We’ve seen it so many times before, you think we’d learn. The glib, charismatic con man, short on evidence but long on vision. The desirable dream: cure my fatal disease, show me proof of an afterlife, teach me how to unleash my psychic powers. We’re supposed to be good at recognizing those, and rejecting them. But it turns out that the con man just needs to tailor his fantasy to fit, and he can reach even the hard core skeptics. In this case, it’s the vision of shiny spaceship and a voyage to Mars.
I’m not at all impressed with Elon Musk’s recent PR sweep, but then, I’m into crunchy-slimy biological stuff, and his fantasy is aimed at the physics and engineering crowd. Maybe if he promised to seed Mars with genetically resurrected Mesozoic vertebrates he’d be able to rope me in? Nah, that’s too silly.
But I’m sorry to say that Phil Plait is thrilled, although he also has reservations. The rocket is really big — it hasn’t been built yet, but it’s yuge. Isn’t that enough to win you over?
First, the rocket. The as-yet unnamed booster is beefy. It’ll be 122 meters tall and about 12 meters wide (the Saturn V was 111 x 10 meters in size). That’s big. But it’s the thrust that shocked me: It’s planned to have a staggering 13,000 tons (29 million pounds) of thrust. The Saturn V—still to this day the most powerful rocket ever launched—had a thrust of 3,500 tons (7.5 million pounds). The SpaceX booster will have a thrust 3.5 times as much as that.
But he’s not totally blinded by the glory of that massive phallic erection. He has some serious concerns as well.
Still, I have some bigger concerns. For example, a trip to Mars using the ITS will take roughly 80 to 140 days (Mars has an elliptical orbit, so sometimes the dance of the planets brings it closer to Earth than other times, so this is an average). This raises the danger of radiation. Normally this isn’t all that big a deal; in interplanetary space, levels are low. But if there’s a solar storm like a flare, this can send deadly waves of subatomic particles racing into space. If such an event occurs, astronauts will have to be protected.
Musk was remarkably cavalier about this, saying it’s not that big a deal. I disagree; it’s something engineers will have to plan for, especially given the sheer number of flights planned. Over 10,000 trips, the odds of a ship getting hit are very high indeed. Water is an excellent shield, and the ships will need plenty of it, so designing the transport to use it that way would be beneficial.
Wait — here’s a serious flaw in Musk’s plan, it’s an obvious problem, and Musk is dismissing it. Shouldn’t that make every one realize that this is not even at the design stage yet, let alone the actual engineering phase, and that all Musk has is a flashy video of a scheme he dreamed up? For normal people, this Mars trip is at the sketched-on-a-napkin-while-drunk phase, but because it’s Elon Musk, he can hire an animation team to have his napkin sketch professionally rendered as a slick animation, and everyone is going oooh and aaaah over it. This is pure pixels and vapor, why are people defending this?
Here’s another example: Jason Torchinsky sees big problems with Musk’s spaceship.
This week electrovehicle and space transit magnate Elon Musk unveiled his master plan for the human race to become “a multi-planetary species”, starting with travel to Mars. But while I know it’s an act of remarkable hubris for me to even say this, I believe SpaceX’s plans for their Interplanetary Transport System have some pretty glaring flaws. The good news is they are flaws that are easily corrected by applying some decades-old solutions from the American and Soviet space-faring experience.
No! It’s not hubris! Musk is dreaming of throwing 200 people at a time into space, and you’re wondering about the propriety of questioning the God-Man’s holy prescriptions?
What Torchinsky does next is get out his own paper napkin, and completely redesign everything — the Mars vehicle, the entire mission profile, all gets chucked in the trash and brand new, completely different ideas slung around, all while singing the praises of Elon Musk. He even points out that parts of the Musk plan make no sense at all, he is “delighted by the whole Mars/Interplanetary travel plans”.
It’s bizarre. We’re seeing people in the tech/engineering sector simply losing their minds over a poorly thought-out dream.
Allow me to point out a few other lacunae in the Musk scheme.
People are treated as passive cargo. He’s talking about cooping up hundreds of people in a tin can the size of “two 747s” for 80 days. Ask any airline what happens when an airplane is grounded on the tarmac for a few hours — they go insane. Musk blithely suggests that “games” will be available to play…for months. In inevitably cramped quarters. He hasn’t given a second’s thought to the psychological issues.
All of the attention is focused on the big rocket, but not on the destination. You’ve landed 200 people on Mars, so now what do they do? How do you go about creating a self-sustaining colony? This is a non-trivial problem, especially if your dream is to put a million people up there. What are they going to eat? I hope to god he doesn’t think The Martian solved everything, because no, you’re not going to put up a dome and raise potatoes. Agriculture is not something simple, especially not on Mars.
Assume your desperate colonists find a way to extract air and water from rocks, and have somehow managed to scrape together a thin diet from poop and dust, like The Martian (I am giving them sooo much here; there is no plan, so I’m being overly generous). Now what? They learn from the space radio that the latest Marvel superhero movie is out, and being a bunch of nerds, they very much want to see it. How do they pay for it?
No, really. This colony will die without trade and revenue. They’ve got to be doing something that is of value to Earth, and they have to be able to export it, and import luxuries. Ships full of potatoes flying back to Earth won’t cut it. What will be uniquely produced on Mars that makes it economically viable in the long run?
So far, all Musk has said about the utility of the Mars colony is that it can produce fuel for other journeys deeper into space. Will the colonists be informed that their fate is to spend the rest of their lives in the Musk Mines, laboring to scrape out volatiles to keep themselves alive and to propel the ambitions of the Musk Fleet? Will one ton of extracted hydrogen be rewarded with one ticket to The Avengers XXIII: The Hulk Gets New Pants? Will this be the new high tech version of the Company Town, in which the residents are totally owned by Musk Enterprises, right down to having to buy the air they breathe?
What’s the dream, beyond “let’s live on Mars”? There were a lot of utopian movements in the 19th and early 20th century where a charismatic leader would organize a group of men and women to found a colony in the wilderness: we had several in America, there were others in the Galapagos and other exotic islands, or South America. Virtually all of them failed — the Mormons are one notable exception. What’s the unifying ideology that’s behind Mars? The Cult of Musk? Free Love? Low-G Sex? The joys of scraping volatiles out of rocks? You need something more to motivate people than starry-eyed affection for Hugo Gernsback.
You know, if they thought this colony on Mars stuff was feasible, I’d suggest a simple pilot project. Can they build a self-sustaining, successfully productive colony in Antarctica? Fill a ship with people and the wherewithal to build a habitable base that is more than a tiny temporary science station; actually grow enough food to feed all the inhabitants and produce a little extra material of some sort for profit. It ought to be easy — Antarctica has air and water, and it doesn’t get as cold as Mars, so that’s one set of problems that won’t have to be solved, and it’s far cheaper than using a spaceship to get there, since boat technology has already been solved. I don’t exactly see capitalists flocking to occupy that niche, though. What’s holding things up? And why think that a colony in an even more remote and inhospitable land would be viable?
I know the Libertarians have one simple answer to all of these problems: the Market will provide. But they’re loons, and so can be ignored; I’m sure the inhabitants of the Roanoke colony also thought the Lord would provide, or at least the Queen of England, and that didn’t help at all when the resupply ships failed to show up in time.
Otherwise, though, all we’ve got now is space optimists who get a glitter in their eye at the phrase “going to Mars”, but don’t have a scrap of reasonable explanation for why. Or, actually, they do, but it’s a kind of meaningless mantra.
Torchinsky ends on this:
I’m a believer in Musk’s vision that humanity needs to become a multi-planetary society.
Phil Plait closes with this:
Then why go, I asked him.
“Humans need to be a multiplanet species,” he replied.
I agree with that as well.
WHY? Why do we need to be a multiplanet species? I’ve read the same science fiction novels and watched the same science fiction movies of far-flung interstellar empires and exotic alien worlds, and I think they’re fun and neat. But they’re fiction. They’re entertaining. They echo the romanticizing of the American expansion into the West (which was dirty, bloody, and cruel, but hey, let’s not bring that up).
But it doesn’t explain why we need to get off planet Earth.
If pressed, I know what they’ll say about that, because it’s what they always say. It’s to protect us from an extinction event, they’ll say. It’s because we may need to escape from a planet we’re in the process of poisoning.
It seems to me that what we need to do is to stop wrecking what we’ve got before a few of us go haring off irresponsibly to wreck another planet. Especially when the “plan” to get there is delusional nonsense.