Elon Musk's Mars Colony (1M humans in 10 years) Notes


I'm a huge space nerd.  My father was a EE in the space industry and designed countless circuits for Ball Aerospace and Hughes over his 50+ years in the industry.  I grew up with pictures of satellites, the space shuttle and other space stuff all over my house.  I'm also a huge Elon Musk fan.  I think that he's a wonderful visionary and I'd buy a Tesla for every member of my family if I could afford one.

That being said, I just can't wrap my head around how a permanent Mars colony can ever happen.  There are simply too many obstacles.  Elon Musk's "1M people on Mars in 10 years" (written in 2020) project was great when I first thought about it, but when I did some initial research, the numbers just don't add up to me (at all - not even close).  Assuming power, oxygen, water and food are easy problems to solve (they aren't, but just for fun, let's say they are), the numbers still don't really work out in my opinion.

Permanent Mars colony talking points and issues:

  • basic numbers about the mass of materials needed to be shipped to Mars

    • From what I've read: 54,000 StarShip 1.0 launches https://www.space.com/how-feed-one-million-mars-colonists.html in order to get enough cargo to support 1M humans (much less the people themselves) - is one StarShip launch every 2 hours 24/7 for 10 years (not to mention the in-orbit refueling missions or the short window every 2 years to get a rocket to Mars).  54000 / 10 / 52 = 103.8 launches a week.  Elon is saying that he is targeting 3 StarShip launches a day, but even this super-aggressive target is still only 1/4 of the 54000 launch number.  Adding in the fact that there's only a couple-week window every 2 years to do these launches seems to make this not feasible at all.  Watching Musk's video, he is talking about staging 1000-ish StarShips in Earth orbit waiting for the transfer window to launch as many StarShips at once, but this is really not enough to support the 1M mark.

    • Starship 2.0 (announced summer 2022): increases the cargo capabilities 8x.  So, assuming the same numbers as above, this will only require 675 StarShip 2.0 vehicles to bring all of the required resources

  • power

    • Solar power on Mars is only 50% the strength of that on Earth (at the equator) due to the distance from the sun.
    • Habitats will need to be near the poles for water, so solar energy will be even less near the poles (say 20% that of Earth) if habitats are near the poles for better water mining.
    • Nuclear is the best bet for power on Mars for a large population - all of the existing problems with nuclear on Earth will be the same on Mars.
    • Possible alternative fuels (thorium reactors, geo-thermal, wind) are possible but probably not practical.
  • food

  • Biosphere2 ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biosphere_2 )

    • With a *lot* of planning for Biosphere2, cherry-picking the perfect plant species, insects, etc over a decade with all of the resources of Earth available with 3 acres of 'land', Biosphere2 was a spectacular project that still didn't technically work for 8 people to go without outside oxygen for 2 years (1991-1993) (one medical issue and one infusion of oxygen due to the cement issue) even though there was a CO2 scrubber inside Biosphere2 during the first 2-year experiment.
    • Biosphere2's experiment found that the cement in the building was responsible for creating most of the carbon dioxide.  Much of the current plan for creating structures on Mars is to use the Mars soil (regolith) as clay or brick-making material (not plastics).  Mars colonies built from the Mars soil would have to compensate or coat any exposed regolith with plastic or something to not allow the leeching of CO2 from the Martian soil bricks.

    • NOTE: A shorter stay inside of biosphere2 (6 months in 1994, initially meant to run for 10 months) after fixing the CO2 and other issues, also failed but was largely due to political issues (Guess what? Steve Bannon was involved!  Very interesting story).  This second mission was however, able to become 100% food independent.

    • The other human issues (factions, politics, etc.) that came out of the experiment don't instill confidence that putting people in extreme situations like this cause psychological and mental issues that can't be planned for and these factors alone can cause severe problems in a delicate environment like this.
  • differences in gravity

    • Mars children will grow slightly taller than the average Earth children due to the small difference in Martian gravity compared to Earth.
  • oxygen

    • Mars has very little Oxygen in the atmosphere.  Extraction from the atmosphere would be possible, but not energy-efficient.
    • The easiest way to create oxygen is to grow plants, which require power or sunlight to grow.  Algae is the easiest to transport/grow and grows quickly.
    • The MOXIE project on the Perseverance rover can convert the Martian CO2 to O2 at the same rate as a single, small tree.  The MOXIE device is the size of a lunchbox and has worked continuously for one year without issue.

    • Weirdly, this is the easiest problem to solve at large scale.

  • water

  • radiation

    • One of the more difficult issues to work to solve

    • Due to the lack of magnetosphere and atmosphere on Mars, the amount of radiation that a human would receive on the surface of Mars would contain primarily Solar (Beta, Gamma and Neutron) radiation.

    • The human body can stand 4 years of this Mars-level radiation before needing medical attention (approx 50x (per year) that of radiation exposure on Earth) unless shielded by some type of insulation (would have to be pretty thick) martian soil, so burying structures in several feet of martian soil would probably be necessary for survival.
    • Martian travelers would also be exposed to radiation during the 6-8-month flight to/from Mars.
    • Great video addressing the radiation on the surface of Mars and during the flight to Mars: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTBnjzpqsd8
    • Since the human body could only handle a few years exposed to this radiation, the question of return trips from Mars to Earth after a certain amount of exposure is a concern.
  • communication

    • Current Mars probes have a very low-bandwidth option for direct communication w/ Earth.  Relay bandwidth is 2Mbps but the window is only a few minutes per day due to the orbit of the relay satellite.
    • A new relay satellite network would have to be created around Mars for permanent high-speed communication back to Earth.
    • Many on-planet devices will have to communicate with each other and with Earth.  Probably mostly wireless.  Infrastructure for this will have to be designed/built.  802.11 wifi and ham radio (consumer off-the-shelf solutions) wouldn't cut it.  Enterprise solutions would have to be implemented.
  • navigation

    • GPS doesn't exist on Mars.

    • Easiest solution is to create a GPS network around Mars.

    • Musk's rockets depend on technologies like GPS for navigation, automation and landing.

  • dust

    • Dust will get everywhere.  There are designs like spacesuits that attach to the outside of a structure, so you don't have to bring the suit into the structure, that can limit the dust.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suitport
    • Mars dust is very fine (it's been blowing all around the planet for millions of years just getting smaller and smaller) and can get into gears/wheels/bearings.
    • Dust and wind will be the primary reason for mechanical failures.
  • construction / shelter

  • jobs

    • robots to do most of the work 'outside' due to exposure (lots of jobs repairing and de-dusting the robots after a day's work)
  • trash

    • recycling would help a LOT to conserve the rare materials that were shipped from Earth
  • human factors

  • return fuel:

  • cost

    • Nasa estimates that today, it costs $10,000 to put 1 pound of material in orbit - https://www.nasa.gov/centers/marshall/news/background/facts/astp.html
    • Elon Musk wants to reduce that cost to $1M/ton with Starship 1.0.
    • Starship 2.0 (very few details at this time) will have 8x capacity and cost similar (just slightly more) than Starship 1.0 (maybe $1M/8 tons?).
  • housing

Early 2024: After SpaceX's StarShip2 launch, there's talk of a StarShip v3, which will be even larger. The main reasons are to reduce the number of refueling launches, but larger ships will help with the overall "getting tons of mass to Mars" issue in general.

My rendition of what reality would be like for the first family/team sent to Mars.  Not quite as glorious as people are imagining.