Austin, TX(CNN Business) Elon Musk has spent nearly two decades rallying SpaceX fans around his goal of colonizing Mars, something world governments aren't currently attempting — in part because of the unfathomable price tag such a mission will entail.
Musk, the company's CEO and chief engineer, refers to his interplanetary ambitions more like a sci-fi protagonist with a moral calling than an entrepreneur with a disruptive business plan.
"If there's something terrible that happens on Earth, either made by humans or natural, we want to have, like, life insurance for life as a whole," Musk said during a virtual Mars conference on Aug. 31. "Then, there's the kind of excitement and adventure."
SpaceX's plans for a Red-Planet settlement bring up numerous technological, political and ethical questions. One of the most challenging hurdles may also be financial: Not even Musk has ventured to guess an all-in cost estimate.
The last space program that came close to Musk's interplanetary travel ambitions was NASA's Apollo program, the mid-20th Century effort that landed six spacecraft and 12 astronauts on the moon. Apollo cost well over $280 billion in today's dollars, and, in some years, NASA was taking up more than 4% of the entire national budget. The space agency, which in more recent years has received less than half of one percent of the federal budget, is mapping its own plans to return humans to the moon and, eventually, a path to Mars.
But the agency has not indicated how much the latter could cost, either.
Musk's personal wealth has ballooned to about $100 billion — at least on paper — thanks in no small part to a series of stock and stock awards from his electric car company, Tesla. Musk has also repeatedly said that he hopes profits from SpaceX's other businesses, including a satellite-internet venture that is currently in beta testing, will help fuel development of his Mars rocket. SpaceX has also raised nearly $6 billion from banks and venture capitalists, swelling into one of the most highly-valued private companies in the world, according to data firm Pitchbook. Presumably, at least some investors will one day be looking to cash out.
And that begs the question: Is there money to be made on Mars?
SpaceX is likely still many, many years from developing all the technology a Mars settlement would require. The company is in the early stages of developing its Starship, a massive rocket and spaceship system that Musk hopes will ferry cargo and convoys of people across the at-minimum 30 million-mile void between Earth and Mars. Musk has estimated Starship development will cost up to $10 billion, and Musk said Aug. 31 that SpaceX will look to launch "hundreds" of satellites aboard Starship before entrusting it with human lives.
"It's not for the faint of heart," Musk said. "Good chance you'll die, and it's going to be tough going...It'd better be pretty glorious if it works out."
But for at least the first 100 years that humans have a presence on Mars, the economic situation will be dubious, said Michael Meyer, the lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, which recently launched the Perseverance rover to further study the planet robotically.
Musk does have a plan for making Mars an attractive destination for long-term living: Terraforming, a hypothetical scenario in which humans make Mars more Earth-like by pumping gases into the atmosphere. It'd be an attempt to use the same greenhouse gases causing the climate crisis on our home planet to make Mars' atmosphere thicker, warmer and more hospitable to life. Musk has promoted the idea that the process could be kicked off by dropping nuclear bombs on the planet.
The idea of terraforming arose from scientists who were kicking around ideas, Meyer said, but not from anyone who thought it was something humans could or should do.
"It was an intellectual exercise," Meyer said. But there's barely any oxygen in Mars' atmosphere. And there's an infinitesimally small amount of water, meaning it will be extremely difficult to grow crops, much less create a Mars-wide water cycle. It's not even clear if there are enough resources on Mars to make terraforming possible at all.
"I think 'Total Recall' has the right idea," he joked. "You'd need to use some alien technology."
Musk has also acknowledged that terraforming will be extremely resource-intensive. But the concept is ingrained in SpaceX lore, so much so that the company sells t-shirts saying "Nuke Mars" and "Occupy Mars."
Musk is frequently seen wearing one.
There are no known resources on Mars that would be valuable enough to mine and sell back to Earthly businesses, Meyer said. "Part of the reason [scientists are] interested in Mars is — it's pretty much made of the same stuff as Earth," he told CNN Business.
Musk has previously suggested that he agrees, noting that the resources on Mars would likely be valuable only to settlers hoping to build up industries on the planet. He noted eight years ago that the only "economic exchange" between Mars and Earth dwellers would be "intellectual property."
Money-making ambitions aside, the idea that Mars could one day become home to a metropolis and — potentially — a tourist destination is acknowledged by mainstream scientists like Meyer, NASA's lead Mars expert.
Meyer said that, 20 years ago, he attended a presentation about Mars business and tourism. "I went in pretty skeptical of this... and coming away I was thinking, 'Well, [there are] some pretty reasonable ideas," he said, adding that he now embraces the idea that businesspeople could make space travel more accessible.
Meyer added that, in his mind, it's not if Mars travel will one day be a profitable venture, but when.
Musk hasn't expanded on his ideas for making money on Mars, but his musings about exporting intellectual property echoed a book written by Robert Zubrin, an influential but polarizing figure in the space community and a longtime Musk ally.
"Ideas may be another possible export for Martian colonists," Zubrin, who heads the Mars Society, wrote in his oft-cited 1996 book, "The Case for Mars."
To look towards a potential future of humanity, Zubrin looks to its past.
"Just as the labor shortage prevalent in colonial and 19th century America drove the creation of Yankee Ingenuity's flood of inventions, so the conditions of extreme labor shortage...will tend to drive Martian ingenuity."
In a recent interview with CNN Business, Zubrin stood by those ideas, arguing American colonization has worked. Zubrin again harkens back to the colonization of North America as an example of how would-be Mars colonists might fund their trip, either by liquidating their Earthly possessions to fund the trip or by "indentured servitude."
"If you say, okay, you want to go to Mars, you're going to want to offer something," Zubrin said. "If you look at Colonial America, a middle-class person could travel to America by liquidating their farm. But, the proceeds would give them a one-way ticket. But if you are working, what you could do is sell your labor for seven years."
Zubrin, who has worked with conservative think tanks but says he is not politically affiliated, also acknowledged that colonization can go hand-in-hand with exploitation: "If somebody says, 'But won't there be exploitation there?' Well sure, that's what people do to each other all the time."
(Musk has not expounded on his thoughts about colonialism, and he donates to both US political parties.)
To be clear: The story of American colonialism also included chattel slavery and the brutalization and erasure of many native populations.
"There aren't native Martians," Zubrin said.
But Damien Williams — a teacher and PhD student at Virginia Tech who studies the intersection of advanced technologies, ethics and societies — warns that the stories we may tell ourselves about America and exploring outer space can leave out key context.
It's still unclear, for example, who Musk envisions as the first Mars settlers. NASA astronauts? Ultra-wealthy thrill-seekers? SpaceX employees?
"This competitive stance of expansion and exploration, it's not necessarily a bad thing," Williams, who also works with the advocacy group Just Space Alliance, said. But, when it comes to a private company using resources that international treaties say do not belong to anyone — "Who's been brought in and how? Who's been left out and why? These things matter."
Musk's use of the word "colonization" also belies a long history of Americans and other Western nations enriching themselves by exploiting and enslaving others. And when it comes to colonizing another planet, it's not just the microbial lifeforms that may exist on Mars that should be concerned. Without clearly defined objectives and agreements, SpaceX's colony could create a "contentious sphere of conflict," Williams said.
"The values that we take with us into space exploration should be front and center," he added.
SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment for this story.