How far is a man willing to go to colonize the inner solar system? If one goes by the example of Elon Musk, some men are willing to go pretty darned far. He’s pumped a fortune into SpaceX with the end game of colonizing Mars and now says he’s willing to work on a permanent lunar base that he calls Moon Base Alpha too.
So, What’s The Plan?
Elon Musk gave an update on his Mars plan at the recent International Astronautical Congress in Australia. At the event, he unveiled a few artists’ concepts of Moon Base Alpha and his revamped plan for Mars. He also promoted the efficiency and cost savings of his system.
Musk echoed the frustration of many aerospace insiders and supporters of space exploration during his presentation: “It’s 2017 — I mean, we should have a lunar base by now.”
The name of his new proposed rocket, the Big Freaking Rocket (BFR), had to have gotten a few laughs, especially from critics of the Space Launch System who say that it’s purely the invention of members of Congress who think that bigger is better. The rocket concept would stand 348 feet tall and 30 feet wide and boast 31 engines. It’s downsized by a bit from last year’s rocket concept but is still comparable to the Saturn V. The BFR is advertised as a way to get anywhere fast, with a max speed of 18,000 miles per hour. (For reference, the International Space Station orbits Earth at a speed of approximately 17,500 miles per hour.) But can SpaceX use rockets like the BFR to reach Mars?
Some Skepticism and Obstacles Ahead
Some people might look at this and wonder whether Musk is being realistic or just blowing smoke. He’s a billionaire who has made a business out of what would otherwise be seen as a rich man’s hobby: expensive space rockets. However, is he wealthy enough to pull off both the Moon and Mars?
Critics like Robert Zubrin say that the BFR might make a good way to serve as a premium “airline” that can travel between any two points on Earth in an hour or less, but can only be optimized for Mars colonization with some modifications and upgrades. So far, it hasn’t even made it off the drawing board.
“It is actually very well optimized, however, for fast global travel. … That is the true vast commercial market that could make development of the system profitable. After that, it could be modified to stage off of the booster second stage after trans lunar injection to make it a powerful system to support human exploration and settlement of the Moon and Mars,” Robert Zubrin said of the BFR in a Facebook post.
It does come down to cash flow. SpaceX was once nearly broke and was only salvaged when Elon Musk was able to break the back of ULA’s effective monopoly with a lawsuit. At issue was the “crony capitalism” system that made the ULA the only launch service provider that could successfully bid on Air Force contracts. This made SpaceX more capable of competing on an even footing for government launch contracts. How far can an entrepreneur go with his grand plans when he has to fight legal battles to gain access to a major customer in his niche?
Now that he’s managed to start landing and reusing first stage rockets, Musk might be able to get pretty far purely by making space more accessible to organizations that might be interested in paying SpaceX to send their payloads into space. You’re reading this on a computing device that can fit on your desk or in your hand because research into computing technology shrank the computer and made it cheaper, thus making it accessible to more people who don’t have the money to pay for an expensive supercomputer. This is unlikely to have happened without investment from governments and universities that wanted computing power for worthy projects like landing men on the Moon and corporations that were willing to make the bet that the public would be willing to buy computing machines if only they could be made compact and affordable. The same can be true for space travel now that entrepreneurs like Elon Musk (and, yes, Jeff Bezos) are pursuing the concept of reusable rockets that can launch payloads for less money. This alone will remove a major barrier to meaningful expansion into outer space.
Of course, this will also mean losing the concept of outer space as the exclusive realm of governments and the very wealthy. For a few million dollars, you can buy a trip to the International Space Station. For a couple hundred thousand dollars, you can buy a suborbital hop on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. Elon Musk has repeatedly stated that, even with his reusable rockets, ITVs, and ISRU technology, the price per head of a decent-sized space colony is likely to remain in the six figure zone. So, obviously, the Mars colony isn’t going to happen for cheap.
But who has that kind of money except for celebrities, successful businessmen, and governments with enough excess resources to pay for it? Because of this, space travel currently suffers from the image problem that comes with only being accessible to society’s elite and individuals whom the elite deems fit to go into outer space.
If Mars One did any good at all, it was attempting to create a few cracks in this image by saying that normal people could go into space if they were willing and able to do the work and learn the skills that will be most in demand for a theoretical settlement on another planet. It would be like the Forty-Niners being lured west by the promise of gold if only they had the guts, the skills, and the luck needed to go get it. According to Forty-Niner logic, you don’t need an advanced degree or any more money than it takes to buy transportation and supplies to settle the frontier. You just need a working pair of hands, a brain in your head, and enough ambition to take the risk and haul your own weight. (Of course, Mars One ran into a few obstacles and the simple fact that settling the frontier is harder than it looks to any lounge lizards watching Westerns on TV was not the least of those obstacles.)
Elon Musk could force those cracks still wider by successfully developing its Interplanetary Transit Vehicle (ITV). If this could be combined with concepts similar to Buzz Aldrin’s Mars Cyclers, the ITV could be seen as the interplanetary version of the city bus that (under ideal circumstances) will endlessly trek around its planned route according to its set schedule. Musk has repeatedly stated that he never meant for SpaceX to solve all the problems of Mars colonization. He just meant to make the transportation available and affordable, and let the people going to Mars solve the rest of the problems if they can.
And that will mean attracting the people who don’t have a lot of money but might be willing to work for passage to the Red Planet. You’re not going to colonize Mars purely by sending Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber no matter how much you might wish it. You might have better luck if you send the electrician, the plumber, the hydroponics expert, and the computer specialist. These are all people who might not have the money to buy a ride unless they had the sense to stay single and childless and also save every spare penny they could earn over the course of their careers. However, they do have the skills that you will need for a successful colony.
Because when Elon Musk had his employees go around to all the ice cream places to poach a top-notch employee for his frozen yogurt stand, the point wasn’t frozen yogurt. The point was finding the best possible worker for the job – somebody who had an excellent work ethic and wasn’t going to piss in the frozen yogurt tubs out of frustration with the boss. Musk is determined to do what it takes to create permanent bases and eventual colonies on the Moon and Mars and that means finding people who can get the job done even if it means they don’t earn a lot of money or get a lot of the glory. Cash flow is important, but so is making sure that your colony doesn’t fail because you included only incompetent ninnies who could pay for a ticket.
The good part here is that Elon Musk has a good track record as a serial entrepreneur. If he didn’t understand the need for cash flow, he wouldn’t have taken on the ULA and its paid politicians in court. If I had to place a bet on who would be the first to put permanent bases on both the Moon and Mars, I’d put it on somebody who knows how to build a good business case for it — someone like Elon Musk.