The Elon Musk Offer: Extinction or Explosion

Elon Musk wants to take you to Mars. He also wants you to know that there’s a very good chance you’ll die doing so. Yesterday, at the International Astronautical Congress, Musk announced a lot more about SpaceX’s plans to get to Mars and opened up a little about the notion of colonising the Red Planet. He was also, almost shockingly, upfront about just how much such a mission is likely to kill you.

Musk’s speech, entitled Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species, largely consisted of explaining more about SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System and how the company plans to get people and supplies to Mars.

The plan involves 28,730,000 pounds of thrust and reusable booster rockets. And while Musk spoke about colonisation, it was in a way that very much avoided any kind of commitment on how such a colony would work and what role SpaceX would possibly play in it.

For now it seems the entrepreneur is very much focused on just getting there.

Images courtesy of SpaceX

Images courtesy of SpaceX

What was mentioned was the idea of a self-sustaining civilisation, presumably making some sort of use of Musk’s various clean energy ventures, and the goal of making the cost of a trip to Mars that of a median price house in the United States.

In order to do so we need four things: reusable rockets, refuelling the spaceship in space, using methane fuel rather than traditional propellant and harvesting methane fuel from Mars itself.

If it sounds like a lot of work, be assured it is; Musk made no mention of the infrastructure that would support this though he did point out that there would be no shortage of jobs on Mars if successful. Provided you get there of course.

Even allowing for the overcoming of technical challenges, there is still a very good chance that our initial tries at getting people there will fail horribly.

“The risk of fatality will be high,” Musk told the audience. “There’s no way around it. It would be basically, are you prepared to die? If that’s okay, you’re a candidate for going.

“The probability of death is quite high on the first mission.”

Elon Musk during the talk

Elon Musk during the talk

Musk’s honesty is kind of refreshing, even if it’s distinctly bleak. The chances of such a mission going perfectly on the first try are very low and it’s important to remember for anyone caught up in the excitement of going multiplanetary that there is a good chance of a cold death in space waiting out there.

That said, as Musk pointed out, staying on Earth indefinitely almost certainly ends in some kind of extinction event.

There is currently far too much uncertainty around the way in which a colony on Mars would actually work, the likelihood is that there would have to be some kind of governmental oversight of the colonisation and there are obviously chances of a whole new space race that come along with that.

Musk’s presentation was there to offer up a choice: stay on Earth and face extinction in what may be the far future or go to Mars now and almost definitely go out in a blaze of glory.

Only 6% of space enthusiasts would like to live in the first low-Earth orbit settlements

A new survey has found that only 6% of respondents would be happy to live in a proposed Equatorial Low Earth Orbit (ELEO) settlement, where humans live in a small cruise ship-like space station at a similar orbit to the ISS.

Four conditions were set for respondents to assess and while at least 30% said they agree with at least one of them, the number shrank significantly when it came to those who could accept all the conditions.

These were that the settlement itself would require permanent residence, would be no bigger than a large cruise ship, would contain no more than 500 people and would require residents to be willing to devote at least 75% of their wealth to move in.

The example settlement used in the survey is Kalpana Two, pictured, a conceptual cylindrical space habitat visualised by Brian Versteeg. Measuring 110 m x 110m it would rotate to provide simulated gravity on the “ground” and zero-gravity near the cylinder’s core where occupants can ‘fly’, and would be capable of housing 500 – 1,000 people

The study, conducted by researchers from San Jose State University (SJSU) and the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) sought to assess the desirability of such a settlement. Previous similar studies had suggested early space settlements would need to be significantly smaller than believed, and located far closer to Earth.

The research was conducted via an Internet survey made available to the public between 8 January 2016 and 17 June 2016. The survey, using Qualtrics software, received 1,075 responses and was distributed via an email list, social media and spac- related organisations. It should therefore be noted that the respondents are not representative of the general population: 95% actually identified as space enthusiasts.

“95% of respondents were self-described space enthusiasts and 81% were male. 70% were from North America and 20% from Europe,” the study authors Al Globus, from SJSU, and Tom Marotta, from AST, wrote in the research paper.

“This is not surprising as the authors made no attempt to select a random sample of any particular group, but rather to simply distribute the survey as widely as we could.”

Kalpana Two, the conceptual space station the survey was based on. Images courtesy of Brian Versteeg

The paper itself is rather enthusiastic about the 6% figure, pointing out that while it is a low percentage of those who responded, if considering it 6% of those who globally identify as “space enthusiasts” there are likely more than enough to fill these early settlements.  The authors also acknowledge that such a number is not all that surprising given the demands of the move.

However, while the enthusiasm and optimism is laudable, it’s worth noting that those principally willing to give up the most were small in number and tended to fall on the wealthier spectrum. So while the possibility of the project exists, it seems that, as with all commercial space projects so far, it would principally have to cater to the rich.

Moreover, when responding to the main attraction of life in space, “the most common remark was simply that it was ‘in space’ not any particular characteristic of living in space”. There seems in the responses to be a certain enthusiasm that may not hold up in the actual moment of decision.

The fact that people like the idea of living in space is no surprise; the survey however does little to assuage the realities of the situation. Enthusiasm is promising, however the main result of this survey seems to be that blind optimism is only truly backed up by vast amounts of money.

Life expectancy to break the 90-year barrier by 2030

New research has revealed that the average life expectancy is set to increase in many countries by 2030 and, in South Korea specifically, will improve so much as to exceed an average of 90 years. The study analysed long-term data on mortality and longevity trends to predict how life expectancy will change from now until 2030.

The study was led by scientists from Imperial College London in collaboration with the World Health Organization. Looking at 35 industrialised nations, the team highlighted South Korea as a peak for life expectancy; predicting expectancy from birth, they estimate that a baby girl born in South Korea in 2030 will expect to live 90.8 years, while men are expected to live to be 84.1 years.

Scientists once thought an average life expectancy of over 90 was impossible, according to Professor Majid Ezzati, lead researcher from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London:

“We repeatedly hear that improvements in human longevity are about to come to an end. Many people used to believe that 90 years is the upper limit for life expectancy, but this research suggests we will break the 90-year barrier,” he said.

“I don’t believe we’re anywhere near the upper limit of life expectancy -if there even is one.”

South Korea leads in life expectancy. Image courtesy of jedydjah. Featured image courtesy of Carey and Kacey Jordan

Ezzati explained that the high expectancy for South Korean lives was likely due to a number of factors including good nutrition in childhood, low blood pressure, low levels of smoking, good access to healthcare, and uptake of new medical knowledge and technologies. It is likely that, by 2030, South Korea will have the highest life expectancy in the world.

Elsewhere, French women and Swiss men are predicted to lead expectancies in Europe, with 88.6 years and nearly 84 years respectively. The UK is expected to average 85.3 years for women (21st in the table of countries studied) and 82.5 years for men (14th in the table).

The study included both high-income countries and emerging economies. Among the high-income countries, the US was found to have the lowest predicted life expectancy at birth. Averaging similar to Croatia and Mexico, the researchers suggested this was due to a number of factors including a lack of universal healthcare, as well as the highest child and maternal mortality rate, homicide rate and obesity among high-income countries.

A lack of universal healthcare is one of the reasons the US trails behind in life expectancy. Image courtesy of HSeverson

Notably, the research also suggests that the life expectancy gap between men and women is closing and that a large factor in increasing expectancy is due in no small part to older sections of the population living longer than before.

Such increased longevity is not without issue, however, as countries may not be prepared to support an ageing population.

“The fact that we will continue to live longer means we need to think about strengthening the health and social care systems to support an ageing population with multiple health needs,” added Ezzati.

“This is the opposite of what is being done in the era of austerity. We also need to think about whether current pension systems will support us, or if we need to consider working into later life.”