Part III: All Aboard Elon Musk’s Mars Express

A view from martian orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)

“The goal of SpaceX is really to build the transport system. It’s like building the Union Pacific Railroad. And once that transport system is built then there’s a tremendous opportunity for anyone who wants to go to Mars and create something new or build the foundations of a new planet.

“When they were building the Union Pacific, a lot of people said that’s a super dumb idea because hardly anybody lives in California. But, now today we’ve got the U.S. epicenter of technology development and entertainment, and it’s the biggest state in the nation.

Elon Musk
SpaceX Founder & CEO

By Douglas Messier
Managing Edtior

The idea of a transcontinental railroad to the West Coast came into the world in 1830 as many dreams do: as a visionary, if seemingly outrageous, plan that few people took seriously. Why build a rail line through a howling wilderness where almost nobody lived? It would be a hideously expensive boondoggle, a road to nowhere.

This same problem has dogged the space movement since Sputnik was launched 60 years ago. While Hartwell Carver and other backers of the transcontinental railroad were able to overcome all the obstacles in their way, human progress in the silent vacuum of space has been slow and halting. It has never lived up the expectations people had at the start of the Space Age.

There are no Pan Am shuttles to orbit, no spinning space stations with hotels and restaurants, no  moon base, no settlements at L-5, no honeymoons in space, no human expeditions to Mars, not even suborbital space tourism. The aging orphans of Apollo bemoan the lack of progress since the moon landings they watched, dream of things that could have been, and ask, “What the hell happened?” A lack of vision is usually blamed.

Space is hard. The environment is deadly. Building a railroad is a lot easier. All true. But, there’s a lot more to it than that.

A Question of Timing

Construction by the Central Pacific Railroad

There were many practical barriers to building a railroad to the West Coast when it was first proposed. Steam engines was still primitive, the terrain was challenging,  the distance daunting, the costs high, and the return on investment uncertain. There wasn’t a large population in the West for the railroads to serve, there were better business opportunities in the East, and the United States lacked clear title to any land on the West Coast.

In short, the combination of financial, technical, political and strategic factors needed to justify the immense public expense of such a massive infrastructure project was just not there. This was not a case of the American public and its leaders being short-sighted in the face of a visionary proposal. Instead, it was an entirely rational decision.

Over the next 30 years, all of these issues were resolved. The U.S. gained an enormous swath of Western territory. The Gold Rush swelled the population of California. Steam engines advanced. Routes were surveyed. And the outlook for a good return on investment (ROI) greatly improved.

The railroad would provide a superior form of transportation to the West, shrinking a cross country trip from months to a week while greatly reducing the cost. It would open land along its route to settlement, boost trade with Asia through the San Francisco Bay, and unite the nation from East to West.

When the first rail was spiked at Sacramento in 1863, nobody thought building the Transcontinental Railroad was a “super dumb idea” as Musk claimed. It has been seen as an inevitability for about a decade, a national priority that had been blocked only by a bitter disagreement between North and South over the best route.

Miners during the California Gold Rush.

Far from being the home to “hardly anybody” in 1863, California was in the midst of a decades-long population boom. The number of inhabitants had quadrupled to more than 379,000 people between 1850 and 1860. The state’s population would rise by 47.4 percent to 560,247 inhabitants by 1870. The vast majority of this growth occurred before the railroad was completed in 1869.

Given the enormous benefits of the Transcontinental Railroad, the Federal Government was willing to fund a program of unprecedented scale and cost. It provided Union Pacific and Central Pacific with the required funding, land grants larger than the state of Texas, and loose financial oversight the owners of the railroads exploited to maximize their profits.

Central Pacific laborers laid the most amount of track — 10 miles — in a single day.

The two companies were able to focus on what they did best: building railroads. Other than constructing railway stations and depots along the way, the railroads could leave the responsibility for building out the towns and cities that grew up around them to others. The railroads didn’t have to worry about developing major cities on each end of the line. Council Bluffs and Omaha in the East, and Sacramento and Oakland in the West, had already been built.

Although the railroad’s builders faced many challenges in blasting through mountains, bridging ravines and battling the elements, the technology for the work was well in hand by 1863. They didn’t have invent new steam engines. The experience of constructing thousands of miles of track in the East gave the companies confidence they could overcome any obstacles.

A Cold, Barren World

This self-portrait of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity combines dozens of exposures taken by the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on Feb. 3, 2013, plus three exposures taken on May 10, 2013. (Credit: NASA)

The contrast between the Transcontinental Railroad and Musk’s Mars plan is stark. None of the factors that made the railroad a no brainer in 1863 exists with regards to sending humans to Mars in 2017.

There are no cities on the Red Planet. No populations there to serve as yet. No critical mass of immigrants on Earth eager to seek a better life in its frozen, lifeless deserts. No territorial claims by any nations that need shoring up. No military rationale for occupying the planet.

There’s nothing on the Red Planet that we know of that we don’t have on Earth. Populating Mars isn’t going to open up trade routes with Jupiter, Saturn and the asteroid belt. The economic return on investment (ROI) from the venture is unclear.

Public and political support is fairly weak. NASA has a plan to send a handful of astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030’s. But, the space agency isn’t contemplating anything on the scale that Musk has proposed. Whether the new Trump Administration stays the course on Mars remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the world’s other major space powers Europe, Russia and China are focused on sending astronauts to the moon. Blue Origin Founder Jeff Bezos and United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno are promoting plans to develop a robust cis-lunar economy. Bezos, a billionaire whose wealth far exceeds that of Musk, has said he has no interest in Mars at all.

Interior of Interplanetary Transport System tank. (Credit: SpaceX)

If the Transcontinental Railroad was an evolutionary leap forward compared with Eastern rail systems, Musk’s Mars plan easily falls on the quantum scale. Nobody’s ever built rockets or spacecraft of the size and complexity that he has proposed. We have no record of building settlements on other worlds. The experience of Apollo and the International Space Station will only go so far when it comes to Mars.

It’s not that these technological challenges can’t be overcome. It’s more that the risk, cost and time involved will be vastly greater than Musk’s perpetually optimistic projections. And that will give pause to any investors and governments that are considering whether to back the venture.

Why Occupy Mars?

Elon Musk (Credit: SpaceX)

Although Musk has invoked the Transcontinental Railroad as a model, he has never tried to justify occupying Mars using any of the myriad practical reasons that were used to build the rail line. Instead, he has used two other rationales to support his plan.

The first is downright apocalyptic: humanity must move out into the Solar System in order to survive as a species. Mars is a backup world if Earth gets wiped out by a biological plague, nuclear war, homicidal artificial intelligence, or a giant space rock.

This is actually a dark twist on Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s famous quote, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.” It’s as if Musk is channeling Kodos: “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but it doesn’t matter what you do. Either way, your planet is doomed! Doomed!”

This argument is a tough sell. Given the choice between protecting all of their constituents on Earth, or spending billions of dollars to send a tiny fraction of them to Mars as a hedge against some future Armageddon that might never actually happen, politicians will choose the former every time. There’s really no contest.

This isn’t a lack of vision, just practical politics. Short of a clearly defined, existential global threat to Earth that nobody can do anything about, Mars as a backup will remain a weak argument. It’s more of a side benefit of getting people to Mars than a reason to do it.

Musk’s other main argument – the excitement and adventure of voyaging to a new world – resonates a lot more. Colonizing Mars – or just landing humans there to explore it – would be a monumental achievement. If an initial landing is followed up by an actual permanent settlement, that would indeed be a significant advance in the spread of human civilization.

So, Musk is on more solid ground there. The question is whether this rationale is sufficient to propel humanity to Mars given the lack of a clear ROI and other benefits of the kind that made the Transcontinental Railroad possible. It hasn’t to date.

The Road to Utopia Planetia

Red Dragon enters Mars atmosphere. (Credit: SpaceX)

Given Musk’s grand vision of a million people living on Mars decades from now, it’s easy to overlook the fact that what he presented in Guadalajara last September was not actually a plan for colonizing the Red Planet. Instead, it was the outline for building the machines to get settlers there.

“And once that transport system is built then there’s a tremendous opportunity for anyone who wants to go to Mars and create something new or build the foundations of a new planet,” he said.

Musk said almost nothing about where or how the settlers would live or what they would do once they got to Mars. In this regard, his invoking of the Transcontinental Railroad appears almost literal. Like the Union Pacific and Central Pacific, he wants to focus on the transportation side while leaving the rest largely to others.

This focus makes sense for several reasons. For one, building rockets and spacecraft is what SpaceX does best. And building this system is going to be a monumental task just by itself.

Tank for the Interplanetary Transport System. (Credit: SpaceX)

Second, there are no governments or private investors out there throwing boatloads of money at SpaceX to build a cosmic railroad to the Red Planet. For now, the company must find a way of developing a revolutionary new interplanetary transportation system on a limited budget composed largely on its own revenues an their founder’s fortune.

Musk was able to demonstrate progress on some of the pieces the transportation system in Guadalajara. He showed pictures of a gigantic fuel tank SpaceX had built and video of a test of an advanced Raptor rocket engine for the Mars ship. It was a good start, but there’s still a long way to go.

Raptor engine hot fire. (Credit SpaceX)

The billionaire laid out a plan to actually begin private missions to the Red Planet. The program would begin with sending a modified Dragon capsule in 2018 to land on the surface to test entry, descent and landing techniques. That mission would be followed every two years by additional pairs of Dragon vehicles that would deliver goods needed to support a crew.

In 2024, the first human mission using SpaceX’s giant rocket and spacecraft would be launched. About a dozen people would establish the first human base on Mars, using the equipment and supplies launched during earlier missions.

Musk warned that both his schedules and his cost estimate ($10 billion for initial development) were probably optimistic. That has proven to be true. Last week, SpaceX postponed the first Red Dragon flight two years to 2020. Given the enormous scope of the program and SpaceX’s past history with much less ambitious projects, additional delays are virtually assured.

Who Pays – and for What?

Upper stage of Interplanetary Transport System with passenger area. (Credit: SpaceX)

Musk has made it clear that settling Mars isn’t going to happen without a public-private partnership. The profits from his businesses and his own personal fortune that he has pledged toward the effort are not going to be enough to make it work.

Musk is hoping he can advance the ball far enough that the public and their leaders will become enthusiastic about going to Mars. Fearful of being left behind in settling the next great frontier, they will climb aboard Elon Musk’s Mars Express and provide the money and other support needed to make the program successful.

What exactly that means in terms of financial support is unclear; Musk has never laid out what settling Mars will actually cost beyond the estimated $10 billion required for initial development of the transportation system. And that figure might be excessively low.

While Musk’s talk about reducing the cost of a ticket to Mars to $200,000 makes the trip sound almost affordable, his lack of focus on the settlement makes the amount misleading. What are the habitats going to cost? Who’s going for them?

Keeping people alive on Mars – especially in the thousands and tens of thousands that Musk is proposing – would involve the building of an infrastructure of considerable size, complexity and reliability.

There are a couple of truisms about infrastructure. First, it’s expensive to build, maintain, expand and repair. Second, governments are usually the ones responsible for it. Private companies are happy to build infrastructure under contract to governments, but they don’t like paying for it. (Just ask the citizens of New Mexico about Spaceport America.)

If he wants taxpayers’ support for his Mars plan, Musk will need to a lot more candid about what the entire thing will cost, not just his part of it.

A Giant Leap into the Unknown

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

The Transcontinental Railroad took about 40 years from when it was first proposed to completion. Before the first rail was spiked, a set of political, economic, technological and strategic factors had to come into alignment. Only then could such an expensive program be launched.

The lack of an equally compelling set of reasons for sending people to the moon and Mars has frustrated the dreams of space advocates for 60 years. The only time humans ventured beyond  low Earth orbit was during the Apollo program. That was not a program aimed at colonization; it was designed to show the superiority of one country over another.

There is a fundamental difference between the railroad and Musk’s Mars plan. While the rail line met series of needs and demands, Musk must create a demand for something that doesn’t exist beyond a small group of space enthusiasts.

This is very much in the spirit of the Silicon Valley where Musk made his initial fortune. The entrepreneurs there are forever creating new products and companies (smart phones, social media, PayPal, Uber…the list goes on) that nobody realized they needed, but which quickly became ubiquitous.

Musk hopes to do the same with Mars. It will be interesting to see if he can pull it off in the decade ahead. Musk is nothing if not a great salesman. Mars is his most challenging sales pitch to date.

The Series