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.

  • windbourne

    Doug, 1 thing is that SpaceX articles really tend to draw out comments.
    Hopefully, once you start writing more about Bigelow, Moon Express, Blue Origin, it will also draw lots of comments.

  • windbourne

    the comm sats are not just about internet, but about getting mass manufacturing going.
    Once he starts up a robotic line, I have no doubt that he will be building sats for other nations/companies at a fraction of the price that they or any other group can do.

  • windbourne

    Matula is Academia? I don’t think so.

  • Douglas Messier

    There are a number of practical issues about living on Mars that need to be addressed. There are percolates in the soil, for example. The effects of breathing in those percolates in the form of fine dust. And whether humans and other animals can reproduce in 38 percent gravity. It would suck if we had colonists there suffering from severe respiratory problems who would be unable (or perhaps unwilling) to procreate the next generation of martians.

    It’s not clear how much Musk and SpaceX are focused on these issues. We’ve gotten a lot of focus on the complexities of the transportation architecture instead.

  • windbourne

    I would agree that BFS might have questionable market, but not BFR.
    If they can launch 150 tonnes into LEO at lower costs than F9, let alone F1, there will be a HUGE market for it.
    Oddly, this will create some interesting markets, such as a tugs, and yet, nobody is working towards that. ULA is in my backyard and they put ACES on hold proving that Bruno is about as stupid as they come.
    At this point, others, such as OATK/AR would be very smart to assume that FH/NG are going to do a lot of work into LEO/GEO and they should be building tugs for that.

  • windbourne

    FH has 27 engines on stage 1.
    In addition, they will be landing 3 stages at once.
    BFR has 31 engines. So, multiple engines are not a big deal.
    Landing and Reusability HAS been done with F9 and shortly FH.
    Raptor will be tested and supposedly put on F9/FH stage 2.

    So, what exactly remains that he has NOT done with FH that he will do with BFR?

  • windbourne

    I suspect survive and IP.
    However, I would not be surprised to see handling mining of the asteroid belt to be of economic use.

  • Douglas Messier

    If it’s a pitch for anything it’s the Mars colony. Basic survival and fuel production, but beyond that Elon seems to want others to step up and pay for the settlement.

    As for the rocket itself, It’s easy to imagine Musk trying to get the USAF to pay for as much of the development as possible through the EELV RFP that was sent out this month. Wouldn’t really need to talk about government partnerships at Adelaide when he likely knew the RFP release was on its way.

  • Jan Bach Andersen

    There will be a ton problems along the way, can all be solved is hard to say.What i think is important is that somebody is trying to do something reely intersting in our generation.. it vill be a lot more interesting to follow than just sit wait for the governments to do things the way they always have done it.. Spacex have with this plan comed up so many new ideas that it will be pleasure to follow…if they only come half way they still abtained much more than can be subjected from private company

  • Jan Bach Andersen

    Sorry for the spelling .. English is not my native language

  • Vladislaw

    just seems like another company created that could be used on Mars. Solar, Batteries, electric transportation, hyperloop .. seems like all could be shifted for producing products for Mars…

  • ThomasLMatula

    Don’t count on it. That is what folks in the nuclear power industry
    used to say about the wackos that feared nuclear energy. Those wackos not only devastated the industry in the U.S., but greatly contributed to
    today’s climate change crisis from the CO2 released by the coal power
    plants that had to be built to replace the proposed and planned nuclear ones.

    And yes, they are gathering their forces.


    When Humans Begin Colonizing Other Planets, Who Should Be in Charge?

    “For certain types of Earth organisms, Mars is a gigantic dinner plate,”
    says Conley. “We don’t know, but it could be that those organisms would
    grow much more rapidly than they would on Earth because they have this
    unaffected environment and everything is there for them to use.”


    Elon Musk’s Mars plan overlooks some big nontechnical hurdles
    October 2, 2017

    These are scenarios that keep astrobiologists and planetary protection specialists awake at night. They’ve led to unbelievably stringent international policies around what can and cannot be done on government-sponsored space missions.

    Yet Musk’s plans threaten to throw the rule book on planetary protection out the window. “

  • ThomasLMatula

    But Elon Musk developed his rocket in the U.S., so he won’t be able to export it without ITAR approval.

    And in order to launch it from the U.S. he will need a license from the FAA CST. Before the FAA CST issues it they will check with the Department of State to see if he is in compliance with the OST. Since Mars has strict planetary protection guidelines, which the U.S. government is held responsible for compliance with, the State Department will check with NASA. If NASA says his handling of the spacecraft is out of compliance with the planetary protection standards no license will be issued. Its that simple.

    This is where space is different than other industries – ITAR makes it difficult to flee to a flag of convenience nation if you developed the technology in the USA.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, and my guess is most will be managed from habitats in Mars orbit built from Phobos and Deimos. Well shield 1 g settlements with only tourist jaunts and work trips to the surface.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The various transcontinental railroad were a real boom to science. But scientists and their specimens, even the huge dinosaur fossils they shipped to museum was only a very, very small part of their traffic and revenue.

  • Tom Billings

    Quite true, but then science was not nearly as prominent in the 19th century as in the 21st Century. The last surviving portions of academia will be whatever science disciplines can defend themselves from charges of political collusion successfully. The intellectual networks those disciplines have formed will then grow with industrial society into the Solar System, alongside the “citizen science” so many in academia are today scornful of because, like the first members of the Royal Society, they are not funded to do science.

  • Tom Billings

    “None of that substantiates the claim that a two-ton Curiosity would be cheaper or ‘a fraction’ to build”

    That’s not the point. Changing the way a vehicle is designed is what can make it a fraction of the cost. Making it larger can allow those changes in design. It doesn’t always, but it can, especially when the focus of attention in engineering is on cost, which almost no space science production, including Curiosity, has as a focus. That, of course, also means that the scientists involved *do*not* get to tweak the design to support “just one more study”.

    This is where the disruption of planetary science comes into play in making science throughout the Solar System cheaper. When the 2-ton Curiosity is designed to be built by 3d-printing and machining *on*Mars*, with some sensors and other electronics shipped in from Earth carried by the vehicle, in a settlement that owes nothing to the US Congress, then its costs will drop enormously. Planetary science and space science got all too comfortable in the last 45 years, just like the Cost+ Congressional Contractors’ Club. But disruption is coming.

  • publiusr

    Nice to see HLLVs finally have an advocate.

  • savuporo

    You have no point, when you run out of arguments, wave your hands and yell “disruption”

    You folks collectively can’t put forth a coherent claim. Designing spacecraft isn’t an expensive endeavor just because it has to be light. Just like engineering cars and airplanes isn’t expensive because they have mass restrictions. Dropping launch costs twofold or tenfold doesnt make that engineering magically orders of magnitude cheaper. It’s an absurd belief

  • imhoFRED

    >> Musk’s plans threaten to throw the rule book on planetary protection out the window.

    You say that like it is a bad thing. Most of us don’t think so.

  • duheagle

    Musk has been planning a heavy lifter pretty much from the time he founded SpaceX.

  • duheagle

    Tom doesn’t think trashing planetary protection is a bad thing. He just thinks the people who want draconian planetary protection have more juice than I think they do.

  • duheagle

    Associate Professor of Business Administration at Sul Ross State University San Antonio, TX.

  • duheagle

    Nuclear power was something a lot of Americans lived nearby. People take even tiny alleged threats to their own safety seriously.

    No one has any personal stake in keeping people off a planet that hasn’t been demonstrated to have any life that might find our arrival objectionable. The academic left is busily making itself an object of general mockery. Making a big stink about “meatbags” landing on Mars isn’t going to improve their image.

    Quarantining Mars isn’t going to happen.

  • duheagle

    If Elon is all set to send people to Mars, trust me, he’s going. NASA would suffer irreparable damage to its reputation by trying to down-check such a mission, especially at the last minute. It’d be like a bad remake of the launch scene from Destination Moon where some yokel sheriff shows up at the last second with an injunction after the protagonist is already in the rocket and the countdown clock is running.

  • duheagle

    Landing back on the launch mount would seem to be the main one. That’s going to be dramatic for about six seconds, then it’s going to transition instantly to anticlimactic when nothing bad happens.

  • duheagle

    Took the words right outa my mouth.

  • Agreed.
    Governments do what people want, loathe as we are to admit it.
    As you say, the contractor lock exists because individual states wanted a piece of the pie, and because the private industries that actually build our hardware wanted it that way. We were prisoners of private industry, not government. Government ain’t in charge – they haven’t the motivation or the memory. So the privates took over, if you want to look at it that way. A case can be made that private business killed space travel.
    The NASA of 1969 could have built an airbreathing shuttle – the bits were lying about, like the X-15, but it would require a ten-year or more committment, and in the US, our 4-8 year revolutionary cycle keeps killing any project before it really can breathe.
    Big problem is that there was nothing to do out there but explore. Exploration was not a project for private businesses. We made a shuttle with nowhere to go. It didn’t perform any function that a shuttle-derived heavy lifter couldn’t do for far less.
    Apollo was a bloody educational disaster. It branded space as a political stunt that cost billions, and it lost us a half century of understanding what we were supposed to do out there. Gerard K. O’Neill cracked that nut in the early 70s, but he’s still ignored, even by Musk.
    The launch monopoly certainly killed innovation. But no one else, even in China or Japan, could think outside of Apollo configs. Business couldn’t move in, as no one could pay to go nowhere. What Musk has done is profound; he’s used the private business model, but uncoupled it from public corporate ownership that would have frozen it into a cheaper Apollo-like booster program to make profits. Musk is taking chances and building stuff that no one sees a need for – he’s inventing a place to go, and providing the train. He’s kicking the scientists out of their place of power that locked us into exploration only.
    And as for governmental control…we’re not free at all. Congress or a president could stop Musk easily at almost any point in his ambition to go to Mars. Treaties already signed prohibit non-sterilized cargo, and those treaties are Constitutional in power. The govt is a sock puppet, and all it takes is the wrong hand and it can die.

  • duheagle

    Read Angle of Attack, a biography of Harrison Storms. Then tell me taking mass out of a piece of spaceflight hardware isn’t expensive.

  • > What’s the economic return for a colony on Mars?

    The same as the economic return for an active retirement community. None, except what people are willing to pay for.

  • duheagle

    I’ve think you’ve got the deal Elon has in mind pretty well pegged.

    As for planning all along to get USAF money for BFR, could be. After the criminal neglect of space-related defense matters by USAF for the last several decades, paying for BFR would be a good down payment on the penance they owe. But I think USAF will actually look upon money spent on BFR as a present they’re giving themselves. And they won’t be wrong.

  • duheagle

    Aren’t we the Gloomy Gus today!

    Treaty obligations are whatever the government decides they are – or aren’t. If you think the current, or any future, U.S. President is going to keep Elon Musk from going to Mars because of planetary protection issues, you’ve got another think coming.

  • duheagle


  • duheagle

    Actually, you’re doing about as well as Doug. 🙂

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, when you take you money from the “king/queen” you get caught up with the politics of the court of the “king/queen”. That is why so much of science steered clear of the government before WW II.

  • ThomasLMatula

    But not as unlikely as you think. After All, NASA is still moving forward on its Mars rocket, the SLS despite all evidence it is as out of date as the steam engines the U.P. keeps for museum service.

    Yes, Robert Heinlein understood human nature well.

  • Laura M

    It would be of highly questionable legality for the FAA to enforce PP, which is just one interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty’s admonition against governments engaging in harmful contamination. Congress would have to legislate for PP to be a legally enforceable requirement. Congress might define harmful contamination differently than NASA has.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, I teach strategic management, business history and business research.

  • ThomasLMatula

    I think the arguments for planetary protection on Mars as very weak and see little need for it. But I see it as the biggest danger to Elon Musk’s plan, one folks seen to just ignore.

    Folks seem to forget nuclear tests use to be spectator events in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Folks had no fear of nuclear power. Then the environmentalists started their campaigns against nuclear energy and turned those opinions round. Its easy to see them doing the same thing to space.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Folks were worried enough about germs from the Moon they put the Apollo astronauts in Quarantine. They may well do the same for Mars even if it is irrational.

    And don’t under estimate the guilt many folks have about the damage done to the environment on Earth, especially among the young generation. The environmentalists will have no reservation about using it to make Mars off limits.

    Remember, no one lives near the sea floor or the Antarctic, but both are effectively off limits to mining and economic development.

  • My wife and have owned a Bede BD-4 for the last 20 years and have nearly 1100 hours in it. Great airplane. Not the fastest or greatest load but it likes to fly high, reasonably fast and far on only 150 HP.
    Jim got shafted by a German company who promised him the engine to design the BD-5 around and in the end after Jim had funded the development the company told him they couldn’t do it. The rest is history and the company went bankrupt after heroic efforts on Jim’s part.
    His only mistake was not leaving the BD-5 on the napkin drawing. The BD-4 kits were selling well and if you need a 4 seat homebuilt even today, the kit (BD-4C) is once again in production. Jim’s son runs the company. I suspect the new cowl design was done by me as it looks the same as my modified one. I don’t mind.

  • Someone really needs to seriously contaminate Mars with biologicals and make the point of PP moot.

  • Larry J

    Yes, of all his designs, the BD-4 was the most successful. His BD-1 (photo) was the basis for the American Aviation Yankee (AA-1), which was bought by Grumman and built as the Yankee Clipper and Lynx. That design was stretched into the 4-seat Cougar and Tiger. I took my private pilot check ride in a 1969 Yankee. It was a fun little plane but it had fairly sharp stall characteristics and the glide ratio of the Space Shuttle.

    Jim Bede was a good engineer but he tended to over promise on many of his designs, such as the BD-10.

  • Robert G. Oler

    what a lovely example of a BD 1…

  • Robert G. Oler

    name me a single leap that was successful on the scale of going from a F9 to a BFR?

  • Robert G. Oler

    he has done nothing with FH

  • Robert G. Oler

    when you are on paper or cad screens anything is possible

    how long has musk been promising the FH?

  • Robert G. Oler

    that is fantasy

  • Robert G. Oler

    why would IP work on Mars and say not in the Sudan…as for “survive” what is this a movie?

  • Robert G. Oler

    all in a fictional vehicle