Mars exploration: what does it mean for sustainable development?

Published on 6 July 2017

Patrick Schröder

Research Fellow

Space exploration and rocket engineering: what could they possibly have in common with the traditional topics and problems of development studies here on Earth? In my opinion, there are some interesting parallels with development studies, as well as implications for global sustainability. I am referring to a new article published by Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, in the latest issue of New Space. In “Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species”, he outlines his ideas relating to the colonisation of Mars and the universe beyond.

Given the many existing developmental challenges on Earth, including child mortality, poverty reduction, inequality and worsening environmental pollution, one could easily dismiss these ideas as science fiction, or techno-futurist utopian pipe dreams. But if one realistically considers that it could happen in the not too distant future, there are (at least) three important lessons we can learn from how space exploration is unfolding, and the discourse surrounding it.

Linking global environmental sustainability, development and space exploration

The first lesson is that environmental sustainability, inequality and space development are not disconnected from each other, they are, in fact, linked. If the goal is to create self-sustaining cities on Mars, we should also be able to achieve this here on Earth. There are obvious synergies as Elon Musk’s other companies Tesla and SolarCity demonstrate. They are leading the way by developing cutting-edge solutions for electric mobility and solar power for carbon-free energy and transportation. Crucially, these initiatives will help ensure that Earth’s limited resources are not stretched any further.

But do we need to consider potential trade-offs between human development on Earth and space development? Do space exploration efforts chip away at crucial resources that could be used for achieving human development objectives, such as the Sustainable Development Goals? Space exploration should by no means jeopardise sustainability on Earth. What would be the point of setting up a Mars colony if, in the process of doing so, we make Earth uninhabitable for humans? That would be a real tragedy.

Another parallel between the two research fields is around cost. Reductions in costs would be definitive for success, in both green transformations and space travel. To make travelling to Mars economically viable, it would be necessary to improve the cost of trips to Mars by approximately five million percent. As Musk admits, “This is not easy. It sounds virtually impossible, but there are ways to do it.” These cost reductions are achievable, if resources within the system are used more efficiently, particularly through the development of new types of fuels and the ability to reuse the interplanetary spaceship rocket booster. In essence, the whole design of the system relies on restorative circular economy practices: reduce, reuse, recycle, and the refurbishment of spaceship components.

In comparison, achieving global climate mitigation targets and remaining within 1.5 degrees of warming look easy. It would only require an improvement of carbon intensity (gCO2/£) by a factor of 130 by 2050. Unfortunately, to date, improvements in resource efficiency and reductions in carbon emissions have proved grossly inadequate. The International Resource Panel estimates that economic savings, from successful implementation of existing efficient technologies, could be as high as $2.9 trillion per year by 2030. The space development community is optimistic about innovation and efficiency gains, framed within circular economy thinking. Those working on sustainable development and resource efficiency here on Earth should take note, and be inspired.

Leaving no one behind

The second lesson is that no one should be left behind, an appeal first made by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in relation to the SDG agenda and a promise made by DFID in early 2017. In the context of growing domestic and international inequality, there is a danger that the colonisation of Mars may be perceived as an escape route by global elites, just as things are becoming chaotic here on Earth (think catastrophic climate change, violent conflicts and refugee crises). Transformations to sustainability will only be successful on a global scale if clean energy, food, water, sanitation, housing and zero-carbon mobility become affordable for everyone. Similarly, becoming a multi-planetary species needs to be inclusive. Rising inequalities could seriously undermine space development projects.

The good news is that Elon Musk wants to make going to Mars affordable for a large majority of people. According to his estimates based on the Apollo programme, the cost of resettling to Mars could eventually drop below $100,000 per person, down from an estimated $10 billion per person today. If costs really were to drop to these levels, a new life on Mars would become much more affordable than buying a small apartment in most parts of the UK. Settling on planet Mars could become a very attractive alternative to lifetime mortgage payments, not to mention precarious employment options challenged by automation on Earth.

But leaving no one behind also means consideration of humanity’s cultural, political and social histories. We need to ensure that there will be an equal representation of people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds on Mars, otherwise we run into danger that the outpost population is drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. An equal representation of all cultures and ethnic groups would reflect the diversity of humanity, only then would we truly flourish as a multi-planetary species.

Being more optimistic and ambitious about the future

The third lesson for the sustainability and development communities is to be more optimistic. We often tend to be overwhelmed by the challenges of humanitarian or ecological crises. Our political leaders lack ambition when it comes to setting targets, most businesses drag their feet and continue business-as-usual. In contrast, the first SpaceX flight to Mars could be as early as 2023 – seven years before the world hopes to have achieved basic Sustainable Development Goals such as ending hunger, or basic sanitation and clean water for all!

This following quote from Elon Musk’s article applies as much to space exploration as it does to global climate change, the SDGs and other global challenges: “Right now, we are just trying to make as much progress as we can with the resources that we have available and to keep the ball moving forward. As we show that this is possible and that this dream is real—it is not just a dream, it is something that can be made real—the support will snowball over time.”

I find this dream very inspiring. Currently, there are too many actors who are guilty of being passive, or even actively resisting progress in achieving environmental integrity of the planet. Inspired by the field of space exploration, we could do with more of this optimism and spirit as we fight for sustainability and try to achieve the SDGs, here on Earth.


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