SpaceX Hosting Stealth Mars Settlement Workshop

SpaceX BFR (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX has convened an invite-only workshop on its plans to establish a colony on Mars at the University of Colorado Boulder today and tomorrow.

However, SpaceX may be getting more serious about preparing for human landings on Mars, both in terms of how to keep people alive as well as to provide them with something meaningful to do. According to private invitations seen by Ars, the company will host a “Mars Workshop” on Tuesday and Wednesday this week at the University of Colorado Boulder. Although the company would not comment directly, a SpaceX official confirmed the event and said the company regularly meets with a variety of experts concerning its missions to Mars.

This appears to be the first meeting of such magnitude, however, with nearly 60 key scientists and engineers from industry, academia, and government attending the workshop, including a handful of leaders from NASA’s Mars exploration program. The invitation for the inaugural Mars meeting encourages participants to contribute to “active discussions regarding what will be needed to make such missions happen.” Attendees are being asked to not publicize the workshop or their attendance.

The meeting is expected to include an overview of the spaceflight capabilities that SpaceX is developing with the Big Falcon rocket and spaceship, which Musk has previously outlined at length during international aerospace meetings in 2016 and 2017. Discussion topics will focus on how best to support hundreds of humans living on Mars, such as accessing natural resources there that will lead to a sustainable outpost.

Through this meeting, SpaceX hopes to engage more deeply with both NASA and the scientific community that have studied these questions in depth for decades—but have regularly been frustrated by the space agency’s lack of progress toward getting people to Mars. One scientist attending the meeting told Ars, “I have some confidence that SpaceX will eventually achieve its goal of getting to Mars, and this feels like an exciting opportunity to be part of that story and to influence the future of humans on the Red Planet.”

I’m going to be a bit cynical here, but I’m guessing that SpaceX — as is its wont — will arrive with vastly optimistic estimates on what it will take to pull off this venture. Hopefully, the attendees will provide them with a good reality check.

At that point, everyone will leave enthused by the vision and prospects, but asking the same questions that have always loomed over human Mars plans since Wernher von Braun was designing missions:

  • Where do we find the money for this?
  • Who exactly is going to pay for it?
  • What exactly is the return on investment from this effort?

The bottom line is that to establish a colony on Mars with the number of people Elon Musk envisions and to give them useful things to do there, it’s going to take an enormous — and enormously expensive — infrastructure built from the ground up on a frozen, desolate planet without any established industrial manufacturing base that is located months away from Earth with launch windows limited to every two years.

Can it be done? Absolutely. If you have enough money, and there’s a compelling set of reasons to do it. Therein lies the other problem. Musk’s rationales are:

  • Earth will be destroyed at some unknown point in the future.
  • This would be the coolest adventure ever!

The latter is certainly true. And for Mars enthusiasts, these reasons are more than sufficient. If you want governments to support colonization, however, you’ll probably need more than that.

All that being said, I never say never. Maybe the workshop will lead to something much more positive that what I’ve outlined above. Time will tell.