As far as science-fiction and the human stare towards the universe go, populating Mars has always been a big theme. While technology is working towards making it a goal, the lack of financial insight and the concrete planning of the project keeps it a dream. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, previous owner of PayPal and CEO of SpaceX is the most vocal pioneer working towards making this a reality. He recently unveiled an initial estimate of the financial cost of populating Mars with humans – which he believes is possible and not just a pipe dream.
Technology WILL emerge to aid the population of Mars
According to Mr. Musk, advancing technology is not so much a problem on its own: the growth rate statistics regarding radical innovation and the creation of the adequate tools to take us to space are there. It is the money which will be the main issue: between what we dream of and whether and when we can achieve it, the financial aspect is the parameter that promotes the disparity between the two.
Funding will be an issue
No R&D center in the world has a team of scientists fully funded to their needs, everything is on the margin, maximising return on investment. When it comes to space, even if the funding is assumed to be bottomless, it is still not a concrete number and competition amongst different parties means that many are loathe to share their findings. We then have the issue of finding a significant portion of the population that will actually go to Mars and help set-up a colony.
The first 10 billion dollar man
It was estimated that for one person to perform the trip the cost would be in region of $10 billion dollars and that figure is likely to go up and up as the years pass. Elon Musk has the dream of making the trip to Mars within the range of buying a median house in the U.S.A. Some may laugh, but this is a man who created and sold PayPal, helped to found Tesla Motors and is the CEO of SpaceX – he has a track record many people envy.
If anyone can, Elon can…
Elon Musk believes that areas which need particular attention to make his Mars dream come true include:
Reusability is a must:
Imagine that a spacecraft taking you to Mars could only be used once, there would then be the cost of building another. If the craft could be used twice, three times or it had a life span of a few hundred flights you can start to see the potential for savings. As the cost of the craft drops so will the cost of a “ticket” which will encourage others to fly, creating more savings, etc.
Fuel Stations in Orbit is an all-inclusive advantage:
From the weight perspective, the need for energy, the schedules and the steps of getting out of orbit, decreasing the fuel on-board as well as fuel reservoirs and units through orbital fillings will impact the design and hence the overall cost of space ventures.
Propellant for going back:
We need to be able to leverage Mars’ resources to be able to go back to Earth. The propellant gathered and treated on Mars will allow the trips back to Earth without impacting the flights with fuel inventory weight. It is also important to have the right propellant for the spaceflights: one that is present or can be constructed on both planets, reusable and with optimal compromises in weight management and energy delivered. According to Musk’s vision, the deep-cryo meth lox answers the range of requirements, beating kerosene and hydrogen.
These issues could be tackled upon arrival or in orbit but it would be easier to do them on Mars given the low gravity and atmospheric temperature of Mars compared to Earth. The first trip would be dedicated to laying the propellant plant and factories dedicated to harness basic resources (water and oxygen) and store them.
Doing the maths
Assuming the technology and the points above are in place, according to Musk, going to Mars will cost less than $140k/ton. SpaceX has already proved it can bring down the cost of launches drastically compared to NASA and, according to his vision, Elon Musk predicts a launch cost of no more than $200,00, making the overall venture cost a mere $62 million dollars.
How to come up with these numbers, as well as the ones required to develop the technology needed, is another matter: currently, SpaceX conducts missions for NASA that are profitable but not enough to fund a venture to Mars. Musk discussed the launching of satellites as another profitable activity, as well as funding from fellow entrepreneurs (many are eager to invest) but they would need to see a concrete plan, timing and an early start. Musk has pencilled in the first launch to Mars as early as 2022 but time will tell as space travel has a tendency to be unpredictable!
For more details on Elon Musk’s vision, check out his talk in the video below: