Elon Musk may have effectively disrupted the political climate, international balance of power, economy and legal system of the entire world with a speech at a normally obscure conference. What’s even stranger is that only the space geeks seemed to have noticed what might be the most important historical event so far this century.
Musk unveiled plans for spacecraft capable of hauling 100 people to Mars; and a vision for a colony of one million humans on the Red Planet, at the International Aeronautical Congress in the Mexican industrial city of Guadalajara. The September 27 announcement attracted scant attention from the election-obsessed mainstream media.
Musk’s Mars plan might herald a true paradigm shift because it is technologically feasible. It might trigger a new space race; and pave the way for interplanetary colonization, which would completely transform our civilization.
The ramifications from Musk’s audacious visions are absolutely mindboggling and we must consider them now. What might be called the Geek media; tech-oriented blogs like Ars Technica and Tech Crunch, has done a pretty job of dissecting the science of Musk’s plan but devoted little attention to the political and diplomatic ramifications which are vast.
The Political Ramifications of a New Space Race
The first and most obvious consequence of the Musk Plan would be to launch a new Space Race.
This Space Race would be different from the Cold War Era contest, which was basically a publicity stunt. The stakes would be far higher because actual territory; and perhaps power and money, are at stake. More intriguingly it would involve both countries and corporations.
It took less than a week for the first competitor to Musk’s SpaceX; Boeing (NYSE: BA), to join the new space race. On October 4 that company’s CEO Dennis Muilenburg announced his intention to be the first to land on Mars. Muilenberg provided no specifics about Mars at a conference sponsored by The Atlantic magazine but did reveal his plans for space tourism, Bloomberg reported.
Musk vs NASA
Another obvious competitor is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) which has been trying to avoid the subject of space colonization for generations. NASA’s efforts to avoid colonization are pretty obvious it abandoned the Saturn V rocket which might have taken colonists to the moon, stopped going to the moon and wasted vast amounts of money and resources on the Space Shuttle which was only capable of reaching orbit.
In recent decades, NASA has devoted most of its resources to robotic exploration. That brings back lots of pretty pictures for geeks to look at but makes few waves here on earth.
It is pretty obvious that NASA’s bureaucrats are afraid to face all of the ethical, legal, political and philosophical issues that would arise from interplanetary colonization. How will they react when actual people start roaming around on Mars and throwing rocks at their remote-controlled toys?
Musk’s plans and speech are a direct challenge to NASA which has tolerated him so far. Will NASA try to sabotage Musk’s company SpaceX or go along with it? NASA benefits from increased competition with a bigger piece of the federal budget, but it would be very embarrassed if Musk actually landed his own astronauts on Mars first.
International Competition for Mars
Right behind Boeing in the competitors’ cue will be other nations including China, Russia and possibly the European Union. The most likely competitor is Russia where the space program is one of the few examples of national pride and prestige left.
China which wants to establish itself as a superpower would also be a logical competitor. A possible dark horse competitor is Saudi Arabia; which certainly has the money to launch an Islamic space program if it wishes.
Another big potential entanglement for Musk is the United Nations. The animation of Musk’s Interplanetary Transportation System shown at Guadalajara clearly shows a giant rocket with a large American flag painted on it heading for Mars.
I imagine citizens of many countries will not be very happy with that. Some of them will have nightmares of the Stars and Stripes flying on Mars, and worse of the Red Planet as the 51st state.
My guess is that there will be some sort of effort by some governments to throttle SpaceX or at least force it to collaborate with other nations. A number of observers have noted that Musk’s plans might violate The Outer Space Treaty, the international agreement that supposedly governs space exploration.
Another interesting problem is what happens if Saudi Arabia or the People’s Republic of China simply buys a large stake in SpaceX or Boeing; which is a publicly-traded company, in order to get control of Mars. That would certainly raise the specter of conflict between the United States and those governments.
International Conflict on Mars
A major political problem we face here: is what if space entrepreneurs such as Musk, Muilenburg and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos; who owns Blue Horizon, start playing governments and nations off against each other. If NASA tries to throttle SpaceX, Musk would simply get on the next plane to Beijing to meet with the People’s Liberation Army.
The colonization of the Americas was driven by such competition in the 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Entrepreneurs manipulated nations; and political factions within governments, in order to get support and financing for their schemes. Christopher Columbus famously visited the courts of several nations; including Spain and England, looking for financing.
Some of those manipulations led to conflicts and even wars over land and resources in the New World. If we’re not careful the rush to Mars might turn into a messy international conflict.
Beyond that there are the obvious legal and political questions such as who governs Mars? Will the colonists form their own government or have one appointed by the United Nations or a government on Earth. What laws will they have and how will ownership of land and resources on the Red Planet be determined? All these questions will become vitally important the moment somebody finds gold on Mars.
All of those questions contain the seeds of nasty international conflict in them. Would the Chinese Communist Party tolerate a democratic Mars? Would the United States tolerate a Communist Mars? How would Americans hysterical about Islamic terrorism react to an Islamic Republic of Mars? Would Vladimir Putin and his allies in the Russian Orthodox Church, tolerate an American outpost on Mars?
Whether he intended it or not, Mr. Musk has opened a very large and nasty Pandora’s Box; the contents of which have the potential to tear our world apart. It is also a Pandora’s Box that we should have seen coming.
The technology for interplanetary colonization has been available for a while. All that was required to start the process was one person with the will, the courage, the money, the fame, the vision and the imagination to utilize the tech. Well now that person is here and he is attempting it.
Musk just Changed the World and Nobody Noticed
Yet our leaders; and worse the herd of brainless sheep known as journalists, are ignoring it. As far as I know not one question about interplanetary colonization has been raised on the Presidential campaign trail. Nobody seems to have bothered to ask any of the candidates what they think of Musk and his plan, even though they will have to deal with its consequences in the White House.
This reveals how pathetic our journalism really is and how little we can rely on it. Events that might change the course of human history are being ignored while reporters and pundits analyze Tweets about sex tapes.
History of course will have the last laugh, a century from now there will be statues of Elon Musk all over two planets and the libraries will be full of books about his career. At the same time the Clinton-Trump campaign will be of interest only to historians of American politics.
The world needs to start paying attention to Musk and now because he’s about to change everything. Humanity is going to become an interplanetary species and few people are thinking about the consequences.