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Life On Mars? The Real Competition Between Elon Musk & Jeff Bezos

Two tech titans. One goal. Two antagonistic theories about how to achieve it.
by Juan Salazar | Jun 8 2018

During the Cold War, the USSR and the USA tussled to be first to make it to the moon. But that frontier, it turns out, was not so final.

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Fast forward to 2018, and there is a new, different space race afoot. This time, it’s not one between governments or ideologies, but between capitalists. However, the differences aren’t only in who’s involved, but in why they’re doing it, what their long-term goals are, and what their visions of the future look like.

Over the last decade, space exploration has been winning back its place in our collective imaginations, not only because reusable rockets have made space travel as economically feasible as it has ever been, but also thanks to an ongoing competition between two of the world’s richest, most high-profile men — Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.

Direct competitors though they are, you’ll find many similarities in their biographies: they both became billionaires through tech ventures and investments — Bezos with Amazon, and Musk with PayPal — they both share a passion for space exploration, and each have grand visions of a future for humanity in space.

This has driven them to found their own spacefaring companies as passion projects, funding them with their own fortunes: Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, and Musk founded SpaceX in 2002. They have even announced, independently of each other, that their respective companies are working on projects to send either cargo or human passengers to the moon within the next ten years.

On a recent episode of the Imaginary Worlds podcast, host Eric Molinsky addressed two antagonistic theories on humanity’s potential for space colonization. One theory posits that we need to colonize planets. Another suggests that we could create enormous inhabitable space stations that could simulate gravity using centrifugal force.

The two primary proponents of these theories were Isaac Asimov — who advocated for planet colonization — and Gerard K. O’Neill, who advocated for creating these gigantic spaceships.

This argument is still being highly debated today, by the two very men we are all waxing poetic about. Musk’s goal is one of physical colonization of planets, and Bezos’ sees humans creating space-station-like spaceships where millions of people will live and work. Let’s take a look at these two possibilities for humans to live in space, the two men pushing them forward, and just how feasible they actually are.

When it comes to business, at least, Elon Musk seems to be incapable of doing anything wrong. The self-made Silicon Valley billionaire has spent the first two decades of the second millennium starting and developing companies that give us hope for a greater future: SolarCity wants to power entire cities with solar energy; Tesla Motors took the electric automobile market by storm; The Boring Company is set to eliminate city traffic by digging underground tunnels for cars and for the Hyperloop; and with SpaceX, Musk plans to take humanity off Earth, and onto Mars.

Isaac Asimov — futurist, professor of biochemistry, and one science fiction’s brightest stars — coined the term planetary chauvinism in 1974. It means that, in science fiction, space colonization primarily happens on the surface of worlds. This describes Elon Musk’s ideals for human existence in space pretty accurately. In fact, Musk wants to make the colonization of Mars achievable during our lifetime.

Elon Musk’s vision is very straightforward — if humans decide to stay on Earth, we will deplete our planet’s resources, which will inevitably lead to extinction. By becoming a multi-planetary species we will secure survival. He wants to take humans to Mars and create a self-sustaining city — a city which is not merely an outpost but can become a planet in its own right.

Why Mars? For starters, it is not a “hot acid bath” like Venus, nor is it too close to the sun, like Mercury. According to him, Mars is resource-rich, and it is large enough to hold massive amounts of humans, thus providing the basis necessary for sustaining a thriving civilization.

Jeff Bezos is way more low-key than his sending-a-Tesla-into-space-sounds-like-a-good-idea counterpart, but is equally ambitious.

Bezos’ fascination with space started on his grandfather’s Texas ranch. There, he would spend hours marveling at the night sky. He even ended his high school valedictorian speech with this movie-worthy, corny-AF one-liner: “Space, the final frontier, meet me there!”

From an early age, he was influenced by Princeton physicist and founder of the Space Studies Institute, Gerard K. O’Neill. O’Neill’s book The High Frontier lays out a detailed plan for the United States’ space exploration endeavors after the Apollo Program. In it, O’Neill proposes the creation of large space stations as human habitats in the Earth-Moon system, which would be powered by the sun, and would also revolve to mimic gravity using centrifugal force.

The High Frontier is almost a blueprint of Bezos’ mission with Blue Origin. Similarly to Elon Musk, he believes that space offers enough resources to “easily support a trillion humans.” In fact, he wants to build O’Neill cylinders that will function as human habitats in space, while the Moon will serve as the Earth’s heavy industry hub.

For ages, humans have let their imaginations run wild about what it would be like to live in space. If Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos achieve their goals with SpaceX and Blue Origin, life in space might leave the realm of science fiction, and become part of our reality.

The new space race is about perseverance. It’s about pushing the boundaries of technology, and about a shift in our identity as an Earth-bound species. Long gone are the days when the goal was to put a man on the moon, then turn off the lights and hurry off home. When Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk or someone else entirely succeeds, we will have to grapple with becoming a society that is actually going to be moving to space. Trying to determine who’s going to win completely misses the point!

Explore a little more with these books

Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

Learn about the life and rise of Elon Musk and discover more about the drives and motivations that push him towards achieving such ambitious goals.

The Future of Humanity by Michio Kaku

Physicist and public intellectual Michio Kaku’s new book considers many topics which might have been thought of as science fiction not long ago, including interplanetary exploration. Nowadays, these ideas seem closer to reality than ever before.

Inventology by Pagan Kennedy

What kind of thinking does it take to make a landing on Mars a reality? Kennedy’s book offers us insights into such future-oriented problem-solving.

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