How Will Musk Sell His Mars Plans?

Elon Musk (Credit: SpaceX)
Elon Musk (Credit: SpaceX)

Later today, Elon Musk will stand on a stage at the International Astronautic Congress in Mexico and reveal his plans for sending humans to Mars and making humanity a multi-planet species.

His talk will be webcast on Tuesday, Sept. 27 beginning at 2:30 pm EDT. To access the webcast, please click here or connect on one of these websites: IAF website, IAC 2016 website and AEM website. Musk will hold a press conference afterward; it’s not known whether it will be webcast.

The description of the talk on the conference website gives us a hint about what lies ahead.

SpaceX Founder, CEO, and Lead Designer Elon Musk will discuss the long-term technical challenges that need to be solved to support the creation of a permanent, self-sustaining human presence on Mars. The technical presentation will focus on potential architectures for sustaining humans on the Red Planet that industry, government and the scientific community can collaborate on in the years ahead.

There are three questions that loom on the eve of the speech: What exactly is he going to propose? Who will pay for it? And how will he convince people it’s worth doing? A bit of parsing of the above description gives us some clues.

Solving Problems: Musk will “discuss the long-term technical challenges” that need solving. He will undoubtedly unveil some of his solutions, which include the fired for the first time just this week Raptor engine and the space vehicle formerly known as Mars Colonial Transporter. And he’ll want some answers — or at least money to find answers — from others.

Collaboration is the Key: He wants government, industry and scientists to work together on these potential architectures. In other words, Musk isn’t going to fund it by himself. At least not all by himself.

This is not much of a surprise. Colonizing Mars is going to be a pretty big challenge. Basically, you’ve got build up an entire infrastructure to keep humans alive in a place that looks like the worst parts of Arizona, is colder than Antarctica, and boasts an atmosphere of deadly gas at a pressure not much greater than a vacuum chamber at zero. That’s costly. And it doesn’t even count the cost of getting them there.

Second, Musk has used both his own fortune and a combination of government contracts, loans and tax credits to build up the three companies — SolarCity, SpaceX and Tesla Motors — for which he is famous. He’s unlikely to change now, especially with an expensive long-term plan with little near-term return on investment.

Third, Musk’s doesn’t really have the money either personally or through his business ventures to really support a very large Mars program. At least not at the moment.

I will get to this last issue in a much more detailed post tomorrow, so please hold your fire in the comments section. For now, let me briefly go through what I think Musk will do in his talk today.

Musk will put forth a bold vision of humanity as a multi-planet species. Walking on Mars and saving the human race from extinction if Earth gets destroyed — that’s a great combination, especially to that audience.

He will promise to do it all years ahead and for far less money than NASA’s cautious program. Anyone familiar with Musk knows well that his schedules and cost estimates will be as attractive as they are unrealistic, more designed to sell the vision than for use as a practical guide for the actual program.

In reality, this might be driven by something more than just salesmanship. Musk appears to genuinely operate on some sort of reverse Murphy’s Law; if everything can go right, it will. And we shall plan schedules accordingly.

Musk will dazzle people with the the futuristic vehicles and systems that will get us there, including the Raptor engine that’s already under development. Engine firings and nice animations of things that are still on the drawing board are pleasant enough. The Raptor firing shows that some of it is real.

This sends another message as well: we — me and SpaceX — are on our way to Mars. You better get aboard Musk’s Martian Express now, or you’ll miss the boat. And do you really want to be left behind on humanity’s greatest adventure? Wouldn’t that be worth paying 90 or 95 percent of the cost of?

Musk has been making some version of this pitch all of his life. It’s how he got people to support SolarCity, Tesla and SpaceX. If he can do this with Mars, he will truly achieve something remarkable.

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  • therealdmt

    Yeah, he’s gonna need help. Even if he didn’t realize it initially, he sure does now. There’s just too much that has to be done. Also, the purpose of his initial vision of putting a greenhouse on Mars was to inspire NASA and the congress and public that fund it — inspire by *showing* what can be done (and done for not so much money), not just talking or writing a book or making a PowerPoint of what people *should* do. That’s the difference with Musk, showing by Doing.

    With that in mind, I believe that he’ll show his plan for how to get people living on Mars, show progress in that regard, and then go about doing it, regardless of what anyone else does. That won’t change the fact that in reality he’ll need help.

    It’s like with a bunch of people in a leaking boat standing around saying what could be done and arguing about the best way forward and one guy finally rolls up his sleeves, grabs a bucket and starts bailing. Then he’ll mention, while continuing to bail, that if they can move enough water quickly enough, the boat won’t sink. Everyone else can just stand there criticizing or ignoring, and they may even be right that one man with a bucket isn’t going to be able to bail enough water to save the boat, but if the group has any hope, somebody else will grab another bucket and join in. That might still not be enough, but there’s other buckets there and plenty of hands…

  • MzUnGu

    He’ll need to kill ISS to free up the NASA money to go to Mars, but slowly as to maximize milking them federal dollars out of Commercial Crew/Cargo….either that or kill some JPL probes.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    If MCT is big enough to get loads of passengers to Mars – it is also big enough to be the basis of LEO/lunar/cis-luner space stations. Is MCT (ITS?) also a play for a future large habitats market?. Are SpaceX planning to compete against Bigelow?.

  • MzUnGu

    Greenhouse? I think most of NASA is more interested in finding life on Mars now, than to bring living contaminants to Mars.

  • Chris Prophet

    Doubt SpaceX plans to compete with Bigelow, You can never have too many habitats

  • Aerospike

    Nobody doesn’t need to “kill” anything within NASA.
    a) NASA is not in the critical path to Mars. If he can get the funding from somewhere else, NASA need not be involved in any major way.
    b) NASA is not in a position to stop any private enterprises from reaching Mars if they are going to launch/operate from another country (and neither is the US government actually). If for example China wants to go to Mars and thinks private enterprises are the fastest way to get there, NASA can’t do anything about it. Well maybe the US could start World War 3 to prevent it…
    c) NASA (currently) does not have the funding for a meaningful, sustained, permanent, manned Mars program anyway. Even if you cancel all other programs.
    Just watch how NASA is advertising it’s Mars plans to other countries/entities at any opportunity. Just as Europe/ESA is advertising the “Moon Village” idea. Both need others to join them for any chance of success. These programs are just to big for any single country to finance, even the most wealthy ones.

    Imho Musk will try to achieve 2 things today:
    1) convince people that it is absolutely necessary for our survival to make humanity a multi planet species.
    2) show that the problems that need to be solved to achieve this are actually within reach and that he is already working on solving some of them himself.

    Every person he can convince about those 2 things will likely want to help him. Either by joining his companies, funding him in one way or another, starting to work on some of the problems Musk isn’t working on himself currently, or lobbying in politics to create/increase funding for such endeavors.

  • Don Denesiuk

    Everybody talks about it (going to Mars) but nobody does anything about it.
    Using a ‘how the west was won’ metaphor, Elon is making the horses. Bigelow (or someone) needs to make the Conestoga wagons. Nasa & or ESA needs to make the sod huts. GE & or other nuc manufacturers need to make the small nuc camp fires. Lots of elements all have to be invented and developed. The key seems to me to organize all the players so efforts are not duplicated and the vast sums it will take to do this are spent most effectively and productively.
    We can do this!

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Yes, I misspoke slightly. I’m sure Musk will take the same view on space habs as he does on electric cars – the more the merrier. That said, for the near term (i.e. the next couple of decades, or until launch costs approach $100/kg) there will remain tight “competition” for budgets for going to space. For the last few, Bigelow has been the only option on the horizon, and so anything else, could be viewed as a possible obstacle for the Bigelow business model. I was thinking of this from the Bigelow perspective rather than the SpaceX perspective.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Given Martian conditions for the last billion years plus, it’s highly unlikely life will be found. If it were, it’s most likely going to be several metres below the surface, and ironically, will probably need the resources of a full blown Martian colony to perform an adequate search. Also, if Martian life doesn’t have characteristics sufficient to easily distinguish from Terran contaminants, then you could no doubt make the argument that life arrived from Earth inside rock fragments – and so proves nothing with regard to independent Martian genesis.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Raptor, Reliability, Mars EDL and “cheaply” manufacturing wide-body rockets are the big critical tech that SpaceX needs to reach Mars. The other part of the puzzle is funding. Is it plausible that space launch business and an LEO comms/internet constellation could be sufficient to fund a Martian adventure?…..I think it might be.

  • John_The_Duke_Wayne

    “He will promise to do it all years ahead and for far less money than NASA’s cautious program”

    NASA’s program is an oxymoron, every 4-5 years the landing date gets pushed back another 4-5 years

    “Anyone familiar with Musk knows well that his schedules and cost estimates will be as attractive as they are unrealistic, more designed to sell the vision than for use as a practical guide for the actual program.”

    You have to use the Musk Dilation Factor, it is about 1.88x longer than Earth normal time, coincidentally about the same difference between the Earth year and Martian year. So on Mars he is always ahead of schedule

    “You better get aboard Musk’s Martian Express now, or you’ll miss the boat. And do you really want to be left behind on humanity’s greatest adventure? Wouldn’t that be worth paying 90 or 95 percent of the cost of?”

    SpaceX has always been providing a service, and anyone building rockets does the exact same thing. NASA’s biggest problem has been how to build rockets that can move enough mass to make the mission possible (Saturn V and Shuttle both had $B launch costs) and keep the launch costs reasonable. If SpaceX can save NASA (and hopefully international parteners) billions on developing the rockets and transportation systems that would allow them to focus on developing hardware for the surface and ops.

    So they may be paying 90% of the program costs but if it’s being done 50% cheaper this way who cares that NASA is footing huge chunks of the bill? At least this way NASA isn’t just sending money out to congressional districts with no real long term plan and instead spends money, reaches the destination and supports a major advance in human exploration.

  • John_The_Duke_Wayne

    It should be sufficient to fund the transportation network, which is Elon’s goal anyways. And it should be able to fund the early Red Dragon and initial MCT pathfinder missions to settle doubts about the viability of the architecture.

  • jonathanwthomas

    Let’s face it NASA only wants to go to Mars in the abstract. They’ll never get the public to fund it unless there is a good reason (SPACE OIL!) so they know that someone else is going to do it first and it’s best to provide what expertise they can. SLS is a pork barrel jobs program, it’s never going to Mars.

  • ThomasLMatula

    I agree. But the astrobiologists will cling to their beliefs for decades and use planetary protection requirements to keep humans away.

  • ThomasLMatula

    NASA and/or ESA need to be kept out of it, all they do is delay any program they get involved in raising the costs of it.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Solarcity was too successful, so the utilities, like the one in Nevada, plugged political strings to kill their economics. The same may well happen with Telsa if it gets too big and threatens the major automobile firms.

    New space advocates expected the $3-4 billion saved from ending the Space Shuttle to be put to better use, but it only went to the SLS. Expect the same when ISS finally fails, its $3-4 billion will go to some other pork barrel venture.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Don’t underestimate the ability of the astrobiologists at NASA to put Mars off limit to private settlement under the banner of planetary protection. It is one of the reasons its the worst destination for space settlement.

    Also the U.S. doesn’t need to pressure a foreign nation. All the technology Elon Musk has developed has been in the U.S. so all the U.S. government needs to do is use ITAR to prevent it’s export to another nation to launch.

  • ThomasLMatula

    It would allow him to move to a more practical goal, development of cislunar space, which would actually have the potential to save humanity.

  • Aerospike

    a) You make it sound as if astrobiologists at NASA are different to those outside of NASA or wield any special kind of power…

    b) I doubt ITAR can prevent people from simply taking their ideas and “develop” them again at another place. Also the information could be leaked “accidentally”.

    I’m not saying that planetary protection of any possible life on Mars and/or ITAR won’t be problems along the way. Those things certainly will have an influence one way or another.

    Ultimately they probably won’t stop humanity from settling Mars in the (distant) future, at least certainly not ITAR.

  • John_The_Duke_Wayne

    “Ultimately they probably won’t stop humanity from settling Mars in the (distant) future, at least certainly not ITAR.”

    Would a Mars colony be considered a foreign entity and therefore could have rocket technology going there be blocked by ITAR? Under the outer space treaty it would not be territory under control by the US govt

  • Elon has clearly stated numerous times who will be paying for Mars colonization. It will be those people able and willing to move there — namely, wealthy retirees. That will be the dominant source of revenue for IST #3 or so and beyond. However, a fair amount of money will have to be spent between here and there.

    Does Elon have enough wealth to pay for one FH & Red Dragon, then two FH and two Red Dragons (RDs)? Certainly especially since he will have a lot of used boosters sitting around and various governments ought to be willing to pay for those later RD missions.

    Then this is followed by two FHs and two uncrewed ICTs. The FHs could use used first stages. But the ICT development would probably be on his own dime. Still within the range of his wealth. But, if Elon gets this far then the SLS would be looking like a big waste of money. So there would be simple potential that NASA would be directed to collaborate with SpaceX for mutual use of their technology. If so then there would be far more than enough money to see the program through.

    Then there’s the BFR and crewed ICT. He’s getting financial help developing the Raptor engine. But the BFR will probably be on his own dime. The experience reusing the F9 will be directly applicable to reusing the BFR so I expect NFR reuse will occur with much fewer launches than it took with the F9.

    If the previous two ICTs successfully landed on Mars and delivered a habitat then the initial crew could go in 2024. The few crew couldn’t pay for the whole first crewed BFR / ICT. So again, this comes out of Elon’s and/or NASA’s budget.

    With economies of scale and reused BFRs & ICTs, the down payments by future retirees / settlers could find this interim phase. Finally, as operations get routine, expenses would be paid for by the retirees-settlers.

    But Elon is not exempt from this issue of the real Mirphy’s Law. Any number of things could set back the timeline and increase the costs. But Elon has proven his willingness to bet the bank on completing his objectives. Given his track record for successfully fighting through the tough times, he might get help from his friends who have excess wealth.

  • JamesG

    Governments have a nearly infinite ability to rationalize their actions. Or inaction as the case may be.

  • John_The_Duke_Wayne

    Ain’t it the truth? Don’t neglect the power of the lobbyists. And if all else fail politicians have mastered the art of “head in the sand” decision making

  • The singing Kumbaya around cowboy campfires on the moon space cadet paradigm fell out of favor time ago.

  • I just heard and saw on the grape vine ‘tubz that biconic and orbital refueling made the trades. It looks like Pad 39 too. Not much else to see though.

  • therealdmt
  • mlc449

    In time there’ll probably be a revision of the Outer Space Treaty to permit nation-states to establish their own colonies in space. Which would be a bad thing IMO. I would hope instead that such settlements on the moon, Mars, L-points, etc are done through some sort of international mechanism, maybe a UN agency that governs these new human colonies. They’d need security provided for as well, I’d rather it be a UN Space Force rather than national armies/security forces.

    Once such settlements become self-sufficient and large enough they could then be afforded independence and permitted to join the UN as nations in their own right.

    Just my 2c.

  • JamesG

    Either he’s already late or they are running on Mexican time…

  • mlc449

    Maybe not being streamed? 🙁

    Edit: Nope, should be available soon. Here’s the SpaceX stream as well:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1YxNYiyALg

    Always nice music in Sx livestreams.

  • JamesG

    The stand by feed is running. Is it being carried on the SpaceX site?

  • mlc449

    What in the holy hell did I just watch?!

  • Aerospike

    yes, spacex is streaming it on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1YxNYiyALg

    (also embedded on their site: http://www.spacex.com/mars )

    Just the music loop so far…

  • JamesG

    science fiction.

  • mlc449

    I want to believe.

  • mlc449

    Yup.

  • therealdmt

    Yeah, definitely.

  • mlc449
  • JamesG

    Astronomy 101 with Elon.

  • Aerospike

    That animation is so 1960ies science fiction or something like that 😀

  • Aegis Maelstrom

    Yet some guys are trying to revive, and now Mr. Musk delivers some strange 60’s-like, sci-fi with a huge rocket and a paaaad (called LC-39 Apollo pad for some PR reason, albeit “actual size might vary” 😉 ).

  • I think you can consider humanity saved here. The technological fallout will be immense. There is a little time constraint though. Money should not be a problem here.

  • Douglas Messier

    This went pretty much the way I thought it would go. No mention of NASA’s plans, but the timeline made it clear to anyone familiar with the subject that it was much more aggressive.

  • windbourne

    considering that Elon has NEVER been on time for anything, he is on elon time.

  • windbourne

    Solar City is about to be either history OR more likely, folded into tesla. Once it is folded into Tesla, they will make HUGE inroads into a number of states, without the subsidies, and possibly without net metering (though they will need the ability to sell that electricity to others). With the Roof top, combined with the battery/charger, it will make a huge number of sales for coastal states that SC has not been allowed to have subsidies or netmetering. IOW, this will allow them to do an end-run around the state gov and utilities, as long as they are able to sell the excess electricity OR the utilities is on load factoring (which is where they are all headed).

    Tesla will be truly profitable within 1.5 years due to the model 3. They will be producing an easy 1M / year by middle of 2018. And by middle of 2019, it will be 2M+. German car makers are pouring billions into converting their car making to EVs. In fact, the German gov is apparently making loans and grants available to help them as well.

    Now, the real question is how will SpaceX fund his booster and make it cheap to run. As he has pointed out, he needs to launch frequently, as in monthly or more.

  • windbourne

    oh, I do not think that astrobiologists are the fear. Though, I suspect that the far left environmentalist who are destroying our ability to stop AGW will push for that.

    And yeah, I agree with you. I think that is a REAL fear that we can have groups pushing the west to not go, idiots that they are.