Why does Obama oppose Elon Musk’s plan for a Mars colony?

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Why does Obama oppose Elon Musk’s plan for a Mars colony?

Former President Barack Obama has been out of the White House for more than seven years. But, on occasion, he still makes news and creates controversy.

Obama recently appeared at a renewable energy conference in Paris and had some sharp words about billionaires, especially Elon Musk, and efforts by his SpaceX company to colonize space.

“But when I hear some of the people talk about the plan to colonize Mars because the [Earth’s] environment may become so degraded that it becomes unliveable, I look at them like, what are you talking about?”

Obama also suggested that even after a nuclear war or the ravages of climate change, Earth would still be more livable than Mars. He stated that Mars does not have any oxygen, necessary for the sustainment of human life.

What should those people who dream of colonizing Mars do instead? 

“I would rather us invest in taking care of this planet here,” Obama said. He suggested that space exploration should be confined to “gathering knowledge and discovery.”

Obama’s tone, at least, about going to Mars was different 14 years ago. In order to perform some damage control in the wake of his abrupt cancellation of President George W. Bush’s Constellation Program, he traveled to the Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010, to unveil his own vision for space exploration. While poo-pooing the idea of returning to the moon, Obama was much more enthusiastic about sending humans to Mars.

“By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth.  And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.”

Obama didn’t mention Mars colonies 14 years ago, but his speech at the Kennedy Space Center was decidedly less negative than the one in Paris.

The “Journey to Mars,” as NASA called the program at the time, resulted from Obama’s speech. Unfortunately, six years later, a hearing conducted by the House Space Subcommittee concluded that NASA lacked the technology and the financial resources to mount a crewed expedition to Mars any time soon. The program was never serious and would have taken 20 to 40 years and a half-trillion dollars to undertake.

The Obama Mars program was scrapped in favor of President Donald Trump’s Project Artemis, which envisions returning to the moon and going to Mars. Artemis includes heavy participation from the commercial space sector, including SpaceX, as well as international partners. The Artemis mission statement includes “economic benefits” along with scientific discovery and inspiration as reasons for sending astronauts beyond low Earth orbit.

The former president also did not give the targets of his ire due credit.

SpaceX builds and launches rockets, and Musk dreams of founding a city on Mars. He also owns Tesla, an electric car company, sells solar roofs and is getting into the carbon capture business, all very good for the environment.

Jeff Bezos, who owns Blue Origin, has provided suborbital joy rides to passengers like Star Trek’s William Shatner, has recently rolled out the New Glenn rocket and proposes to soft land the Blue Moon lander on the lunar surface in 12 to 16 months. He has his own space colony dreams. Bezos has also invested in a fusion power startup that promises limitless, emissions-free energy.

Musk, Bezos and others in the commercial space sector are keen to explore and settle space and take care of Earth. They don’t regard it as an either-or matter.

Peter Hague, a British astrophysicist and space settlement advocate, called Obama out for his statement about the lack of oxygen on Mars. Although the Martian atmosphere has only trace amounts of oxygen, the gas is readily available in other forms.

“Manufacturing oxygen on Mars from either the abundant carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, water ice, or rocks is a lot less complex than the many interlocking systems required to provide you with food or electricity on Earth. Running your own O2 generator will probably be no more complex than running your own boiler,” he said in a social media post. 

The day after Obama spoke, Musk provided an eloquent answer in the form of the third test of the Starship. The vehicle made it to space for the first time and fulfilled many test objectives. It was a small step and a giant leap for the opening of space. 

As Musk said on X, “Starship will take humanity to Mars.”


Mark R. Whittington is author of “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.