Musk’s historic Mars announcement wows many, leaves others with questions

Elon Musk presents SpaceX's plan to make humans a multi-planet species. Credit: SpaceX

Elon Musk presents SpaceX’s plan to make humans a multi-planet species. Credit: SpaceX

Industry leaders, pundits, and fans had been waiting for months in anticipation of what SpaceX CEO Elon Musk would unveil during his session at the 2016 International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico. When Musk finally took the stage on September 27, 2016, he was welcomed with cheering and applause on a level normally reserved for rock stars. The excitement was palpable.

Musk spoke for about an hour, sharing his vision for making humanity a multi-planet species, and what SpaceX will do to make that happen. Accompanying his speech were images, charts, renderings, and videos driving home the visionary CEO’s talking points.

Oh, did I say video? Because there was one heck of a video. Shortly before Musk was scheduled to appear on stage, SpaceX released a video giving people a glimpse of what a Mars transport system may look like. The SpaceX CEO also played it for those in attendance. The visuals presented in the video were suitably futuristic, while still residing (mostly) in the realm of reality.

Make no mistake, everything about this endeavor is big – the rocket, the spaceship, the vision, and the reason for going. All are undeniably huge and on a level one would expect to see in a summer sci-fi blockbuster. People were excited. But some, myself included, were left with more questions than they had prior to the event.

What follows represents my thoughts and opinions on the event. I’m neither a rocket scientist, nor an industry insider; rather, I’m a spaceflight enthusiast who has some thoughtful concerns and decided to write about them.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears

Unlike Antony, I come not to bury Musk. However, neither will I unnecessarily praise him. I have been accused of not being a fan of either the company or its CEO. While I may have been occasionally critical of SpaceX and Musk, it is not because I dislike them. One cannot argue the accomplishments of the NewSpace company, nor ever accurately accuse them of not having a positive influence on the average person’s perception of spaceflight.

Indeed, it is precisely because of that increased mindshare — and the odd “groupies” it seems to have generated — that I’ve felt the need to be a counterbalance to the gushing praise normally heaped on the company. I can unequivocally state that I want SpaceX to succeed. Their achievements are beneficial to the industry at-large and help spur innovation in a sector that appears to have seen only a modest advancement over the recent past. It’s clear that the state of the landscape is changing. Good. But that doesn’t mean the company is undeserving criticism.

With that said, let’s get on with a few of my concerns about the announcement.

No bucks, no Buck Rogers

“You boys know what makes this bird go up? FUNDING makes this bird go up.”

Wise words spoken by Gordon Cooper, portrayed by Dennis Quaid, in ‘The Right Stuff’. The adage holds true for NASA, and it holds true for SpaceX. Without adequate money, Musk’s Interplanetary Transportation System (ITS) won’t make it much past the drawing board.

Just how does SpaceX plan to pay for it? Musk admits that SpaceX cannot fund the undertaking alone and will require outside money if they’re to accomplish the task in any reasonable amount of time. It’s entirely possible that NASA will engage SpaceX in a contract to get ITS going. Or, maybe not.

Without doubt, SpaceX needs copious amounts of money.

Testing, 1…2…3…

Musk states that the booster will generate 128 Meganewtons of sea-level thrust at liftoff. That’s more than 28 million pounds of force lifting the rocket and spacecraft off the pad. A jaw-dropping sight, to be sure.

But where will they test it? Surely, SpaceX plans to perform a full-duration static fire of the booster before it ever takes flight. As far as I know, there’s no test stand in existence capable of restraining that amount of thrust. Will SpaceX construct one of their own? If so, where? In Texas? Is there enough land to act as a buffer for the acoustic onslaught sure to come from such a test? Or will they build one at NASA’s Stennis Space Center, which sits in a HUGE buffer zone?

Regardless of which route they take, constructing such a large testing facility takes a lot of time and money.

Protecting the squishy bits

Though Musk posits that it’s possible people may die in an interplanetary colonization effort, and certainly there are people willing to take that risk, one would assume that those intrepid travelers would prefer to at least make it to space before having their life cut short from an unforeseen launch incident.

Just how will SpaceX protect their paying customers should a launch mishap occur? Will the spacecraft have a dedicated launch abort system, or will it use the vehicle’s Raptors to lift it to safety? Is there enough thrust from the engines on the upper stage, most of which are the vacuum-optimized version of the Raptor? How long would it take for the engines to “spin up” to zip the craft and crew to safety?

While we’re on the subject of protecting the crew from hazards, one cannot forget about the dangers of radiation. However, Musk seemed to gloss over the risk from solar flares and cosmic radiation.

“The radiation thing is often brought up, but I think it’s not too big of a deal,” said Musk.

That seems to be an incredibly blasé attitude to have. I once had a conversation with an engineer from Bigelow Aerospace who was adamant that radiation protection was the single biggest hurdle to overcome for an extended journey beyond the protection of Earth’s magnetic field. Yet Musk treats it as a minor inconvenience.

When I was your age, I had to walk uphill to and from school…both ways…in the snow.

Yes, it’s obvious that humanity needs to expand away from Earth for long-term survival of the species. But who will uproot themselves, or their family, to make the journey…possibly to never return? Do we have enough people with the pioneering spirit — AND the money —  to make such a sacrifice? And what will they do once they get there, other than live every day just to survive until the next?

Don’t misunderstand me – this is something that humanity will need to solve in order to make colonization viable and is not a problem inherent to SpaceX. That said, if Musk expects people to come as early founders for a new civilization, rather than as explorers set to return to Earth once their mission is complete, there needs to be a reason for them to go, and something for them to do once they get there.

But what I’m really trying to say is…

It was an announcement filled with vision, borne of a man’s conviction that humanity needs to colonize Mars to help protect the species from an extinction-level event on Earth. I absolutely agree with that. My concern lies with the details, and I look forward to seeing how SpaceX addresses these issues — as well as those put forth by others — as they strive to bring Musk’s vision to reality.

The next few years should prove to be interesting.

Artist's rendering of SpaceX's ship on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. Credit: SpaceX

Artist’s rendering of SpaceX’s ship on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. Credit: SpaceX

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