Elon Unbound: Musk’s Giant Leap to Mars

A view from martian orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Since Elon Musk unveiled his Big [Expletive] Rocket (BFR) in Adelaide last month, there has been a lot of analysis of the engineering aspects. Musk’s Ask Me Anything session on Reddit was an engineer’s dream, with the billionaire providing detailed answers about the Raptor engines, thrust to weight ratios and a host of other technical issues.

Amid all the technical talk, there has been little attention paid to what a giant leap this venture is for Musk, SpaceX and possibly the entire human race. Not only will BFR be larger and more powerful than any other rocket ever built, the audacious things Musk wants to do with it – ranging from point to point transportation on Earth to satellite delivery to sending colonists to the moon and Mars – are on a scale never before attempted. They are certainly beyond anything contemplated by the world’s space agencies.

There is an interesting dichotomy here for the ambitious billionaire with Mars in his eyes. On the one hand, Musk is putting everything he’s learned about rocketry since he founded SpaceX into one giant roll of the dice. On the other hand, the Mars venture is a massive departure from the way he has operated so far.

Musk’s career has involved carefully studying existing industries, identifying the weaknesses of his competitors, hiring away the best people from them, and proceeding to build better mouse traps. Through these methods, he has developed electric cars, partially reusable satellite boosters, and an alternative to banks for transferring money.

Many of these advances have built upon the work of others, e.g., improved battery technology for his Tesla cars, and the reusable vertical take-off vertical landing techniques pioneered by Masten Space Systems and Armadillo Aerospace. Musk’s rockets, spacecraft and cars have been constrained by existing safety regulations and the demands of organizations like NASA that are funding development.

BFR (Credit: SpaceX)

With Mars, we’re seeing Musk’s ambitions unbound and unconstrained. There is no existing Mars human transportation system to study. No competitors to best. NASA’s plans for Mars are vague at best; the agency has nothing on the books about constructing a large colony there. The space agency has no program like commercial resupply or commercial crew to drive requirements or limit the scope of Musk’s ambitions.

Having no constraints on your dreams can be a liberating thing that can lead to amazing advances in technology. The lack of limits can also lead to hubris, overreach and disaster. And Musk is a gambler; he came perilously close to bankrupting both Tesla Motors and SpaceX.

You need to look no further than Mojave to see an example of hubris and overreach. Following the success of SpaceShipOne in 2004, Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites were given hundreds of millions of dollars by Virgin Galactic to build a successor, SpaceShipTwo. Thirteen years and four deaths later, SpaceShipTwo has not flown anywhere near space.

Musk and his SpaceX team have considerably more experience in rocketry and flight operations. However, there is part of Musk’s Mars venture that is curious: the human element. The entire point of the exercise is to send people to the Red Planet, but that appears to be the part of the plan that is least developed.

Stacked Up Like Cord Wood?

BFR pressurized spacecraft area. (Credit: SpaceX)

When he first unveiled his giant rocket at a conference in Guadalajara, Mexico back in September 2016,  he talked about the trip to Mars being akin to a cosmic pleasure cruise. The 100 colonists would have space to perform zero-g gymnastics and games inside the ship. There would also be a restaurant and a cinema for watching the latest films sent up from Earth.

It was an intriguing vision, but not everyone bought it. “They’d be stacked up like cord wood,” remarked one engineer I know about the passengers on that trip.  “Where are the bathrooms?” asked another  experienced in environmental control and life support systems (ECLSS).

These engineers believe that Musk has not done a full analysis of what it would take to keep the colonists alive and well during the month-long transit to Mars. As you start adding additional systems, the vehicle’s weight increases while the payload capacity and habitable space decrease. That means fewer passengers and less cargo.

The BFR that Musk unveiled in Adelaide last month is smaller than the one he put forth the year before. Yet, he still expects it to be able to carry 100 passengers to the Red Planet.

Artist conception of a martian colony (Credit: SpaceX)

As for how the colonists would live on Mars, what they would exactly do there, and how the colony might become self sufficient, that’s where things get even more opaque.

“Our goal is get you there and ensure the basic infrastructure for propellant production and survival is in place,” he said. “A rough analogy is that we are trying to build the equivalent of the transcontinental railway. A vast amount of industry will need to be built on Mars by many other companies and millions of people.”

It’s difficult to know exactly what Musk is actually doing here. He might be genuinely focused on the transportation aspect with the expectation that others to carry the load on colonization. Or he might have plans in stealth mode that he doesn’t want to reveal yet.

It wouldn’t be a total surprise if Musk was simply not very focused on the human aspect of his venture. It’s not one of his strengths. He is a man more comfortable with engines than with people. He has a bold plan to establish a second home for humanity on a distant planet, yet he seems to have difficulty connecting with his fellow human beings.

“Elon’s worst trait by far, in my opinion, is his complete lack of loyalty or human connection,” one former employee told Musk’s biographer Ashlee Vance. “Many of us worked tirelessly for him for years and were tossed to the curb like a piece of litter without a second thought. Maybe it was calculated to keep the rest of the workforce on their toes and scared; maybe he was just able to detach from human connection to a remarkable degree. What was clear is that people who worked for him were like ammunition: used for a specific purpose until exhausted and discarded.”

Whatever the case, the lack of details about the colony raises a lot of questions. Who will pay for the enormous amount of infrastructure needed for a large colony on the frozen plains of Mars? Will this be a commercial venture? How much government money might go into a martian colony? What would be the returns on investment?

Infrastructure is a tricky thing. We largely take it for granted because most of us have grown up with it. We pay it little heed until it breaks down; behold the example of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, where practically everything they depended upon – power, communications, transportation, water, sewer and emergency services – was destroyed simultaneously.

Trying to build it on a frozen planet for hundreds and then thousands of people from scratch on a frozen world is going to be a massive challenge. It will be very expensive to built, maintain, expand and repair. Musk seems to have a general understanding of how much would be required, but he has put forth no plan for doing so.

Here’s the other issue: basic infrastructure is usually a government responsibility. Business will pay taxes to support it, they will sign contracts with governments to build it, but they generally don’t fund a lot of it on their own. So, the question of where the money will come from for it is an extremely important one to answer.

Creating a Consensus From Scratch

The Golden Spike ceremony celebrating the meeting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit, Utah in May 1869.

Musk sees BFR as the equivalent of the American Transcontinental Railroad, which connected the eastern part of the nation to California and helped to open up newly acquired territories along its path to settlement.

This analogy doesn’t exactly fit. The Transcontinental Railroad was only built after the United States had acquired California and the rest of the Southwest in a war with Mexico. By the time the railroad was completed in 1869, California had been a state for nearly 20 years and had already experienced an influx of hundreds of thousands of people seeking their fortunes in the gold fields.

The railroad was an audacious infrastructure project that was built only after there was a broad societal consensus that it made sense for a wide range of economic, political and strategic reasons. There were  clear returns on investment for the government and the companies involved. The former was willing to spend a boxcar loads of cash and the give away millions of square miles of public land to make it a reality.

It’s that societal consensus and clear returns on investment that are lacking for Elon’s railroad to Mars. Outside of a small group of enthusiasts within the space industry, there is no broader desire to create a 51st state on the frozen plains of a distant planet. No governments have annex lands on the Red Planet. There are no famous newspaper editors saying, as Horace Greeley did four years before the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.”

Musk is facing the reverse of the conditions that led to the Transcontinental Railroad. He is betting that BFR will create a consensus for Mars missions by proving it’s possible to send people there.

This is typical of Silicon Valley, which is where Musk made his first fortune. The valley is a place where people work night and day creating a demand for things – the Internet, smart phones and tablets come to mind – that people never knew they needed. So, why wouldn’t a massive rocket cause a Mars Rush of settlers looking to stake their claim to part of the Red Planet?

Will this actually work? Nobody knows for sure. It’s become a cliché to say you shouldn’t bet against Musk, that he always accomplishes what he sets out to do. That could very well happen here. On the other hand, this venture is way beyond anything he – or anyone else – has ever attempted. And there are aspects of it — the human element, in particular — that don’t play to his strengths.

Time will tell.