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Huge Mars Colony Eyed by SpaceX Founder Elon Musk (space.com)
66 points by waterlesscloud on Nov 23, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 79 comments

I love what Elon Musk is doing, and usually he makes pretty reasonable assumptions, but I think he's wrong when he says "most mid-40 somethings" can afford $500,000.

Being able to afford a $500k house is different than having $500,000. Houses can be mortgaged for 30 years, but if you're going to Mars, you're not going to have an income and can't pay back that loan.

I don't think a lot of 40 somethings have $500k laying around.

What? Why wouldn't you have an income? That's a silly assumption. The Martian colonies won't be full of jobless bums as there will be lots of work to do. A prime export to Earth will probably be software, for example.

The #1 export from Mars will certainly be "data about Mars, in digital form" for a long time. Maybe some software directly developed for that which then turns out to have other uses. Art would probably be part of this.

People might want to go to Mars for non-economic reasons and then continue to do software development, too. (I'd happily pay $500k to go to Mars if it looked like doing so wouldn't rule out life extension technology, either because life extension was stalled or because it would also be available on Mars. The only thing I wouldn't give up for Mars is a good chance at immortality.)

This is a pretty big assumption, why would it be a prime export?

What makes Mars so great for producing software that would cover the added expense of firing a programmer all the way there in a rocket?

> What makes Mars so great for producing software that would cover the added expense of firing a programmer all the way there in a rocket?

I'm not sure if you're asking this question rhetorically or not, but one answer might be that you wouldn't have nearly as many distractions as on earth. No commuting, no Starbucks, no phone calls (from earth, anyway), no going for a walk or a bike ride, no going to the beach - you get the idea. In fact, spending a lot of time working in some kind of virtual, computerized environment might be the only way to keep from going nuts up there.

What's sort of interesting, though, about being on Mars when it comes to an economy is that exporting stuff to Earth might be somewhat questionable. With the exception of digital goods like software and entertainment, the only stuff worth buying on Earth is stuff that can be transported to you, and that would be so costly that your exports better be extremely valuable. While on Mars, if I wrote a program and sold it to you on Earth for $1 million, what good is that $1 million to me?

So other than basic bartering among your fellow settlers, I imagine that you'd probably spend most of your time just trying to survive on Mars itself, without exporting much of anything at all. You also can't trade with the native populations, since there aren't any, which is another major departure from most earthbound settlements.

I think any attempt to settle on Mars would experience many of the same sort of risks that ultimately doomed the Norse settlement of Greenland between AD 985 to approx 1500.

> wouldn't have nearly as many distractions

I was going to explain how this is wildly wrong, but you do it yourself a little later.

> you'd probably spend most of your time just trying to survive on Mars

Death being a larger distraction than all the Starbucks combined.

> With the exception of digital goods like software and entertainment, the only stuff worth buying on Earth is stuff that can be transported to you, and that would be so costly that your exports better be extremely valuable. While on Mars, if I wrote a program and sold it to you on Earth for $1 million, what good is that $1 million to me?

You have to consider this in the context of a solar system wide civilization. It's going to be a whole lot cheaper to ship things to and from Mars than from Earth. Orbital mechanics, Martian mineral resources, and the favorability of Mars for large scale agriculture will make it the hub of the solar-system's civilization. Settling Mars won't be like settling Greenland. It will be like establishing colonies in Massachusetts and Virginia. Eventually, the civilization-state of China and the western powers will realize this, and they will pay handsomely anyone who helps with their colonization projects.

* imagines trying to push to github from mars

Isn't being a basement dwelling shut in already a nerd trope?

No need to go to Mars for that, heh.

The whole concept here is that we have hundreds of thousands of people who desperately want to live on Mars. You don't seem to be getting that in this comment thread. YES, we know it's cheaper to live on Earth.




We want to live on Mars. We will give anything to go live on Mars. It'll cost more. Yes. It'll be tougher. Yes.




We want to live on Mars.

I don't want to live there, but I sure as hell would love to spend some time there, how many people for the next 50 years will be able to say they have been to Mars?

I want to be one of the lucky ones.

It's virtually free to export software to Earth while it would cost millions to export anything physical.

Also, I think you misunderstood me. Its not supposed to cover some cost; the presumed developer chose to go to Mars rather than stay on Earth and buy a house. He pays for the privilege of living on Mars.

It's not that Mars is spectacular for building software but rather that's a very cost effective export once you're there.

It's even freer to leave the programmer here and not have to export at all....

There's no way a guy on Mars could compete on costs.

I think you're also underestimating how much of a premium bandwidth will be too.

> It's even freer to leave the programmer here and not have to export at all....

I don't get it. At all. Let's use me as an example: I'm currently in my 20s, a software developer with his mind and heart set on Mars. I'm Elon's target market, basically. So let's say I spend my money to go to Mars and fulfill my life's dreams and goals. You're suggesting that I shouldn't go, because 'git push' and 'git pull' are more expensive? Hah. Ridiculous!

> There's no way a guy on Mars could compete on costs. I think you're also underestimating how much of a premium bandwidth will be too.

No, I don't think so. Latency is very high, but data rate isn't going to be all that bad - in fact, it might be spectacular as the medium of transit is the near-vacuum of space. Though I agree to a certain extent that costs will generally be higher when building software for Earth.

But slow down here, because this was just one example of a segment of a potential Martian economy. We clearly are not going to predict all the details this far out, and we're already debating about the data transmission costs. I think the point here is to take a step back and realize that Martians would certainly have a lot to do, would have their own small (though growing) economy, and that exports to Earth will likely be mostly digital due to shipping costs for physical objects.

You need to calm the fuck down mate, I'm not telling you you can't do anything...

I'm saying that production of anything for export is probably not going to be a priority, for a long long time. Generations at the very least.

Also, from the way you've blown up here, going off on someone just for throwing out a few doubts, are you absolutely sure you have the right temperament to be locked in a tiny box with other people for a 6 month journey... or possibly the rest of your life? Crikey.

I don't see why you're telling me to calm "the fuck" down, after I already said we should slow down the debate. Your swearing at me is unnecessary.

As far as production for export not happening for generations: well, I disagree and I think that's completely crazy. I only brought it up as an example that the people living there will not be jobless. I didn't intend on starting some giant export debate, as clearly nobody here has any real idea to what extent there will be exports from Mars within the next 30 years.

But yeah, keep insulting me, that'll help this discussion.

Edit: If I sounded offended, I partially am. The suggestion that I should stay on Earth because it's cheaper is perhaps the most offensive thing anyone's said to me in a while.

The calm down comment was referring to your other post, the WE DON'T CARE one.

I'm not telling you you can't, or shouldn't. You want to go to Mars? That's a fucking great aspiration.

I'm just saying I don't think software is going to be a major export. Or anything really... unless they find something valuable that's uniquely Martian.

Stop being offended by people disagreeing with you.

You were trying to tell HN that basements are better for us nerds than Mars. That's absurd and I will not just chill back and let that attitude prevail, as it undermines my very existence. It's insulting and it's offensive. Not only that, but it undermines the whole human enterprise of exploration of the unknown.

I completely agree with you that software will not be a major export. Nothing will be a major export. But that's completely irrelevant to everything I've said; I'm a programmer, and I will be able to afford a $500,000 house or a trip to Mars in my mid-40s. If I go, I will be unlikely to work a job purely Mars-based, and it makes sense that I would continue with my work as I do here on Earth: writing software.

Your suggestions that Earth basements are better for that life is...well, I don't really have words for how offensive that is. I'm not offended by your disagreement with me, I'm offended at your attitude that nerds should stay in Earth basements and not go to amazing places like Mars.

Will you guys please stop this?

The remainder of the voyage to Mars was quiet aboard the USS HNterprise after Captain Graham threatened to "turn this rocket ship around if you two don't stop fighting".

"Will you guys please stop this?"

Absolutely, sorry.

The nerd thing was a joke. I thought the assumption here was that we're all nerds?

Edit: because I put things in the wrong place.

Sure. Sorry Paul.

> as clearly nobody here has any real idea to what extent there will be exports from Mars within the next 30 years.

Conditional on there being a Mars colony in 30 years, then there will almost certainly be mineral and food exports from Mars to the rest of the solar system other than Earth in another 10.

You know that Mars atmosphere don't capture oxygen right? [1]

No way to grow food there unless you export a whole lot of greenhouses and set up an artificial biosphere, but without the conditions that we take for granted on earth.

This is already hard to do in deserts or in the Polar regions, where we have plenty of oxygen and free moisture flowing in the atmosphere.

[1]: http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/ast121/lectures/lec14.html for a good explanation.

> No way to grow food there unless you export a whole lot of greenhouses

No, you can build the greenhouses in-situ. We have already worked out how to produce metals and polymers from martian resources.

> This is already hard to do in deserts or in the Polar regions, where we have plenty of oxygen and free moisture flowing in the atmosphere.

Sure, there will be considerable challenges. I don't see anything that will be insurmountable.

> We have already worked out how to produce metals and polymers from martian resources.


> You know that Mars atmosphere don't capture oxygen right?

How is this relevant to growing in pressurized domes?

It's not, but a huge pressurized dome would be pretty much expensive, I do not think a colony on Mars would be able to produce more than subsistence level for the pioneers.

There has already been consideration of producing polymers on Mars from the atmosphere. Agricultural domes would not have to be reliable as living spaces, so these could be built cheaply as inflatable structures. So mars could build its own greenhouses.

> It's virtually free to export software to Earth while it would cost millions to export anything physical.

I don't think this will remain true. We have materials today that are strong enough to build space elevators on Mars. Heck, there are mountains on Mars that poke up above its atmosphere. We could just build linear accelerators on top of those and voila, we're free of the rocket equation when exporting to Earth and the rest of the solar system.

Think about it, the first people that colonize mars have a tremendous amount of work they need to do once they get there. It's not like everything is going to be setup perfectly and they're going to have all this free time to program.

Things are going to be very difficult. They will be needing the support of Earth just to survive - forget about making an income.

I wholeheartedly agree about the first people, and I wasn't referring to them when talking about exporting software to Earth. It sounds like Elon plans on having an elite team start out the colony, building the domes, etc, and then selling living places to "regular" people who have a lot of money. Those people will certainly not have to spend every waking second of their day working to survive; getting that in place was the goal of sending the first people initially.

well, if that's the case where the $500,000 comes in much later, and there's ways to make a decent living on Mars, then it's certainly possible. But again, I still think people need loans, they don't have $500k sitting around. And lenders will only give out loans if there is a good chance of paying it back. If someone takes out a loan, goes to Mars, and refuses to pay, what is the lender gonna do? It costs $500k just to go to mars, it's not like they're gonna send a bill collector after them.

Just make all banking on Mars electronic. If you don't pay your bills, you flat-out don't have money. This even works in a Free market version, as banks will probably cooperate on debtors even while they're competing everywhere else.

Yeah, but people won't let their fellow Martians suffer. They will likely band together since they share such a unique circumstance.

Doing the work you describe will probably be lucrative in itself. The laws of supply and demand will force wages on Mars well into 6 figures.

When I've heard Elon talk about this before, his idea is that people interested in moving to Mars would actually sell their house and Earthly possessions in order to pay for the ride. They won't be needing all that junk anymore anyway. Once you're prepared to sell all of your assets, then having a net worth of $500k is essentially the same as being able to afford $500k.

You're assuming nobody else wants to go to Mars, and you can actually offload all your junk before the market is flooded with the crap everyone else is trying to pawn off to leave this planet.

I don't think the crowd willing to sell all their assets and buy a one-way ticket to a planet where the odds of dying of old age are astonishingly small is large enough to collapse an economy.

Don't get me wrong - I'd love to go to Mars myself, but I wouldn't like to make such a long-term commitment without a good chance not to die there. And that doesn't even include my family.

I doubt it would collapse the economy, but it's worth keeping in mind that if you're actually planning to go, you might want to beat the rush when it comes to getting the money together.

Well there actually are ways of making money on Mars, even though they rely on the wealth of the Earth until Mars actually has an economy. Mainly advertising. I can imagine a human on Mars having a "blog" that would be fairly captivating to a lot of humans. Those humans could see advertising and the price would probably fall around American Super Bowl levels. Think about it, having 1/2 Billion humans checking up on one person on mars is actually pretty reasonable. Those same eyeballs can hear a message and that message can be sold to the highest bidder, making the whole venture a success. Similar to how past adventurers would sell their stories upon return to cities.

That's just one possible job. Never mind the actual work that needs to be done by humans on Mars. Those people would be paid by humans on Earth. Just like astronauts of today. If I was a rich man I would certainly pay a human on Mars to explore.

Well, I think it most likely that the actual work that has to be done on Mars would be done by the people there for free, because if they don't do it, they'll die...

Even in the longer run, I think it implausible that anybody on Mars would be doing anything at all that people on Earth would be interested in, once the initial excitement has worn off. And I think it more implausible yet that the Earth people will be interested in paying for it! Transporting physical materials would be impractical, even if you were prepared for the gargantuan expense, and while you could have some kind of remote working outpost, it's unclear how much use this would be to anybody. It's hard enough when people are only the other side of the world! - it's not going to be any easier if they're 50,000,000km away, with no phone connection, no postal service, and a ping time of at least 5 minutes.

As always, events may yet prove me wrong... but I don't expect them to.

He's only expecting 1 in 100,000 to make the trip.

He never said that most fortysomethings had $500k lying around. He said most fortysomethings in developed economies -could- pull the money together (to me, that implies if they really put their mind to it). He's only assuming that 1 in 100,000 -will- do it. Sure we could quibble about just exactly how hard for a given person to pull the money together, but I don't think there's a lot of argument that 1 in 100,000 would be able to do it.

I think he's envisioning this as a one-way trip: $500k for a house in California OR settle down on Mars. In that case, it's actually an affordable price tag. Even if EM realizes his reusable rockets, I imagine the primary purpose would be for transporting supplies, etc. rather than frequently shuttling people Earth <---> Mars.

Just think of immigrants from the early 1900's who uprooted their entire families and got on a boat to America. That was a one-way journey in most cases until international travel became more affordable and more commonplace. Interplanetary travel, when it happens, will likely take the same pattern.

I do not understand why not a lunar base first.

It's closer to us, will lead to much more complicated problems to solve that we can get on Mars>

- dealing with plants in greenhouses with the much reduced gravity of the Moon compared to Mars - no atmosphere, although this means no weather, which makes things more predictable compared to Mars.

For me there's no way a space colony grow to be huge without addressing ways of dealing with food production and stand alone survival of the colony, if we have ways to study this without spending months travelling, reducing risk and cost, then it's better, it would sum us more knowledge.

He addressed that in a recent interview.

The Moon has far less water than Mars. No CO2. And it has a 28 day rotation cycle, which makes growing plants much more difficult. Mars has water, plentiful CO2, and a day that's only about 40 minutes longer than Earth's. This makes growing plants on Mars much, much easier.

Not to mention the extra gravity. We'll need all of the gravity we can get if we want to stave off muscle and bone degeneration. It's possible that Mars' light gravity (40% of Earth's) isn't even enough to keep us healthy without excessive exercise.

If a baby were born on mars, I am curious how their growth would be affected by the difference in gravity. Would their muscle/bone development be cause problems due to evolutionary effects, or would they grow to match the physics of this planet, and therefore be physically fine. Perhaps the only issue would be growing up on one planet and moving to another.

Rather than a base moon or mars or any planet, why not a space colony with pluggable units using a standard plug-in architecture to exchange energy, supplies etc. (Similar to an API). There is no main unit, similar to a P2P structure, and units can be stacked together to make huge colonies. Each cluster of units may move in an upfront known trajectory in the habitable zone of the Sun. The whole idea is that space startups may create newer units based on new ideas; and that way we may explore the space quicker.

And no mention how would he solve the problem of radiation for these people living there. On Earth we get an equivalent of one chest x-ray per year just from cosmic rays. On Mars it's more like 80 x-rays per year. Survivable for a 2-3 years long expedition,but for permanent settlement?

Radiation dangers on Mars missions are often exaggerated.

In Mars orbit, we have data that indicates approx. 22 milirads a day. It should be a fair bit less on the surface. That gives the colonists about 3 years of unshielded radiation exposure till they hit the radiation max that NASA recommends (remember, they should be shielded somewhat though)

There is also a decent amount of recent evidence that chronic radiation exposure in this quantity is no where as near as dangerous as a concentrated burst.

Didn't Curiosity recently show that radiation on Mars was pretty much the same as on the ISS because the atmosphere of Mars thickens during the day?

We already know that we can make bricks out of Martian soil. Build arched and domed buildings out of those and bury them with lots of Martian soil. This gives you radiation-proof buildings that can also be pressurized. Combine this with local teleoperation, you can stretch the 2-3 year long habitation span to a 15 to 20 year working span, followed by retirement to indoor underground habitations.

I think your numbers are significantly off. A flight from NYC to London gives the passengers roughly a chest x-ray worth of exposure, meaning the pilots get 100-200 a year worth.

Settlements would likely involve radiation shielding - buildings underground, teleoperation, etc.

Very likely, it will be an underground world first. That will shield most of the radiation there.

A significant detail that is not in the article.

He's asking a half million each to go there. But the return trip is free. Why? He's got to get the spacecraft back anyways, and the cost of that dwarfs the cost of adding passengers.

There may be a lot more people who are willing to go when they know that, if it does not work for them, they can come back to Earth for free.

Why haven't we solved the gravitation issue for these sort of spacecrafts yet? Can't we get gravitation if we do a spinning part around the ship like suggested here?


How long would it take us to go to Mars at current speeds? A year? What would be the ideal travel time till there so we don't get affected by space radiation too much?

My impression is that while emulating gravity with a rotating reference frame is certainly possible, the things holding that approach back are engineering realities. In order to minimize the "gravity" gradient felt over the length of a human standing up, the radius of your spacecraft needs to be quite large.

If you are lifting that sort of mass already, your time is probably better spent lifting several tons or water that would be used to fill a double hull, providing protection from radiation. Then you can give your crew a few rubber bands and count on some minimal muscle loss. (We have kept people in space and reasonably healthy for the several months getting to Mars would take, but that is in LEO where radiation is much less of an issue).

Just have two capsules separated by a tether. No need for a torus of huge radius.

NASA has a deathly fear of tethers for some reason, but I suppose that wouldn't stop Musk.

Or even better, a rigid tunnel. That would allow people to travel between the two bodies, which would significantly improve their happiness.

We don't need to solve the gravitation issue. People are spending long term time in the ISS and with proper training it's not bad.

The long-term effects of zero or low gravity on human health are very serious - muscle, bone and eyesight loss and a host of other problems. Current mechanisms of dealing with the problem (exercise and special suits) do not cater adequately to long-term space journeys.

They're doing 6-12 month missions on the ISS these days, which would be roughly similar to a Mars transit.

The gravitational field in the low earth orbit is quite large compared to what you would encounter in outer space.

The ISS is at a distance less than 5% the distance between us and the moon.

The gravitational field you're in doesn't matter if you're in free-fall.

You're probably right, I am not a physicist, but this is the only when you consider rigid bodies right?

Nope, this is actually just a restatement of one aspect of Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, which applies to everything.

isn't the problem weightlessness, not zero gravity?

ie, centrifugal acceleration canceling out low gravity in LEO

No, weight is just mass plus some sort of acceleration, if there's something to substitute gravity everything would be well, the main problem is with body fluids, we evolved to deal with earth surface level of gravity, in the interplanetary space I do not see how centrifugal acceleration is possible unless it's something that the spaceship do to generate it, from what I know this is hard and do not see solved in the foreseeable future. I would love to be wrong.

A trip to Mars at modern speeds is about 7-8 months, but this is quite variable. You could get there in about 2 months if you went really fast, but no such propulsion system currently exists to my knowledge. However, we are talking about propulsion systems as they will exist in 15-20 years, so perhaps something like 4-6 months is a reasonable estimate of trip duration.

Edit: There's that famous "40 days to Mars" study from a while ago about theoretical new rockets: http://www.space.com/8009-rocket-engine-reach-mars-40-days.h...

If Elon Musk achieves everything he has set out to do, his name will surely be etched into the history books. And, it seems, those history books will be read by humans further into the future than perhaps otherwise, BECAUSE his name is in them.

It's much harder to colonize when you don't have locals to oppress. I'm surprised Musk isn't targeting all the pretty rich universities that would pay tens of millions to put grad students down on the red planet scraping up research material.

I worked at a lab that studied the effects of non-standard gravities on early development, and the results were not encouraging.

Has anyone encountered research on how we might be able to have children in non-standard gravity environments?

How does one study the effect of non-standard gravities on early development? What effects did you discover?

"I would like to die on Mars, just not on impact."

If that we're a wish, it would be in adequately specified. For example, it includes being tossed broken from the wreckage in a torn spacesuit and dying while your dissolved gasses boil your blood.

Elon said it, not me.

Keep that man away from djinn!

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