Colonising #Mars is senseless #ItsTheGravityStupid

Elon Musk has been breathlessly quoted by various news organisations as stating that he is pushing for human colonisation of Mars. There’s a spiffy YouTube video on this entitled “Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species”. Be warned that it goes on for almost two hours. I’m not buying it, for several reasons.


Assuming the gravity on Earth is rated as “1”, the gravity on Mars is 0.376. So, it’s a little more than one third that of Earth’s. Has anyone told you that? Probably not. Even the film adaptation of Andy Weir’s “The Martian” doesn’t show it. We see Matt Damon going hipster on a planet that appears to have a gravity very much like Earth’s. Considering the technology that’s available to modern film-making (resulting in the snoozefest that was “Gravity”, for example), that’s downright dishonest.

What happens to a human being on a planetary body with one-third the gravity of Earth? Luckily, our subject’s sense of balance won’t be affected because s/he won’t be in outer space and will be able to differentiate between up and down. But her/his muscles will atrophy. And bone formation and structure will weaken, mimicking osteoporosis. In fact, points out that:

Astronauts typically exercise two hours a day in space to counteract [calcium loss and weakening of bone and muscle], but it still takes months of rehabilitation to adjust on Earth after a typical six-month space mission. (my emphasis)

And, of course, there are other effects of which we are unaware, because no longitudinal study of sufficient duration has been done to measure all the physiological changes that take place in a human body once it’s on a planet with such low gravity. Hormone production? Knock-on effects on organ function? Basic cell morphology? Quite simply, we don’t know.

I’m as keen as the next geek to proudly declare that my descendants have colonised another planet in our solar system, but I’m not stupid enough to pick Mars as the target. If I did, I’d be condemning my descendants to a lifetime shackled to another planet. To put it another way, they can never come home, not even for a visit, because our crushing gravity will take its toll on their modified physiology (and, believe it, if my descendants are thriving on Mars, modified physiologies they’ll have).

I’m perplexed by why nobody has pointed this out. Are the scientists at NASA so ignorant of astronomy? Surely it’s one of the fundamental questions we need to ask.

If I had to make a bet, I’d put my money on Venus. If Earth is “1”, the gravity on Venus is “0.9”. Pretty good, wouldn’t you say? Where we originally thought that the atmosphere on Venus was dry and incredibly corrosive (sulphuric acid in the air), with crushing pressure, that view has been revised somewhat. The European Space Agency now says that:

“Everything points to there being large amounts of water in the past,” says Colin Wilson, a professor of oceanic, atmospheric and planetary physics at Oxford University and a member of the Venus Express science team.

That may not sound like much, unless you recall all the naysaying from NASA itself about…Mars. Cast your mind back a mere six or eight years ago. Barely an atmosphere, we were told. No water. High winds. Completely dessicated. Now suddenly, Musk is talking about the Interplanetary Transport System and colonising the rock. All things considered, Venus may indeed surprise us.

So, from a human physiology standpoint, I’m holding out for Venus as being a place I can send my descendants and from which they might be able to visit me from time to time.

Musk and Tesla

Talk of colonising Venus inevitably brings up Elon Musk. Musk’s name is inextricably linked with Tesla Motors, and this is strange because Musk had nothing to do with it. Tesla Motors, the ideas, the initial funding, the initial idea, came from two guys called Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. When they had a financial crisis, Musk stepped in with money. That’s it. In 2009, Eberhard sued Musk for misrepresenting both Tesla and him:

Once Eberhard was gone, the suit claims that Musk attempted to rewrite history and take credit as the founder of Tesla and creator of the electric Roadster. The suit further alleges that Musk defamed Eberhard on multiple occasions and attempted to portray him as the reason behind the Roadster’s delays and troubles and provides examples of all claims.

As a financial investor, I don’t like hearing such things. Someone with deep pockets trying to rewrite history?

Then we have SolarCity. Having not founded Tesla Motors, Musk then tries to prop up SolarCity by having Tesla buy it. That really got my investor eyebrows rising. Force the founder out of a promising venture, then get that venture to buy your own floundering firm? Yep, sounds like good corporate governance to me!

So now I’m wondering. If Musk is worth more than US$10B, exactly where did that money come from? As we know from politics, if Country A finds a strategy that works, they keep executing it, time and time again. So, if Musk tried to oust and blame Eberhard in order to get control of Tesla, what did he do before Tesla presented itself to him?

Elon Musk himself

It’s the third point that really nails it for me, though. I sat and watched part of “Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species” and one thing didn’t make any sense. According to BoomsBeat’s “37 Interesting Facts about Elon Musk”, Musk moved to Canada when he was 17 (see point 3). And yet, watching the video, the one thing Musk doesn’t have is a South African accent. I’ve worked with South Africans in different industries, and the one thing they never lose is a particular way of pronouncing certain words. (To take one extreme example, they pronounce “a”s more like “ef”s.) By the time they’re teenagers, you can bet on that accent. A New Zealander can try mightily to pronounce “fush and chups” as “fish and chips”, but they’ll always slip up. USians have pointed out to me the “oo” tendency in the Canadian accent (“boot” not “boat”), so now I can tell when I’m watching a Canadian actor, but Musk? No South African accent, even though he was born and educated there?

(To make this personal, I began elocution lessons in Australia when I was seven years old. Seven! And yet I still haven’t lost the Malaysian way of pronouncing some words. Elon Musk left South Africa at seventeen and has no South African accent? There’s something foreign in there, I can hear it, but it ain’t African. I don’t know why anyone would mislead anyone else on such an innocuous topic but, no, I’m not buying it. Elon Musk is as South African as I am.)

And just to go back to that BoomsBeat list for a moment, the preamble lists Musk as “[t]he founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors, SolarCity and SpaceX”, even though we already know he never founded Tesla Motors; Eberhard and Tarpenning did. In such ways is history rewritten and I wouldn’t mind so much if it hadn’t been rewritten to include someone whose name resembles a wild animal’s glandular secretion.


Now I’m thinking. Mars itself? Nope, doesn’t make sense. Call me back when you’re thinking of Venus. Elon Musk as a businessman? Nope; he’s the tone of shady that an investor like myself wouldn’t invest in. Elon Musk as a person? Something’s dodgy about him, and I don’t know what, but that accent (or lack thereof) is a dead giveaway.

Still, that’s not going to stop Musk being the poster boy for the current crop of young geeks. Best of luck to them and we’ll catch up, no doubt, once the carousel stops.

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