How feasible are Elon Musk's plans to settle on Mars? A planetary scientist explains

October 3, 2016 by Christian Schroeder, The Conversation
The health of astronauts will be one of the main challenges for Musk. Credit: D Mitriy/wikimedia, CC BY-ND

Mars is the future. It's after all NASA's current overarching goal to send humans to the Red Planet. But even as early as the 1950s, aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun, had published his vision of a mission to Mars in his book The Mars Project. We've also heard visions of settling the Red Planet under the leadership of a private organisation before. So why does Elon Musk get so much attention? And how feasible are his ideas?

Musk has too much business acumen, cash and technological know-how to be dismissed as a dreamer. He built a rocket company, SpaceX, from scratch – now contracted by NASA to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. It is also going to transport astronauts into space from next year. Musk has a proven track record of making things happen, so perhaps we can learn from his plans to overcome the two major obstacles that face anyone planning to send humans two Mars: funding and the health of the crew.

Under current scenarios a journey to Mars takes about six months. The crew would therefore be exposed to the effects of long duration space flight where muscle and bone loss occurs under the prolonged exposure to micro-gravity. These effects appear to be largely reversible though. Of more concern is the radiation exposure when the crew leaves Earth's protective magnetic field. There is currently no shielding technology that would keep the increased cancer risk for the crew below legally accepted limits. And this does not take into account the need to protect astronauts from solar flares, too, in the short term. Musk offers no real solution here other than using the spaceship at the best angle for protection.

With the help of in-orbit refuelling, Musk does plan to reduce the transit time from six months to 80 days initially and maybe 30 days eventually, which would significantly decrease these risks. Otherwise he admits that the first missions in particular will pose real risks and anyone signing up basically has to be "prepared to die". However, more than 200,000 people signed up for the astronaut selection for Mars One – a rival mission to create a permanent human settlement on Mars in the 2020s – which offered only a one-way ticket to Mars. So the threat is unlikely to be a show-stopper, considering also that Musk's plans do include a return option.

The SpaceX rocket approaching the landing platform. Credit: SpaceX/flickr

Impossible timeline?

Musk estimates that, with the traditional approach like NASA's Apollo programme, the cost of sending humans to Mars will be about US$10 billion per person. He plans to reduce these costs by several orders of magnitude to US$200,000 per person – the average price of a home in the US and comparable to the amount charged for a suborbital flight with Virgin Galactic. His aim, he says, is to make it affordable for anyone who wants to go.

To lower the costs, Musk is designing a fully reusable system that will be refuelled in orbit with a new kind of propellant that can also be produced on Mars. We've seen these ideas before, and Musk has credibility here by successfully demonstrating controlled landings of rocket boosters for reuse.

Refuelling in orbit provides increased propulsive power, which shortens the transit time to Mars and allows larger spaceships to be sent to Mars that can carry more people and cargo. Mars One plans also include an orbit refuelling option, whereas NASA is designing a new rocket, the Space Launch System, that is supposed to eventually provide enough power to send astronauts to Mars in a single shot. NASA's approach avoids the upfront costs of the additional hardware and infrastructure for refuelling but it limits its options to the small number of about six astronauts and a long .

And here is the point where Musk's plans become truly ambitious and out of touch with his projected timeline of sending the first ship to Mars as early as 2022 (he admits he is bad at timelines). His transit ships are supposed to take 100 people in one go. SpaceX has yet to successfully take its first astronauts into space, starting with a modest number of two to fly in its Dragon capsule. To upscale this to an interplanetary cruiser transporting 100 people and keeping them alive on their journey to Mars seems a tall order, even for Musk. An audience member at Musk's presentation asked about the small matter of sanitation, for example. The explosion of his Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad at the beginning of September shows that it is not called rocket science for nothing.

Notwithstanding the significant technological challenges to achieve the grand scale of Musk's plans, the maths of lowering the costs only works if the ships will be reused often and if all seats on board are sold. The prospective Mars settlers would not only have to accept the risks but also find a way to pay the US$200,000 price tag.

Even with this buy in, there are enormous to develop and build the necessary infrastructure and put it into place around Earth and on Mars. Musk admits that raising the cash is his biggest challenge and that it will have to be some kind of public-private venture in the end. Success of his plans ultimately will come down to whether he can find enough like-minded people who will put all of their own assets on the line for the greater goal of making humanity an interplanetary species, as well as to secure government buy-in and private investors who will demand some kind of a profit.

Explore further: SpaceX chief envisions 1,000 passenger ships flying to Mars

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Ryan1981
3 / 5 (2) Oct 03, 2016
So, start a crowdfund campaign. I'd pay 10 euro just to see it happen. If everyone on earth would pay 10 euro average, that's 71.25 billion euro.

Perhaps also put in a vote which person you'd like to see go to Mars, maybe in a similar fashion as in the movie contact. The commercial contracts of airing the selection process alone will probably bring in millions of euros.
Axe
2 / 5 (2) Oct 03, 2016
I have many questions about going to Mars, other than because it is there, how will this benefit humanity? Better off to go somewhere that will be "profitable" in some way. I haven't heard of any resources being found on Mars, and you certainly won't grow any food there to support humans in any great number. Have they found any signs of significant useful minerals? Better off latching onto a comet or meteor to mine. In the article they comment on the radiation exposure during the flight. What about the radiation exposure on the surface of Mars? With only a very thin layer of Carbon Dioxide for an atmosphere, the level of radiation on the surface will be about the same as being in outer space. Water will be the most desperately needed commodity but probably the least available to be found. If they're going to try an pull this stunt off, they should send up some water gathering robots first to at least give the arriving astronauts something to work with.
danR
1 / 5 (2) Oct 03, 2016
As a planetary scientist you do not understand Musk's real goals with this 'prepare to die' hucksterism. He's doing another 'Hyperloop' distraction. Chevy Bolt is breathing down his neck, Falcon Heavy is long overdue, The recent explosion, excuse me, 'fast fire' has still not been explained despite the helium pressurant update, there are very serious doubts in the investment community about the Solar City/Telsa scheme. He's doing a distraction, and his followers need a fresh chugalug of the Kool-Aid.

danR
2 / 5 (1) Oct 03, 2016
What about the radiation exposure on the surface of Mars?

Almost more than anything else, radiation would insure that these Chesley Bonestell dreamworlds will be permanently shelved in the 50's. People would not be casually wandering around the surface of Mars. For the most part, habitations would be permanently constructed underground, and or set back deep into cliff faces and fronted by a generous thickness of glass, or a glass/(storage-)water sandwich.

But the fact is, that by the time the whole fantasy is deployed, AI and robots will make it obsolete. The exploration of space is for our successors.
WinterRED
5 / 5 (4) Oct 03, 2016
Can't say I particularly disagree with your belief that Musk's vision for the future of Mars exploration is too idealistic and lacks a lot of key preparations. However, I do think that the issue of getting people to sign up for the Mars mission (paying 200k) would be a non-factor. Most likely, if you're going to Mars, financial stability and life expectancy become secondary concerns. I can't speak for anyone else, but I would be more than willing to take the risks just for a CHANCE at reaching the red planet. Elon Musk's ideas are far-fetched, but maybe that's what we need to be able to push ourselves into a new era of space exploration.
Mayday
2.5 / 5 (2) Oct 03, 2016
There must be an optimum ratio (of weight to fuel to speed to survival resources to number of people to investment) that maximizes the odds of actually ending up with any survivors on on the surface of Mars. I'm sure a handful of people is too low, but 100 seems so high as to trigger other risks. IMO, the biggest fail is in putting everyone in one big ship. I'd opt for a constellation of smaller craft (even connected by booms) to minimize the risk of one catastrophic failure. That said, I'm ready to go when they are.
ericp
5 / 5 (3) Oct 03, 2016
So, start a crowdfund campaign. I'd pay 10 euro just to see it happen. If everyone on earth would pay 10 euro average, that's 71.25 billion euro.

Perhaps also put in a vote which person you'd like to see go to Mars, maybe in a similar fashion as in the movie contact. The commercial contracts of airing the selection process alone will probably bring in millions of euros.


Good thoughts, but good luck getting a poor family of 4 in Africa whose dad makes 10 Euro a month to donate it so that some rich dude can fly to Mars for $200K.
Manfred Particleboard
5 / 5 (1) Oct 03, 2016
Mars ain't the kind of place to raise a kid - in fact it's cold as hell...
baudrunner
5 / 5 (1) Oct 03, 2016
Elon will probably achieve something along the lines of these plans, but they will fail in the long term from a lack of practical purpose. As I've said before, the only practical reason to develop interplanetary space travel is industry. That will require support infrastructure, both machine and human. Colonization should be an outgrowth - almost a necessary evil - of the whole process of exploiting resources better sought out there, like Helium 3 for example, and for whatever we think we could do better out there than down here.
HTK
3 / 5 (1) Oct 03, 2016
Moon base first.

Far more efficient for all space exploration.

Even telescope on the moon, fuel consumption, launch pads
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Oct 04, 2016
Almost more than anything else, radiation would insure that these Chesley Bonestell dreamworlds will be permanently shelved in the 50's.

Go underground. That has many advantages
- radiation shielding
- no need to bring along building material (just digging material)...which means you can make your base as big as you want as long as the digging material works
- insulation against the temperature extremes
- you need to dig down anyways to get at the water (and thereby the oxygen)

People would not be casually wandering around the surface of Mars.

And why would they? There's not much point in being on the surface other than to admire the view.

The main problem I see with a Mars base isn't radiation or water or oxygen...it's nitrogen. There isn't any in easily accesible form on Mars. Nitrogen is crucial for breathing (you can't breathe pure oxygen) and for any kind of agriculture cycle.
humy
not rated yet Oct 04, 2016
I have many questions about going to Mars, other than because it is there, how will this benefit humanity?

It won't. Not in the slightest. And any money and time and resources wasted putting a man Mars could be far far better spent as extra money and resources on dealing with Earthly problems such as poverty, world hunger, disease control, research and development in renewables etc.

How did putting a man on the moon benefit humanity?
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Oct 04, 2016
I'm sure there would be benefits from having a base on Mars or the Moon. They may not be what people think of at first (money) but more long term prospects. If we want to do asteroid mining at some point then Mars/Moon make ideal bases (lower gravity, and Mars is significantly closer to the asteroid belt).
They are also suitable places for trying out how to adapt ourselves to harsher environments (i.e. where biosphere projects can be launched under the *least* demanding/dangerous extraterran environments and where genetic adaptations can be prototyped). We well need at least the biosphere and probably also the adaptation if we ever want to build and kind of serious spaceships.

How did putting a man on the moon benefit humanity?

The vision and scope of the project advanced many sciences (not least of which the one we benefit every day of our lives in multiple ways: putting satellites into orbit). A Mars project could spark similar tech for an interplanetary age.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Oct 04, 2016
That said: I think the cooling tower in the background of the picture ain't gonna work under martian conditions.
Manfred Particleboard
not rated yet Oct 05, 2016
Anti- The link between nitrogen and solar system industry such as asteroid mining could be linked. While you're out in the astereoid belt you might as well send some cloud skimming tech to jupiter for ammonia and other atmospheric resources. Jupiters' gravity well might need some serious energy input to escape from, but hey, this is a science fiction topic right?

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