswell Hill, north London, and joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain at age 16. After studying mathematics and statistics, I worked as a government statistician in the 1970s before entering Soviet Studies at the University of Birmingham. I was active in the nuclear disarmament movement. In 1989 I moved with my family to Providence, Rhode Island, USA to take up a position on the faculty of Brown University, where I taught International Relations. After leaving Brown in 2000, I worked mainly as a translator from Russian. I rejoined the World Socialist Movement about 2005 and am currently general secretary of the World Socialist Party of the United States. I have written two books: The Nuclear Predicament: Explorations in Soviet Ideology (Routledge, 1987) and Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies, Movements (M.E. Sharpe, 2001) and more articles, papers, and book chapters that I care to recall.

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