Hey, sometimes a guy has to give in to his dark side!
I dusted off one of the greatest video game series of the last 10 years recently. Even though the second in the series came out last year, I haven’t yet played it. In fact, it has been four or so years since I played the first in the series, so I decided to run through that one again just to reimmerse myself.
Why the hell are you talking about this, you unreconstructed geek?!
First — stop yelling at me! And second, I’m talking about it because this game — one of the best and most cinematic stories ever told in modern gaming — was far too unintentionally prophetic for me to let it pass without commenting.
Take a virus that turns people into uncontrollably violent lunatics, add a dash of Lord of the Flies style “I have the conch!” politics, and leaven it all with some vintage Stanley Kubrick visuals and you end up with…well, the US today.
You also end up with one of the greatest games ever made…
Okay, digression over. Ahem.
The rest of this post, I should probably tell you, is even geekier than the bit above. You have been warned.
There’s been a certain amount of noise in the news lately about Elon Musk wanting to begin his desired push for a series of Mars expeditions — leading to colonization — in the next few years. Now, the first thing to mention is that expeditions to Mars get my science nerd nerves tingling even more than they do my science fiction ones. When I was young, I could never figure out what was the problem with sending ships to the Moon and Mars. “Why is it so hard? Just get it done!” my adolescent self would scream. “All it takes is the will to do it!”
High school naivety aside — sorry, high school kids — there is a lot more to the story than merely following the Nike path of “Just do it!”
Now, I love the addition of SpaceX and Blue Origin and other private space ventures to the (pardon the pun) constellation of launch operators. In the early days it was important to have governments — through NASA, the ESA and Roscomos — run things because the costs were far too high, and the ROI far too low, for any private venture to be practical. Still today those agencies, along with the increasingly capable Japanese, Chinese and Indian agencies, are vitally important because of the costs. No private venture could afford a mission like the coming Europa Clipper, let alone a truly “impossible” one like New Horizons.
With that being said, there is simply no way humans will effectively expand into — or, arguably, effectively use — space without the participation of private enterprise. The ingenuity, creativity and pure talent that such private ventures can and will bring to bear are quite simply unmatchable by any government agency. No offense to NASA and the like, but bureaucracies have never been the most efficient way to do, well, anything. One of the greatest-ever movie lines comes from Armageddon: “You know we’re sitting on four million pounds of fuel, one nuclear weapon and a thing that has 270,000 moving parts built by the lowest bidder.”
Boiled down to basics, once someone has learned to effectively make space pay, humanity’s boundaries are going to grow. A lot.
Is Elon Musk the guy to lead that charge? Err…
Look, Musk has undeniable charisma, and a strangely Midas-like touch for backing the right venture at the right time, but that makes him far more of a Howard Hughes* figure than a Werner Von Braun.
*Musk’s increasing nuttiness is pretty damned Hughes-like, too…
Let’s get one thing straight about this whole discussion: space is hard. I mean, it’s, like, freaking rocket science…
Wanna know how hard? Go spend twenty bucks and play Kerbal Space Program for a few hours…you and the wonders of rocket science and orbital mechanics will get acquainted real darned quick. Hell, even NASA likes that game.
To get to Mars is an engineering problem rather than a physics one, yes. But it’s one hell of a engineering problem! Just ask the Russian space program — every single probe they sent to Mars failed. Every single one. Finally, they gave up and just went to fucking Venus instead.*
*Yes, as a parenthetic aside, it actually is somewhat “easier” to go to Venus…until you get there. Once you’re there, you want to send down a probe? To a planet where the surface pressure is equivalent to 3,000 feet underwater? Where it is hot enough to melt lead? Oh, and where the air itself consists of sulfuric freaking acid? I believe the “record” for survival of a landed probe is something on the order of two hours…
The real question, in regards to the stories about Musk, is this: Are we ready to send actual expeditions to Mars? No. No we’re not.
Launching things just into low Earth orbit costs money. A godawful lot of money. It costs a lot because it costs a lot of fuel to accelerate something up into those orbits. To get up to the higher orbits — and far worse, to get to the Moon — means you have to go faster, for longer, which exponentially increases the costs in terms of fuel and engine technology. As a matter of fact, to this day, the US cannot come anywhere close to matching the lift capacity and endurance we had with the Saturn V rockets from the Apollo program. Nor, sadly, can we build them again, since we allowed all of the necessary infrastructure and ability not just to lapse, but to literally disintegrate.
Yes, there are plans and programs on the drawing boards for new heavy-lift rockets, both from NASA and from the private companies, but those have all been ten years away for twenty years now…
To get a ship to Mars that is capable of bearing humans is going to take more mass than we have ever before used for a spacecraft. I mean a lot more. Even if you posit enough improvement in constant-thrust propulsion technologies to make them practical for this — we have done well with low-power ion drives so far, but only for very small, intentionally low-mass probes — you are still looking at a trip that will take roughly six months. One way.
Do you have any idea just how much food and water you need for, say, three people for a trip of six months? Very likely, you would need to plan for at least two years in order to account for the trip to Mars, then enough time at the Red Planet to explore…and to let the orbits re-align in to a point where a return trip lasts another six-ish months.
Even keeping things to the bare minimum for long term survival, you are looking at 2-3 liters of water per person per day, and probably a pound or so of food per person per day. Then you have the air they need. That ain’t free, you know. You can’t just crank open the window to get a nice breeze going. Oh, and you have to have a certain amount of living space. You can get by mostly with a small common area, yes, but you will also need at least some token private space, if only to keep the three from going insane and killing one another from sheer cabin fever.
Okay, so as of now, with engines and environment systems and food/water and crew space, and the structures needed to support and tie all that together, we are probably in the neighborhood of a million pounds (the mass of the current International Space Station). Oh, wait…those ion engines will be needing a nuclear reactor to power them! The system we use for unmanned probes — called an RTG — will not provide anywhere near enough power for this, nor will solar panels. And those ion engines, while they use electricity to function, they still need propellant to do anything! So let’s double that total to about two million pounds, then.
There’s a lot of radiation in space. Our hypothetical Mars ship will receive far more radiation, on a trip out from beneath Earth’s magnetic field — our radiation “shield,” if you will — than anything in orbit will ever experience. Unless you don’t mind the thought of sending corpses to Mars, that means shielding. Lots and lots of shielding. Yes, we can use the water tanks to provide some of the protection we need, but nowhere near enough! Crap, that’s at least another hundred thousand or so pounds, then.
We’re up to something around a thousand tons, by my count. I am, by the way, being extremely conservative with my weight/mass estimates. The reality of current engineering, and safety, says we should probably double my guesstimates. If we do, we end up with something that is roughly the same size as a freaking WW2 destroyer. For three people. Launched from the surface of the Earth and assembled in orbit. Piece by piece. Rocket by rocket.
I absolutely love the thought of human bootprints in the Martian dirt, but we ain’t there yet. We honestly aren’t even close. Maybe we should focus on what we can accomplish first, huh?
SpaceX and Blue Origin and any new players that come onto the scene can — arguably should — focus first on making operations in orbit financially practical, while continuing to refine and improve the engineering. The step after that is not a trip to Mars, by the way. No, the step after that is a base on the Moon that is financially practical and effective. If that base could produce even ten percent of what a Mars expedition would need, it would make the task of launch, assembly and supply vastly easier.
The high school me is screaming, by the way. “Shut up and just do it!”