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.