SpaceX expects to have a colony of a million people on Mars by 2050. It sounds absurd: there are only 30 years left, and there are still many years before the first flight to Mars. Some scholars, including Russian scientists, regard Musk's plans as "fantasy" and "propaganda." Nevertheless, the construction of a millionth colony on the Red Planet itself is quite real. Let's figure out why and why it is so difficult to believe in the rest of the world.
Space is very difficult, and only the best designers have good results there. German developers, led by SS Sturmbannfuehrer Werner von Braun, launched a rocket into space in 1944, and only 25 years later a rocket of the same designer delivered people to the moon. The USSR was able to make the first orbital launch in 1957, but never landed people on a satellite.
The United States after the resignation of von Braun in the space sphere was on the beans: the shuttle project, developed by American designers, brought 14 victims of space flights - 3.5 times more than all other countries combined. Moreover, it was much more expensive than the lunar program, although it flew only to close near-earth orbits. As a result, the shuttles had to be abandoned, and while the American astronauts go into space on Russian ships, whose ancestors flew there during the time of Korolev, von Braun's rival.
A colony of millions on Mars is not a moon landing. Musk himself believes that for this it will be necessary to launch 100 million tons of cargo into space per year. Humanity has made less than five thousand orbital launches in history, delivered into space well less than 50 thousand tons over the past half century.
Musk wants to launch thousands of times more per year than humans have launched in the entire space age. Questions arise. Is it technically realistic? Who will pay for the banquet? Is it possible to bring a million people to Mars healthy and make a self-sufficient colony there? Finally, a more important question: will this come true?
Can a private company launch more into space a year than all the space powers in half a century?
Today, all players, except SpaceX, fly into space on fully disposable rockets with the carrying capacity of a conventional wagon. Made a hundred "Protons" - put a couple of thousand tons into space. The Falcon 9 reuses the first stage (70% of the rocket's cost) three to four times. With him, this equation works differently: built 50 first stages - put the same couple of thousand tons into space.
But Falcon will soon be ten years old, and it's pretty old technology for SpaceX. Last year, the company tore off the ground for the first time a Starship demonstrator, a rocket and a ship (the second stage of the rocket is the ship), made of stainless steel. It uses a methane rocket engine that has never flown before (Soviet prototypes of methane engines were only tested on the ground). CH4 is quite possible to get on Mars, which solves the question of where to get fuel for return flights to Earth.
More importantly, both stages of the Starship are designed to be reusable. And not in the same way as the first stage of the Falcon 9, but with a survivability of more than 100 sorties before preventive repairs. Their general life cycle is conceived as that of airliners: 20 years of service - and this is with three flights a day.
This is theoretically achievable. The Falcon 9 kerosene rocket engine limits reusability: burning kerosene leaves a lot of soot. Methane does not leave soot, so Starship engines will indeed be more reusable.
Another Falcon problem was that only the first stage was reusable. Musk's rockets sit on their tails, wasting fuel to land. If you save the second stage (~ 25% of the cost of the rocket), then both stages will spend so much fuel that the cargo launched into space will become too small.
Starship solves the problem of the second stage due to the braking scheme unprecedented in the history of astronautics. Its second stage, upon entering the atmosphere, will unfold with its belly and brake against the air with its wide side, and not fly vertically to the Earth like a crowbar. This is a truly new move that uses less fuel for braking.
The new carrier is made from ordinary stainless steel, which is welded (it's easier than riveting). The novelty is much cheaper per unit of mass than rockets made of aluminum alloys. And it can be done not at dust-free assembly facilities for billions of dollars, as in competitors, but in ordinary hangars. This means that Starship will cost about the same as a conventional rocket, although it will be able to launch 100 tons into space already at the first stage, and 150 tons at the second, final stage.
Due to cheap materials and full reusability, one Starship flight should cost two million dollars (roughly: a couple of hundred million dollars of the cost of the system is divided by a hundred flights before repair). Two million dollars for 100 tons is two trillion for 100 million tons. This is exactly how much, 100 million tons per year, according to Musk's calculations, is needed for the fastest deployment of a large colony on Mars.
Let's repeat: there is nothing technically unrealistic about this. Yes, Starship contains a lot of really new solutions - from the Raptor full-flow methane rocket engine to belly braking. No one has ever done this - or even planned to do this: both concepts originated only in SpaceX. But the Raptor has already been tested and proved to be effective in flight, and there is nothing physically unrealistic in belly braking: maneuvering engines allow such actions in the Earth's atmosphere.
It is possible to make a thousand Starships in 10 years, as SpaceX plans. Judging by the speed of prototyping, using welding instead of riveting greatly speeds up the work. Even a small company will be able to build a hundred of these ships a year. Questions arise only to the economics of the process.
Two trillion a year? African-American lost his mind?
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist, has already spoken out on this topic: he is skeptical. Only governments, he believes, can invest huge amounts of money to achieve commercially unprofitable goals (and Mars does not look commercially viable). Columbus, Tyson says, swam on public money, not private investment.
We are not astronomers, so we know that Columbus lived in the era of the gold standard, where the money supply was limited. In the 21st century, the United States has introduced the world to a new era, when dollars can be printed in a trillion a year (official data from the US Federal Reserve) and at the same time have lower inflation than in Russia, where no money is printed at all. This leads to an extremely low cost of capital in the West: in the current monetary conditions, Columbus would have found investors, fortunately, because of the abundance of money, they no longer know what to invest in. That is, by itself, two trillion dollars for flights to Mars can be really obtained.
The more important question remains: why? Yes, Mars has a hundred and fifty million square kilometers of land, the same as on Earth, but it is cold, there is no air suitable for breathing on it. Let's take a look at our planet: Russia has 17 million square kilometers, but 11 million of them are permafrost, so three million people live there, and even those only because of rare and valuable resources. There are no resources on the Red Planet worth bringing here. What is the economic sense of investing a couple of trillions a year in its development?
Oddly enough, it makes sense. Back in 1993, it was shown that Mars can be terraformed at the existing technological level.The fact is that the sensitivity of its climate to heating is extremely high: it is enough to raise the average temperature of this planet by four degrees to melt CO2 from the polar caps and the ground, after which the pressure there will rise sharply, and the average planetary temperature will rise to the earth's level (+15 ° C).
It is quite possible to raise the temperature by four degrees with "little blood": there are many sulfur and fluorine compounds in the soil on Mars, and the relatively inert SF6 gas (SF6 gas) is 34,900 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. There are a number of other compounds with similar capabilities that can be obtained on the Red Planet.
As a 1993 scientific paper from NASA concludes: "In a few decades of using this approach, Mars could be terraformed from its current frozen state to a warm and slightly humid one suitable for supporting life." We must clearly understand: this does not mean that people will be able to breathe there in a few decades from the beginning of terraforming - oxygen has not yet been produced under local conditions.
However, according to laboratory experiments, terrestrial organisms can photosynthesize in the conditions of equatorial Mars today, there would be at least a little water (and there are streams of liquid salt water on the surface of this planet). In warmer and more humid conditions, they will soon begin converting CO2 to oxygen, eventually bringing the planet to breathe in its atmosphere. This will take centuries, during which people will be able to move across Mars only with an oxygen apparatus (however, without a spacesuit - due to the increased atmospheric pressure).
People can walk on the planet without an oxygen apparatus - but in confined spaces. The Mariner Valley, with an area of tens of thousands of square kilometers and a depth of more than a dozen kilometers, can be covered with airgel domes that protect from ultraviolet radiation, are transparent to visible light and perfectly retain heat.
According to the work of 2019, under such a dome (only 20 millimeters thick) on Mars, the temperature will be quite earthly. Even a moderate amount of plants is able to provide the population of the valleys taken by the domes with oxygen. By the way, in laboratory conditions, terrestrial plants have already shown the ability to grow on soil with a Martian composition.
Economically, 144 million square kilometers real estate is expensive and can justify spending even two trillion per year (remember that in the US, money is not too scarce due to quantitative easing). However, the problem remains. Few people in earthly history are ready to invest in a project, all the cream from which it will be possible to collect only after centuries. It's not a fact that Musk will actually succeed.
What is he counting on then? Earth history teaches us that governments can invest huge amounts of money for centuries without much net return if you put them in competition with other governments trying to grab the same long-term resource. This is especially true in the case of the United States, which, due to the specifics of the political structure, is not able to effectively plan in space for more than eight years ahead.
There was a period in earthly history when Spain, Portugal, France, England and all others for centuries have invested monstrous funds in the wars for the colonies and attempts to keep them. As a result, the economy of the first two collapsed. London and Paris have seized huge chunks of the earth's land. But throughout the entire period of their possession, the ratio of the GDP of England and France to the GDP of Germany, which was late for the division of the colonies, decreased markedly.
The period of the fastest growth of the English colonies (90s of the XIX century) coincided with the moment of overtaking its economy by a country without a colony (the States), the same happened with France and Germany. As a result, the colonies did not bring long-term, reasonable returns to anyone who had them.
It can be assumed that the Red Planet could trigger a similar "race of prestige" between the earthly powers.In the coming years, Starship will be in space, and then Washington will be faced with a choice: either to invest in the Martian race itself, or to let the Chinese invest there.
If Musk manages to create a system that delivers 100 tons into space for two million dollars - $ 20 per kilogram - the race to conquer the Red Planet is almost predetermined. China is capable of thinking in terms of colossal investments in the future, with returns over hundreds of years, and has shown this more than once. The size of its GDP makes it possible to keep such a project afloat, even if the US authorities do not want it.
It is quite possible that Beijing has already thought about it. Is this the reason that Tesla, Musk's other brainchild, is the only non-Chinese company to acquire full ownership of its plant in China?
But won't people on Mars die from radiation?
Doctor of Physical and Mathematical Sciences Igor Mitrofanov not so long ago noted that the biggest problem of Mars exploration is radiation. And this is not radiation on the surface of the planet itself - you can hide from it in subsurface shelters or simply sprinkle the living modules with soil. Much more dangerous is the dose that the crew will receive in a few months on the way to Mars.
“You cannot go for it, it would contradict, relatively speaking, the labor protection standards, since this is not a military situation, simply no one will allow people to be sent to such a risk. If Musk sends people, their relatives will be able to sue him,”says the scientist.
Let's turn from words to numbers. Specifically, NASA for astronauts on the ISS considers the norm to be anything that is not higher than 0.5 sievert per year - this is equal to the figures of Roscosmos. During the flight of Curiosity to Mars (180 days), instruments on board the spacecraft measured cosmic radiation. According to the data obtained, astronauts in place of the rover would have received 0.33 sieverts in six months. On the surface of the Red Planet, the same rover recorded 0.23 sievert per year.
That is, the average annual exposure when traveling to Mars and staying there is about 0.45 sievert per year, 10% lower than the standards of both Roscosmos and NASA. Recall: to die with a probability of 50%, you need to get 4-5 sievert in a matter of hours. If the irradiation is not one-time, but chronic, a person experiences even very high doses: Albert Stevens, on whom such an experiment was performed in the United States, lived 21 years, receiving 3 sieverts annually (63 sieverts in total). Doctors never managed to find signs of health problems in him: he died at 79 years old.
The total amount of radiation that NASA considers acceptable for men is from 1.5 sievert (under the age of 25), to 2.5 for 35-year-olds, 3, 25 for 45-year-olds, and 4.0 sievert for 55 years. That is, even an unrealistically young astronaut can spend a couple of years on Mars within the existing standards, and a 35-year-old can work there for four years without any problems from radiation. All this - without mentioning the fact that a real colonist on the fourth planet will spend a third of the time where radiation cannot reach.
It is easy to see why Igor Mitrofanov limited himself to general words and did not give specific figures: it turns out that you can go for it and no one will judge for it.
What is the reason why the radiation thesis comes up so often in the speeches of skeptics of Martian colonization? Here we should recall the general situation in the global space industry. What will happen when Starship starts flying? One hundred and fifty thousand Roscosmos employees will find themselves under serious psychological pressure. It turns out that a company that is not 20 years old, has 20 times fewer employees and even less funds than Roscosmos, was able to create something that delivers cargo to orbit much cheaper than Russian missiles.
What is left to do in such a situation for those associated with Roscosmos? That's right: trying to show that SpaceX's plans are unnecessary and wrong anyway. Everyone around saw something like this a few years ago, at a time when Russian experts unanimously doubted the capabilities of the Musk company to return the first stage of the Falcon to Earth.
And we will see this more than once: the first Starship flight, the first flyby of the Moon, the first flight to Mars - all this will take place against the background of Russia's lack of anything comparable to the new carrier. We should expect a stream of negative PR from domestic scientists and engineers towards SpaceX.
However, we will see the same on the other side of the ocean: morally NASA will also be at the bottom if the Starship program is successful. The one-time SLS, which the agency has been developing for many years, is planned to launch at $ 1.5 billion per flight - tens, if not hundreds of times more expensive than Starship. NASA is already saying that Musk's plans are too daring. And that the radiation on the way to Mars is high, which makes it dangerous to fly there - but, which is typical, the agency's specialists never name a specific level of this radiation.
In NASA, there are cute, but backward people, so they do not know that in the era of the say-hub, scientific work based on data from the NASA Mars rover is available to everyone. Therefore, the childishly naive propaganda "you can't send people to Mars anyway" does not work and will not work. As we can see, with regard to SpaceX, the Western and Russian state space is united. Therefore, Mitrofanov's position is quite logical and understandable.
There will be a colony on Mars - although we don't believe in a million people by 2050
It will definitely be expensive and difficult to bring Starship, which is only planning its first flight into space this year. But the experience with the Falcon - where SpaceX has proven itself to be the fastest-growing technology player in the space market - convinces it's real. In the first half of the 2020s, Starship will be ready to fly, and by 2030, humans can indeed go to Mars for the first time.
We strongly doubt that there will be a colony of a million people on the fourth planet by 2050. Far fewer people are needed to start the terraforming process, but the cost of a crowded settlement will be noticeably higher. Nevertheless, there will be many thousands of people there. It now seems unrealistic only because our existing space flight facilities are technically reminiscent of Columbus's caravels. Caravels were poorly suited for colonizing the New World - and today's rockets are poorly suited for colonizing Mars.
But it is always worth remembering that only tens of years have passed from the voyages of the caravels to the appearance of huge ocean galleons.