Two Weeks.

Baron von Awesome asks

How likely is this?

I can’t be bothered to listen to the full programme so I demand that you do the hard work for me. I’m expecially interested in how he plans on getting the fuel to Mars if he wants to refuel there.

I’m thinking he’s living on another planet already when he suggests the average person could afford it at half a million dollars.

I am disappointed to read this article because I thought SpaceX was doing quite well on the whole “Not being a complete laughing stock” thing up until this point. Their Dragon capsule is a nice piece of engineering, it’s going through the teething troubles all new spacecraft go through but it’s recently made a successful flight to the ISS, and it does have the capacity to potentially go to Mars at some point (albeit with some significant redesign and development required). You don’t achieve all this by being utter morons, and so I can only assume that the CEO of SpaceX doesn’t believe a word he’s saying here and is just trying to drum up publicity (and investment) because nearly every assertion he makes is complete balls.

Oddly enough the one assertion that isn’t is the one you bring up: refuelling on Mars. You don’t need to take fuel to Mars to refuel. The fuel is already there. The most common types of rocket fuel are a mix of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, two elements that are particularly abundant throughout the solar system in the form of frozen water ice. Mars has ice caps, so the fuel is potentially just sitting there waiting for us if we can just refine the stuff.

However, then he goes completely off the rails by saying we can build a spacecraft that is “completely reusable”. Hey, you know what else was supposed to be completely reusable? That’s right, it was the Space Shuttle, and that thing ended up costing more than disposable capsules because it had to undergo extensive maintenance every time it came back from a mission to ensure it could make another one without killing everyone on board. Making your spacecraft reusable does not necessarily make it cheaper, and the concept of a reusable Mars spacecraft really does boggle the mind. Christ, it’s not like popping out to the shops in your car for a pint of milk and a loaf of bread. It’s Mars. He’s talking about something that even NASA won’t have the practical capacity to do for a decade or more, and which will require significant R&D investment. Justifying that is bad enough when you’re government-funded, but a private spaceflight company will have to recoup the R&D cost somehow, and the only way they can is by folding it into the price they charge for trips out to the Red Planet and back.

So while there is fuel on Mars, saying that we can reduce the cost of interplanetary space flight to just fuelling and refuelling the spacecraft is insane. The aerospace sector has all sorts of hidden costs associated with it, which is why military procurement contracts often have very optimistic cost-per-unit projections made as part of the bid process that soon balloon up to several times the original estimate after the ink is dry and reality begins to bite. Research, maintenance, establishing the necessary mechanical expertise, manufacturing procedures and industrial base, as well as the money that will be required to overcome any genuinely unforeseen problems that crop up during the development process – all of these things will cost cold, hard cash, and all of these things are going to have to be factored in to the cost of a ticket.

This is why his estimated price of half a million dollars per person is absurd. It’d cost at least that much in terms of life support technology and the salary you pay to ground control teams (yes, you can’t automate everything just yet) to keep them alive during the trip. This is saying nothing of the fact that a trip to Mars would be acutely uncomfortable for astronauts trained to deal with the rigors of space travel; anyone shelling out half a million dollars is probably going to want some creature comforts that don’t involve, e.g., having to stick their dick into a vacuum cleaner every time they want to pee for eighteen months. Bone degradation? Muscle atrophy? Radiation poisoning? These are not problems you can throw money at to make them go away. Going to Mars is something that has real risk attached to it; it’s the sort of thing that you pay people half a million dollars to do, and I really think you’d have problems charging people even that tiny amount once you’d explained all the bad things that could happen to them as a result of the trip.

The problems involved in opening Mars up to space tourism really do boggle my mind. They’re an order of magnitude greater than commercial trips to the Moon, and this guy thinks we’re going to have the capability to offer these low-cost flights in – at worst – fifteen years time? No he doesn’t. He can’t. If he does, he’s an idiot who doesn’t understand his industry, and while I admit this would not exactly be unprecedented for a company CEO the success Dragon has had so far indicates there is at least somebody at SpaceX who knows what they’re doing, and who would have stormed into the room and wrestled the microphone away from this guy if they thought he had any serious intention of actually trying to do this stuff. It’s a pure PR puff piece, a chance for SpaceX to big itself and its industry up in the media, and nothing more.

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