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3 Myths about Settling Mars that just won't Die.
Don't believe everything you hear...
There is a clear difference in what it will take to put a few explorers on Mars versus what it will take to put thousands of people there. Most of what you read combines the two. While there is some overlap, when it comes to actually sending humans to Mars to settle and thrive, rather than just to explore, there are 3 myths about settling Mars that just won't die.
Myth #1 - We Don't Have the Technology
This is one of the most common of the 3 myths about settling Mars. It goes something like this:
Innovative technologies are needed to get a lot of people to Mars safely and quickly.
Typically, this means:
- Bigger, faster rockets
- reusable launchers
- exotic propulsion systems
We've actually had the technology to get to Mars for over 50 years. While bigger, faster rockets would help, the technology to build them -- at least the technology for chemical rockets -- is not new.
True, chemical rockets are limited in their performance, and we have already achieved the best efficiency that we can possibly get. New engineering designs may be able to tweak the efficiency slightly, but basically we are there -- and have been since the 1960's.
More advanced and exotic rockets, like solar or nuclear electric propulsion systems (like the Hermes in the movie The Martian), ion propulsion (like this rocket engine), or even plasma engines (like VASIMR, a design being developed by Ad Astra Rocket Company),would definitely make the journey to Mars faster, but they absolutely are not needed to get a lot of people to Mars.
Certain systems and vehicles, however, are an absolute must regardless if you are talking about exploration or settlement. The myth, however, is that these systems require new technology.
Take Mars ascent vehicles, for example. These vehicles are required to return astronauts from the surface of Mars into a low Mars orbit before eventually heading back on the return journey to Earth. Now whether or not you believe we need these vehicles (Mars One enthusiasts certainly do not), the point is that the designs for these systems are based on the same rocket technologies that got Apollo astronauts off the moon.
Their construction, then, is simply a matter of engineering -- not the development of new technologies.
New technology is not what we need. Certain ideas may help, but they are not required. What is required is commitment and funding to engineer the 10 'Must Have' technologies that can open Mars to the masses and dispel this first of 3 myths about settling Mars.
Myth #2 - Where NASA Goes, the Rest of Us Will Soon Follow
In these 3 myths about settling Mars, this one is perhaps the most ignored. When people think about it, common sense would tell you it's not real, yet it continues to persist. The myth goes like this:
NASA, or an international consortium including NASA, ESA, Roscosmos and others, is the only way we can possibly afford to go to Mars. Once they develop the systems and engineer the vehicles that will be needed to support life, then everyone else will have a chance to go.
This one has a grain of truth to it -- if you are willing to wait. A very long time....
Just take a look at the Apollo program, for example. Many thought that with a successful landing on the moon, it was just a matter of time -- a short time, it was believed -- before we could all go to the moon.
Lunar bases would support mining. Mining would support space manufacturing. Space manufacturing would mean colonies in space.
It was all just around the corner...
The excitement was contagious. Space enthusiasts were popping up everywhere. There were companies, organizations, designs and even political manifestos that were created and published in anticipation. Our expansion into space was just about to happen, until...
Not really. Technical advances opened up space operations to many incredible things we enjoy -- and take for granted -- today.
Communication satellites, weather monitoring, GPS navigation. Space is actually a booming business.
Except for the human element...
The reality is that NASA -- or any government or international coalition of governments, for that matter -- does not, and probably never will, have settlement as an objective. Their goal is exploration.
True -- exploration might include the development of a permanently crewed outpost or base, but that does not translate to the development of systems, habitats, vehicles, or technologies that can be used for private purposes in the near term.
And it definitely does not mean we will soon be settling Mars by the hundreds and thousands.
How can that be?
NASA's work can help prove and develop the technology needed fro settlement, but the constraints that will be placed on government-developed technologies will restrict their immediate availability to the general populace. That means it will be a long time before every day people will have access to them.
Don't agree? Then take this as an example.
The first space tourist to the International Space Station was Dennis Tito. He paid millions for the opportunity, but NASA fought him for a long time before they finally agreed to let him on the ISS -- with constraints.
Those constraints meant that Tito had to go through the full astronaut training program and even had to perform duties as if he were a member of the crew.
In other words - he a was no longer operating as a civilian. He was a government employee. One that had paid for the privilege.
Now that may have been prudent and safe, but it sheds a light on NASA's mentality when it comes to using NASA-developed technologies.
Civilians need not apply!
NASA has stated from the beginning that they are 'not interested' in private spaceflight to the ISS. That position has not changed. In fact, Dennis Tito was followed by only six other 'tourists'.
The last 'space tourist' to visit the ISS was Canadian Guy Laliberte, who supposedly paid $35 million in 2009. Combined, the seven 'visitors' may have spent close to $200 million for the privilege of a few days on the ISS.
If it is that difficult to get civilians to the ISS, just how difficult, and how long, will it be to get regular people to Mars?
Initial crewed explorations to Mars are targeted for 2035 and will undoubtedly be a collaboration between nations as well as a few corporate partners (think SpaceX or Boeing). But those missions won't be the beginning of mass migrations to Mars -- at least for several decades.
We can't wait for NASA -- or any other government organization -- if we want to settle Mars as quickly as we can. In order to get a lot of people to Mars, as fast as possible, we need to do it ourselves and stop believing that this second of the 3 myths about settling Mars is true.
Myth #3 - Private Organizations Can Never Afford to go to Mars
Of all of these 3 myths about settling Mars, this one may be the closest to being true.
The thinking is that space travel and exploration is so hugely expensive, only governments can possibly afford it.
For example, the International Space Station cost over $150 Billion to build and operate and is the most expensive structure ever built. Getting to Mars will be magnitudes of scale more expensive. So the myth says:
Only a national space agency, or a international consortium of space agencies, can possibly afford to explore Mars.
Space exploration is indeed hugely expensive. Let's take a loook at a couple of the most expensive project NASA has ever undertaken.
First -- ISS.
NASA's budget for the ISS from 1985 to 2015, a 30 year timespan, was originally set at $58.7 Billion, or nearly $2 Billion per year on average plus 36 space shuttle flights. If each shuttle flight cost $1.4 billion (estimated) , then those costs added $50.4 billion to the tab.
Total US Budget: approximately $109 Billion, or, on average $3.6 Billion per year.
Other nations, including Russia, also contributed, but their contributions were much smaller.
Now, in 2014, NASA's total budget was $17.4 Billion, or about 0.5% of the total US annual budget. If you simply divide that budget by the total annual expense of $3.6 billion, you find that NASA uses about 20% of its annual budget on the ISS.
Note: These numbers don't show the actual money spent each year. Most of the money was spent earlier in the program during the main construction phase and when the Space Shuttle was still in operation. This is simply meant as an exercise to determine how much of the budget might be allocated to the ISS, percentage-wise.
Or how about another example? Apollo.
During Apollo, NASA's budget topped out over 4% of the total US budget - eight times the 0.5% it is today.
And during that time, Apollo accounted for well over 50% of NASA's overall budget. At it's peak, the Apollo program actually accounted for about 70% of NASA's budget before tapering off.
If you project those number forward to today, and compare a Mars mission to the Apollo program, NASA would have a annual budget of almost $140 Billion. A 70% share would mean that almost $100 Billion would be available for a Mars program.
That's a lot of cheddar!
And it's the primary reason why many declare that a Mars exploration program would cost $1 trillion!
It's no wonder that many think a private group could not possibly afford a settlement program to Mars.
But there is a problem -- this is a flawed analysis.
First -- a Mars exploration program cannot and should not be compared to Apollo. During Apollo, everything was new and had to be made from scratch. Today, there is plenty of existing technology and systems that can be drawn upon that could lower the costs.
Rockets, supply systems, even operations -- all can be used to help bring down expenses.
In fact, in 2014, a panel of NASA, industry, and academic experts studied just how much an Apollo-like program might cost and came up with a completely different number than the $1 trillion that is sometimes used, (Their findings were presented during the 2014 Human to Mars conference in Washington).
Their rough estimate? $80 to 100 $billion for the total program.
Those figures, while still quite large, are much more manageable and start to come within range of what a private organization or consortium might be able to budget.
Well. Consider this. The top five technology companies in America in 2015 are:
Combined, these five companies are worth over 2.2 Trillion dollars! Apple by itself is worth $675 billion and has an annual net income of $53.4 billion. They even have immediate cash reserves of $42 billion (down from a whopping $203 billion this last July.)
If only a small percentage of that cash were pooled into a Mars Settlement Fund (perhaps like a hedge fund ), along with other contributing companies and wealthy individuals, it is conceivable that a $25 billion fund could be established fairly quickly.
In fact, the largest hedge fund in the U.S., Bridgewater Associates, manages $87 Billion in assets today. The top 10 funds, combined, manage over $400 billion.
A $25 billion fund is still small by comparison - and achievable.
The trick is how to mange that fund. Through low-risk, high-profit investments, it is entirely possible that profits from that fund, even if they only came out to 10% annually, would mean over $2.5 Billion per year could be used for Mars settlement.
Sustain that investment over 20 years, and the possibility of a private program to Mars not only looks possible, it becomes probable -- and kills the final of these 3 myths about settling Mars.
Combine innovative capitalization with low-risk, proven investment techniques, and a private organization could absolutely generate enough revenue for a Mars settlement initiative.
Now -- it's just time to organize!
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What do you think? Do you agree with these 3 myths about settling Mars? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.