SpaceX Hosting Stealth Mars Settlement Workshop

SpaceX BFR (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX has convened an invite-only workshop on its plans to establish a colony on Mars at the University of Colorado Boulder today and tomorrow.

However, SpaceX may be getting more serious about preparing for human landings on Mars, both in terms of how to keep people alive as well as to provide them with something meaningful to do. According to private invitations seen by Ars, the company will host a “Mars Workshop” on Tuesday and Wednesday this week at the University of Colorado Boulder. Although the company would not comment directly, a SpaceX official confirmed the event and said the company regularly meets with a variety of experts concerning its missions to Mars.

This appears to be the first meeting of such magnitude, however, with nearly 60 key scientists and engineers from industry, academia, and government attending the workshop, including a handful of leaders from NASA’s Mars exploration program. The invitation for the inaugural Mars meeting encourages participants to contribute to “active discussions regarding what will be needed to make such missions happen.” Attendees are being asked to not publicize the workshop or their attendance.

The meeting is expected to include an overview of the spaceflight capabilities that SpaceX is developing with the Big Falcon rocket and spaceship, which Musk has previously outlined at length during international aerospace meetings in 2016 and 2017. Discussion topics will focus on how best to support hundreds of humans living on Mars, such as accessing natural resources there that will lead to a sustainable outpost.

Through this meeting, SpaceX hopes to engage more deeply with both NASA and the scientific community that have studied these questions in depth for decades—but have regularly been frustrated by the space agency’s lack of progress toward getting people to Mars. One scientist attending the meeting told Ars, “I have some confidence that SpaceX will eventually achieve its goal of getting to Mars, and this feels like an exciting opportunity to be part of that story and to influence the future of humans on the Red Planet.”

I’m going to be a bit cynical here, but I’m guessing that SpaceX — as is its wont — will arrive with vastly optimistic estimates on what it will take to pull off this venture. Hopefully, the attendees will provide them with a good reality check.

At that point, everyone will leave enthused by the vision and prospects, but asking the same questions that have always loomed over human Mars plans since Wernher von Braun was designing missions:

  • Where do we find the money for this?
  • Who exactly is going to pay for it?
  • What exactly is the return on investment from this effort?

The bottom line is that to establish a colony on Mars with the number of people Elon Musk envisions and to give them useful things to do there, it’s going to take an enormous — and enormously expensive — infrastructure built from the ground up on a frozen, desolate planet without any established industrial manufacturing base that is located months away from Earth with launch windows limited to every two years.

Can it be done? Absolutely. If you have enough money, and there’s a compelling set of reasons to do it. Therein lies the other problem. Musk’s rationales are:

  • Earth will be destroyed at some unknown point in the future.
  • This would be the coolest adventure ever!

The latter is certainly true. And for Mars enthusiasts, these reasons are more than sufficient. If you want governments to support colonization, however, you’ll probably need more than that.

All that being said, I never say never. Maybe the workshop will lead to something much more positive that what I’ve outlined above. Time will tell.

  • envy

    Doug, do you have a better way to show what text you’re quoting, and what you are writing? The slight indentation doesn’t really make the quotes clear, especially when you have indentation for your own lists.

  • Tom Billings

    While Doug overstates through using Musk’s worst hyperbole, there are lots of good things that will happen through settling the Solar System. If the first place settled is Mars, then fine. If somewhere else is first, then that’s OK. The whole, of building the networks of industrial society out into the rest of the Solar System, can still be given a good start with a first settlement, somewhere, as long as other people are planning to settle elsewhere as well.

    It is not just cool, to settle the Solar System. It is vital to keep the networks of industrial society expanding beyond the reach of the social hierarchies here, that wish to constrain the participants in those networks in order to ensure that hierarchs have stable positions. The hierarchs can rationalize away the starvation this creates with appalling ease.

    It is not just that Earth will be physically destroyed at some time in the future. It is that waves of reaction keep welling up against the individual freedoms of action needed to keep those industrial networks functioning. While depending on one ideology or another to justify suppressing industrial freedoms of action, each wave of reaction has the potential to confine us to pre-industrial levels of intrusion against industrial freedoms of action. Settling multiple places elsewhere in the Solar System will do much to ensure that it will be impossible to extinguish the last exemplum of these freedoms, somewhere else in the Solar System.

    Our industrial world could be destroyed by such waves of reaction, while leaving the planet physically intact. Indeed groups like the Human Extinction Movement would go further than that. I remain uncertain, that none of these waves of reaction could be successful, if we are confined to one planet.

  • Jan Bach Andersen

    This is good News .They need to start developing the plans and it can bee ready when the BFR flies .. money dont seem too bee a problem..

  • ThomasLMatula

    It looks like folks are going to have to get used to the new world beyond NASA. This isn’t a “stealth” workshop but simply a private firm inviting some experts at its expense to discuss how best to use the rocket it’s paying for on the first few missions to Mars that Elon Musk is paying for. You should have no more expectation this will be public than a workshop at your workplace.

  • Douglas Messier

    Everybody focuses on the flight costs. What I’m telling you is to start thinking about everything else.that will cost a fortune.

  • Douglas Messier

    Let me think on that. It looks fine on a laptop but the display is different with mobiles. I can see what you’re saying.

  • ThomasLMatula

    I have been for the last twenty years, but “fortune” is a relative term. What is a a fortune to some is just routine operating money to others. Space Advocates think $5 billion is a lot, but it’s just the normal cost of an offshore oil rig.

    The technology to build sustainable settlements on Mars, Demois, the Moon and elsewhere in the Solar System is there. The ASCE Earth & Space proceedings are full of examples including articles I contributed. Once the legal environment is created, and the NSC is working on it, and the BFR is flying the rest of the elements will emerge. That said I think the space environmentalists (Planetary Protection) will probably keep him from Mars. But the moons of the Solar System will work well for sustainable habitats beyond Earth.

  • ThomasLMatula

    I have an iPhone6 and it looks fine.

  • Emmet Ford

    Earth will be destroyed at some unknown point in the future.

    Earth has several billion years ahead of it. The mammal population, on the other hand, could be gone in a few months. And an astromoner will tell you that this is not an “if” question; it’s a “when” question. A GRB might do it. Or a comet. We could be 6 months from extinction by comet right now, and not know it. The fossil record tells us that these things happen from time to time, but we don’t really believe it because we’re monkeys.

    Oh, and that super volcano in the middle of the continent that keeps flexing. Whatevs. Ooh-ooh-ooh, aah-aah-aah!

  • Not Invented Here

    Elon is optimistic about schedule, but he is realistic about cost, for example Falcon 9’s advertised $/kg to GTO remains unchanged and is actually slightly cheaper today when compared to their earliest estimate more than 10 years ago.

    For a Mars mission, the transportation is the biggest cost driver, everything else is not a lot. For example NASA Mars DRM 1.0 estimated the transportation cost would be 70% of the total cost of a Mars reference mission, and this doesn’t include the cost for in-space habitat. Surface systems (what you called “everything else”) is just 11% of the total cost.

  • Lee

    Musk is talking about 1M+ on Mars. If you think the launch costs will dominate the costs required for such a population, you are smoking something I wish I had access to lol.

  • Not Invented Here

    You’re confusing long term vision with short term goal, 1 million people on Mars is the long term vision, this workshop is focused on the short term:

    Discussion topics will focus on how best to support hundreds of humans living on Mars, such as accessing natural resources there that will lead to a sustainable outpost.

    And yes, even when you want a 1 million person Mars colony, transport cost will absolutely dominate, even when when using fully reusable system like BFR. Purdue University AAE 450 Project Destiny report estimated such a scenario (build a 1 million people colony on Mars in the next 100 years, using ITS), their conclusion is launch cost would be ~65% of the total cost needed.

  • Terry Stetler

    Good on an 8″ Android 7 tablet w/Chrome.

  • envy

    The problem I have is not reading it, it is differentiating what Doug is writing from what he is quoting from another site without any indication of quotation other than the minor indent..

    Disqus, for example, supports

    html tags to show quotation:

    Good on an 8″ tablet and 5.5″ LG phone, both w/Chrome & Android 7.

  • envy

    The problem I have is not reading it, it is differentiating what you are writing from what he is quoting from another site without any indication of quotation other than the minor indent. Including the link doesn’t really help distinguish what text is coming from that link.

    Disqus, for example, supports

    html tags to show quotation:

    Let me think on that. It looks fine on a laptop but the display is different with mobiles. I can see what you’re saying.

    These are ok, though they lack a way to include attribution

    IMO a change in font style and a direct attribution (e.g. say “From Ars Technia:” followed by the quote), would be a far clearer format.

  • envy

    It currently costs about $15,000 per kg to send something to intersect Mars. If you want to soft land it on Mars, more like $40,000 per kg. That means you could ship pure gold to Mars, and the cost of transport to the surface would STILL be about the same as the cost of the gold.

    The goal with BFR is to reduce that to about $200 per kg soft landed on Mars. At those prices launch might not dominate (although that’s not a given, since those prices allow optimizations to a much lower unit cost level).

  • ThomasLMatula

    Do you have a link to their study? It would be interesting to see what their assumptions are.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Yes, when you can’t get someplace you want to go at a reasonable cost, that is what you need to focus on first. Why would you focus on something else if transport was still prohibitive, it’s only logical.

  • Not Invented Here
  • windbourne

    Yeah. I keep pointing out to ppl that a single relatively small bomb is all that is needed to make yellowstone blow.