Getting Humans On Mars

Will SpaceX do it before NASA does?

That would be the way to bet, absent some dramatic change in attitude on the Hill.

[Update a couple minutes later]

Speaking of which, one of a very long series of essays (including a lot of history) on why SpaceX will settle Mars. Because it’s a priority for Elon Musk, but not for the federal government.

Also, more and more people in the media are starting to notice the absurdity of SLS. Plus Garver unchained. Plus, thoughts on the program from a (smart) layman.

[Update a few minutes later]

Here is the Space News op-ed from Lori, with a lot of interesting history of the transition in 2009.

45 thoughts on “Getting Humans On Mars”

  1. All of my questions revolve around how much of the necessary research is/will be ready in time.

    That is:
    NASA would IMNSHO make the very first mission involving people ‘touch the ground then return home ASAP.’ The food and consumables would be prepared before the astronauts were even finalized. That is: “Everything prefab”.

    But I don’t see a cost-conscious mission going down that path. And that means there are questions that need answers. It wouldn’t be hypothetical pure science explorations like “Can chickens breed in space?” but instead “How many chickens can we breed?” or “What sort of biological recycling are we going to use?” And those questions don’t seem asked, let alone answered.

    -Elon- wants a colony. Or, at least, the entire process regularized enough that he can personally go. That’s a wildly different research focus than “How can we make a Salisbury Steak that has a shelf life of seven years or more?”

  2. Regarding the SLS, something like it could be useful if they could recover the first stage core and combine it with four Falcon-9 full thrust re-usable boosters (6.8 million lbs thrust).

    But SpaceX could probably build such a stage from scratch for less money than NASA would need to modify the tower for four boosters and build a landing barge for the core stage (The SpaceX barge can’t be used because it has the wrong logo). And that’s aside from the cost of learning how to land with RS-25’s or adding special descent engines.

    Ignoring the vast sum already spent, if Congress wanted a viable system they’d have NASA teaming with SpaceX to build an SLS grasshopper test vehicle.

    1. The SpaceX barge can’t be used because it has the wrong logo…

      Unless resistance is futile and NASA gets assimilated!

  3. t’s important to remember that politicians use different metrics than we do when determining the success or failure of a government program. We foolishly consider value, necessity, and capabilities delivered as our metrics. Politicians value things like votes bought, money pumped into their districts, campaign contributions generated, cronies enriched, and elections won. To them, nothing else matters.

    1. Politicians value things like votes bought, money pumped into their districts, campaign contributions generated, cronies enriched, and elections won.

      Its too bad they don’t realize that private enterprise does all of those things.

  4. I’ve got this insane fantasy that by some miracle NASA is directed to ditch Orion and a crash program (aka SOME type of useful upper stage) put in place to use the first SLS to launch a Bigelow-based module to from a transhab for lease by a player like SpaceX. The proposed launch rate for SLS *almost* might dovetail with a Musk plan. I’d even risk the using the *first* SLS to do it. Even if that’s all it ever does it could put what 3 or 4 trans-habs in orbit? Even at 50% mission failure rate that could still be 1 or 2. #JourneyForLease #MoneyForSomething

  5. It would be interesting (to say the least) to watch Lori Garver try to work with Congress as Clinton’s NASA administrator.

    I have trouble believing that SpaceX will be able to self-fund crewed Mars missions in the next 20 years. I can believe that they will pull in enough money to fund R&D that brings launch costs down considerably, and lets them earn substantial profits dominating the commercial and U.S. military launch markets, but I don’t see the falling “cost of crewed Mars mission” and rising “spare money SpaceX has available to fund the settlement of Mars” lines crossing anytime soon. The launch market isn’t very big, and companies rarely spend more than a small fraction of their profits on such a high-risk venture. I’m even surprised they have the spare cash (and leeway from investors) to pay for Red Dragon. It seems more likely that the falling cost line will cross the “money Congress is willing to give NASA for a Mars mission using SpaceX rockets” line, and humans will reach Mars that way.

    1. I’m even surprised they have the spare cash (and leeway from investors) to pay for Red Dragon.

      Their current investors share Elon’s Mars vision. They are not a public company (for that reason).

      1. Two Falcon 9 Heavy launches would put up 120 million tons and cost $180 million. NASA is buying six more RS-25 engines for $1.17 billion, or $193 million per each. They throw away four per flight.

        NASA hopes to get the price down to $50 or $60 million per engine, which means the SLS will always cost more than two Falcon 9H launches.

        Two Falcon 9 Heavies would be cheaper than the SLS per pound to orbit even without their re-usability and even if the SLS’s SRBs, first stage tank, and complete second stage were absolutely free.

        NASA’s goal is to make sure each SLS rocket costs less than a billion a launch, with perhaps half a billion for the capsule. So Elon could charge $500 million per Falcon Heavy launch and match them on price per pound to orbit, but he’s only charging $90 million.

        1. A quick point I want to make. I never claimed SLS would in any way shape or form ever be cheaper than two F9Hs. But if the US Senate has already thrown away the money we have two (really bad) options. Shut down SLS and eat the cost completely. Or launch what is available for the money already spent and spend no more! Then the question is what is the most bang for the buck given a bad option not to be repeated? Transhabs? Fuel Depots? Maybe to really make the point sink home, how about we load it (SLS) up with diamonds and gold and send that off into solar orbit? >-(

          1. Do not try to retrieve money badly spent, because the people who mandated that bad spending will only do more of it. Escape them! Leave them to self-desruct in your wake!

    2. You’re a Big Government guy. I get that. You tend to place implicit faith in government initiatives and have a well-canalized suspicion of private sector efforts. But government – especially if it insists on doing the project in the time-honored traditional government ways – is never going to settle space. There is insufficient money available for it to do so and no real prospect of getting more. NASA has a sharply limited budget and doesn’t even spend what little it has very wisely.

      Over the past 50 years, NASA has created a series of what I like to call “serial space ghost towns.” The first was the Moon, post-Apollo. The second was LEO, post-Skylab. The third was LEO transport, post-Shuttle. Many would like the fourth to be LEO once more, post-ISS. The previous thing done always has to die to fund the next thing done. Or, in too many cases, the next things not done – NASP, Venture Star, Constellation, etc. SLS-Orion has now become the next “new” thing, supposedly to support a #JourneyToMars. It is far likelier to become the next Constellation.

      That leaves private profit-oriented efforts as the only ones with any realistic shot at actually getting humanity sustainably off-planet in significant numbers. If a particular private sector space enterprise consistently makes money, it will grow. With enough such, human presence off-Earth will become a thing that “goes by itself.”

      The alternative is one tenuous toe-hold at a time. Each successive one will depend upon politically fickle funding that will last, at best, only long enough until something newer comes along to displace it. As noted, the last five decades contain numerous existence proofs of this general proposition.

      So what are SpaceX’s odds of getting to Mars vis-a-vis NASA’s? Much better, I’d say. SpaceX has a vision it is pursuing. The vision is that of its relentlessly persistent genius founder. NASA has no vision and its current leader has risen several grades beyond his level of incompetence.

      But even with a much savvier honcho – Lori Garver, say – NASA is quite unlikely to be significantly improvable. There are just too many vested interests that would need to be bulldozed and they will all resist.

      SpaceX, even now, has more hardware and capability it can turn toward Mars than NASA does. It is rapidly acquiring still more. It is moving at several times NASA’s speed. The capability gap between the two entities will simply continue to grow.

      Tom Matula seems to regard NASA as a kind of Borg Collective which has “assimilated” SpaceX into the role of compliant conventional contractor. In truth, things are much closer to the other way around. SpaceX had, and continues to have, much to learn from NASA. Elon has never pretended otherwise. But, as SpaceX learns and then does things with its newly acquired knowledge, it is, in effect, “assimilating” NASA. A few more years of this trend line and NASA will depend much more upon SpaceX than the reverse.

      Nor is SpaceX the only “assimilationist entity” out there. Blue Origin is also coming up fast. There will be others.

      Red Dragon is part of this. It is an Earth lander that just happens to also be well-suited to doing similar chores on Mars. It will have a payload capacity far larger than anything NASA has either extant or on drawing boards.

      About that “leeway from investors?” Not much required. The expendable 2nd stage of the FH and the Red Dragon itself will cost a combined total of no more than $20 million. That buys SpaceX a whole new level of attention and credibility. Especially if the mission actually works.

      There are also ways to leverage a demonstrated Red Dragon capability far beyond a single mission.

      Mars settlement is going to need a number of things not currently in-hand – at SpaceX, NASA or anywhere else. A long-duration Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), is most notable among these, but also In-Situ Resource Utilization
      (ISRU) propellant and food production and a lot of other things.

      SpaceX can either develop this stuff itself, hire it done or do both at once. This last option could involve internal SpaceX “Team A’s” competing against outside “Team B’s.”

      So, in addition to internal R&D efforts on all critical path colonization items, SpaceX could offer a free Red Dragon mission to any individual researcher or team willing to build up to two tonnes of prototype hardware that will fit in the lander and which addresses any of the designated critical agenda items. To defray the cost of the missions, SpaceX could sell naming rights to sponsors. The researchers could be required to build their equipment on their own dime, using money raised from any source including any potential sponsor who would also be willing to pony up for naming rights to the mission that carries the gear. Other possible team funding sources include: academic, governmental or foundation grants, use of crowdfunding platforms, lotteries/raffles, sale of reality TV show production rights, etc.

      The coming decades are shaping up to be a much-delayed “Era of Wonderful Nonsense” in spacefaring; something sidetracked in the early 1960’s by the singularity that was Apollo, but now reasserting itself as the traditional structure of economic “sectoral revolutions” emerges from behind the increasingly sclerotic NASA and goes its own idiosyncratic way.

      1. You’re absolutely right about who is doing the assimilating.

        possible team funding sources

        Any funding source becomes possible as the reality of going to mars is demonstrated. Things that were no go suddenly seem obvious. This is what makes the 2018 target so exciting. We are going to live to see it (assuming we can hang around for a decade or two.)

    3. I don’t see the falling “cost of crewed Mars mission” and rising “spare money SpaceX has available to fund the settlement of Mars” lines crossing anytime soon.

      The reason you don’t see it is you fail to account for other revenue that will occur just because we have people on mars.

      People on mars are not going to simply be researchers and scientists living in tuna cans. They are going to form a multitude of companies providing a variety of industrial goods. Mars will create wealth the same way we do on earth, by trade among it’s members… the more members the faster that trade will grow. This requires absolutely zero mass transfer from mars to benefit the earth.

      All mars needs is people. The one time cost of getting those people to mars will be paid in full by a lifetime of wealth building.

      1. Who will control the IP generated by the Mars colonists? Will Elon have an ownership provision as part the the ticket to Mars?

        1. Elon has made it clear he sees value only in IP that is not available to others, who will ignore patents. On Earth he uses registered trade secrets, and no more. Those won’t work well on Mars, even if he’s on Mars. Trying to make an entire town hold on to trade secrets is far more difficult than with a closely held company.

          In addition, it’s a good way to kill his dream of a rapidly expanding colony of free people whose incentives are to innovate and invest in their own ideas.

      2. I don’t doubt that a viable Mars colony would create wealth, the issue is getting to that point. To make Red Dragon happen SpaceX is going to have to put up tens or hundreds of millions, without an immediate return. To put the first humans on Mars will cost someone billions, again without an immediate financial return (TV rights would be worth a lot, but they won’t cover the whole thing). I’d love to see SpaceX become so profitable that they can foot the bill for those first missions, but I think they’re more likely to be paid for by taxpayers.

        1. SpaceX become so profitable that they can foot the bill for those first missions, but I think they’re more likely to be paid for by taxpayers.

          Then it’s not likely to happen. And that’s not a bad thing.

        2. It will be a normal growth curve which is to say slower than we’f like at first, then faster than we expect later.

          If they send used equipment, it’s already paid for. Then they let others provide payloads… they could even profit! Not much perhaps but in a repeatable way.

          Once real revenue starts, things begin to move faster.

        3. but I think they’re more likely to be paid for by taxpayers.

          Maybe indirectly? Or indirectly by another customer. The Mars launch could be paid for by whomever bought the first ride. This could be the government, through NASA or the military, or a private company.

          I really doubt that NASA will let SpaceX go to Mars without NASA hitching a ride. Whether or not that means NASA funds the mission, pays a fee, or just hitches a ride is yet to be seen.

          It is vitally important for NASA to participate in the mission in order to retain their image as being indispensable. Just having a history of working with SpaceX wont be enough.

      3. All mars needs is people.

        An environment in which people could thrive would be nice also.

        1. They will build that environment. As long as they aren’t energy starved they can do everything else.

          1. “Aren’t energy starved” is an interesting euphemism for “have unlimited sources of energy”.

    4. SpaceX will other profit streams by the time Mars comes around. Selling tickets to Bigelow Facilities and to Luna.

      1. Indeed, to empower a Mars settlement, by ending a first space solar power system to mars to beam down energy to the settlement would seem a natural for SpaceX. Build it at EML-1 using SpiderFab or Auqinaut tech, Attach the large low mass ion engines you can build in freefall that use the solar power to power the system to Mars Stationary orbit over the settlement. Then, have the Mars-built rectenna array spread out and waiting for the switch to be turned on before the first settlers arrive. Long-term cash flow for SpaceX then proceeds to happen.

          1. Elon opposes space solar power for Earth. So do I, at least as a first target. But surface solar power is a much less attractive option on Mars, long term, than it is here. It has all the same day-night cycle limitations it does on Earth plus the pervasive Martian dust. The dust would coat the collectors and atmospheric dust kicked up by frequent Martian windstorms would intercept a lot of the solar flux unpredictably. Dust on Mars would be the equivalent of clouds on Earth.

            Given that, with the exception of the Duchy of Muskovy, Mars will be uninhabited for what may be quite awhile, there are things one can do, SPS-wise, that would ever work on Earth. Non-Geosynchronous Mars Orbit SPS that use phased arrays to steer their microwave beams to the colony rectenna(s) for one. Use of ISRU conversion of convenient Deimosian and/or Phobosian mass to build all or most of the SPS infrastructure for another. The colony rectennas could even be put directly over the colony site as all habitation will need to be underground for radiation protection reasons.

            Something that would work on Earth, but would work even better on Mars, is use of Argon as reaction mass for SPS station-keeping ion thrusters. The Martian atmosphere is roughly twice as rich in Argon as Earth’s is. Muskovites will be needing to liquify a lot of Martian atmosphere for other industrial purposes so Argon can be a useful by-product.

            Martian SPS will have to be big because the solar flux at Mars, even in space, is lower than near Earth. But they don’t have to be square kilometers in size to be useful. Start with one, brought from Earth, to power the Deimosian/Phobosian ISRU. Build more that could, at the start, provide intermittent service to charge Muskovy’s initial baseload batteries and then deploy more, as fast as they can be fabricated, to extend service until it is continuous. Then continue to add more to increase the total capacity of the system. Keep adding more to support other things in the cis-Martian neighborhood including expanded ISRU on the Martian moons.

            Bootstrapping and incrementalism.

            Mind you, I still think colonizing Mars is going to be, at best, a minor sideshow in Humanity’s spread into space, but if Elon’s going to do it anyway, SPS could be a key bit of infrastructure that can be started small and worked up over time.

  6. IMHO, the first astronauts on Mars will be from NASA. This will be accomplished one of two ways; either NASA provides the astronauts for a mainly SpaceX Mars mission (as SpaceX has indicated they would prefer), or, SpaceX will provide its own crew but NASA will find a way to prevent them from using the word “astronauts”. That’d give SpaceX the first humans on Mars, but not the first astronauts. (That might sound sarcastic, and it is, but it’s also a serious prediction).

    At this juncture, I’d be willing to bet that the first Mars manned lander will have a SpaceX logo on the side. SpaceX, even without their big Mars presentation scheduled for September this year, has a far clearer actual roadmap to manned Mars landings than NASA does. SpaceX certainly faces vast challenges so this is very far from a sure thing, but I still place their odds as higher than NASA’s.

    1. Well, if NASA prevents the use of the term astronaut, SpaceX should call their people astrocans…

  7. Believe it or not, Musk is a very traditional businessman, but solving funding might require a different perspective.

    There will be 2 phases (Cargo / Crew) Cargo will pick a spot and supply it for about ten years. Once SpaceX demonstrates safe Dragon 2 mars landing (2018?) They can then lobby NASA/Congress for demo ISRU missions out of NASA’s budget ($300m ea. lander?) After about 40 tons of equipment and supplies are waiting at one location the pressure will be on to send colonists.

    Musk wants the colonists to pay their own way (the traditional business approach.) NASA wants to send astronauts on limited duration missions. Instead, a fund and lottery should be set up for permanent colonists. Once colonization is under way and it becomes obvious that people can live on mars, creative financing will follow. What is unreasonable today will become the obvious thing to do.

    Sending many at a time, the per colonist cost could get to about $5m per without too much trouble. I just don’t see $500k happening even with MCT.

      1. Things change fast at SpaceX but they still seem to be saying FH can put 13 mt in mars orbit so one lander per FH. But they can launch multiple FH if they have the ground facilities.

        F9 used to loft 13 mt to LEO, now that’s 22 mt. (enough for a BA330.)

      2. Rethinking your comment Wodun… It’s not Dragon that will ultimately lower costs. It’s sending 100 crew at a time on MCT.

        1. Yup, that is what I was getting at. More passengers mean the costs can be shared. Maximizing the passengers at each stage is important. Only so many can do down to Mars at one time. Only so many can transit directly from Earth’s surface to Mars at one time. But other opportunities may present themselves if the voyage is split in segments.

        1. So economies of scale from a passenger perspective may require sacrificing other efficiencies.

    1. Yes, it was. Even more disappointing that he never really addressed any of the substantive downside issues raised. Maybe the Reverend Dr. Paul thinks he needs to double down on that old-time SLS religion because the Archdemon Zubrin has recently been saying complimentary things about Elon Musk and SpaceX?

      I’ve got a lot of personal commenting history with most of the SLS Amen Chorus that turned out in Paul’s comments section. Marcel thinks two SLS launches per year would make the program “economically sustainable” but would really like to see four. As I’ve previously observed, if we’re doing wishes here, I’d really like to spend a weekend of erotic abandon in a Vegas penthouse with Carmen Electra. I think my chances are probably better than Marcel’s are of ever seeing even two SLS missions per year, never mind four.

      Then it gets really out there. Marcel allows as how he knows that “Billgamesh” would like to see still more annual SLS missions. Joe chimes in with the helpful observation that all we really had to do was tweak the ET tooling at Michoud and we could make eight SLS’s a year. The SLS core stage is over three times the mass of an ET and is a lot more complicated but, hey, Joe has spoken.

      Then there is the LH2-Uber-Alles fetishism and the Elon Musk/SpaceX conspiracy theorizing and the armchair structural analysis. “Oooooo! Falcon Heavy’s going to blow up ’cause the commies tried a whole bunch of engines on N-1 and they all blew up! Oooooo! Falcon Heavy’s going to shake itself to pieces ’cause three cores is a whole different tuning fork than one core!” This from people championing their own “three-core” rocket, two cores of which happen to be big solids. I guess if your cores are different sizes it’s okay.

      There is no grasp of engineering and manufacturing reality here. These people are like Hitler in the bunker, frantically issuing orders to military formations that had long since ceased to exist and counting on last minute salvation that wasn’t going to come.

      On the matter of “SpaceX’s fill-in-the-blank hasn’t flown yet,” well, time wounds all heels. Another two years of steady progress by SpaceX and these guys are all gonna look like victims of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. What exactly are they all going to say when Falcon Heavy is in revenue service, Red Dragon is on its way to Mars and SLS-Orion is still a collection of test articles slipping evermore to the right?

      1. Excellent assessment. They all chime that Falcon Heavy is just a paper rocket. While saying their paper rocket is somehow ready to launch… it is insanity on a bun over there.

        1. “Insanity on a bun.” I like that, Vlad. “I gotchyer Wack-o-burgers right here! You want fries with that?” 🙂

      2. What exactly are they all going to say when Falcon Heavy is in revenue service, Red Dragon is on its way to Mars and SLS-Orion is still a collection of test articles slipping evermore to the right?

        They will say they knew it all along.

      3. two SLS launches per year would make the program “economically sustainable”

        Economics don’t play a role. SLS, like all other government programs, is an ideological expense. Ideology is sustainable at nearly any cost.

        The limits are how much the populace can be taxed before revolt, how much debt can be incurred, and how ideological spending preferences compete with the lobbying efforts for other ideological spending preferences.

      4. IMO Falcon 9 Heavy will fly. The question is when. It keeps getting delayed and there were rumors of a Raptor powered second stage required by the USAF to use it. If they decide to focus on that version it will be a long time before it shows up. But it will be more powerful than the current spec. That is for sure.
        It all depends if SpaceX enough clients for Falcon 9 Heavy other than the USAF.

        The basic core blocks of Falcon 9 Heavy are a lot more reliable than anything done in N-1. N-1 was a case of rushed development, bad quality control, and no full-up testing. SpaceX has none of those issues. Also they can use modern digital computers to control the engines instead of that analog KORD computer.

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