SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has shed light on his vision for the first Mars civilizations in a series of recent tweets.
The intrepid billionaire aims to get to Mars this decade, and wishes to help establish a colony of a million humans on the Red Planet by 2050.
However, when asked about making Mars habitable via terraforming, Musk remarked that this will most likely not be possible within our lifetimes.
Life in a Glasshouse
"Life in glass domes at first," Musk wrote in a tweet on Thursday, responding to a question whether Mars will be terraformed already for the first inhabitants. "Eventually, terraformed to support life, like Earth."
Life in glass domes at first. Eventually, terraformed to support life, like Earth.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 18, 2020
Sci-fi authors and scientists have long imagined and studied the feasibility of terraforming Mars to allow a breathable atmosphere for humans. However, as Elon Musk suggests, that will not be a quick fix — the first Mars residents will most likely have to rely on Martian bases to survive.
"Terraforming will be too slow to be relevant in our lifetime," Musk wrote in a follow-up tweet. "However, we can establish a human base there in our lifetime. At least a future spacefaring civilization — discovering our ruins — will be impressed humans got that far."
To terraform, or not to terraform?
Last year, Elon Musk claimed that with the help of "a thousand" Starship spacecraft — 100 of which would have to carry 100 tons of cargo every two years — a "sustainable Mars city" could be established.
Terraforming the Red Planet will likely be the next task after that colony is established, something that is guaranteed to be an enormous undertaking.
For every serious proposal for terraforming Mars, there have been serious doubts cast as well as counter-arguments from proponents. Ever since Carl Sagan was the first, outside of science fiction, to seriously propose the terraforming the Red Planet, the idea has been a cause for contention.
In 2018, a study by two NASA-funded scientists from the University of Colorado, Boulder and Northern Arizona University concluded that there are not enough greenhouse gases and water sources on Mars that we can use for terraforming.
However, serious alternatives have been proposed. Just last year, scientists from Harvard University, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, and the University of Edinburgh proposed a localized alternative to terraforming Mars, that would be somewhere between Musk's dome approach and the idea of terraforming.
Still, any plans for terraforming the Red Planet are a long way off: "if we don’t improve our pace of progress, I’m definitely going to be dead before we go to Mars," Musk said during the Satellite 2020 conference in Washington back in March.
The jury is still out on terraforming Mars, and with our ever-evolving technology, new proposals and theories will emerge in the years leading up to establishing the first Martian colony. For now, that must be the focus.