We are an amazing species. The fact that we are the most conscious beings that we know of is pretty stunning when you think about it. The problem is, when we look at the “near” future, perhaps one or two hundred years from now, the sustainability of our species is not guaranteed. Apart from global warming which threatens the biosphere’s fragile equilibrium and could create massive upheavals around the world, there’s also the threat of giant asteroids, nuclear war, which, even if rather unlikely, shouldn’t be dismissed as impossible… If we disappear now, all our knowledge will be gone. The very fact that we, a conscious species, existed, will be destroyed. We are hopefully more and more aware of these risks and I’m rather confident that we could avoid such disasters. But even if we manage to survive the next one or two hundred years on Earth, our planet isn’t eternal. In the very far future, five hundred million years from now, the Sun will have evolved into a much more agressive star, expanding and pouring a lot more radiations into the atmosphere. The Earth will be unlivable, and will ultimately become a new Venus a billion years from now. A planet where normal temperatures are high enough to melt lead.
We can definitively argue that, a billion years from now, we’ll be sufficiently advanced to live in floating habitats in Earth’s fresher, more livable upper atmosphere. But that’s assuming the human species can survive by residing on a single planet. If that’s definitively a possibility, it’s rather risky to safeguard all our civilization and knowledge in a single place. A place full of nuclear warheads (just a little reminder). For our civilization to endure, we can’t stay confined to our home planet. Lots of people argue that it is extremely presumptuous to consider ourselves this special, to spend ressources on leaving planet Earth when it is plagued with so many problems and suffering. It is perfectly understandable, but that is not my opinion. The human species is exceptional. I believe our duty as conscious beings is to ensure the light of consciousness survives for as long as possible. There may be other conscious beings out there. We should at least survive until we meet them. It would be extremely disappointing to go extinct without having met other kinds of conscious species. I won’t live to see it, neither will you, but we can’t think with lifetime like timescales here. We also have to ensure we preserve our knowledge. In previous essays I have highlighted ways to preserve it here on Earth. But just like we store copies of sensitive files in different places, our knowledge can’t be stored just on Earth. This is why we should be a multi-planetary species. And the first other planet we should settle on is Mars.
That’s the plan of a hero of mine, Elon Musk, who’s the founder and CEO, among other things, of an incredibly innovative aerospace company, Space Exploration Technologies – SpaceX for short – (more on SpaceX in a minute). The reasons for settling on Mars are numerous: it’s our closest “habitable” neighbor. Venus, our other neighbor, would require settling in floating habitats, which for now seems a bit tough; plus it’s closer to the Sun, so not a very good insurance plan. Apart from Mars, only satellites of Jupiter, Saturn, or even of Neptune and Uranus could host space colonies. But these moons are very, very far, and we know far too little about them. So the obvious first step in becoming a multi-planetary species is Mars. How do we get there? How do we get from a single to a multi-planetary species? By having a fully autonomous, self-sustaining colony on Mars.
To achieve this, apart from developing the life-support systems and technologies needed to live on Mars and exploit its ressources, we need to dramatically lower the cost of access to space. Today, launching anything in space is crazy expensive. We’re talking thousands, at best, or tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram sent to orbit. When you consider sending thousands of people and all the equipment they’ll need on Mars (you can’t build a colony with three persons…), the costs are simply unbearable. In order to make space accessible, we need to start reusing rockets. Right now, rockets are dumped after each flight; for a few reasons: the enormous complexity of rocket science, the laziness of the conservative space industry which doesn’t want to change its business model… The common comparison with the airline industry, frequently used by Elon Musk, gives an idea of why reusability is so important: if aircrafts were single use, very few people and goods could be transported that way. Imagine throwing away a Boeing 777 after one flight. It would cost a lot more to fly, right? Since it’s not a very sustainable approach, airliners are built to last for thousands of flights with minimal maintenance (just like your car is built to last thousands of miles without a lot of repairs). Building a reusable rocket that could fly like a long-haul airliner (we’re talking hundreds, if not thousands of flights in the rocket’s lifetime, with just a couple of hours between each flight on average) is very, very tough. Flying all the way to orbit is much tougher on the craft than cruising at 35,000 feet. Also, consider that rocket engines are the theater of enormous explosions, burning thousands of pounds of fuel in seconds at extremely high temperatures. Compared to this, jet engines are harmless toys.
No one has built a reusable rocket yet. Not a lot of companies have tried though. McDonnell Douglas experimented a bit with its DC-X Rocket, a single stage to orbit (SSTO) rocket which demonstrated the basics of reusability through multiple test flights, but never flew all the way to orbit. The project was abandoned in 1997. Apart from the DC-X, there’s the Skylon concept, a British space-plane, which is still a work in progress. I’m very skeptical about its capabilities and final cost. I don’t think it will lower the price of access to space, though test flights aren’t expected until at least 2020, so time will tell. But it is refreshing to see entrepreneurs like Alan Bond (Skylon’s father) try different approaches to achieve reusability.
Arianespace, the giant european satellite launch provider, hints that its next rocket, Ariane 6, could be reusable (at least partially). United Launch Alliance (ULA), the american equivalent of Arianespace, which is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, also plans to design their next rockets to be partially reusable. I’m rather pessimistic about ULA and Arianespace’s chances though. Ariane 6 isn’t scheduled to fly before the late 2020s, and ULA is a gigantic conglomerate; reforming it, facilitating innovation and flexibility will likely be a huge challenge. Their move towards reusability also comes as a “surprise”, since just a year ago they both dismissed reusability as silly.
But then came SpaceX. SpaceX plans to make its current lineup of rockets almost entirely reusable: the first stage (the priciest part of the rocket) would fly back to the launch pad, a new second stage with a new payload would be put on top of it, the rocket would be refueled, and off it goes. If until recently this sounded like science-fiction, lately SpaceX has demonstrated that it can do it. By landing a first stage successfully on a barge, it will prove that it can almost certainly be done (for now, first stages will land on a barge until SpaceX gets clearance from the FAA & Air Force to land on the ground, which could happen as soon as this July). That’s why ULA and Arianespace are taking note. And that’s great. I hope they are finally going to wake up and innovate. But back to SpaceX. Started by Elon Musk, its stated goal is to make space accessible so that it can build a self-sustaining martian colony. The road to Mars is rather long, so let me guide you through it. Currently, SpaceX flies one rocket, the Falcon 9. It is a rather big rocket, but it isn’t capable of sending big payloads to Mars. The larger version of the Falcon 9, the Falcon Heavy, uses three Falcon 9 first stages (instead of one for the standard Falcon 9), enabling it to launch about thirteen tons of payload to Mars (that is however an optimistic estimate).
Both rockets will soon have reusable first stages (the Falcon 9 first stage SpaceX will soon land on a barge will be a historic milestone; it will take perhaps a couple of years before first stages are fully reusable and frequently flown), making them even cheaper (they are already the cheapest rockets on the market). Through numerous testings in the last 24 months, SpaceX has demonstrated that this is very likely to happen. When it does, prices per pound-to-orbit are expected to drop (maybe well) below the “magical” 1,000$ mark.
It’s not enough to send people to Mars, but enough to spur a Cambrian explosion of space companies, little startups that can suddenly afford to send things to orbit. This will create more demand for launches, benefiting SpaceX but also its current and future competitors, which will have to innovate to survive. We cannot overestimate the impact of affordable space launches. Suddenly, private companies would be capable of sending inflatable space hotels into Low Earth Orbit, or build bases on the Moon. For someone like me who sees emigrating to Mars as a little bit scary, these would be great ways to “test the water”: a week of vacations on the Lunar surface sounds great. Private scientific missions would also become possible. We can imagine Canon, Nikon or RED sending their cameras to deep space to capture staggering images of Saturn’s rings for instance. Or perhaps a watch maker fond of marine exploration, like Rolex or Omega, would sponsor a mission to explore Europa’s ocean?
In a way, space transport is at the same stage air travel was at the beginning of the 1900s… Just a few people have been able to fly, and flying is prohibitively expensive. If you consider how quickly air travel evolved, we are at a crossroad here, just a few years away from a major disruption in prices and frequency of space flights.
While the current SpaceX line up is great, it isn’t capable of providing the transport for a Martian colony. So SpaceX is planning a bigger vehicle. A much bigger vehicle (see link). Nicknamed “BFR” (for Big Freaking/Fucking Rocket), it would be capable of sending a much larger payload to Mars. Both its first and second stage would be fully reusable. The BFR would make a lot of launches to send the required infrastructure to Mars. It would also launch the spacecraft used to ferry people from low earth orbit (LEO) to Mars orbit, the MCT (Mars Colonial Transporter), which would be capable of transporting 100 passengers or 100 tonnes of cargo per voyage.
Musk envisions a price of 500,000$ per person to fly to Mars. That’s in the prospect of emigrating to Mars, meaning that you would sell your possessions on Earth to afford the voyage, much like people who emigrated to America did. With such a “low” price point, quite a few people will be willing to go. If there is a means to go, some of us will. How many? Musk would like to see 80,000 persons on Mars by 2040 (let’s round that to 2050), and a million a century from now (2115-2150). That’s a lot of BFR/MCT flights, which is why it is critically important for these vehicles to be reusable. Whether or not SpaceX will succeed remains to be seen. Having followed SpaceX for a few years now, I’m very optimistic. It clearly is our best shot at becoming a multi-planetary species. And even if SpaceX didn’t make it, the disruption it caused to the industry, and the countless innovations it came up with would allow other companies to pick up where SpaceX left off. But I think SpaceX will succeed. It’s just a matter of time. They are a profitable company, and the cheapest launch provider on the market; they have a strong footing if they need more time than previously thought to develop their plans to colonize Mars.
Stewart Money, in his amazing book Here be Dragons, which is a precise, thorough account of SpaceX’s history, summed up SpaceX’s plan really nicely: “It is for certain a terrifying idea, the prospect of leaving, in most cases forever, the warm, wet planet which has given rise to human civilization, only to travel to a frigid and arid wasteland which makes the worst desert on Earth appear to be an oasis, but it is also a compulsion that some find overwhelming, even if still inexplicable. In the end, it does not matter if it is 80,000, or 800,000; presented with the opportunity, a measurable fraction will go. Embarking on its second decade, SpaceX is in the process of creating just that opportunity. When it arrives, potentially as soon as the beginning of its third decade, a few irrepressible souls will inevitably answer the call humanity has always answered and pave the way for those who follow. It is for this reason that despite all the cries to the contrary, and all the carefully reasoned arguments regarding the political underpinnings of the space program, we do not need a motivating national rationale or an enduring value proposition on which it must depend. We merely need the means to buy the ticket and book the passage. Human nature will take care of the rest. The moment it is introduced, as improbable as it may sound, Elon Musk’s Mars Colonial Transporter becomes simply a matter of scale, and humanity becomes a two planet species.”
Mars is where we need to go. And it seems increasingly likely that we’ll get there in the near future. But it’s just the first step in our collective future. Mars will probably sustain us for a rather long time (hundreds, or perhaps a few thousand years?), and commerce between the Earth and Mars will create a lot of innovation. There’s also the question of a martian colony’s governance. Like seasteading, martian colonies could perhaps provide a fertile ground for experimentation. It would certainly be nice to not be under the rule of the current Earth governments which are terrible. On the theme of commerce and politics in a multi-planetary civilization, there’s one highly libertarian little essay I’d recommend, written by a mysterious user of the internet drug market Silk Road. It imagines space transport freeing us from government oversight, allowing commerce to flourish without interference. The story depicts a year 2450 where drugs are still prohibited though, which I hope won’t be the case. Perhaps martian colonies will be able to declare independence once fully self-sustaining, allowing them to become the kind of “knowledge” society I described in a previous essay.
Anyway, having two independent “bases” for civilization, one on Earth and one on Mars, is a pretty good insurance policy for the time being, so that our very existence and our knowledge remain relatively safe. The time Earth and Mars will sustain us should be sufficient to allow development of better space transportation, too (perhaps interstellar travel, with generation spaceships?), allowing us to explore and settle in other star systems. First we’d settle on the moons of the gas giants, going further and further away from the Sun, ultimately leaving our Solar System. As the Elon Musk interview I referred to earlier lyrically described: “We’d start with Mars and then shoot through the asteroid belt to Jupiter and its ocean-harboring moons. We’d drink in Saturn’s sublimity, its slanted rings and golden hue, and then head for the outer giants, and the icy rubble at the Solar System’s edge. The Sun would look small out there, and the stars beckoning. We would spread through the Milky Way’s safe zone, the doughnut of gas and fire, billions of stars strong, that surrounds our galaxy’s violent core, and then we’d press out into intergalactic space. We’d use wormholes or warp drives, or some other vaguely sketched physics, to pretend away the millions of light years that separate us from Andromeda and the glittering web beyond it, whose glimpsable regions alone contain hundreds of billions of galaxies.” This is the very deep future though, which is nearly impossible to predict since we are evolving really, really quickly. (Just imagine someone from the 1500s being brought back to life right now. He would be totally overwhelmed by what we have become). If we survive that long, we’ll likely have wonderful technologies at our disposal. Our knowledge of the Universe will be amazing. We’ll have found complex life forms on other planets for sure. Maybe even intelligent life.
So it’s all speculations here, and predicting what our civilization will look like so far in the future is tough. But I’m pretty confident we can assume we’ll follow this path of making little hops from planet to planet, going farther and farther away from Earth every time. Mars is the first next step. As Musk said, “If we can establish a Mars colony, we can almost certainly colonise the whole Solar System, because we’ll have created a strong economic forcing function for the improvement of space travel. We’ll go to the moons of Jupiter, at least some of the outer ones for sure, and probably Titan on Saturn, and the asteroids. Once we have that forcing function, and an Earth-to-Mars economy, we’ll cover the whole Solar System. But the key is that we have to make the Mars thing work. If we’re going to have any chance of sending stuff to other star systems, we need to be laser-focused on becoming a multi-planet civilisation. That’s the next step.”
Again I believe our duty as a conscious species is to make sure our tedious work to understand the Universe and ourselves doesn’t disappear. That it is safe for centuries to come, if by chance we are not the only conscious beings there is out there.