If a human colony of just five or six people on Mars still sounds like a distant future dream, just wait till you hear about billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk's Mars colony plan.
Musk is thinking much bigger, like closer to one million people bigger.
Sending a handful of people to Mars every few years will never make a thriving colony.
If we want anything close to the industry and infrastructure that's on Earth, we're going to need a huge labor force, Musk said in an interview with Ross Anderson for Aeon Magazine:
Even at a million, you’re really assuming an incredible amount of productivity per person, because you would need to recreate the entire industrial base on Mars. You would need to mine and refine all of these different materials, in a much more difficult environment than Earth. There would be no trees growing. There would be no oxygen or nitrogen that are just there. No oil.
A million people sounds crazy right? Just wait, it gets better.
Even assuming you could carry 100 people at a time (and that's assuming a lot since most of the manned spacecraft currently under development are designed to seat about six people), you'd need to find the money for 10,000 launches. All those people will need a lot of supplies too, Musk said. He estimates about 10 cargo trips for every human trip. So that's 100,000 supply launches.
Here's the real kicker though: Musk says all this could happen within a century.
Rumor has it that Musk already has a design for a giant spaceship carrier that could seat 100 people. It's part of what's called the Mars Colonial Transporter plan — a fleet of spaceships and rockets designed for Mars travel. Musk has said he hopes to reveal some of these plans by the end of the year.
Even if Musk can produce these giant ships, the cost of 100,000 launches will be astronomical — if we are doing it in the traditional way. Musk has a plan for that too — he's not the traditional type.
His company SpaceX is working on developing 100% reusable rockets, and after only a few test landings he's getting incredibly close to success:
"Rockets are the only form of transportation on Earth where the vehicle is built anew for each journey," Musk said. "What if you had to build a new plane for every flight?"
Reusable rockets would drive the cost down to just tens of thousands of dollars per pound of weight, Musk has estimated. That's about two orders of magnitude cheaper than the current cost. It would make it possible to launch people and supplies much faster. Instead of one launch every few months, reusable rockets mean we could be launching multiple times in a day.
Making all this happen within a century is... optimistic, to say the least.
But dreaming big has made Musk a billionaire and one of the most successful tech entrepreneurs in the world.
If someone can pull it off, it's probably him.