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Musk’s Mars plan

Musk's Mars plan

Today Elon Musk gave a speech at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. The speech laid out SpaceX’s proposed architecture for building what he presently calls his interplanetary transport system. The image on the right is one of his talk slides, showing the basic concept, which is built around using the company’s new Raptor engine — still under development — which only got its first test firing this past week.

The plan is ambitious and visionary, which from Musk is not surprising. It is also aimed to be as practical and as cost effective as possible, which also is not surprising coming from Musk. The rocket itself will be larger than both the Saturn 5 and SLS, but not significantly more. Compared to those government rockets however it will be far cheaper and faster to build, though Musk’s hope that they will be launching their first test flights in four years is almost certainly too optimistic. The concept is to use what they have learned with the Falcon 9 to build a bigger rocket with a reusable first stage that launches a large second stage that is either the spaceship taking people to Mars or a giant tanker for refueling that spaceship.

In one of Musk’s early slides he noted something that I have been arguing for decades. “Speading the required lift capacity across multiple launches substantially reduces development costs and compresses schedule.” Though he is still proposing a heavy-lift rocket, he is also following in the footsteps of Wernher Von Braun by proposing that any Mars mission will require some assembly in orbit.

The plan is also aimed at making space travel as affordable as possible. Musk structured the design in as many ways as possible to make it as efficient and as inexpensive as possible. It still won’t be cheap, at about $140K per ton, but at that price it will be affordable to a lot of people. He also mentioned that it include free passage back to Earth.

I doubt we will see this system built as outlined today in the time span predicted by Musk. At the same time, I would not be surprised if we do see some variation of it, and see it built within the near future. In 2011 Musk proposed recovering his Falcon 9 first stages by landing them vertically. The idea seems radical. He got it done in four years. There is every reason to believe he will make this Mars proposal happen as well.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.


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  • Michael

    I thought the talk gave very realistic high level outline. At the moment they seem to be working on the basic enabling technologies to achieve a goal. It was interesting to see that he was only doing the transportation system, not everything needed to create a colony. I have a question if the fuel manufacturing technology will be part of the transportation system or not. I can see arguments for inclusion and not.

    I would expect that as he comes closer to achieving the transportation goal others will jump in with the creation of ‘living’ technologies.

    I thought he was a bit glib with the radiation issue but the day is young.

    One thing he did not address, which I find pretty interesting, is who and how the thing will be administered. I have always maintained that if you are not considering the Martian Revolution you are not thinking far enough ahead.

    The man is a visionary in world that does not approve of visionaries. Musk’s comments on the company succession plan were very interesting – he does have a firm grasp on reality.

    His comments regarding partnerships and other organizations was spoken like a true engineer not a manager.

    In the end I tried to imagine NASA giving that talk. All I could envision was a program halt and congressional investigation at the very beginning. Are you prepared to die, indeed.

  • ken anthony

    That Elon left a lot of open questions is a good thing. Did anyone imagine 51 Raptor engines… what a monster! But that appears to be needed for the economies of scale and low ticket price. It also puts to rest the insane showstopper, “But what will earth and mars trade?” The answer is nothing. The ticket price covers transportation. Otherwise trade is an issue on mars as new colonists trade personal property for old colonist’s labor expended mostly before the new arrive. Once on mars, people will specialize and trade with each other.

    My question is what are the details of the mars spacesuit? (mass & price)

  • Tom Billings

    “It also puts to rest the insane showstopper, “But what will earth and mars trade?” ”

    Indeed, the primary attraction of Mars will be the *lack* of several types of Homo Sapiens!

    That drives many progressives up the wall, that people would flee that far to be free of them.

    “My question is what are the details of the mars spacesuit? (mass & price)”

    I have hope that Dava Newman has provided the basic answer to that in her work at MIT, before she left for NASA HQ. She is one of my dream hopes as next NASA Administrator. She has proposed, and done some work on, a “paint-on” spacesuit that would be redone every time you leave your local pressure. It is the “suit painter” that would be bought or built on Mars, using plans transmitted from Earth, careful measurements, each time, of the individual to be suited, and plastics made on Mars to extrude over the skin in just the right patterns, to hold skintight the pressures needed, while providing monitoring of the settler’s health. Once your family have your own”painter” your suit costs should be quite low.

  • Frank

    I don’t get it. If Mars was lush green, with all the resources of direct value to man’s sustenance found in the New World of our 15th century, then it would make perfect sense. In fact, sign me up. But Mars is inhumanly cold and void of readily available air, food and fuel and even basic medical resources. The supply chain is long and risky. Humans must be indoors to even touch each other.

    What reason is there to believe humans can live for very long, much less thrive on Mars? I get the notion of humans reaching for the stars, but this sounds like an expensive and foolish romantic adventure.

  • Alex

    Mr. Zimmermann: A small correction: Elon Musk talked about 140 k/ton to Mars!

  • Alex: You are correct. I misread the slide. I will fix the post.

  • Alex

    Mr. Zimmerman, another correction: Yes, you are right, Musk’s new ITS rocket is only somewhat taller as Saturn-V, but it weighs 3.5-times as much!! About 10,500 tons launch mass, launch thrust about 13,000 tons, 550 tons payload to LEO.

  • Alex

    Alone the filled second stage (or “ship” as Musk called it) of that ITS rocket weighs as much as the complete Saturn-V and equals also nearly its launch thrust!

  • Dave Williams

    The intellectual satisfaction of going to Mars is inviting. Subsequently, I expect boredom would set in, as well as unhappiness over the deprivation lifestyle necessitated by Mars’ lack of resources to support human life. If it turns out there’s a 10 percent chance of getting killed on the trip to Mars, it’s unlikely many sane people would take the risk.

  • wayne

    this is tangential… but not so much. (First few minutes are blah-blah, but the whole thing is very enlightening.)

    2016 von Kármán Lecture in Astronautics by Vigor Yang

    “Rethinking Space Propulsion: Enabling the Future of Space Transportation and Exploration”

    Vigor Yang, William R. T. Oakes Professor and Chair, School of Aerospace Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology. (From the recent AIAA Space and Astronautics Forum (SPACE).

  • Steve Burrows

    Didn’t the Russians have trouble with that many engines on their lunar rocket? Apparently sympathetic shock waves developed that destroyed it shortly after launch. I’m sure SpaceX engineers are dealing with the issue, but it’d be interesting to hear what their plan is.

  • Edward

    ken anthony wrote: “It also puts to rest the insane showstopper, ‘But what will earth and mars trade?’ The answer is nothing.

    My thoughts on this also address Dave Williams’ comment: “Subsequently, I expect boredom would set in, as well as unhappiness over the deprivation lifestyle necessitated by Mars’ lack of resources to support human life.

    They can trade solutions. Efficiency and frugality will be paramount, and solutions found on Mars will be eagerly sought on Earth. Finding ways of doing things using less energy and fewer resources will make life, even on Earth, easier and less expensive. Martians will be highly motivated to become self-sufficient and what they learn will be valuable to Earthlings.

    On Mars, the efficient and effective use of scarce resources will be a primary concern and activity, and as resources on Earth become more scarce – or at least harder (more expensive) to obtain – the knowledge learned by Martians will be a valuable resource that Earth will want to buy. A patent office on Mars may be a very important resource for the Martian economy. I doubt that the early Martians will find time to get too bored, as they will be busy making their colony successful.

    My expectation is that Martians will make robotics a very important industry, as the early explorers and colonists will need far more work done than can be done with the few people available. With increased use of robotics, efficiencies will increase and goods or services that are expensive now, on Earth, will become affordable. Mundane and onerous tasks will likely be the early ones to become robotic tasks. Wouldn’t you pay some money to reduce your own mundane, onerous tasks? You likely have a clothes washer and dryer just for that reason, and maybe a dishwasher, too. How about a robot that folds your laundry and puts away your clothes and dishes, and cooks, too? In the movie “Star Wars,” why was Aunt Beru doing the cooking rather than C3PO doing it?

    Here on Earth, we have gone from an agrarian planet to a manufacturing planet, and now we are transitioning into an economy in which trade of information is a greater component than trade of goods. Mars will have a large supply of knowledge and information.

    Frank: “What reason is there to believe humans can live for very long, much less thrive on Mars? I get the notion of humans reaching for the stars, but this sounds like an expensive and foolish romantic adventure.

    If we are to reach for the stars, then expensive, foolish, romantic adventures are needed in order to learn what it takes to get to the stars. Just as flying seemed like an expensive, foolish, romantic adventure, we now have an industry that employs millions of people around the world to deliver people and goods that are wanted around the world.

    Travel on Earth was rare, two centuries ago, as most people never traveled farther than ten miles from where they were born. Travel was even rarer half a millennium ago, when Columbus explored for newer routes around the (then flat) world. Today it is increasingly rare for people to spend their entire lives within ten miles of where they were born.

    As Musk noted, not everyone will want to go to Mars, and that is fine. Not everyone went to the Americas, and the world has turned out fine, too. We have seven billion people on Earth, and only a tiny fraction will need to be willing to go. By the time colony ships are ready, there will already be a small colony on Mars, built by the few who traveled by Red Dragon, or its equivalent, and they will have worked out some of the important problems in time for the first colony ship’s arrival.

    Musk showed a colony ship arriving on a barren, deserted Mars, but almost certainly there will have to already be some resources – most likely even structures – in place for the colonists to use. Having pre-fabricated farming structures will also reduce the weight of food that will have to be taken along. Even in the story “The Martian,” there were pre-placed resources for the explorers when they arrived.

    Steve Burrows wrote: “I’m sure SpaceX engineers are dealing with the issue, but it’d be interesting to hear what their plan is.

    I was hoping to hear more detail on near-term plans and designs, too, especially Red Dragon for the next decade and the initial stages of colonization rather than distant-future (quarter century or so) colony ships. However, details are likely proprietary, so that competitors (Bezos?) don’t get a jump if complications cause delays. We have seen complications delay Virgin Galactic and XCOR, and we saw complications stop dead Kistler and Armadillo. Getting to space is difficult, but it is also difficult for a commercial space company to succeed. Those that do deserve kudos.

  • Laurie

    A biosphere – don’t leave home without it.

  • wayne

    Mars is definitely “romantic.”

    I would however, put forth the proposition– if we are unwilling to (successfully) permanently colonize the Moon, going to Mars for that purpose, is a bit of a bridge too far, in my opinion.

    (That is not to say, I don’t support these efforts.)

    As for “manufacturing” in Space, the Moon, or Mars, –our common industrial-processes will require a wholesale rethink & re-engineering, in order to actually work, away from the Earth. Some (few) are adaptable, while others will require entirely new processes & understanding.

    (Try fractionating hydrocarbons in a distillation-tower, for example, not subject to Earth’s gravity.)

    My daughter works for a yuuuge (top 3) Pharmaceutical Company; and while they are very interested in research with low/zero gravity bulk chemical-synthesis (and new access to Space) & have a whole department addressing those issues, they are accumulating a lengthy list of synthesis-processes that are not (overtly) readily adaptable to low/zero gravity within their current understanding.

    On their research end however, they have a more optimistic outlook. But, as far as “today,” is concerned, for them— bulk synthesis will have to be undertaken on Earth, into the foreseeable future.

    (not “criticizing” as such, just sayin’…)

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