All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2016:

Elon Musk and Mars: Looking for a Snowball Effect (Oct.)

The Citizens’ Debate on Space for Europe (Sept.)

Creating a self-sustaining desert civilisation: Aridopolis (Aug.)

Lecture by Professor Wörner: United Space in Europe (July)

Brexit! Thoughts on the UK Referendum Result (July)

The Pillar versus the Pyramid (June)

The Way Forward (May)

Manned Spaceflight Statistics (April)

When Will Jan Wörner Get His Moon Village? (March)

Interstellar Travel and Straw Men (Jan.)

A Strategic Goal for Humanity on Earth and in Space in 2061 (Jan.)

Back to 2015:

Britain Takes the Wrong Approach to Manned Spaceflight (Dec.)

New in 2015:

Short story The Marchioness

AE posts:

2017: Mars…

2016: Stragegic goal for manned spaceflight…

2015: The Pluto Controversy, Mars, SETI…

2014: Skylon, the Great Space Debate, exponential growth, the Fermi “paradox”…

2013: Manned spaceflight, sustainability, the Singularity, Voyager 1, philosophy, ET…

2012: Bulgakov vs. Clarke, starships, the Doomsday Argument…

2011: Manned spaceflight, evolution, worldships, battle for the future…

2010: Views on progress, the Great Sociology Dust-Up…

Chronological index

Subject index

General essays:

Index to essaysincluding:

Talk presented to students at the International Space University, May 2016

Basic concepts of Astronautical Evolution

Options for Growth and Sustainability

Mars on the Interstellar Roadmap (2015)

The Great Sociology Debate (2011)

Building Selenopolis (2008)


Issue 131, 2 October 2016 – 47th Apollo Anniversary Year

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Elon Musk and Mars: Looking for a Snowball Effect

At the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico on 27 September 2016, Elon Musk revealed his plans for colonising Mars.

Just as I expected, his talk was heavy on rockets and spacecraft, light on other key factors which would be necessary for success.

Rand Simberg has listed a number of responses at Transterrestrial Musings. Tim Urban has constructed a detailed timeline with witty graphics at Wait But Why, showing a first landing on Mars in January 2025 leading to a million people living there by 2074. Doug Messier at Parabolic Arc sees the giant SpaceX Mars ships reviving Wernher Von Braun’s vision from the 1950s. And Maddie Stone at Gizmodo asks the director of the International Institute of Space Law whether Musk’s plan is legal.

I think that many of these responses are missing the point.

What is Elon Musk really trying to achieve?

Elon Musk speaking at the IAC

My first reaction was to start picking on some of the crucial aspects of going to Mars which Musk had omitted to mention. They’re obvious enough:

But then I listened to his talk again, and I realised I’d misunderstood what he was trying to achieve.

The huge Mars launch rocket and spacecraft which he described in some detail are mind-bogglingly seductive, but they’re really a bit of a side-track. Recall some of the key points Musk made in his talk:

“So obviously it’s going to be a challenge to fund this whole endeavor. We do expect to generate pretty decent net cash flow from launching lots of satellites and servicing the Space Station for NASA, transferring cargo to and from the Space Station, and then I know that there’s a lot of people in the private sector who are interested in helping fund a base on Mars, and then perhaps there’ll be interest on the government sector side to also do that. Ultimately this is going to be a huge public-private partnership. And I think that’s how the United States was established. And many other countries round the world, as a public-private partnership. So I think that’s probably what occurs. And right now we’re just trying to make as much progress as we can with the resources that we have available and just sort of keep moving the ball forward. And hopefully I think as we show that this is possible, that this dream is real – not just a dream, it can… something that can be made real, I think the support will snowball over time.” (44:33-45:58)

When he started SpaceX:

“I came to the conclusion that if there wasn’t some new entrant into the space arena with a strong ideological motivation then it didn’t seem like we were on a trajectory to ever be a spacefaring civilization and be out there among the stars.” (47:29-47:48)

But entering the space arena wasn’t easy going, and after his Falcon 1 rocket had repeatedly failed it was a contract from NASA which saved his company:

“I just want to say I’m incredibly grateful to NASA for supporting SpaceX, despite the fact that our rocket crashed. It was awesome – well I’m NASA’s biggest fan. So thank you very much to the people that had the faith to do that, thank you.” (49:18-49:37)

Musk’s ambitions are immense, yet at the same time his approach to them is disarmingly modest:

“We’re going to try to make as much progress as we can. Obviously it’s with a very constrained budget, but we’re going to try and make as much progress as we can on the elements of the interplanetary transport booster and spaceship.” – “A good chance we don’t succeed, but we’re going to do our best and try to make as much progress as possible.” (53:40-53:56; 56:15-56:24)

So what Elon Musk is doing here is not to try to go it alone to Mars, or to solve all the problems himself. He’s absolutely not trying to compete with NASA. Clearly his plans conflict with NASA’s existing “Journey to Mars”, but that programme is actually pretty vague, NASA’s not a monolithic entity, and I think it must be assumed that he has support from within NASA, only not from those parts of NASA most directly interested in the Orion-SLS programme.

What he’s trying to do is to start a snowball effect to which a variety of entities from both the private sector and the government, and in a variety of countries around the world, can all contribute. He’s trying to build a coalition.

We should applaud Musk for publicly raising the necessity of making humanity a spacefaring, multiplanetary species, if our civilisation and ultimately our species is to survive and prosper in the long term.

Again, he’s absolutely right to downplay the significance of getting to Mars first, and stress instead the importance of “being able to send a large number of people, like tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people, and ultimately millions of tons of cargo”, as he told National Geographic.

Getting these points out into the open makes a refreshing change from the standard space agency view that the Moon and planets are sacred ground that can only ever be visited by a tiny elite of government specialists, a sort of pure knighthood of the elect, on missions which “take only photographs, leave only footprints”.

Two ways to colonise Mars

What it comes down to is that there are two ways to approach human expansion on an interplanetary scale at this time:

So the hare and the tortoise. The hare can get to Mars within a decade, and have a self-sustaining colony of around a million people there within 50 to 100 years. But it needs the kind of political support that is normally reserved for such things as fighting a war. Good historical analogies might be the spreading of one or another branch of monotheism, or of democracy: driven by intellectual conviction rather than by tribal politics or by money – the “ideological motivation” that Musk was talking about.

Trying to kickstart the hare is a gamble. People don’t normally think much about colonising other worlds. In fact the general mood of the age (in the West, at any rate) is one of post-colonial guilt and grim forebodings about the future. Everybody wants to talk about existential risk and ecological collapse, with technology posed as the problem, not the solution. Everybody associates sustainability with wind turbines, not Mars rockets; with millions fewer living on Earth, not millions more on Mars.

But if we can turn that around, centre people’s views instead on a positive, expansive vision of the future, then Mars would be the best thing that ever happened to Earth.

My own preference is for the tortoise, as already described in detail in the Astronist Mars Strategy. Thus an evolutionary process rather than a revolutionary one. My plan is founded on the assumption that large-scale political support for colonising Mars will continue to remain absent, demanding a step-by-step approach.

The disadvantage with this approach, of course, is the relatively long timescale, and the greater risk of an economic downturn sufficient to kill growth.

But I stand by my belief that, while Mars colonisation will become possible, getting the transport and life-support technologies up to the required standards of high reliability and simultaneously low cost will require some decades of development. The painstaking growth of a space economy with high levels of traffic in low Earth orbit (10,000 to 100,000 passengers/year) and lower levels in high orbits and on the Moon cannot be sidestepped. A rocket that can send 100 people to Mars at affordable prices can send a great many more to space hotels in orbit and on the Moon even more economically, generating profits which can be used to support the Mars programme.

Of course, if Elon Musk’s speech does succeed in setting off a growing snowball of support for humans to Mars, then this process could be much accelerated.

Therefore I applaud his speech, and urge everyone interested in the future growth and prosperity of humankind to support his vision in any way possible.

Artist's impression of Mars colony

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