Musk On Mars v2.0

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The other night, I was watching one of the Bond films, The Spy Who Loved Me, and, true to form, fell into my usual annoying habit of obtuseness. How do the bad guys get all the money to pay for their fabulous technological infrastructure? I mean, they’re spending millions on color-coordinated jump suits alone.

I have the same reaction whenever I see one of Elon Musk’s revised plans to colonize Mars. Surveying the general press reports, I am somewhat surprised at the somber, serious tone of the reporting, as if these correspondents take it all seriously. Perhaps I should regroup here. Maybe I’m the outlier for being too skeptical. This is an occupational risk of being an aviation journalist, a field whose practitioners seem to sort into binary cohorts. You’re either a sunshine-spewing-puff-piece acolyte or a hard-bitten misanthrope who tells Young Eagles they’d be better off going into finance or robotics. And while we’re talking, get off the airport lawn. You can guess which one I am.

So, from the sunny side of the street, it looks like Musk has refined his plans to fly to Mars with a more realistically sized booster, but still one capable of lofting 100 people at a time to the red planet. Technical challenges remain, like how to get from Mars orbit to the surface with that many people and how to sustain them in surface habitats. Stipulate that these seem addressable by current technology or at least technology that’s in view. No one should underestimate what SpaceX has already achieved as a private launch company. No other startup comes even close.

Also, as an additional application not discussed before, Musk says the new reusable booster—which he calls the Big F^&ing Rocket—will also usher in an era of hypersonic travel between cities on earth. You could get anywhere in under 30 minutes all for the price of a full-fare airline ticket. Stipulate that full-fare is first class from New York to Tokyo at $15,000 and further stipulate that Musk has figured out a way to rewrite the conventional physics and economics that mean that traveling twice as fast requires four times the money and traveling eight times faster requires more money than ever existed. (Traveling hypersonically is roughly 25 times faster than today’s kerosene chuffing airliners.) I will concede all this, grasp the hem of Musk’s robes and declare with enthusiasm, “I believe!”   

But, if I may, there’s just one teensy flaw I see in the business plan for Mars. Back when the English, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese were blasting each other’s ships to bits in the far east, there was an accepted principle of colonization. You more or less subdued the local population and plundered the colony for whatever riches it could produce—gold, silver, rubber, oil, silk, tea, tobacco. You tried not to have to send too much treasure out to the colony you were plundering because it dented the P & L. I mean, this is Plunder 101.

What the hell are we sending back from Mars? Magnesium and iron, maybe? The shipping costs might be a little high on that trade. No, the real reason we need a Mars colony, Musk figures, is to assure continuation of the species, the assumption being that we’re soon to render Earth uninhabitable.

I’m slipping here … back into the shadows. I’m not buying that we'll trash the Earth within 100 years. And not within 300, either. Whether you accept the theory of anthropogenic warming or not, the planet is warming and that will have consequences. Sea levels will rise and maybe the weather will get wilder. But not unlivable. Homo the sap is nothing if not a resilient species. We’ll figure out ways to cope with it and the smart kids will actually start businesses to make money doing this. They already are.

It strikes me that this will be a lot easier than trying to loft the population onto a planet that’s 33 million miles away (at best), has a bare wisp of an atmosphere and an average temperature of -67 degrees F. Plus there are no beaches because there are no oceans. Or fish. Or cattle. Or Starbucks. We’ll have to fly all that stuff up there from earth. (See above, Plunder 101.)

Not that I wouldn’t personally go to Mars nor that we shouldn’t send people there to establish a scientific outpost. But Club Med it ain’t. I’m actually warming to the idea of a hypersonic flight to Tokyo. The sushi is better.

Comments (22)

If the people who DO believe in anthropogenic warming are moaning about the airline contrails contributing to that now ... imagine what'll happen when BFR's are zipping all over the planet and spewing whatever it is that they'll spew. The huggers will go nuts.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | October 1, 2017 9:18 PM    Report this comment

I see Mr Musk reaching for more investor's wallets. The guy is a visionary but also a well sort of a plunderer. He is good at grabbing government $ to shore up his grand ideas. Remember how he shored up Tesla by gobbling up SolarCity. Stock holders got the short end of that one.

As Paul said who is going to pay for this? They will save some $ though in that they will probably not have color coordinated jump suits.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | October 1, 2017 9:42 PM    Report this comment

I think NASA is not all that thrilled about Club Musk.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 2, 2017 12:11 AM    Report this comment

I got curious about Musk's net worth ... a mere $20B. Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg combined are worth >ten times that. Imagine if THEY got together and decided to do something as nutty ... why we'd be moving earth itself. We'd have a "BF Planet" traveling through the cosmos.

I don't "get" what his preoccupation with Mars is. It's uninhabitable. This guy says he wants to die on Mars ... maybe that's it? Meanwhile, here on earth he's invented still another company ... the Boring Co. He's digging a test tunnel under the SpaceX campus in Hawthorne and is planning a transportation tunnel from LAX to Culver City then Santa Monica and Westwood. It'll work by putting a car on an electric sled and "shooting" it along at 125mph on an electric sled. Cool! I wonder if he'll use Teslas?

This guy has mastered using 'OPM' and Government grants to fund his crazy ideas. Leo just said that. Maybe Elon can start still another company ... I suggest the Common Sense Co.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | October 2, 2017 5:10 AM    Report this comment

I saw a Musk interview in which he said that his principal motivation for colonizing Mars - the "other basket" for humanity's eggs - was as a hedge against an extinction event on Earth; most likely, an asteroid strike. Nuclear war and climate change were down on his list.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | October 2, 2017 9:12 AM    Report this comment

Med NoahX?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 2, 2017 10:34 AM    Report this comment

Think I'll pass on the chance to go with Elon and Paul to Mars if given the opportunity. It's my understanding there is an absence of maples, oaks, ponderosa pines, aspens and saguaros to hug there. Well, saguaros can be off-putting, but they need one sometimes, too.

Posted by: Dave Miller | October 2, 2017 12:47 PM    Report this comment

Faulty logic.
Why do humans need to leave the earth if we can survive under martian conditions?
Why do humans need hypersonic travel when we already have instant communication?

Posted by: Mark Fraser | October 2, 2017 2:40 PM    Report this comment

Asteroid strikes.
Face-to-face (or other body parts) encounters.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | October 2, 2017 6:24 PM    Report this comment

"Why do humans need hypersonic travel when we already have instant communication?"

Why do you need an airplane? You have a car? Talk about faulty logic...

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | October 2, 2017 7:11 PM    Report this comment

An outpost on Mars will never survive on it's own, so an outpost would only postpone the inevitable after a massive meteor strike on Earth. Sorry, but even bases on Antarctica are NOT sustainable.

I don't need a plane or a car; in fact people have existed quite well from the beginning without them. The tide is turning on businesses to where if you need instant action, you're too late if you go to the airport, wait, board, fly, disembark, and then get a car on the other end. Think automation and networks for businesses. Non-business vacation travelers are not gonna pay a $15K premium to sight see Tokyo 8 hours sooner.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | October 2, 2017 8:22 PM    Report this comment

Oh, since the SST was never profitable, it's illogical to assume that an even higher cost system would be a viable business model....

Posted by: Mark Fraser | October 2, 2017 9:44 PM    Report this comment

There is already a place on earth similar to Mars. Antarctica. And so far the only people queuing up to go there are a few hundred a year in clapped-out cruise ships which send toilet contents into the water without passing go, and most of them spend less than an hour on the warmest part of the continent before rushing back to the warm boat.
Or else they are government funded scientists with PhDs in being very cold.
Except of course that Antarctica has water, even if it is either salty or very frozen, an atmosphere you can breath and what dust and rock there is, is not carcinogenic.
Still, experiments with this big rocket should make some spectacular video footage which MusK can use to get clicks where he likes them.

Posted by: John Patson | October 3, 2017 4:48 AM    Report this comment

Why would any of us care, if humans survive on Mars?

We won't be among them.

Separately, for almost any foreseeable disaster, including asteroid strike, it is probably easier to protect a small group of people - say, 100, on Earth than it would be to get them to Mars and set them up to survive there. A year or two after an asteroid strike, Earth would again have a breathable atmosphere - and that's a really big head start.

Posted by: Thomas Boyle | October 3, 2017 12:18 PM    Report this comment

If they had social media in Columbus' time, it would be interesting to see if similar comments were floating around about how dumb and impractical it was to head to the new world. People are explorers; always have been. I doubt that Musk will have any trouble finding volunteers to go establish a colony on Mars.

As for hyper velocity travel around earth, we switched from sailboats to steam, then to propeller airplanes, then jets and finally the Concorde. No one ever questioned why we needed to get somewhere faster than the wind could carry us. Besides, sometimes there is no substitute for face to face meetings. Why cram yourself into an airline seat - first class or otherwise - for 8 hours when you can arrive in 30 minutes and not have DVT blood clots to worry about?

Posted by: John McNamee | October 3, 2017 6:26 PM    Report this comment

John, we are now living in the golden age of space exploration. So many space cameras and robots and rovers are bringing fantastic data and pictures back to earth.

You are confusing exploration with manned missions. We did not fly manned Apollo missions to the moon because of exploration; we did it because of the Russians. Without the cold war there would be no reason to send people to lifeless planets at insanely huge expense. Sending people to Mars serves no real purpose because we already know (by way of unmanned missions) that the planet is uninhabitable.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | October 3, 2017 8:24 PM    Report this comment

If he pays for it, great. If not, I dunno. Apollo was amazing, but truly useful spaceflight took a long time to develop after that. I think we may have actually gotten our money's worth out of Apollo, but I'm sure we lost billions of value with the inevitable ossification of space flight caused by government involvement.

Posted by: Eric Warren | October 4, 2017 1:53 AM    Report this comment

Bert, after butting heads with you on drones so often, I should admit that I agree with you completely on the colonization of Mars. If colonizing a lifeless, uninhabitable cosmic rock is a good thing, why do we have no permanent presence on the Moon? It's the perfect place to shake down all the unknowns that the Space Station can't answer (like, how do you keep moon-dust out of everything?) and a perfect place to put a big honkin' telescope, if nothing else.

And a damn-sight cheaper to get to.

Posted by: Chip Davis | October 4, 2017 11:24 AM    Report this comment

When I was a young man thinking about my future, a wise older farmer gentleman told me: "Your future only has two directions, forward or backward. Nothing stays the same."

Either we continue our ancestors endeavours or we go back to horse and buggies.

As a teenager, I personally decided that I didn't like cleaning up after jackasses. But, I got into Aviation maintenance anyway.

Posted by: Klaus Marx | October 4, 2017 11:31 AM    Report this comment

I think that Musk's contribution is in bringing novel ideas to fruition and demonstrating that they are commercially possible.

I imagine that there might be a few folks who can afford hypersonic travel here on earth, and that there there might even be a small group of folks who actually want to go to Mars.

Musk's Tesla cars have demonstrated that it is possible to commercially build electrically powered cars as well as establish fuel stations, opening up the concept to mass production. Once GM and Ford, as well as other car manufacturers get into it, Teslas will either fade, become a boutique product, such as McLaren's or Morgan's, or possibly be acquired by major manufacturer.

As for colonizing Mars, for whatever rationalization, that will probably not occur due to it's inability to sustain life. It seems that it would be easier to build subterranean cities here on Earth should surface conditions become either life threatening or incapable of sustaining life.

However, Musk's carefully orchestrated pronouncements and follow through provide a certain amount of hopeful, optimistic theater.

Posted by: Richard Katz | October 4, 2017 2:55 PM    Report this comment

Mark, I'm not confusing the two. Just because we send robotic surveyors across the solar system does not mean people won't follow. We sent several survey devices to the moon before we sent astronauts. Also, you should not confuse inhospitable and uninhabitable. Space is inhospitable, but we have a space station up there anyway so it is not uninhabitable. And, there are a myriad of satellites that can do or see just about everything the station inhabitants can, so why have the station?

There is some innate human tendency to explore, regardless of how many robotic devices we send out in advance. Like you, I find Musk's Mars project highly impractical, but not out of the question. It may not happen on his schedule, but it will happen. People doubted his ability to mass produce electric cars, then his ability to build commercial rockets. I would not bet against him on this one either.

Posted by: John McNamee | October 4, 2017 7:23 PM    Report this comment

Mars is uninhabitable by definition: not suitable to live in. Basically an outpost there would be a trillion times worse for people than being incarcerated on Alcatraz prison. Being stranded there with limited supplies and no hope of return is basically a drawn out Apollo 8 without Trans-Earth injection.
Electric cars and windmills and clotheslines are the past; not the future. They are best thought of as quaint ideas before we had better and more reliable forms of technology. They are they stuff of the past and 3rd world countries.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | October 4, 2017 10:11 PM    Report this comment

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