Lately there has been a lot of talk about Mars.
We have the knowledge, materials and resources to create the necessary technology to populate Mars, create a moon base, and even fly reusable rockets from city to city here on Earth. We’ve recently heard and seen much about “How” this might be accomplished from the likes of NASA /Lockheed Martin and Elon Musk.
However when the question comes to “why”, the answer is typically a broad feel-good statement of “to create a new chapter in human history”, which does little to capture the epic vastness of opportunity that Mars, and space exploitation represents.
For many, and not without reason, “space” is seen as a distant concept, because space is distant. It’s seen as expensive, because traditionally, doing anything in space is astronomically expensive compared to the average national budget; only the most wealthy nations have succeeded in establishing space programs. It’s also seen as an investment with no tangible return; despite its vastness, the ROI is often many steps removed, and is not realised for many years.
So when the question for us common folk comes around to why anyone would want to go to Mars, a common default position many people take is that it’s a nice dream to have, and it’s probably something best left to science fiction authors, and quite possibly a waste of resources.
My argument is that it’s not just a dream, and it’s certainly not an argument about the ethics or morals. My argument is that it’s a tangible future within the grasp of the current generation of humans. Questions of whether we should notwithstanding, it’s clear that there are state and private actors who quite clearly will reach out to Mars.
So beyond these vague, heart-swelling notions of exploring new frontiers, I would like to ask the question: why are the likes of Lockheed and Elon Musk really pushing so hard towards Mars?
Where is the money?
Mars is the money.
With no pesky ecosystem (that we know of), Mars can be almost universally exploited, although the question of whether that should be the case, and if so then how, has been a subject of thought and debate for some time.
Assuming universal exploitation, Mars is entirely covered in rich minerals and ores.
All of the manufacturing materials to build factories and machines can be mined and refined on-planet. Water is abundant in the icy lithosphere, allowing for human colonies and the production of fuel when combined with Mars’ CO2 rich atmosphere.
Mars’ lower gravity, which is only 38% that of Earth’s, makes space launches much easier. You do not need a separate first stage booster to launch into martian orbit.
Combined with Mars’ proximity to the asteroid belt, Mars is a prime candidate as a base for massive-scale asteroid mining operations, rather than towing asteroids back to Earth over a period of years. Heck, you could just smash asteroids down onto Mars to break them up and harvest them more efficiently, all under the guise of terraforming.
What this all means is that once you have “bootstrapped” a self-sustaining martian manufacturing industry, further investment from Earth is unnecessary.
The first entity to lay claim to this proverbial gold mine would undoubtedly gain a great deal of wealth and power as a result.
First in, best dressed.
To be the first to exploit Mars for industry, you would need to have the ability to do so.
This requires access to advanced rocket technology, automated manufacturing, automated transport, mining, refining and excavation.
While Lockheed Martin may top the list, having a long history of exploring Mars with NASA and significantly more experience with manned spaceflight, they are also relatively late to Elon’s rush to actually colonise and exploit Mars, having only recently announced their own plans to send humans the red planet. Lockheed’s plan for an orbiter and a transport ship which crews 6 is more modest, but some might argue more realistic.
Elon Musk’s fleet of businesses such as Tesla, SpaceX and the Boring Company demonstrate capabilities across most of the necessary technologies to succeed in this mission, and as a complete private venture there is the potential to “move quickly and break things.” It’s not a stretch to see him leveraging his combined capabilities in multiple sectors to gain a competitive advantage in multi-planetary industries.
Beyond simply reaching Mars, he has been outspoken about his colonisation plans including the use of “mining / tunneler droids". He’s also spoken about generating fuel on Mars for rocket launches from the carbon dioxide and water content, citing a well known reaction, the Sabatier reaction. From a technology perspective, things seem to check out.
He’s clearly got some big ideas on what he wants to do when he gets there, and has to a large extent explained to the world “how” he intends to do it, however for a private entity to invest so much and to announce such a pivotal shift in their future technology direction, the question of “why” must be more than just “because it’s cool.”
Given the huge untapped resources of Mars and the asteroid belt, reading between the lines, the real “why’’ may well be because whoever gets there first has the greatest opportunity to “make it big.”
Big money? BFM!
In Musk’s vision, up to 150 tons of people and equipment can be launched into Low Earth Orbit as a waypoint, and upon subsequent refuelling, travel to either Mars or the moon and back is possible. For the Mars journey, he claims he will be able to transport up to 100 crew plus equipment to Mars in the equivalent of an 8 story building.
The moon could be a low-gravity staging point for excursions to Mars. Gravity really is the killer cost when it comes to moving materials around the solar system. Having the ability to stage, mine, refine and assemble and launch large quantities of equipment and crew on the moon may enable the initial infrastructure to be put in place on Mars much more quickly and efficiently than staging the same missions from Earth.
Whether it’s ultimately Musk, Lockheed Martin or some other state or private actor who manage to stake their claim first, it’s clear there’s a lot of interest right now in getting humans to Mars.
But say we get there, how do we profit?
What happens on Mars, stays on Mars.
Forget about returning materials to Earth. When you own your own automated mining and manufacturing infrastructure, you don’t need Earth-based investors. You just use the infrastructure that you already own to mine, refine, manufacture and expand further into space.
Without competitive interference, this capability would negate the need for Earth-based economic involvement in space, and thus render the concept of “Money” in the context of space industry relatively meaningless. In short, when you own an asteroid made of platinum worth more than the entire planet’s GDP, comparing this to Earth currency would have very little informative value.
In terms of timescales, we’re likely talking in the order of decades for the space manufacturing industry to “break out”, and while Lockheed / NASA are talking about plans to deliver an orbiter within 10 years, Elon Musk is aiming to begin bootstrapping Mars within a decade.
Clearly, Musk is in a hurry to get to Mars and if it works out, he stands to win bigtime.
Competition accelerates innovation.
It’s the early adopters of new frontiers who become the Microsofts and Apples of history, and like Microsoft vs Apple, new frontiers often bring with them stern competition.
Lockheed Martin, with their recent ventures into deep sea mining are potentially ahead of the curve, as many of the challenges involved in off-world mining in the vacuum of space would be similar to mining in the crushing pressures of the sea. They clearly have the resources, capability, and track record to plan and execute highly technologically complex missions into space over many decades.
Lockheed also bring military experience to the table, and through their longstanding relationship with NASA may extend US government influence into deep space. If I were Elon, this might concern me if my plans were for an extended period of “space superiority.”
What is clear in any case is that Musk’s plans to visit Mars are not occurring in isolation, there seems to be a new space race growing, this time it’s private vs state.
This combined interest and competition somewhat validates the concept of a Mars visit, and may explain Musk’s accelerated timelines.
And with his apparent ability to move rapidly in comparison to incumbents, is it a case of “Musk is to Apple as Lockheed & NASA is to IBM?”
One thing that can be stated with confidence is that Elon Musk has publicly and repeatedly made a serious commitment to this endeavour, and through the combined experience of his companies has some demonstrated capability to hold a chance of succeeding.
What he is proposing is a massive undertaking and if it fails, it could fail spectacularly. Lockheed’s turtle-and-hare approach could pay off in the longer term; they are a safe bet.
Regardless of who gets there first, beyond mere dreams and visionary hype, there is infinitely more matter and energy in space. If we do not destroy ourselves in the meantime, humans are sure to lay claim to these resources, regardless of whether or not we manage to deal with our problems here on Earth.
While many are dismissing these goals as pipe dreams, that there are prominent state and private actors physically committing billions of dollars and millions of man-hours toward these goals today is definitely noteworthy, and something I think we should all take a moment to seriously consider regardless of our own persuasions.