SpaceX getting to Mars is half the battle, but that’s all Elon Musk talked about


On Tuesday, Elon Musk unveiled an ambitious travel itinerary for getting humanity permanently based on Mars in a talk titled “Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species.” He said SpaceX from now on will launch at least one item at the red planet every 26 months when the orbits of Earth and Mars are at their closest approach. According to the admittedly provisional timeline he provided, the first manned mission could be as early as 2023. Eventually, their unprecedented interplanetary ship will bus 100 — perhaps 200 — people there at a time, and there will supposedly be a “Mars Colonial Fleet” of 1,000 of these bad boys that will ferry 1,000,000 people to Mars to create a self-sustaining civilization in the next 40 years or so.

But he largely left out a crucial element of what will make humans a multiplanetary species: what life will actually be like on Mars.

Solar sails deployes from SpaceX's planned interplanetary vehicle (Photo credit: Screenshot / SpaceX)
Solar sails deploys from SpaceX’s planned interplanetary vehicle. Photo credit: Screenshot / SpaceX

His presentation focused on making the trip, while he brushed off questions about the actual habitats that Martian settlers would use (and not a single Matt Damon potato reference at all, for better or for worse).

Photo credit: Screenshot / SpaceX
The SpaceX Mars timeline that Elon Musk presented to the crowd in Guadalajara at the 2016 International Astronautical Congress, which he played down as extremely subject to change. Photo credit: Screenshot / SpaceX

That is a big gap that could suggest either SpaceX is not as prepared as it wants people to believe, or something a little more optimistic. Let’s go with the latter, because there is no reason to suggest Musk and co. couldn’t care less about the houses and roads and pizzerias needed to sustain a Martian colony — to be fair, however, he did mention pizzerias on the colonial fleet ships.


When I was a kid, I got to participate in a gifted and talented program called ROGATE. That program sponsors one major statewide project in NJ annually: Marsville. That was 19 years ago.

These weren’t $250,000 greenhouses, but they weren’t your craft store’s Science Fair three-fold display panel either. We built dorms that were several square meters in area with gigantic vacuum-pressurized plastic tunnels akin to ET’s quarantine zone to walk between apartments. Some were square, some were round, and every group looked both similar and very different at the same time.

That phenomenon is happening right now with a lot more money than $250,000 per unit going in. NASA sponsored a 3D-printed Mars habitat design contest in 2015 that awarded three winners out of 40 entrants. There are college students, advanced researchers, volunteers, private investors and special facilities all involved in the effort to model small astronaut teams living together to plant humanity’s seed on Mars. Some of those experiments are more sophisticated, while others are more sociological (and you can guess with teams between four and seven people, the temptation to plant human seed amplifies).

Second place and $15,000 was awarded to Team Gamma for their habitat design. (Image credit: NASA)
Second place and $15,000 was awarded to Team Gamma for their habitat design. Image credit: NASA

Some are dealing with the most efficient way to produce habitats on Mars by using local materials instead of shipping them, which would save absurd amounts of money, time and on-board space for astronauts.

The first-place award of $25,000 went to Team Space Exploration Architecture and Clouds Architecture Office of New York, New York, for their design, Mars Ice House. (Image credit: NASA)
The first-place award of $25,000 went to Team Space Exploration Architecture and Clouds Architecture Office of New York, New York, for their design, Mars Ice House. Image credit: NASA

But there wasn’t a single word about this, not even praise for the work being done by some people who actually are employed by his company. One SpaceX employee I spoke to last year at the 2015 rendition of the International Astronautical Congress said he couldn’t discuss his Mars habitation experiments in public, not because they were top secret but because it was not a SpaceX-sponsored project and the company did not want to give the impression that it was.

Little demand means either wait or let someone else do it

One possibility is SpaceX is not investing capital in the effort. Spending R&D budgets on habitats might not make business sense right now, because the market simply does not exist yet. SpaceX can justify budget allocations for new rocket designs because that can easily apply to its cargo business.

Although Musk did not suggest it, SpaceX could tap into the Moon cargo business, which participants in Google’s Lunar XPRIZE contest are openly discussing as a money maker. Take a look at Moon Express for instance, which imagines building a mining and resource business on the lunar surface. There is a good chance that they will turn to SpaceX for their first few flights, if not more should Musk’s company lower its prices.

SpaceIL's resdesigned lunar probe, which may make Israel only the 4th country to land a rover on the moon (SpaceIL)
SpaceIL’s resdesigned lunar probe, which may make Israel only the 4th country to land a rover on the moon during Google’s Lunar XPRIZE contest. Photo credit: SpaceIL

Developing their fleet is already an expensive endeavor in terms of financial capital and human capital. Designing a working space rocket is hard. You need both rocket scientists and materials, which cost a lot of money. It might be cheaper to invest in one of those endeavors at the seed stage, even at a later stage, should a startup come along and decide they can pull this off.

There are no dedicated space habitat startups yet. Again, there is little market demand. Bigelow Space has developed an inflatable habitat for linking to the International Space Station (ISS), which in lieu of a practical design for utilizing Martian materials, is the most attractive option for lunar and Martian missions. They’ve even flown with SpaceX as part of a cargo shipment to the ISS earlier this year. Their design is based off NASA patents developed during the now defunct TransHab project.

Artist's concept of the BEAM inflatable habitat (Photo credit, Bigelow Aerospace)
Artist’s concept of the BEAM inflatable habitat (Photo credit, Bigelow Aerospace)

But if Musk can get a crew to Mars, that would be a business milestone unprecedented in human history. Landing on Mars proves Musk can do it, and that means companies interested in grabbing pieces of landed property in the solar system for future exploration, research and possibly resource-gathering (or hell, renting out apartments) might start putting down cash for newer projects.

What Musk presented was no joke, and I will give him the benefit of the doubt that he is the serious ideologue he says humanity needs to push mankind into a new era of space travel. But he left out some really important details to making humanity truly multiplanetary. Hopefully we start to hear more about that in the near future.


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