In writing about any architecture for space exploration I have a set of fundamental philosophies that govern my thoughts on the matter.
The Economic Development of the Solar System
It is my considered opinion that the economic development of the solar system is the best path (along with the development of advanced nuclear energy sources on the Earth) toward maintaining and advancing our human civilization, whether on or off the Earth. The issues that those who believe in a Malthusian dystopia (population growth, resource depletion, energy) are all solved by this great leap into space. The graphic below was first put together by the Chairman of the Board of General Electric, Ralph Cordiner, in 1960.
Cordiner gave a speech in 1960 that was transcribed into a book by Simon Ramo (One of the founders of TRW), along with several other writers on the subject of the then just emerging idea of space as a realm of human endeavor. It is at the link above and is a good background on the pre Apollo program view of space that I largely agree with.
Must Have Government Support, but Largely Private Direction
The reason for this is clear. Not only was the Apollo program an exceptionally government directed program, for the purposes of the economic development of the solar system, it was an absolute failure. The Apollo program was a child of the state, used for the purposes of the state, then tossed away with the state purpose was fulfilled. This was at a cost of what is today hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer treasure. Had things evolved more along the lines that Cordiner envisioned, it is likely that we would have never retreated from the Moon. This is just the way that government is, it can change its mind when political forces move in a different direction.
Additionally to the above point, western society, which has produced, through capitalism, individual liberty, and limited government, the most prosperous civilization in human history, it is not the state’s role to regiment and implement something as profound as the economic development of the solar system. Government simply does not know how to do that. You need look no farther than the last 50 years of government authored space exploration plans, books, and conferences. They all have been geared around science first and development as an afterthought. This is taking the concept of the international or national Antarctic base and foisting that worldview on the rest of the solar system. It is unsustainable in practical terms, and undesirable philosophically.
Private actors will screw up. One need look no farther than the first colony in North America by the British, led by Sir Walter Raleigh, that failed at Roanoke Island (the “lost” colony). However, if you look at the enthusiasm for Elon Musk’s plans vs the government plans, it is not hard to see which one has more adherents (Musk of course).
Must Have An Economic Basis
While this might seem redundant to the first basis above, it actually embodies and codifies it into something concrete. Thus in order for any architecture to be successful, it must incorporate into it a plan for economic output in the form of technology/scientific development, trade, manufacturing, and industry. That is it has to be more than lip service. The Jamestown colony in the new world became sustainable because they developed an economic product (tobacco) that covered the costs and provided capital for continued growth and economic diversification. The same must be true of off planet economic development, whether it is a robotic mine on an asteroid run by a fleet of robots or a human development on Mars, the Moon, or anywhere else (including free space), in the solar system. No one’s wealth is sufficient to maintain an off planet presence indefinitely without such activity and thus any architecture must have that in the plan.
The Plan and Thoughts on the Plan
“The SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System: The Beginning of Mars Colonization”
I start off with a website at http://www.spaceflightinsider.com that has a great synopsis and some fleshing out of the ideas that Elon presented. That site is linked here. The website gets it and has a title that gives a flavor for what the architecture is. which is an interplanetary transportation system architecture. The site goes into some greater detail but from a philosophical viewpoint there is no difference between their presentation and Elon’s that he gave at the IAC. First of all, the title of the presentation and the website tells you what the architecture is and is not. It is not a Mars colonization architecture. It is a transportation systems architecture designed to transship a certain number of humans to Mars, and to destinations beyond. Elon’s presentation is linked here. Lots of pretty graphics and his goal is outlined in this chart, shown here.
However, there is absolutely nothing in the presentation itself about the city on Mars or colonization at all. Thus it fails criteria three immediately. However, by implication it meets criteria one in that the desired end result is a city on Mars, which one would hope would be sustainable. It does meet criteria two above as it is obviously a largely private effort, with little actual input from the government other than the inevitable oversight that will come with it.
The Mars transportation architecture, which is what this really is, is shown below.
One would expect, with SpaceX being a launch company, that this part of the architecture would be the most detailed in its exposition. However, I am somewhat surprised that almost no effort was taken to describe what the city on Mars might look like or how its path to sustainability would unfold. Its not in the plan or the website or in any other information that I can find. Not to worry, my good friend Robert Zubrin has all the answers.
The above being said, I find nothing inherently wrong about the transportation architecture itself. Lots of people will disagree on details and Zubrin will chime in regarding how to make it faster, better, and cheaper, as well as some of the downstream issues. However, I consider these details of the transportation system. It certainly has room for considerable improvement but so far it looks pretty good and makes a good baseline for further discussion.
The spaceflight insider website does delve into further detail that Elon would be looking for scientific and engineering stake holders who would go first, along with cargo to begin the development of their favored location on Mars, but without any detail beyond that. This is ok too as this is not a bad idea and it starts to build stakeholders and allies who have their own ideas in plans. It is not possible for Elon and or even him and his great team at SpaceX to have all the answers today.
Necessary, Yet Not Sufficient, and That’s Ok
I think that Elon’s plan, or some inevitable evolution of the plan is absolutely necessary for the economic development of the solar system, yet it is not sufficient in and of itself to achieve that goal. That’s ok, Elon and his team are not gods and to me it makes it more fun in that it leaves space for the rest of us to add our own ideas, plans, goals. I say that it is ok also in that I think that Elon’s plan delivered in one critical area the thing that is most needed in our day and time, which is hope.
I got to Mexico and the IAC the evening of the speech that Elon gave on his architecture. The auditorium was huge, and set up to seat several thousand people. I was told that it was absolutely full for his presentation. There were 90 people who stayed in that room all night to get a good seat for the presentation. When the doors opened in the morning there was a mad stampede for people to get to their seats! When was the last time that happened for a NASA official? The answer to that is never, and thus in a single question you have the reason. What Elon was selling was hope. Not hope based on complete illusion as some space advocates do, but based upon past performance and future willingness to put all his money and credibility on the table to make it so.
Whatever else people may think of the architecture or Elon personally, that is admirable, and it is hopeful, especially for the younger generation that hears no end to the doom and gloom and have to put up with a couple of idiots running for president this year further depressing them.
I am quite sure that Elon’s team at SpaceX continues to work on and extend the vision that was announced in Mexico at the IAC. However, it is not all up to Elon nor should it be. There is enough space for everyone, and room to grow with and around his architecture. Of course anyone who reads my work knows that I seen value in the Moon and as time goes by I will continue to fill in how I expect that to unfold. Others are going to the asteroids for the economic development possibilities and those are good as well.
So, good on Elon and congratulations for being one of those in our society with the upward look toward a positive future for all mankind. I will add a few comments on something that Bob Zubrin pointed me two a few days after the event that bears commenting on as it pertains to Mars surface operations and the development of a “city”
How to Approach Economic Sustainability
Bob Zubrin, the author of “The Case for Mars” and other books on Mars, pointed me to an article by Bruce Dorminey that he contributed to that came out just after Elon’s announcement of his architecture. The article is linked here and its title is:
Why Geothermal Energy will be Key to Mars Colonization
It is a good article in concept, discussing why geothermal (it really should be aerethermal) energy is a must for Martian development (I don’t like using the word colonization). At the end of the day, ANY off planet installation, whether it is an educational cubesat up to a Martian city has to start with energy. However, I have not yet seen on plan, in 30 years of looking at such plans for the Moon, Mars, or O’Neil colonies, that provides a proper amount of energy to accomplish the three goals above, much less provide for prosperity for the colonists.
In the Dorminey article he references Bob Zubrin’s claim that a city of 10,000 people on Mars would only need 10 megawatts of power. Are you kidding me? That works out to a kilowatt per person. That means that for each person’s air, heat, light, computers, and communications, you would only need a kilowatt per person. Its 24 kilowatts per day or a kilowatt per person per hour. That is much too little energy for that many people to do everything they need to do in order to survive and prosper, on Mars. If you just look at what it takes to run a house in areas that need a lot of heat and or air conditioning, the demand is higher.
Mars is cold. Lets say that you do find these aerethermal sources and can develop a system for distribution for the heat as well as the power. That would help but you still have industrial activity that must happen and you have all the things that are needed for humans such as water purification, waste management and treatment, hygiene, agriculture, In Situ Resource utilization, all of these things. There is no way that this amount of electrical power will suffice.
When I do these things, I always start with what you want to do at a site and then figure out how much energy that takes, then multiply by two because you have to have redundancy as no energy source works 100% of the time. Then you can start to fill in all the other details and then continue to work backwards to a transportation architecture. It is possible to go the other way as Elon has done in his transportation architecture, but it can be easily seen that there is a lot of need for an implementation plan that starts small and then builds toward a sustainable development on the Martian surface.
This is where we can have a lot of fun, and I can guarantee you, that the Moon will have a vital role to play in developing Mars. However, I cannot fault Elon’s plans as they clearly state that this is the beginning of the plan. It is up to us to help fill in the details. Elon cannot do this all on his own and we also have to step up our game as space and planetary architects to fill in the gaps and to flesh out the plans for the economic development of the solar system.
One of those things, and probably the first one to be done, is an end to end power analysis of what is required for not just 10,000 humans, but also the industry that is required to support them. One might say that with inexpensive enough transportation that this is unneeded but that is a recipe for disaster. What are these folks going to do on Mars, sit and eat bon bons and code for a living? Mars is going to be an unforgiving place, requiring the best talents of all of those that live there, that is if actually living there is the goal. I absolutely agree with Bob Zubrin that these people, in the course of learning how to actually live on Mars, will develop all kinds of interesting new tech, new processes, and new approaches that can generate economic value, and thus bring income to the Martian city. However, without a sufficient surplus of power, this will never happen.
NOTE: Edits to correct an error I made yesterday in the power calculation. Was in a hurry.