Or…when really smart, successful aviation people propose really baffling things.
When Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, the promising but challenged electric car company, and Space X, the promising but challenged commercial space company, unveiled at the International Astronautical Congress conference in Guadalajara, Mexico, his plans to go to Mars, well, really, for all of us to go to Mars, I was surprised. Now, it being Elon Musk and the subject being Mars, we were all expecting something over the top. We just weren’t expecting this.
The announcement was simply that Musk wanted millions of us to go to Mars on reusable ships that could refuel in space and then gas up again on the surface of the Red Planet. The cost would be doable for the average high-earning upper-middle-classers who used to be known as rich people and the goal would be to populate Mars with regular supplies from Earth. I was going to say that this sounds like something Elon Musk would say, but that’s not really true. It sounds like something Elon Musk would dream and then, when he woke up, would smile about silently. Instead, he announced the plan to the world.
Don’t get me wrong. Mr. Musk’s plan is full of great science, much of it bordering on science fiction, not because it’s made up, but because it hasn’t yet been done. Or even tried. Or even experimented with.
But on to the economics, because that’s what really intrigues me. At the announcement, Musk said he wanted to make Mars a possibility, not just for the super-rich, but for those people I guess you’d classify as bordering on rich, those who could afford to spend $200,000 to go to Mars. To make this a reality, Musk says that Space X would have to makes Mars missions about 5 million times cheaper. At least he’s being honest about that, if not in actual numbers, because who really knows, but at least in the magnitude of the thing. The improvement in efficiencies would have to be, if you’ll forgive the techno-speak, ginormous, even by galactic standards.
But why, oh, why would anybody want to go to Mars? Well, as far as Mr. Musk is concerned, it’s because Earth is on its last legs. I’ll leave the philosophizing and economizing to others in more appropriate venues, but suffice it to say that the Space X head cadet sees Mars colonization as the ultimate goal. Who these colonists would be I’ll leave to you to figure out. Not me. I’d rather stay in a postapocalyptic world with hot- and cold-running zombies marching about than head off to Mars, but maybe that’s just me.
Musk’s vision is founded on finding solutions to the ultimate challenges humankind faces, and I applaud him for that.
But to think that colonizing Mars is a workable solution is nonsense.
While I’ll leave the speculation about the macroeconomics of Earth’s future to others, I’ll talk about the economics of space flight, a subject that we actually know a lot about. And while risk isn’t commonly understood as being part of the economic calculus of a technological movement, it really is. And, in this case, your chances of being killed in one of these launches are about as high as a 105-year-old not lasting until her 106th birthday. Space is truly dangerous, and the record of disaster is well known.
I have to say that I admire Musk for daring to be laughed at in attempting to put forward some revolutionary ideas. But I’ve seen this kind of thing before. Another great optimist I admire, Vern Raburn, practiced exactly the same kind of thinking as Musk, but instead of with the goal of Mars, Raburn’s pot of gold was a truly personal jet. And he did it. Well, the jet ultimately came to be, but only because enough people believed that Raburn’s assumptions about the future would come to pass as well. That future included a world in which thousands of Eclipse jet crisscrossed the continent in an on-demand short-haul charter world that existed solely within Eclipse’s business plan and nowhere in reality.
The story of the Eclipse jet is well known. The company went down spectacularly, in the biggest bankruptcy in general aviation history, but the jet came to pass, thanks to investors who jumped in and took it to the finish line, which Raburn very nearly got to himself. Thousands of good people, however, lost hundreds of millions of dollars in personal and corporate wealth in the process.
The good news about Space X’s Mars plan is that there’s no risk whatsoever of a manned Mars mission (at least one associated with this plan) actually coming to fruition, and certainly not within 10 years. It took the Eclipse jet longer than 10 years to get to production, and its ceiling, at 41,000 feet, was a little closer to home.