Elon Musk dreams of Martian retirement condos

Paul Raven @ 02-08-2010

The Astronomer Royal may think manned spaceflight is a pipedream, but Elon Musk – the fantastically-moniker’d founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors, as well as private space company SpaceX – begs to differ. In fact, he seems to be taking Stephen Hawking’s eggs-in-the-basket metaphor to heart, and wants save the human species from the existential threats that come from living on the surface of a planet with a history of having large space rocks smash into it.

Wearing my cynic’s hat for a moment, I suspect Musk’s stated desire to move to Mars when he retires is at least as much about giving good soundbite as it is a genuine statement of intent — all the highest-flying entrepreneurs have a bit of the P T Barnum about them, after all. But with SpaceX he’s at least putting his money where his mouth is, and this Guardian pen-portrait paints him as being quite removed from the flamboyant Ben Gunn stereotype of spaceflight boosterism; apparently, SpaceX isn’t about making Musk another fortune.

…he is risking his fortune to start a company in a field most people said could not support a project like SpaceX. Again and again, he returns to the themes that keep him going. He sees what SpaceX is doing as part of humanity’s destiny. “I think life on Earth must be about more than just solving problems… It’s got to be something inspiring even if it is vicarious. When the US landed on the moon it was for all humanity. We count that as a human achievement. Anyone who could get near a TV got near a TV. If there was one TV in an African village and you had to walk 50 miles to get there, you’d do it,” he says.

And through it all is the desire to colonise Mars. Musk insists that his most powerful Falcon 9 rockets could already launch missions to Mars if assembled in Earth’s orbit. He wants SpaceX to help humanity spread into space, just like the first European explorers setting out for the New World. “One of the long-term goals of SpaceX is, ultimately, to get the price of transporting people and product to Mars to be low enough and with a high enough reliability that if somebody wanted to sell all their belongings and move to a new planet and forge a new civilisation they could do so.”

There’s something about the way he candidly admits to a long-term mission that everyone else in the business considers impossible (or impractical, or just plain laughable) that makes me want to believe he’s telling the truth. It’s a tough time for dreamers right now — hell, it’s a tough time for everyone — but perhaps adversity will be the heat in the forge.

That said, the analogy to the European colonisation of the New World is an uneasy one; even if there are no natives on Mars to exploit or extinguish (that we know of, at any rate), the earliest transAtlantic colonists had a rough old time of it, and they were sustained by the promise of bounteous resources rather than bijou retirement villas. Life beyond the gravity well won’t be a picnic until long after we’ve managed to get ourselves there… and Charlie Stross has a pretty solid set of arguments that suggest the analogy of space colonisation to the Westward expansion in the US is equally (if not more) flawed.

Even so… if you’re reading, Mister Musk, I’d like to put a small downpayment on a condo sited on the lower slopes of Olympus Mons; sea views a bonus.

Oh yeah, and you should totally hire Jason Stoddard as your head of PR. I’m not even kidding about that bit, either.

Karl Schroeder deflates further Mars FUD

Paul Raven @ 02-11-2009

After dismantling the suggestion that a Mars mission is too inherently dangerous for humans to undertake, Karl Schroeder has a new targetScience Daily announces a paper that claims that we can’t go to Mars because the spacecraft will fill up with nasty bacteria and make everyone sick [via SlashDot]:

Frippiat and colleagues based their conclusions on studies showing that immune systems of both people and animals in space flight conditions are significantly weaker than their grounded counterparts. They also reviewed studies that examined the effects of space flight conditions and altered gravity on virulence and growth of common pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli and Staphylococcus. These studies show that these bacteria reproduce more rapidly in space flight conditions, leading to increased risk of contamination, colonization and serious infection.

The basic facts there are quite true, but they’re being deployed alongside some invidious assumptions, as Schroeder points out:

This doesn’t mean that space flight is intrinsically dangerous.  It means that badly shielded tin-can environments that aren’t spun for gravity are a bad idea.  And that is quite a different conclusion.

Prolonged exposure to zero gravity weakens the immune system, so don’t expose astronauts to prolonged zero gravity.  Invest in some research into how to spin the spacecraft.  Then spin the spacecraft.

Secondly, shield the damn things.  The only reason why radiation is considered an issue is because it’s expensive to transport heavy shielding into orbit. One solution would be to use lunar water; simply put bags of the stuff around the ship.  That makes it heavier and hence requires more fuel… but now the problem can be seen for what it is, a simple problem of launch costs.

Spaceflight is not bad for our health.  Cut-rate spaceflight that avoids the obvious solutions is.

Those obvious solutions are, of course, a function of the launch cost issue – there’s a solution for pretty much everything if you can just get the necessary hardware up into orbit, but that’s not an option while we’re constrained by the limitations of rocketry.

I suspect that we’ll get there eventually, provided we survive our short- to medium-term future. After all, sailing ships were almost impossible to keep disease-free at first, until some smart minds got focussed on fixing the problems – and the motives for those fixes were profit and colonial expansion, which are likely to be exactly the same factors that propel us out of the gravity well. Perhaps the commercial space operators will break out of the rocketry box, given the chance.

Worlds enough, and time: NASA commitee says Mars too costly, asteroids more plausible

Paul Raven @ 26-10-2009

MarsEven someone who struggles as badly with their personal finances as myself would be hard pressed not to realise that NASA finds it hard to balance its lofty ambitions with the number of greenbacks in the jar on the mantelpiece. Now the Agency’s recently-appointed committee is saying the same thing in plain language: the money for a Mars mission just isn’t there, but more realistic goals like jaunts to asteroids and the Lagrange points can and should be followed up.[image by jasonb42882]

Now, I’d like to see manned Mars missions happen in my lifetime (as I’ve made plain here a number of times), but I’d rather that the planet’s biggest player in the space game got the maximum bang for its diminishing buck. As things stand now, everyone else follows where NASA leads, and while that won’t be the case for ever (or even for long, if you want to be a pessimistic realist about it), and I’d rather see them pushing the envelope steadily than trying to blast heroically through it. Watch the private space companies, as Brenda suggested the other day; those incremental baby steps soon start adding up.

And after all, there’s plenty of interesting stuff to do that doesn’t require a jag all the way to Mars. As the committee’s report points out, asteroids are easier to get to, and there’s still plenty they can teach us. Plus there are resources to be had; maybe NASA could balance the books a bit by slinging some or all of an asteroid back to Earth? A big lump of ice and minerals in close proximity to the home planet is the sort of thing a lot of the smaller fry would pay for a piece of, and it would be a handy thing to have in inventory for your own future works at the top of the gravity well (and beyond). And then there’s the the Lagrange points… depending on your focus, you could either do some good science out there, or get all Ben Bova on our asses with hotels and heavy industry.

Thinking pragmatically, the committee are right: Mars can wait, not just for NASA but for everyone. We should go, yeah, but we should go when we’re ready and able. As this rather charming infographic at BoingBoing shows, our success rate has been improving ever since we started trying to reach the Red Planet… but by trying to punch above our current weight, maybe we’re missing out on flooring some more manageable targets closer to home.

Friday fly-over: Mars’ Gusev Crater

Paul Raven @ 25-09-2009

Right, it’s Friday – so have some Martian landscape porn. A guy called Doug Ellison put this together to celebrate the Spirit rover’s third birthday… counting in Martian years, natch.

Pretty impressive, given it’s made purely from data collected by the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter and Spirit itselfas Paul McAuley says, it’ll not be long before there are versions that’ll allow you to explore the Red Planet at will, and Google Mars is getting pretty close.

And on the subject of Mars, there’s been more sightings of water ice, though it’s been somewhat overshadowed by the discovery of water on our nearer neighbour the Moon. Isn’t it high time we got to work on reducing price-to-orbit and actually going to these places in person?

Karl Schroeder: one-way tickets to Mars are a cost issue, not a risk issue

Paul Raven @ 22-09-2009

exploding rocketWe’ve mentioned the one-way option for Mars missions here a few times recently, the latest being in response to the Krauss op-ed in the New York Times. Earning himself his second Futurismic mention in as many days, Karl Schroeder tears down the “poisonous meme” that claims the journey to Mars is too dangerous – the reality is that it’s too expensive.

The objections all sound reasonable:  too much radiation!  Too far away!  Zero gravity is too debilitating!  Too expensive!

All of these objections are true, while at the same time they’re all wildly wrong, and largely for the same reasons.  In fact they’re all true only if getting from Earth to orbit remains as expensive as it is now.

Consider the seemingly insurmountable problem of radiation that Krauss complains of in his piece.  What’s the solution to radiation?  Shielding.  Is shielding a spacecraft impossible, or even difficult?  No, actually it’s easy.  Two meters of water around the crew cabin are enough to solve the problem of radiation in the inner solar system.  The problem is not the shielding; it’s the cost of shipping the water up to orbit that is the problem.

Ditto for, oh, let’s say zero gravity.  No astronaut should ever have to put up with zero gravity for more than a day or two at a time; the simple solution to the debilitating effects of freefall is to spin the spacecraft.  To do it in a manner comfortable to to the astronauts, you need a long boom arm, which might be heavy and awkward to lift from Earth.  The point is, the solution is easy.

Too far away?  If a space voyage is going to take months or years, there are two simple solutions:  send the ship faster, by using more propellant; or bring along more supplies.  Both of these solutions are primarily constrained by the cost of bringing stuff up from Earth.

That cost is, of course, the cost of old-school 1960s vintage chemical rocketry – $10,000 for every kilogram of stuff you want to get into orbit. Schroeder lists a number of alternatives, some of which you’ll have read about here or elsewhere: magnetic accelerators, laser propulsion launchers and so on… all with much lower to-orbit costs, all within the reach of NASA budgets – if they abandoned rocketry.

The question stands, though: given that NASA is well aware of its own budgetary problems, why is it clinging to such dated and inefficient methods? Is it for the prestige, the showiness, the rocket’s red glare? (You have to admit, a Space Shuttle launch is pretty impressive to watch… when it works.) [image by jurvetson]

But back to Schroeder:

Space is only a costly and dangerous destination if you insist on using 1960s technology to reach it.  Once NASA–or more likely the private sector–finally abandons that route, what was impossible will become easy.  —I only fear that the meme of space’s inaccessibility will prevent us from ever building the launch infrastructure that will prove it wrong; at this point, the meme looks like it’s turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That would be a sad thing – to turn our backs on space, not because it was genuinely impossible, but because we’d allowed ourselves to be convinced that it was.

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