Thread time. This one may go on for a whiiile. I've been reading up on Elon Musk's plans for Mars colonization and... woof. We're not getting into the ethical arguments around space colonization, just focus on the practical aspects because man there's a lot to discuss. 1/
Elon Musk, through his company SpaceX, has set the crazy ambitious goal of building a self-sufficient city of one million people on Mars by 2050. The fact Musk turn 50 this June has nothing to do with this aggressive 30 yr timeline, I'm sure. 2/
To achieve this, SpaceX is developing an interplanetary heavy-lift rocket called "Starship" to ferry a hundred people at a time from Earth to Mars to begin construction and occupation of the colony. And therein lays the first problem. 3/
At 100 people a pop, you'll need 10,000 launches to land a million people on Mars. But that's just the people, not all the equipment, supplies, and construction materials they'll need to actually build the colony. Even Musk thinks it'll take 100,000 launches. In 30 years. 4/
That's averaging 3,300 launches per year over that timespan. And that's if they started launching now, today. In reality, the first manned launch to Mars is still years away, and it will take years longer to ramp up production of Starship to those scales. 5/
And here's the other thing, those launches can't happen day in, day out throughout the year. Because of the orbital mechanics between Earth and Mars, there are narrow windows of opportunity to launch spacecraft from one planet to the other. 6/
These windows for a minimum-energy launch only open up every 26 months! You /can/ launch for a period of time outside those windows, but at an ever-growing penalty to how much mass you can carry for the available fuel load until it eventually becomes physically impossible. 7/
So, every two years and two months, you'd have to be launching an average flurry of almost SEVEN-THOUSAND Starship rockets over the course of a few weeks. Let's put that launch rate in perspective for a second. 8/
NASA's Space Shuttle program lasted exactly 30 years, from Columbia's first flight in 1981, to Atlantis's final in 2011. In that entire span, NASA launched 135 shuttle missions. Total. Including the Challenger and Columbia disasters (more on that later). 9/
And remember that was just to Low Earth Orbit, not to depart on round-trip missions to Mars that would require in-orbit refueling, and then refueling again on the Martian surface using fuel harvested and cracked in-situ before returning to Earth during the next window. 10/
So what you're talking about is developing a heavy-launch capability more than a thousand times larger than that of the most wealthy and technologically advanced country on Earth. In the next handful of years. With private capital that has no real chance of turning a profit. 11/
That's just to put a million people on Mars by 2050. And that's if everything goes right. Which it absolutely won't. Spaceflight is dangerous, and living on Mars will be even more so. Launches will fail. Rockets will malfunction. People will die. 12/
The Space Shuttle had two accidents over the course of its operation, costing 14 lives. Even if SpaceX gets its failure rate down to 1%, you're still talking about 100 lost rockets and 10,000 deaths. And that's before you even set foot on Mars. 13/
Mars as it exists today is a death trap. The only liquid water on the surface comes in the form of small trickles of salty brine. The atmosphere is 1% Earth sea level pressure. The average temperature is well below freezing and solar radiation is a real problem. 14/
If you want to drink and breathe, you have to either bring your own water and air, or dig up water ice, melt it, and then crack it through electrolysis to get your oxygen. The soil is filled perchlorates that will kill almost any seeds you plant. 15/
Seals will leak. Machines will break. Domes will crack. People will die. And that's before we even figure out what sorts of effects living in 38% gravity for extended periods have on peoples' bodies. All this happening without advanced hospital capacity. 16/
It'll be frontier type medicine, at best, for a very long time. It's unlikely people will be eager to reproduce in any numbers in such an environment, so each of those deaths will have to be offset but even more immigration. 17/
All the while the hardy pioneers are expected to be busy building a city bigger than Milwaukee and its entire infrastructure in a freezing desert with no air, with materials they get in enormous supply dumps once every twenty-six months. 18/
Meanwhile, the city itself is supposed to be moving towards "Self-sufficiency." Now, that's different from being a totally closed system. Self-sufficiency can mean your economy does enough trade with others to break even. But trade what? 19/
We have a pretty good idea of the geology of Mars and what's in its rocks. Mars was only geologically active for a billion years or so early in the Solar System's life, so there wasn't time for the kinds of processes that created a bonanza of mineral wealth as on Earth. 20/
Anything you could theoretically extract from Mars to ship back to Earth will therefore probably not be in any way unique to Mars other than the "Wow, it's from Mars!" factor, and would have its price enormously inflated by shipping costs. 21/
So again, what does Mars have to trade with Earth to make it self-sufficient? Possibly a base of operations for asteroid mining deeper in the system. It will be drastically easier to construct a space elevator on Mars than on Earth using existing materials. 22/
But that's not a 30 year horizon kind of project. About the only thing I can think of Mars could offer in the short term to Earth would be cultural. Mars-based TV shows. Poets. Musicians. Artists. Authors even? Mars would very quickly develop it's own cultural flavor. 23/
But is that going to be enough in trade to cover the tens, probably hundreds of billions of dollars a million person city with next to no advanced manufacturing base, agricultural volume, or pharmacological capacity will need in exchange?

As a creative myself, I'm dubious. 24/
Let me digress just a bit to talk about another billionaire-funded dream project: Biosphere II. My wife and I had the chance to visit last year on our annual Spring Training trip to AZ. It was immensely fun and educational. 25/
Far from being the failed experiment it's often portrayed in the media, Biosphere II was a remarkably successful and innovative endeavor. However, one bit of trivia we learned on our trip still sticks out to me. The first 8 person team was all scientists. 26/
They expected to spend their two-year mission doing experiments in Earth science as they explored their habitat, studied the interplay between the various species and biomes, and placed stress on various components of the closed system. 27/
Turns out they got to do fuckall of that. Almost no science was done in that first mission inside Biosphere II, because the scientists spent more than 50 hours a week per person just growing and preparing the food they needed to survive. 28/
And remember, this was in a sealed experiment that had already been built for them. They didn't get dropped off on a cargo plane in the middle of the desert with an erector set nd told to build their house before they went out to plant corn. 29/
I feel like I'm starting to belabor the point, so let me just wrap up by saying there's a difference between an ambitious goal and a logistically and economically impossible one. None of the technology Musk is proposing is out of reach in the near term. It's the scaling. 30/33
Anyway. Buy a book or some shit.
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