OPINION by Dale Skran, NSS CEO
With thanks to Fred Becker, Greg Autry, and Al Globus for their suggestions.
Image of Starship taking off from lunar base courtesy SpaceX.
A common refrain among some NSS members and other space interested people is that although humanity will eventually settle space, this is something that will, at best, occur hundreds of years in the future. To them, the images of vast, glittering O’Neill cylinders seem fanciful at best. It is difficult for some to see a path between the current International Space Station and any kind of significant space settlement being built any time soon.
Absent one key trend, I would tend to agree, but that one key trend makes all the difference. Private human space travel led by a couple of Earth’s richest citizens is forging a new direction in space.
Recent Decadal Survey of Planetary Science Meeting Contrasts NASA and SpaceX Approach
The future is most easily predicted by directly creating a new direction, and one Elon Musk is working on doing just that. Musk recently opined that SpaceX would land crews on Mars in 2026, just five short years from now. And not just a few elite astronauts collecting Martian rocks, but the vanguard of millions of colonists heading toward a new human future on the Red Planet.
I think it is safe to say that outside of the SpaceX fan base, “aerospace professionals”, including most NASA leaders, don’t take the idea of SpaceX sending anything to Mars very seriously. There is, as far as I can tell, little evidence that they believe Starship/Superheavy will ever fly, or at least fly very far. At a January 29th meeting of the Decadal Survey of Planetary Science on Mars, Dr. Paul Wooster, SpaceX’s Principal Mars Development Engineer, presented alongside other scientists discussing NASA’s Mars exploration plans. The SpaceX and NASA plans hailed from totally divergent, non-overlapping universes. I suggest watching the video or looking at the slides to confirm just how little connection there is between the two views. I can only explain this divergence by suggesting that although the organizers felt a need to be polite to SpaceX now that the company is launching American astronauts to the ISS, in fact most everyone in the room other than Wooster thinks SpaceX’s Mars plans are just a fantasy.
Even those who greatly admire and support SpaceX’s Mars efforts may fail to grasp the current situation. We’ve all heard of “Elon Time” and we know that whatever date Elon pronounced, mostly the event will occur later than that, and sometimes a lot later. And even when the event does occur, such as the first flights of the Falcon Heavy, the impact may be far less than anticipated.
The Impact of Starship/Superheavy (SS/SH)
There is good reason to think that the Starship/Superheavy effort will be in the more impact rather than less impact category. First let’s consider the two main risk elements: Elon changing direction and Elon running out of money. Musk has dedicated his entire life to getting to Mars – short of accidental death he’s not going to change direction. Also, Musk is 50, so he has at least 15 years to bring his dreams to reality. And regarding money – second richest man in the world – enough said. Just the amount of money Musk has isn’t what will make his Mars plans possible, though. After all, his net worth is only $184 billion, and it’s mostly not liquid. No, what will make it possible is Musk’s proven ability to start companies, shoulder aside competitors, cooperate with governments, and raise money.
SpaceX Scenario 1 – Superheavy Booster Alone is Reusable
Next let’s suppose all the new Starship technology beyond the Raptor engine doesn’t work. The heat shield doesn’t work, the second stage is not re-usable, and in-orbit refueling never works. The only thing that works as planned is the reusable Superheavy. Sadly, in this scenario Musk will not build a city on Mars. However, even then, SpaceX will have a rocket that costs about the same to operate as the Falcon 9, but with much greater capacity, so cost per pound to LEO will come down significantly. A SS/SH with an expendable Starship upper stage is formidable New Glenn competitor. With a nine-meter fairing, we’ll see at least 100 tons to LEO with first stage reuse. New Glenn may win some business for space probes that need a high energy upper stage, but SS/SH will give SpaceX global launch dominance for a long time, and most likely propel Starlink to financial success.
SpaceX Scenario 2 – Add Orbital Refueling
However, there is good reason to think that eventually SpaceX will get cryogenic fuel transfer to work in space. Even with a non-reusable second stage, re-fueling in space opens the Moon and deep space to SS/SH which will be able to send 100-150 tons to escape velocity. It won’t be cheap enough to support cities on Mars but will greatly increase our ability to send large objects into deep space, including around the Moon. In this scenario, it is hard to see NASA’s Space Launch System being competitive. Eventually, NASA will give in, and build their Moon/Mars plans around SS/SH, although NASA will still most probably be relying on an ion-powered “Deep Space Transport” to get crews to Mars. Also, using derivatives of Dragon 2 ECLSS we will see active lunar tourism, especially of the “Dear Moon” mission plan sort. This scenario should produce a robust LEO economy, including extensive LEO tourism and hotels, and a lunar economy similar to what we see in LEO today. Starship without a heat shield would still be fully reusable as a lunar lander. The current SpaceX proposal to support Artemis with a Starship-derived lunar lander does not require Starship to be able to return to Earth.
The point of going through the above two scenarios is to show that SS/SH is a “fail soft” plan. If the heat shield fails and second stage reuse does not happen, SpaceX will still be in a very strong financial position with a market leading rocket capable to beating all current competitors while providing a foundation for our next steps in space. And hopefully, there will be enough profit from these endeavors, including Starlink, to fuel the next step.
In the ideal scenario, SpaceX will be selected as one of two winners for the Artemis human lunar landers, and will use that money to advance the development of in-space refueling. It will take longer if SpaceX is not selected, but not that much longer.
SpaceX Scenario 3 –Working Starship Heat Shield Opens the Door to Mars
But suppose the heat shield does work, and other challenges involved in second stage reuse are solved. We will have the above two scenarios on steroids, with lower prices, and more space activities enabled. Most significantly, flying a lot of Starships to Mars will become economically feasible. At this point, it seems inconceivable that NASA would continue with the current direction of their Mars program.
What obstacles remain for SpaceX to overcome before heading to Mars? The challenge of a viable environmental control and life support system (ECLSS) sufficient to support voyages to Mars is most easily met (note that this is not the same as what will be needed by the Martian settlement). Once SpaceX has the capability of flying humans on Starship, I anticipate that some of these vehicles, much like the just announced Inspiration4 Dragon 2 flight to raise money for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, will be dedicated to tourist related flights. SpaceX has a remarkable track record of using customers to test new technology, so consider a crewed Starship outfitted to test the Mars voyage ECLSS, with backup ECLSS based on the Dragon 2 systems. Such a Starship would embark on extended tourist or business-related LEO or cislunar flights but could return quickly if the Mars-trip ECLSS failed. In effect, customers would pay to develop and test Mars-trip class ECLSS.
SpaceX needs Mars landing sites data and water ground truth on Mars. Musk will certainly try to take advantage of anything NASA or others do on Mars but may need to send his own craft as well. Depending on how these efforts go, the Muskian Mars program may be delayed, but not too long, since the easiest way to deal with such concerns is to just accept that your first few robotic jaunts to Mars may fail. As Musk is a cooperative fellow, we can expect he will offer SS/SH rides to Mars to carry whatever NASA wants to send, along with a few items of his own to test. Imagine a series of “ride-share” flights called “Mars Transporters,” modeled after the recently started Falcon 9 Transporter series lofting record numbers of satellite ride-shares to orbit at a stunning low price. After a couple of synods of such flights Musk will have his landing sites, water data, and a reliable system for landing large cargos on Mars.
The final essential step is the construction of the methane and lox manufacturing plant, Mars suits, and Mars construction equipment. I expect Musk will start on these projects in earnest only after second stage reusability has been demonstrated.
A Reasonable SpaceX Timeline
Just for fun, let’s lay this out on a timeline, assuming one test flight per month, and ten test flights to resolve issues with each major technology:
- 2021: Ten flights to get Starship landings and Raptor working.
- 2022: Ten flights to get the Starship heatshield working, most of which will also be launching Starlinks.
- 2021-2022: Ten flights to get Superheavy working.
- 2023: Ten flights to get in-space refueling working, flights that will also mostly be launching Starlinks.
- 2024: “Mars City Inc.” is created to fund the development of the methane plant, Mars suits, Mars settlement class ECLSS, and so on. The initial capital raise is $1B.
- 2024: Ten LEO/cislunar tourist/business flights to test Mars-trip class ECLSS, all paid for by customers.
- 2024: Mars Transporter 1 and 2 head off carrying a mix of NASA, SpaceX, and international Mars robot craft and test equipment, mostly paid for by customers. One crashes.
- 2025: Ten more tourist/business flights to test Mars-trip class ECLSS, all paid for by customers.
- 2026: Mars Transporters 3, 4, 5, and 6 head off with vast array of payloads and test equipment, mostly paid for by customers. One crashes on Mars.
- 2028: Mars Transporter 7, 8, 9, and 10 launch carrying the methane factory, solar panels, tractors, habitats, and other supplies, mostly paid for by Musk’s new company “Mars City Inc,” which did a second-round capital raise of $10B. None of them crash on Mars.
- 2030: First SpaceX crew heads to Mars on the 300th SS/SH flight. By agreement, Mars Transporter 11 carries a NASA crew with SpaceX pilots, and a NASA astronaut will be the first human to step on the Martian surface. Mars Transporters 11/12/13/14 carry cargo, and Mars Transporters 15/16 carry the first Martian settlers.
This is a lot of stuff to do. I’m confident that SpaceX will get much of it done by 2026, but almost certainly not all of it. The above scenario is just the start of the construction of a self-sustaining settlement on Mars, a project that will take many decades at a minimum. But starting is the hardest part. The ECLSS/self-sufficient ecosystem needed to settle Mars will mostly be developed on Mars, and in the short to medium term there is no requirement that the settlers run a totally closed ecology.
The Issues We Face
An excessive focus on whether Musk is going to meet some particular date misses the point. Long before SpaceX launches the first SS/SH to Mars two things will have happened:
- The rapid growth of space technology engendered by Musk’s efforts to reach Mars will have transformed the world, most obviously via Starlink, but in many ways that are only now dimly visible.
- There will be a planetary protection battle royale waged against Musk/SpaceX to keep him away from Mars.
NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will be landing soon to collect Martian samples for later return. NASA currently envisions launching a sample return lander in 2026, arriving at Mars in 2028. The return lander would then launch the samples into Mars orbit for pickup and return to Earth by a craft provided by ESA.
It is inconceivable that NASA will have answered the questions of those concerned about such things as to whether there is life on Mars by 2026, 2036, 2046, or any other remotely near-term date. NASA has been “exploring Mars” since Mariner 4 in 1964, 57 years ago. It seems unlikely given the nature of scientific competition that NASA will be funded to operate a program of robotic exploration on Mars that will satisfy planetary protection purists on less than a scale of centuries. NASA seems to realize this, and the current “horizon” NASA goal of “On to Mars” is incompatible with strict planetary protection protocols.
What is certain is that in 2024, 2026, or 2028, a Starship/Superheavy pair will be waiting on their respective pads for permission from the FAA to launch toward Mars, much as we recently saw SN9 and SN10 on the pad waiting for FAA launch approval. What will be different is that powerful voices will be doing everything they can to prevent anything SpaceX from heading to Mars. By partnering with NASA on the initial flights, SpaceX may fly “under the radar” for a while, but just for a while.
Currently planetary protection protocols are based on the idea of a very small number of very expensive essentially hand-crafted robots being carefully decontaminated before being launched toward Mars. Building a city on Mars will require first tens, and then hundreds of launches per synod, many ships with large crews. Decontamination of this vast number of craft and millions of tons of equipment, not to mention thousands of settlers, is a physical impossibility.
Space settlement advocates need to be preparing for this debate now. Anything that can be done to work out a zone-based compromise that will allow Musk to build a city in one place and scientists to look for life elsewhere will be constructive. NSS stands for the principle that space is the provenance of all humankind, a place where humans will live, work, and play, not a static preserve with a big keep-out sign saying, “Scientists Only.”
So, to return to the original question “Is the start of space settlement a long way in the future?”, the answer depends on a fight that begins now, and will see decisive action in just a few short years. It’s hard to predict exactly at what point those opposed to Musk building a city on Mars will become really energized, and it may in fact not occur until the first ships have already landed on Mars.
But the fight for our future in space is coming, and much sooner than you think.
Copyright 2021 Dale Skran.