Status Report

MarsNow 1.9 Profile: Elon Musk, Life to Mars Foundation

By SpaceRef Editor
September 25, 2001
Filed under , ,

Someone is putting his money where my mouth has been. Describing permanent settlement of Mars as “a positive, constructive, inspirational goal” capable of uniting humanity at a critical time,” dot-com entrepreneur Elon Musk has pledged a substantial portion of his personal fortune to realizing that goal, beginning with a proposed $20 million technology-demonstration Mars lander to be launched perhaps in 2005. Calling his “victory condition” seeing NASA’s top priority change to establishing a permanent human presence on Mars, he said in an interview last week that “the path by which I hope to get there is to get the public enthusiastic about the possibility, then translate that into legislative pressure so that Congress hands us a Mars mandate.” Musk’s plans are invigorating, finally matching for Mars the initiative and boldness recently displayed in Low Earth Orbit by Dennis Tito’s flight and the recent MirCorp announcement of a private “MiniMir” orbiting facility. I hope his entrepreneurial directness will bring a new effectiveness to the Mars effort. I hope also that he can avoid being brought down by the Byzantine politics of space: on the Hill, in the scientific community and in the space movement.

NASA wants to know whether there ever was life on Mars. Musk – and I, and many more – want to know if there ever can be.

Musk’s “Mars Oasis” project is a small robotic lander intended primarily as a mini-greenhouse, growing samples of food crops in an enclosed chamber filled with treated Martian regolith (soil), to test the feasibility of humans living off the land. Other experiments may include test units for the production of oxygen and rocket fuel from the Martian atmosphere, and radiation sensors. In a radical departure from the missions scheduled by NASA, each experiment would focus on developing data critical to human habitation, rather than on pure planetary science. While the project’s centerpiece is essentially the project long advocated by NASA planetary scientist Chris McKay, Musk stated that he had only met McKay in passing and had not discussed the project with him.

Musk’s immediate efforts are focused closely on the completion of a feasibility study by a Russian/American team including the Russian Babakin design bureau, currently the contractor for the Planetary Society’s solar sail test mission, and John Garvey, formerly of McDonnell Douglas’s DC-X program and founder of Garvey Spacecraft Corporation. The study, under way for four months, is driven as much by cost as by technical feasibility, as Musk would have the mission cost under $20 million. He claims to have lined up financial support from “other technology entrepreneurs disheartened by NASA’s efforts over the past thirty years.” He plans to announce the slate of project financiers within a few months of the end of the study.

He refused to engage in political posturing or NASA-bashing, saying that “I don’t have a palpable ideology for private or governmental missions.” He described his relations with NASA as “good, I would say. I have not had any bad relations whatsoever. I don’t see them as the bad guy. NASA’s in the position it’s in not through any desire of its own. The public is asking NASA often to have a perfect track record and a perfect safety record,” yielding excessive caution and institutional gridlock. “By driving this private space mission forward,” he continued, “I hope for changes for NASA, for it to receive a clear and pressing mandate for a human base [on Mars]. I want to reinvigorate NASA.”

His goal of moving Congress to declare a human presence on Mars to be a priority implies substantial legislative action, at the very least putting forward a legislative program to be advocated to Congress by citizen supporters. He explicitly describes mobilizing popular and political support as mission-critical. Yet he described his Foundation’s legislative role as being only “to maintain a clear and open dialog with political figures relevant to space.” Its “job will be done,” he said, “when there’s a self-sustaining civilization on Mars,” with an organizational role continuing through settlement, changing its nature to become “more of a supportive organization.”

Interestingly, his thoughts on public support are profoundly divergent from the mass-action or Beltway models on which the space movement has depended. He attributed the success of his second company, PayPal, to “viral marketing mechanisms.” Relying on word of mouth advertising – “how any successful business grows over time” – “your marketing force extends with your customer base.” Or, everyone jumps on the bandwagon as it rolls by, and picks up the tune.

The model grows out of modern communication tools, unlike the grass-roots approach of old-time radical politics, build around local face-to-face meetings, tables at events, and the like, or the suit-and-tie political approach which has declined in relevance alongside that of the governments it focuses on. Modern coordinative activity requires modern methods – an obvious notion, except in the space movement, many of whose leaders are still mired in the politics and tactics of a generation past. Mass-action approaches essentially treat us as rabble, to be inflamed by emotional appeals into being spear-carriers for a self-appointed leadership. A legislative focus tends to relegate us to acting the whiny child at the mall: “Mommy, I want the shiny pretty spaceship!” A viral marketing approach, seen in the early days of the Mars Society and among the Space Frontier Foundation’s cadre of Advocates, allows for individual enthusiasm to find its own best expression, creating a “marketplace” of projects, with good ones attracting money, supporters and attention. The Spacefaring Web is such a market on a species-wide scale, with time, money and talent flowing where it can best be employed at any time.

Musk admits to being “very focused on the short term, to getting the feasibility study done, then the next step – securing a launch vehicle contract, a construction contract for the space vehicle and payload.” His space learning curve is doubtless steep, and wisely he’s been playing to his entrepreneurial strengths, approaching the mission as any technology-driven startup.

Founder of Zip2, which provides internet enterprise software for media companies and largest shareholder of PayPal an internet financial services company, Musk made an enthusiastic splash in the space community earlier this year at a Mars Society fundraising dinner featuring James Cameron. Pledging $100,000 to the Society, he was granted a rare seat on the Society’s Board of Directors by founder Robert Zubrin. Yet he has chosen to go his own way, establishing his Life to Mars Foundation as the vehicle for his projects. Along with the rest of the independent Directors of the Mars Society, he resigned his seat after the organization’s August meeting. Asked about his relations with the space movement, he replied that “to the degree that we can serve as a unifying force to get NASA’s mandate for the permanent human settlement of Mars, we’d love to have interaction with anyone.”

On the one hand, Musk’s independence is a good sign. Three years ago, Haughton Mars Project founder Pascal Lee went to a Mars Society conference with a first-rate project in hand, and arguably paid too great a price for Society support. Certainly much of the public recognition for the first-rate research the HMP team has done on Devon Island has gone over to the Society, given its genius at publicity for its hab’s role in the overall effort. Affiliation with the Society has on occasion led to difficulties in working with particular groups within NASA, who saw the project as being compromised by its close relationship with chaotic personalities and politics within the Society. Musk’s avoidance of that particular pitfall bodes well.

However, “Not Invented Here Syndrome” has claimed many a victim in the space movement before. Two generations of scientists and activists have devoted their lives to the goal of establishing a human presence on Mars. David S.F. Portree has written an invaluable book subtitled “Fifty Years of Mars Mission Planning,” highlighting how much time and talent has already been invested in this cause. The work of these people has been critical, and continues to be deeply relevant. They have not succeeded in reaching their goal in large part because their community has lacked precisely those things Musk brings to the table: capital, and experience in creating and managing a successful technological enterprise from scratch. With Musk as a node in the Spacefaring Web, we might all just reach our goal. With more of the attitudes others have displayed, the aforementioned “not invented here” and the Founder’s Syndrome threatening several space advocacy organizations, we’ll be in for more waste, disappointment and failure.

Musk describes his goal as providing “positive inspiration at a time when we need such inspiration. The world has reached a stage where it needs some positive challenge it could get excited about, something that helps unite humanity.” The Mars Oasis project could accomplish a great deal to bring that about. Musk and his nascent Life to Mars Foundation have much to contribute to the cooperative, networked effort of thousands of people with means, talent and enthusiasm who are working to build a spacefaring civilization. Welcome to the Spacefaring Web.

For more background on Musk, see the 1999 Salon article at and for more information about PayPal, see the FAQ at

Musk, along with Mars Society President Robert Zubrin and Haughton Mars Project Principal Investigator Pascal Lee, will be speaking on a panel that I will be chairing entitled “New Visions For Mars” at the Space Frontier Foundation’s annual conference on October 21 in Los Angeles, California. For more information, go to or contact me directly at .

Mars Now is a weekly column © 2001 by John Carter McKnight,
Mars Program Director for the Space Frontier Foundation.
Views expressed here are strictly the author’s and do not
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SpaceRef staff editor.