Musk On Mars v2.0
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.