Everyone is weighing in on SpaceX’s plans with suggestions of where they got things right and where they got things wrong. Let me start off by saying that SpaceX knows more about rocket transport than I do. There are essentially no areas that I have advice to give to SpaceX (although I know how on paper to economically send missions out of phase with the 26 months window…). But some of the things they appear to be doing make sense to me and I will make what I think is the case for why he made some of the decisions he made.
First the things people questioned.
Size: SpaceX is making a 450,000 kg transport designed for 100 people. This is much larger than most people were expecting. Many people have suggested that this rocket should have been smaller.
Technology: Some have suggested that it should be a 3 stage instead of a 2 stage or that a separate interplanetary ship should be used. Some think that he has pushed too far with new rocket technology that pushes too far past what is safely achieved on a tight schedule.
Price: The idea that this could be possible at $200,000 sounds a bit like MarsOne which is famous for dreaming some say dreaming a bit too hard.
Timeline: Elon plans to be sending 100s of people to mars in the next few decades.
Lack of Mars life-support: How will we feed 100s of Martians?
- The ICS is also SpaceX’s answer to dominating low cost per kg to LEO. It may not be a coincidence that after the SpaceX announcement one of the smaller rocket makers experienced funding difficulty and had to suspect operations. SpaceX is showing the market that they will be sizing to handle not just 100% of the market but likely 200% or 300% of the existing market in the very near future at lower cost per kg than anyone else is prepared to compete with with the possible exception of Blue Origin and the Chinese who also have reusable rocket plans. The Indians have a air breathing rocket design in the planning stages which could also compete if their design decisions are wise.
- SpaceX is also planning on the Moon colony and any military funding that would be involved. Being able to move tens of thousands of tons to the Moon may be considered a matter of National Security at some point. If there is a space race and SpaceX can win it for the USA the chances of getting Mars colony funding increase dramatically.
- Perhaps SpaceX needs 450 metric tons because they are planning to enter the space mining segment. Carrying valuable material back from Mars could instantly alter the financial case for Mars. This could bring in hundreds of Billions of dollars of funding and start a Martian gold rush of sorts.
- Elon already knows the actual cost of developing both 3 generations of rocket (falcon 1, falcon 9, falcon 9) and 2 generations of spaceship (dragon, red dragon). Maybe the testing to satisfy NASA and the FAA represent a large fraction of the actual costs to build it. Unless you work for SpaceX its hard to compete with Elon’s knowledge of what is wise financially between 2 or 3 parts to the system.
- In terms of the rocket pressure being high I tend to trust SpaceX. Its aggressive but everything they have done is aggressive. And per the talk Elon has already built the ICS to be failure tolerant with only an additional refueling being required if it underperforms. The booster isn’t what is limiting the performance because of the 26 month period of the Mars synod. So flying an additional mission has a very low cost associated with it.
- I personally believe that Elon is being ultra conservative in his protection of his dream. I expect the first mission to Mars with the ICT will have a crew of 4 people and 449+ metric Tons of food, supplies, habitat and machines. Surviving on Mars with 450 metric Tons of supplies isn’t that hard. If you consider that the entire ISS weight 450 metric Tons and can support up to a crew of 6 and has done so for 15 years its pretty easy to see 450mT (that doesn’t include the living space on the ICS) being enough to support a crew of 4 for 26 months or even 15 years.
- There is another advantage to having 100 passengers that isn’t obvious. Mars is cold. One way to deal with that is to build a fire and burn fuel or use electrical power to warm a colony. But another way is to have enough people so the existing food energy is enough to generate enough heat to heat the colony without needing a (electric) fire. Heat loss scales with colony surface area, the number of people that can be supported scales with colony volume. Bigger is cheaper when it comes to heating in terms of watts per person.
- Mars will benefit from Nuclear power. The biggest limitation to colony growth is the initial sizing of the power source. Nuclear provides enough size and volume that it may be reasonable to put a colony sized nuclear reactor in the ICT for use on Mars.
- Price. I don’t think Elon will hit his price points. But does it really matter? $140,000 per ton to Mars is $140 per kg to Mars. If SpaceX can put a kg in space for $140 it will start such a gold rush it won’t matter that Mars costs 10 times as much. But betting against Elon on technical matters is very unwise. The size advantage of the ICS should give a 25% reduction in price before reuse is factored in. With reuse he may very well get the price to Mars down to $140 per kg!
- Timeline. Elon is always wrong on the timeline. But the saying “the difficult we do immediately the impossible takes a little longer” comes to mind. SpaceX has achieved results at a rate faster and more impressive than any post JFK space program with the possible exceptions of the Chinese and Indian programs. Elon will get it done but probably not quite as quickly as he would like.
- But geometric progression in capacity means that the results of the next 10 years will be much more impressive than the results of the last 10 years. Elon is leaning into reality and the rest of us are leaning back to what we have known in the past. But progress will never again progress as slowly as it has in the past. The computers are faster, the manufacturing cheaper, the knowledge base more extensive and the number of people competing greater. In short, Elon is pretty close on the timeline for when 1 Million people will be on Mars because even though he won’t put all of them there he won’t have to. ULA, Blue Origin, the Chinese, the Indians, the Russians, the EU, NASA everyone and their pet space program will get to Mars.
- Lack of life support. A lot of people forget that Elon has a brother who works full time in a farming company. This may be totally unrelated. But it strikes me that its hard to imagine that the Musk clan just happens to encompass nearly all the technologies that would be involved in successful Mars colonization. Rockets, Solar power, Battery storage, Electric vehicles, Farming…
- It strikes me as very interesting that when I look around at who other than NASA has done the most serious look at Mars infrastructure and I see its the Mars Society and MarsOne. And then I look at the MarsOne take down by MIT at the MarsSociety debate which I think was very unfair and poorly thought out on MITs behalf….anyway I look at the attacks on MarsOne and basically it came down to you need far more mass per colonist because of spare parts and we think you will die from inability to regulate Co2/O2 levels because we don’t fully understand how electrolysis works. You need to be essentially scientifically illiterate to think that carrying your own 450 tons of cargo and a space habitat to mars for 4 people would not be enough mass. Elon has basically over reacted to the MIT argument to make it impossible to dispute him on mass. Also MarsOne and SpaceX have a suspiciously similar timeline…
- Its possible Elon doesn’t have the resources to do the actual colony construction. We can’t expect Elon and Gwynn Shotwell and the VERY hard working engineers and scientists at SpaceX to do everything as though they owe us a fully functioning civilization on Mars for the $0 we have given them or even for the considerable money NASA has given them for rocket development. There are other entities who can develop the pieces that make up a closed food cycle. Deep Space Ecology is working on this, several universities are working on this, it may not even require spaceX.
- But between you and me, I can’t imagine that Elon and Gwynn trust you and I enough to depend on us living up to the level of engineering excellence that SpaceX is delivering. Someone at SpaceX has got Elon following good PR strategy and spacing out the major announcements for the best possible PR value….So for now we wait for the next set of details.