“[…] if it wasn’t some new entrance into the space arena with a strong ideological motivation then, it didn’t seem like we’re on a trajectory to ever be a space bearing civilization and be out there among the stars. Because in ’69 we were able go to the moon and get the space shuttle into lower orbit and ultimately the shuttle got retired.
But that trend line is down to zero so I think people don’t appreciate that technology doesn’t automatically improve – it only improves if a lot of really strong engineering talent is applied to the problem that it occurs. And there are many examples in history where civilizations have reached a certain technology level and then have fallen, well, below that and recovered only a millenium later” said CEO and co-founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk in his “Making humans a multiplanetary species” presentation.
Elon from PayPal to SpaceX, Solar City, Tesla and Mars
Elon Musk is for certain a futurist man. After PayPal, one of the most popular online payment systems was sold to eBay in 2002, Elon Musk (co-founder) has been able to find his next domain links which he can use as business foundations.
Over the years, he has become part of Solar City (full service solar power systems), Tesla (sustainable energy) and SpaceX (designer, manufacturer and launcher of advanced rockets and spacecrafts) , 3 current outstanding manufacturing and technological companies in the world.
At SpaceX, as founder and CEO, Elon tries to make interplanetary transportation a commercial service by making it more accessible to people and he has just become closer on to getting us to Mars. In partnership with NASA, he’s already delivering equipment and supplies to the International Space Station by using reusable rocket stages which land in the middle of the ocean.
And wants to start manufacturing spaceships that can send at least 100 passengers per ship to Mars. It will be a while until this type of transportation will be available for most people but these are still great times we’re living in; we get to witness the incipient stages of interplanetary transportation.
Why go to Mars?
In the beginning of his presentation, Elon first considered the options of the human race. We:
- either stay on Earth but the human species will end due to the presumption that planet Earth has an expiration date or
- we choose to live someplace else which involves interplanetary transportation and Elon’s intention is moving us to Mars.
Then, started describing planets similar to Earth and compared their environment with ours and underlined points like day light and atmosphere, points which enable colonizing Mars. One of the most intriguing arguments Elon did, was the fact that, in order to bring Mars to a level where it could create its own Earth-like atmosphere, we would have to first heat it up. “It’s a little cold. But we can warm it up.”
Yes, and we can do it by acting with a nuclear device meant to heat up Mars’ deep core in order for it to then start heating up its own atmosphere. That would lead to compression and condensation, ultimately generating oceans. Mars also has nitrogen in its atmospheric composition so it can sustain plant growth even at a 37% of Earth’s gravity level.
Cost of a trip to Mars
Stating that the world needs to go farther than just having space exploration missions, all the way to creating cities on other planets, Elon also added that “there’s no intersection of sets, from people wanting to go with people who can afford to go. Right now, you can not go to Mars for infinite money.”
A total estimate cost of a trip to Mars would reach 10$ billion per person. Even at a first price tag glance, you can tell this is a really spicy price to pay for being among the first persons who get to travel to Mars. It’s almost impossible for most of us to cover for it. “The cost estimates for the Apollo program are somewhere between 100$ to 200$ billion, current US dollars and we sent 12 people to the surface of the moon.”
Making cost to Mars cheaper
“That is a steep price to pay for ticket, […] you can’t create a self-sustainable civilization if the ticket price is 10$ billion per person.” Elon also spoke about lowering the price for a trip to Mars all the way to “a median cost of a house in the United States”, which would be around 200000$, a process that would increase our chances of colonizing Mars as a civilization.
“[…] So, this is very tricky. We have to cut costs by 5 million percent which is not easy.” Elon believes making cost to Mars cheaper can be done by achieving these 4 main elements:
- full reusability (“the super hard part”) – making Mars trips possible on a large-enough scale to create a sustainable city is essential and if you think about it, the airline and pretty much any big industry works on the same principle: with frequent flights through reusable materials and equipment, we can actually lower the cost to Mars;
- refilling in orbit – you’d have to consider that Earth – Mars “rendez-vous” occurs every 26 months “so you get to use the spaceship heart roughly 2 years – now, you get to use the booster and the tanker as frequently as you’d like and that’s why it makes a lot of sense to load the spaceship into orbit with essentially tanks dry and have really quite big tanks that you then use the booster and tanker to refill while it’s in orbit and maximize the payload of the spaceship that when it goes to Mars you really have a very large payload capability”;
- propellant production on Mars – building propellant plants on Mars would “allow reusability of the ship and enable people to return to Earth easily, leverage resources readily available on Mars; also, bringing return propellant requires approximately 5 times as much mass departing Earth”;
- and choosing the right propellant – between kerosene (expensive, can’t be produced on Mars due to lack of oil), hydrogen/oxygen (very expensive, incredibly difficult to keep from boiling off, very close to absolute zero as a liquid and the cost of producing and storing liquid hydrogen on Mars is very high) and deep-cryo methalox, only the deep-cryo methalox (methane) the best choice as the right propellant for Mars (the setup is a lot more easier, the energy required for producing and storing it is 50-60% lower than the alternatives).
How many times can we actually use a spacecraft?
The entire trip to Mars resolves around 7 steps from ship preparing to launch all the way to its return to Earth. Based on those steps, Elon targeted the reuse per vehicle at: 1000 uses per booster, 100 uses per tanker and 12 uses per ship. These steps can be achieved, of course, only when having ready an entire spatial ecosystem which includes available a series of tankers to refill the ship but also having available on-site a propellant production system.
A ships’s primary structure is made of out of carbon-fiber. The ship needs to withstand extreme temperatures, prevent infiltration and properly store equipment and resources. Elon expects that 1000 or more spaceships will be waiting in orbit “[…] so that the Mars colonial fleet, would depart on mass and become something like Battlestar Galactica, if you’ve seen it, it’s a good show.”
Since reusability is one of the key elements here, you need to understand that this type of vehicle meant to help us go to Mars, it has to be like one never built before, anywhere in the world. And the below picture display space vehicles by performance used so far in space missions and the message from it is that performance means more space to carry and sustain safely life plus return for its next trip.
That’s the type of vehicle Elon’s thinking. In fact, more like a spatial car: you use your car today to go work but you expect it to work tomorrow too, accomplish your location-based driven needs daily needs. On a similar idea, Elon’s principles apply here too. Only that, I would say, at a greater scale because he wants to pioneer space and more specific interplanetary transportation. And space, still, is the final fascinating frontier.
When will we have a full self-sustainable civilization on Mars?
The above picture shows the size differences between a man and a spaceship but Elon thinks the current spaceship model SpaceX has thought about building, is relatively small to what it’s planning for the future.
This isn’t the first time mankind tried to conquer space but this would be the first time a company actually tries and has great results, the first company that is thinking about making propellant depos available for us out there in space. Your great grandchildren might get called someday “Martians” and that’s because a full self-sustainable civilization on Mars of roughly 1 million people will happen in the next 40 to 100 years. SpaceX will be one of those companies that will take them there.