Ross Andersen’s interview with Elon Musk at Aeon, on Musk’s ambitions for Mars colonization, is a gem. “Interview” doesn’t do it justice; it’s part interview, part examination of the motivations (Musk’s and civilization’s) for a Mars migration, as well as a meditation on the humanity of such an endeavor.
A big takeaway is how Musk sees a Mars trip not simply as a lofty goal of humanistic enrichment, but as a last and only best hope for a species tied to the unpredictable fortunes of a single planet and its fragile ecosphere. If we’re to go on as a species, we have to leave, sooner than later.
But you know, it’s not even about our species, per se. It’s about what we carry within us: consciousness.
Musk has been pushing this line – Mars colonisation as extinction insurance – for more than a decade now, but not without pushback. ‘It’s funny,’ he told me. ‘Not everyone loves humanity. Either explicitly or implicitly, some people seem to think that humans are a blight on the Earth’s surface. They say things like, “Nature is so wonderful; things are always better in the countryside where there are no people around.” They imply that humanity and civilisation are less good than their absence. But I’m not in that school,’ he said. ‘I think we have a duty to maintain the light of consciousness, to make sure it continues into the future.’
And about those humans. Leave Musk for a moment, and read Andersen’s musing on the hypothetical trip to Mars by the future colonists:
It would be fascinating to experience a deep space mission, to see the Earth receding behind you, to feel that you were afloat between worlds, to walk a strange desert under an alien sky. But one of the stars in that sky would be Earth, and one night, you might look up at it, through a telescope. At first, it might look like a blurry sapphire sphere, but as your eyes adjusted, you might be able to make out its oceans and continents. You might begin to long for its mountains and rivers, its flowers and trees, the astonishing array of life forms that roam its rainforests and seas. You might see a network of light sparkling on its dark side, and realise that its nodes were cities, where millions of lives are coming into collision. You might think of your family and friends, and the billions of other people you left behind, any one of which you could one day come to love.
Do you, or do you not, feel the anxiety of being adrift? Do you not picture that blurry sapphire sphere receding from view as you realize how utterly surrounded and engulfed you are by blackness, pushed with direction and intention, but somehow still lost? My heart is beating faster.
And somehow, it all puts me in mind of Ernie from Sesame Street. I think it’s safe to say that as adventurous as the lad is, he would not be among the passengers on Musk’s one-way trip to Mars.
And a bit of trivia to tie it all up: Somewhere there exists, perhaps with my dad, or maybe only with my grandmother, a well-produced recording of a 5-year-old me singing this song, accompanied by my dad on guitar. I didn’t really get it then, but I do now.