Elon Musk Is Right: Colonizing the Solar System Is Humankind’s Insurance Policy Against Extinction

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Why blow billions of dollars on space exploration when billions of people are living in poverty here on Earth?

You’ve likely heard the justifications. The space program brings us useful innovations and inventions. Space exploration delivers perspective, inspiration, and understanding. Because it's the final frontier. Because it's there.

What you haven’t heard is anything to inspire a sense of urgency. Indeed, NASA’s struggle to defend its existence and funding testifies to how weak these justifications sound to a public that cares less about space than seemingly more pressing needs.

spacex-reusable-rocketsPresumably, this is why SpaceX founder Elon Musk, in a fascinating interview with Ross Andersen, skipped all the usual arguments in favor of something else entirely. Space exploration, he says, is as urgent as easing poverty or disease—it’s our insurance policy against extinction.

As we extend our gaze back through geologic time and out into the universe, it’s clear we aren’t exempt from nature’s carelessly terrifying violence. We simply haven’t experienced its full wrath yet because we’ve only been awake for the cosmological blink of an eye.

Musk says an extinction-level event would, in an existential flash, make our down-to-earth struggles irrelevant. “Good news, the problems of poverty and disease have been solved,” he says, “but the bad news is there aren’t any humans left.’”

We’ve got all our eggs in one basket, and that’s a terrible risk-management strategy. We should diversify our planetary portfolio to insure against the worst—and soon.

Musk’s line of reasoning isn’t completely novel. It's what led science fiction writer Larry Niven to say, “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program.” And it drives Ed Lu’s quest to save humanity from a major asteroid hit.

But while we may spot and potentially derail asteroids, not every cosmic threat can be so easily predicted or prevented—a blast from a nearby supernova; a gamma ray burst aimed at Earth; a period of extreme volcanism. Any of these could wipe us out.

Musk says he thinks a lot about the silence we’ve been greeted with as our telescopes scan the sky for interstellar broadcasts from other civilizations.

seti-fermi-paradoxGiven the sheer number of galaxies, stars, and planets in the universe—it should be teeming with life. If even a tiny percent of the whole is intelligent, there should be thousands of civilizations in our galaxy alone. So where are they?

This is known as the Fermi Paradox, and Musk rattles off a few explanatory theories (there are many). But he settles on this, “If you look at our current technology level, something strange has to happen to civilizations, and I mean strange in a bad way. It could be that there are a whole lot of dead, one-planet civilizations.”

That something strange might be an evolutionary self-destruct button, as Carl Sagan theorized. We developed modern rockets at the same time as nuclear weapons.

But the Fermi Paradox and its explanations, while philosophically captivating, haven’t settled the question of intelligent life. SETI’s Seth Shostak cautions, “The Fermi Paradox is a big extrapolation from a very local observation.” That is, just because we don't see compelling evidence of galactic colonization around here doesn't mean there is none.

But even without the Fermi Paradox, our planet's geologic record is enough to show that, as Sagan phrased it, “Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”

So, if you buy Musk’s argument—what next? Well, he didn’t start SpaceX to boost telecommunication satellites into orbit or shuttle astronauts to low-Earth orbit. SpaceX is Musk’s vehicle to another planet, and he isn’t shy saying so.

spacex-resupply-missionLong after SpaceX sends its first human passengers to the space station; after it’s perfected reusable rockets; after it fires up the first Falcon Heavy deep space rocket—after all that, perhaps in the mid-2030s, Musk will found a colony on Mars.

Some colonists will be able to afford the $500,000 ticket, he says. Others will sell their earthly belongings—like the early American settlers—to book their trip. But it won’t be a pleasure cruise. No, we’re talking an all-in, one-way commitment to a cause.

Even so, getting people to go won't be a problem. Mars One, an organization similarly dedicated to sending the first humans to Mars, had over 200,000 people apply for a few one-way tickets. Mars One may or may not make it to the Red Planet—but at the least they proved there are people willing to sacrifice the easy life to get there.

In the long run, however, to establish a permanent, sustainable presence on Mars, we’ll need a whole lot more than a scattering of rugged colonists.

Musk thinks it'll take at least a million people to form a genetically diverse population and self-sufficient manufacturing base. All that in a freezing desert wasteland with no oil, oxygen, or trees. Mars has water but it's not readily available. We’d have to mine the surface and set up heavy industry. It would be a mammoth undertaking.

Musk thinks it could happen in the next century. And perhaps he's right. Perhaps not.

Daybreak_at_Gale_Crater_fullAs Andersen notes, although he's on an “epic run...he is always giving you reasons to doubt him.” Monumental goals—with dates attached. A century is a long time. But SpaceX colonizing Mars might be a bridge too far. There are some who doubt our abilities in the near future.

Astrophysicist and Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, has said, “I think it’s very important not to kid ourselves that we can solve Earth’s problems by mass emigration into space. There’s nowhere in our solar system even as clement as the top of Everest or the South Pole—so it’s only going to be a place for pioneers on cut-price private ventures and accepting higher risks than a western state could impose on civilians.”

In other words, maybe some people will venture beyond the Earth and Moon. Even live out subsistence-level lives on other planetary bodies. But a civilization growing out of Musk’s million isn't likely. At least not until we can engineer on grander scales—terraform Mars, hollow out asteroids, build rolling bubble cities on Mercury.

In either case, Musk is right about one thing. It’s time we pushed the boundaries of space exploration. And whatever your opinion, you have to admire the man's willingness to go out on a limb when no one else will—and invite the rest of us to join him there.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.comSpaceX; NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 31 Responses

  • ideasware October 5, 2014 on 10:48 am

    I think — for once — you’re right om the money about Elon Musk. It’s very important, even vital, that we get there and soon, before robots take away that right forever. I’m not on a limb out here, although a lot of people think I am… I’m tellin you, it’s very important that we colonize Mars and Jupiter and other planets very soon, before AI makes it all go away.

    • Kevin F Orrell ideasware October 6, 2014 on 6:15 am

      Jupiter is a gas planet

    • Blair Schirmer ideasware October 20, 2014 on 6:50 am


      If robots render the Earth uninhabitable, how do you suppose they wouldn’t follow us into the solar system and similarly gobble us up?

  • Tyrell John October 5, 2014 on 11:00 am

    1. We need to make robotics, simple, light, faster and more efficient.
    2. We will need a type of AI. to engineer, build and fix.
    3. We would need fission rockets. Capable of driving and slowing down million ton space ships.

  • ega October 5, 2014 on 11:10 am

    I agree that colonising other planets is a good insurance policy, but so it was 300 years ago… It’s all about building capital. It’s better to spend money here and increase the productive capacity of our economy. That will shorten the time it takes us to go to other planets.

    “The absence of any noticeable life may be an argument in favour of us being in a simulation,’”

    It could also be that any advanced civilisation will try out an experiment that creates a black hole that destroys it.

  • Jon Roland October 5, 2014 on 1:59 pm

    In 1991 I wrote an article that provides the explanation. Search on “Three Futures for Earth” (with the quotes). It is based on a thermodynamic analysis that leads to several conclusions:

    1. There are fundamental limits to what can be technologically achieved, no matter how “advanced” the civilization, and we may already be approaching those limits, except perhaps in a few directions, such as an FTL drive;
    2. Given those limits, it would not be rational for any long-enduring civilization to try to live scattered on the surfaces of planets. The only sustainable living environment would be urban biospheres (“starship cities”) sited below the surfaces of planets with hot cores, which would provide the little energy they would need, while recycling almost all materials, and emitting only a little waste heat; therefore,
    3. There are no Type I, II, or III, civilizations, because no civilization would have any good reason to become one. Anthills don’t need to capture and use all possible free energy. They only need enough to sustain themselves as anthills;
    4. If an FTL drive, such as an Alcubierre drive, becomes possible, then it would make no sense to waste energy using electromagnetic radiation to communicate. It would be cheaper to travel to places and deliver messages directly. If EM radiation were used, it would make no sense to waste energy broadcasting. The only rational method would be narrow-beam directed at the recipient, with little or no leakage;
    5. If FTL is possible, then we could have outposts of a million alien civilizations beneath our feet and never know it, provided they got along with one another. We may not be a “nature preserve”, except perhaps to a few alien scientists. To most we would just be barnacles on the ship. If FTL is not possible, we might only have a few dozen, deep enough that no drill will ever reach them;
    6. The ultimate end of human development is likely to be single networks of running computer programs (except the computers will be quantum). This is the “singularity” foreseen by some futurists.

    • Jon Roland Jon Roland October 5, 2014 on 2:00 pm
      • Blair Schirmer Jon Roland October 20, 2014 on 6:59 am

        Btw, thanks for the link to your work. I put it on my reading list.

    • Blair Schirmer Jon Roland October 20, 2014 on 6:53 am

      1. There are fundamental limits to what can be technologically achieved, no matter how “advanced” the civilization, and we may already be approaching those limits, except perhaps in a few directions, such as an FTL drive;
      I have yet to see a credible argument for any meaningful limits on much of anything. There are some inherent computational limits, but given we’re nowhere near understanding the universe, the idea that we’re “approaching those limits” cannot be sustained.

      • Jon Roland Blair Schirmer October 20, 2014 on 8:24 pm

        Every physical law, to the extent it can be applied to technology at all, represents some kind of limit on what can and can’t be done. The big ones, for the purposes of this analysis, are the three laws of thermodynamics: (1) You can’t win; (2) You can’t even break even; and (3) Don’t even try. (Okay, that’s informal, but the ideas are much the same.)

        Most of the 200-year industrial revolution consisted of finding ways to increase the efficiently of conversion of energy from one form to another, starting at less than 1% to about 30%. About two orders of magnitude. We don’t get another gain like that in this direction. We don’t even get to 100%.

        Consider oil production as only a way to get energy. That energy is not free. It takes energy to extract it, and when we reach the point that it takes more energy than we get, production stops, even though there is still plenty in the ground.

        Or consider the growth of natural organisms, such as ant colonies or whales. Why did the first ant colony just expand until it covered the entire planet (ignoring the oceans)? Or why doesn’t a whale grow until it fills the Pacific Basin? The answer is that for most growth there is a point of diminishing returns, and when that point is reached, growth stops. (It can also overshoot and collapse, but that is not really a different situation.)

        OIn considering whether to explore space, people are already turning away from it because they don’t see it as profitable. If they are right, we might make a start, but the effort will fail.

        In looking forward to the benefits, never lose sight of the costs.

  • Teddy Rodosovich October 5, 2014 on 2:02 pm

    It’s all riding on one piece of dirt. Check out the BILLION$$$ going to a subset of the supernatural – religions. Google Prof Ryan Cragun, U of Tampa. atheists La Jolla on FB.

  • michael184 October 5, 2014 on 3:20 pm

    Not one mention of Space Colonies, like the O’Neill, McKendree, or Bernal designs. Why? Why limit ourselves to just planets?

    • Jon Roland michael184 October 5, 2014 on 3:41 pm

      Those designs do not provide enough radiation shielding to be viable long-term. The closest would be inside a large asteroid, and that would not provide a source of geothermal energy. Solar power is vulnerable to damaging interruption.

      Mars may still have a hot enough core to provide geothermal energy to biospheres sited below the surface. The moon does not.

      • Andrew Kuess Jon Roland October 3, 2015 on 3:58 pm

        We simply need a better type of radiation shielding. We continue to develop more complex materials as time goes on, and with Tesla Batteries, Solar Interruption is not a problem as much as it used to be. There are also solar concentrator towers that operate 24 hours a day even at night. Also, It’s not like there are clouds in space that will block the Sun’s energy, nor an atmosphere if we had cities in space.

        Those early, and primitive designs, can be improved upon to make them viable for long term living. An asteroid, has no radiation shielding unless the matter it was composed of, was lead. In which case, your living on a poisonous rock in space… Not a great idea imo. Earth’s radiation shielding comes from the atmosphere mostly.

        Also, i disagree with your theory on limits. These are only the limits, You perceive.
        Bill Gates once said that computers would not need more than 4mb of processing power.
        That was the limit, he perceived.

        Today, that perceived limit has been made irrelevant.

  • Facebook -124 October 5, 2014 on 8:05 pm

    The colonization of space is a natural continuation of human adaptation and evolution, a journey not just for the engineer and rocket scientist, but for every man.

  • John Morton October 6, 2014 on 12:51 am

    No mention has been made of what should be the number one priority which is, of course, the development of new methods of space craft propulsion. If we succeed in this quest, we won’t have to worry about conditions on other planets in the Solar System. Some of the speculative field drive ideas (which don’t necessarily violate the conservation of energy/momentum) have to work, or we’re doomed.

  • Arrow October 6, 2014 on 1:57 am

    Explanation more fascinating and deeply emotional than “useful innovations and inventions”. Not sure it would be easily commonly accepted as “urgent as easing poverty or disease”.

    But improving living conditions are lowering infant mortality and prolong people lives, so we see the demographic explosion. On a single planet that could eventually be Sagan’s evolutionary self-destruct button? Beyond weapons or environmental impact?

    Could the need be similar to the experiment of introduction, increase, and crash of reindeer on st. Matthew island http://dieoff.org/page80.htm ? even if intelligent species and we humans should have ability to interact and adapt to our planets more than reindeer?

  • Leothorn October 6, 2014 on 4:19 am

    Humans on different planets may be tough. Sending remotely control robots to mine and bring back resources to a space station while living in it is doable.

    WE are falling short of resources on earth. What humanity needs to be able to harness the resoruces in space.

  • numbers_guy101 October 7, 2014 on 9:51 am

    “You know, when we fought the Cylons, we did it to save ourselves from extinction. But we never answered the question, why? Why are we as a people worth saving? We still commit murder because of greed, spite, jealousy. And we still visit all of our sins upon our children. We refuse to accept the responsibility for anything that we’ve done.”
    -Commander Adama

  • Xmitchell October 9, 2014 on 6:22 am

    This sounds like an outdated capricious injunction. 3D space is probably flattening on a larger scale and has already been fully extruded by what the brain can offer. I think the future of space travel should be nothing less than hyperdimensional. Extinction on this plane of existence is the rule so Elon Musk could be wrong : colonizing other dimensions would then be the soul’s insurance policy against the conceits of identifying ourselves exclusively within the “too human” empirical bandwidth.

  • Blair Schirmer October 18, 2014 on 10:43 pm

    Musk’s not entirely wrong, but his timing is somewhat off. The means to create an indefinitely sustainable human colony probably won’t be available until decades after we have the ability to become a non-biological species that can colonize the near-universe by way of Bracewell probes and the like.

    Nothing wrong with pursuing Musk’s vision, of course, but given the very finite pie that must be divided, I’d prefer to see humanity obtain the ability to transform itself into entities capable of surviving in any environment as 1’s and 0’s–and in so doing gain the ability to alter and improve ourselves no less quickly than software can be re-written and improved–than have us focus on creating bubble environments that can only preserve these incredibly fragile limited shells along with our extremely limited abilities, and which can only do so on a handful of planets or moons.

  • Jon Roland October 19, 2014 on 7:40 am

    Beyond the Bracewell probe would be a self-replicating genesis probe, that would explore space and, where it found suitable sites, synthesize and plant life, including some form of human life, adapted to each habitat. That need not be the surfaces of planets near stars. The interiors of planemos with hot cores are likely to be more abundant and suitable over longer timespan.

    But is it likely better in the mid-term to colonize the moon and Mars, because Earth may become nonviable before genesis probes could be developed, and if they are, they may need to be launched from our space colonies. Earth doesn’t need to become uninhabitable to be nonviable for purposes of space colonization. It is politically nearly nonviable now.

    • Blair Schirmer Jon Roland October 20, 2014 on 6:57 am

      I’m not clear on why we would convert ourselves to a computation based life form only to recreate ourselves as biological life. Are you thinking of this as a recreational activity? It would be interesting, of course, to create a great range of life forms into which we would download consciousness, but I’m not at all confident that’s the direction human consciousness evolving in conjunction with strong AI would take.

      Nice to have the option, though, very probably.

  • Christopher Murrill January 23, 2015 on 10:34 am

    I think we are forgetting the exponential increases in technological advance and the subsequent paradigm shifts that will occur in every field.

    We won’t be building colonies. We will be launching Martian landers equipped with a Strong AI Master Architect and self-replicating, nanoassemblers.

    Our colonies and industrial bases will be ready and waiting why the time we arrive.

  • Bob Bello January 23, 2015 on 10:46 am

    This is exactly what A.C. Clarke said half a century ago, inspired by H.G. Wells, who followed the example of the first Neanderthal that gazed out of his cold cave into the starry sky: Duh! 😉

  • dobermanmacleod May 26, 2015 on 10:02 pm


    You simply don’t understand. There will soon (within a couple of decades) be exponential production. This means that using extra terrestrial soil, we can fashion 3D printing toner that can be used to print more 3D printers, and the equipment necessary to mine and process the soil into more toner. Heck, you are talking colonizing other planets? I am talking about making the planets our source of everything. The Singularity is coming, faster than experts have predicted. The Universe is ours to colonized and make a source of riches beyond our imaginations!

  • arealplumber May 27, 2015 on 12:09 pm

    What does the future hold? Does anyone know? What if there are new and incurable disasters waiting for us out there? Viruses or disease we have no idea how to cure? However if we utilize what we already have here imagine what we are leaving on the table to do it now? What if we turned this technology that can change the surface of a planet and used it here first? I am not saying don’t ever go what I am saying is what is the benefit if such a small handful of people can get these ideas this far how much further could say 3 billion people who are left out of the opportunity had basic needs met and were able to contribute? Why don’t we use this planet as a test planet and see how much it can actually transform this place? No rockets so there’s a few billion saved there, no tests for life sustainability so there’s years of research there, No wondering how to make it sustainable except for the damage we have already done. Colonists? Well they are already here! Let’s test and see if we can sustain life here so we can get that million Mr. Musk is looking for from the largest and most diverse group mankind itself! Otherwise what are we looking to do? Proliferate energy wars, food shortages, disease and hatred throughout the universe? Yes let’s look to the star but let’s liftoff with everyone not just those who understand the importance rather with everyone who is important! To me, that is everyone in a representative sense. If we can’t figure out how to do that before we go who decides who goes?

  • Çathî Tombaugh May 27, 2015 on 11:54 pm

    Nice but how do you get volunteers for colonization? “Here you are Buddy the Garden Of Eden Just Don’t Eat The Fruit Of The Tree Of Knowledge Go Forth And Multiply” has been done and had a few glitches.

  • Çathî Tombaugh May 27, 2015 on 11:56 pm

    Nice but how do you get volunteers for colonization? “Here you are Buddy the Garden Of Eden Just Don’t Eat The Fruit Of The Tree Of Knowledge Go Forth And Multiply” has been done and had a few glitches.

    Reposted so I can get notifications.

  • Andrew Kuess October 3, 2015 on 3:59 pm

    I am founding a political party, to run in Canada’s 2019 Election that will focus on Space Colonization as our long term goal and priority for Civilization’s Future.

    Cosmic Pirate Party

  • zawy October 4, 2015 on 2:27 am

    People are not relevant to the future of our economic machine. Muscles, brains, and photosynthesis can’t compete with silicon, metals, and carbon-carbon bonds. More and more, companies will be buying from companies in order to destroy other companies. Biology will be on the sidelines more and more as this 6th great extinction episode accelerates. 10% of all speaking humans that have ever been alive are alive today. This isn’t going to last long. The rich are digging in with more and more wealth acquired from the corporate machine that wants nothing more than to take as much money from as many people as possible without employing any, diverting it to the few who control the machine.