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Elon Musk says there’s a 70 percent chance he’ll move to Mars (and possibly die there)

Axios interview with Elon Musk
Axios’ Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen interview SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. (Axios / HBO via YouTube)

As NASA prepares for its next Mars landing on Monday, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is giving himself a 70 percent chance of moving to Mars. But in an Axios interview airing tonight on HBO, he emphasizes that it won’t be a billionaire joyride.

“Your probability of dying on Mars is much higher than Earth. Really, the ad for going to Mars would be like Shackleton’s ad for going to the Antarctic,” Musk said, referring to explorer Ernest Shackleton’s harrowing 1914-1917 expedition. (The apocryphal ad supposedly was headlined “Men Wanted for Hazardous Journey.”)

“It’s going to be hard,” Musk said. “There’s a good chance of death, going in a little can through deep space. You might land successfully. Once you land successfully, you’ll be working nonstop to build the base. … There’s a good chance you die there. We think you can come back, but we’re not sure. Now, does that sound like an escape hatch for rich people?”

He compared the allure to the attraction that Mount Everest holds for mountain climbers: “They like doing it for the challenge.”

And if Musk’s vision for the next decade holds true, going to Mars will cost “a couple hundred thousand dollars” — which is still four to five times as expensive as an Everest expedition, but way cheaper than the $80 million that the Russians have charged for trips to the International Space Station.

Musk is consistently optimistic on timelines and costs, so it’s best not to hold him too closely to the estimates he provided in the Axios interview. But he tends to be conservative about the percentages he cites in his off-the-cuff risk assessments. For example, he gave SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket only a 50-50 chance of full success on its maiden launch, which turned out to be a triumph on the following day.

He has also said he gave SpaceX only a 10 percent chance of succeeding when he started the company 16 years ago, and that bet didn’t turn out so badly. The privately held company is currently valued at somewhere around $28 billion (although its latest effort to secure what turned out to be a $250 million loan sparked controversy).

All of which means the 47-year-old Musk is feeling good about his chances of making it to the Red Planet. And the chances are much higher for NASA’s Mars Insight lander, which is expected to touch down just before noon PT Monday on a flat Martian plain known as Elysium Planitia.

Your guide to InSight: How to watch the Mars landing, and what to watch for

Mars Insight is designed to monitor the Red Planet’s seismic activity and heat flow, and to gather data that will give scientists more insight into what Mars is made of.

Today the  spacecraft executed its last course correction maneuver, shifting its anticipated landing point about 11 miles to aim for the center of the targeted landing ellipse.

The lander is designed to slow its descent using an aeroshell, a parachute and a set of 12 landing thrusters. Even with all that technology, the chances of success aren’t 100 percent: One need only look at the Mars Polar Lander crash of 1999 to see what could go wrong.

“I am completely excited and completely nervous all at the same time, because everything that we’ve done to date makes us feel comfortable and confident we’re going to land on Mars,” InSight project manager Tom Hoffman told reporters today at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “But everything has to go perfectly, and Mars could always throw us a curveball.”

That’s a good piece of advice for Musk to keep in mind when he’s sizing up the odds.

NASA’s coverage of the landing starts at 11 a.m. PT, and you can watch the show via NASA’s YouTube channel:

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