Mars: The Rich Planet

I don’t want to recreate a society where people can buy comfort at the expense of other people’s labor.

Photo credit: Charles de Mille-Isles, CC BY 2.0.

Elon Musk, who always gets a comma after his name followed by the words “real-life Tony Stark” or something, said some stuff about Mars and money yesterday, and since then his words have been excerpted and tweeted and perhaps misinterpreted, so here they are in their entirety:

The issue that we have today is that, if you look at a Venn diagram, there’s no intersection of sets of people who want to go and can afford to go. In fact, right now you cannot go to Mars for infinite money.

Using traditional methods, taking an Apollo-style approach, an optimistic cost number would be about $10 billion a person. So, for example, the Apollo program, the cost estimates were somewhere between $100-$200 billion dollars, in current year dollars, and we sent twelve people to the surface of the moon, which was an incredible thing and probably one of the greatest achievements of humanity.

But that’s a steep price to pay for a ticket. That’s why these circles only just barely touch. You can’t create a self-sustaining civilization if the ticket price is $10 billion a person.

What we need is to move those circles together. If we can get the cost of moving to Mars to be roughly equivalent to a median house price in the US, which is around $200,000, then I think the probability of establishing a self-sustaining civilization is very high. I think it would almost certainly occur.

Not everybody would want to go. In fact, I think a relatively small number of people from Earth would want to go, but enough would want to go, and who could afford the trip, that it could happen. And people could get sponsorship, and it gets to the point where almost anyone, if they saved up and this was their goal, they could ultimately save up and buy a ticket and move to Mars, and Mars would have a labor shortage for a long time, so jobs would not be in short supply.

He’s not actually saying that he wants to send billionaires to Mars, y’all. (I thought he was too, until I went to the source.) Elon Musk wants to make Mars affordable, and I’m well aware that $200,000 is only a certain type of “affordable,” and not everyone can “save up,” but still.

This isn’t going to be a planet colonized by billionaires.

It might still be a planet colonized by people with substantial incomes, and that might make things interesting.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about the cost of colonizing Mars. Certainly not as much as Elon Musk has, and certainly I’ve been doing it from a literary perspective, but when I wrote Dispatch From a Mars Widow and its sequel, The Mars Widow Reconsiders, I had to answer the obvious question. Not the one about the cost of getting to Mars, but the one about how people, once they’re on Mars, deal with money.

Dispatch From A Mars Widow

It was a problem. In Dispatch, I made the trip to Mars a free ride for anyone who wanted to do the difficult and dangerous work of building a new colony. Of course, once you’re on Mars, there’s no opting out of that work. You must till the Martian fields and you must construct the Martian buildings and you’re going to have to do it all on shit rations. (I hadn’t read The Martian yet, but Andy Weir and I had similar ideas about what might go into Martian crops.)

In Reconsiders, the money problem got more complicated. Mars needed more supplies, but the people who had colonized Mars didn’t have any money, because they were living in a money-less system. (On Mars, saving for the future—or using money to delineate social status—isn’t an issue. You’re really more concerned with whether you’re going to eat today.) The people on Earth were asked to start giving money, so the space colonization company could pay Earth manufacturers for supplies and then pay even more to send those supplies to Mars, to keep the people on Mars alive.

The other big pull quote from Musk’s speech had to do with restaurants on spaceships:

I’m going to give you a sense of what it would feel like to actually be in the spaceship. In order to make it appealing, and increase that portion of the Venn diagram of people who actually want to go, it’s got to be really fun and exciting, and it can’t feel cramped or boring.

So the crew compartment, or the occupant compartment, is set up so that you can do zero-G games, you can float around, there’ll be like, movies, lecture halls, cabins, a restaurant, it’ll be like, really fun to go. You’re going to have a great time.

This implies two things:

  1. Mars colonists will both have discretionary income and have the opportunity to spend it on non-essential, status-building items like restaurant meals.
  2. There will be a separate group of people hired to serve them.

I don’t know about you, but I’m really put off by the idea of the Mars spaceship replicating the dynamics of, say, an Earth cruise ship. I’ve been on cruise ships, and I have in fact had “a great time,” but you are always very, very aware that your time is being created for you by the labor of others—and you’re also aware that an even better time could theoretically be had if you were willing to pay the extra money to eat at the cruise ship’s high-end restaurant. (Also, since your trip has a rapidly-approaching end date, if you don’t take advantage of this fine-dining experience you will miss out forever.)

So. Who’s serving meals on the Mars spaceship? When the Mars colonists buy those meals, does money get deducted from their Earth bank accounts? Do they still have Earth bank accounts? What currency will Mars be using, and what’s the exchange rate?

When the colonists arrive on Mars and start working, will they earn money? Will different colonists earn different amounts of money? Will they be required to pay for items like food and shelter? What happens if they can’t pay because they spent every last penny on the Mars ticket? Will people who save up $200,000 to go to Mars also need additional money to survive on Mars, or will they start earning money immediately from their Mars jobs? Will the people who save up $200,000 to go to Mars get the “good Mars jobs,” and will there be a whole ‘nother group of people serving them food?

As far as I know—and please correct me if I’m wrong—no space mission has yet had a separate group of service workers whose job it is to feed and clean up after the astronauts. Even my literary fiction assumed that the Mars colonists would be doing all of that work themselves. There’s a lot of things that worry me about Mars colonization, from the idea that the first group of colonists will very likely die shortly after arrival to the idea that people who live on Mars will evolve to the point where their bodies will be incompatible with Earth—but I think the idea that Mars colonization will have waitstaff is the most disconcerting of all.

Of course, there’s already an historical analogue for Musk’s colonization dreams. Plenty of ships funded by the wealthy, boarded by the well-off and the savers, and staffed by the exploited made their way to New Worlds of all kinds—and we all know what happened after they arrived.

I don’t want that to happen to Mars. I don’t want to recreate a society where people can buy comfort at the expense of other people’s labor. I certainly don’t want to recreate a society where people are told that if they want more comfort, they have to labor harder and start saving. Life on Mars is going to be hard enough without adding income inequality to the mix.

There’s one more quote I should mention, and hat tip to the Washington Post for the transcript:

So it’s like who wants to sort of be, you know, among the founding members of a new planet and, like I said, build everything from iron refineries to the first pizza joint. You know, we will want them all.

Musk is asking us to imagine being refinery owners and restauranteurs. He’s not asking us to imagine being refinery workers or dishwashers—but those people will be on Mars too. They’ll have to be. They’ll be the founding members of Mars, just as much as anyone else, and they’re already forgotten.

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