Elon Musk, founder of private space-faring company SpaceX, recently unveiled his new Starship craft. Amazingly, it is designed to carry up to 100 crew members on interplanetary journeys throughout the solar system, starting with Mars in 2024.
The announcement is exciting, invoking deep emotions of hope and adventure. But I can’t help having a number of moral reservations about it.
Musk has declared a fascinatingly short time line to achieve orbit with this rocket. He wants to build four or five versions of the vehicle in the next six months. The first rocket will do a test launch to 20km within a month, and the final version will orbit the Earth.
Whether this is possible remains to be seen. Bear in mind that in the early 1960s when the then US president, John F Kennedy, announced the race to the moon, it took nearly a decade to achieve and several crew members died during the testing phases.
Despite this, it has been an important goal since the beginning of the space age for people to travel between planets – helping us to explore, mine and colonise the solar system.
There are many reasons to believe SpaceX will succeed. The company has been extremely impressive in its contribution to space, filling a gap when government agencies such as NASA could not justify the spending. It’s not the rocket technology that I doubt, my concern is mainly astrobiological.
If life exists elsewhere in our universe, the solar system is a good place to start looking – enabling us to touch, collect and analyse samples in a reasonably short time. Along with some of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons, Mars is one of the top contenders for hosting some sort of microbial life, or for having done so in the past.