Elon Musk’s Mars colony plan is ‘dangerous illusion’, says Astronomer Royal

Image: Mars Daily stock illustration

By Sarah Knapton,
Published by The Telegraph, 27 March 2024

Prof Lord Martin Rees suggests it is easier to solve climate change on Earth than escape to another planet

Elon Musk is harbouring a “dangerous illusion” that a colony can be established on Mars, the Astronomer Royal has warned.

Prof Lord Martin Rees, who is also the co-founder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, said that it would be easier to solve climate change on Earth than look to escape to another planet.

Speaking on Lord Speaker’s Corner, the podcast for the House of Lords, Lord Rees said that travelling to other planets should be left to private pioneers and not be a goal for national governments.

He described Musk as a “extraordinary figure” with a “rather strange personality”, but said that he did not agree with his plan to build a city on Mars.

“I disagree with him on that. I think there might be a few crazy pioneers living on Mars, just like there are people living at the South Pole, although it’s far less hospitable than the South Pole,” he said.

“But the idea of mass migration to avoid the Earth’s problems, which he and a few other space enthusiasts adopt, that, I think, is a dangerous illusion.

“I don’t think it’s realistic and we’ve got to solve those problems here on Earth. Dealing with climate change on Earth is a doddle compared to making Mars habitable. So I don’t think we should hold that out as a long-term aim at all.”

The long-term goal of SpaceX has been to design rockets and spacecraft that can land and take-off from the surface of other planets CREDIT: John Raoux/AP

In 2016, Musk announced plans to build a settlement on Mars and said that he hoped to make humans a multiplanetary species.

The long-term goal of his company SpaceX has been to design rockets and spacecraft that can land and take-off from the surface of other planets.

The company recently carried out a successful orbital insertion of Starship, the vessel that will take humans back to the Moon and beyond.

At the latest launch, SpaceX said that in the future, Starship would make many journeys taking materials and equipment to Mars to start a city.

Musk has said that he believes Mars could be a “back-up drive” for humanity in the event of catastrophic global warming, an asteroid strike or a nuclear winter, and believes that the planet could be warmed by nuclear weapons.

Lord Rees said: “He has done a much better job than the big conglomerates that used to work for Nasa in producing efficient rockets, which can be reused, and that will make it cheaper to actually send stuff into space and more feasible to have some engineering done in space and even solar energy gathered from space.

“My line on human space flight is that it should not be funded publicly, certainly not by government agencies because they’ve got to be very safety conscious and that makes it very expensive.

“Robots can do all the practical things, assembling big structures in space and exploring the surface of Mars and all that. If humans want to fly into space as an adventure, then perhaps they can be supported by sponsorship or the billionaires.

“We know that Messrs Musk and Bezos are spending billions on space exploration and they could perhaps launch the kind of people, adventurers prepared to accept a very high risk and therefore be launched much more cheaply.

“So my line is that robots should do all the practical things and only people who really have a high appetite for risk should be going into space, and they should be privately funded, not by the rest of us.”

Lord Rees also said that he was deeply concerned about the prospect of a deadly virus being engineered in a lab through gain-of-function research that seeks to increase the potency of a pathogen.

Although he said that he believes humans will survive the 21st century, he added: “We may get to the stage when some biologist can, as it were, play God on the kitchen table and make some new variant of a virus, which is very, very dangerous.

“Covid-19 spread globally as we know, and even worse is in my view, the possibility that people with evil intent might engineer more dangerous viruses because it’s possible by a technique called gain of function to make viruses more virulent and transmissible than the natural variants.

“And if that can be done and that leaks out by error or by design, that could cause an even worse pandemic than the natural ones.”

He called for better regulation and surveillance of lab experiments.

“I think that the only way we can make ourselves adequately safe against a possible mega disaster of an engineered pandemic is by accepting more intrusive surveillance than we’ve had to accept up till now,” he added.

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