Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Transport Tipping Point

Giant rockets and giant rocket explosions have been all the buzz for the last few weeks. It has gotten me thinking how little conversation there really is about the future being pursued here. There is lots of analysis of the market and the technology, but not of where we are headed. Sure, the viability of colonizing Mars is discussed, and the reasons for pursuing space settlement in general. But there is no sense of how scale affects the whole thing, and changes the whole panorama.

There is contemplation of key projects that would expand the launch market enough to spur other development, but each such plan has major weaknesses. Space solar power can't work unless it would be cheaper and better than covering a fraction of a few deserts in solar thermal power plants with underground heat storage, which it wouldn't be. Lunar propellant production needs a market to already exist for that much rocket fuel to make sense, and instead of that being a growing market, the existing market is switching to fuels the Moon can't provide. Space tourism seems the best bet but would likely be gutted by one fatal launch accident.

Elon is right, the only way to cross this bridge is to take people to live on another celestial body. He has just picked the wrong one. We can argue all day about the logistics of water and fuel. Logistics is not the point. The point is The Reason To Go.

Elon has leaned hard on the idea we should be a multi-planet species, if only for safety reasons. Well, let us look at the possible ways people could be wiped off the face of the Earth in the time frame it would take to create an independent Mars colony. You have your asteroids and your super-volcanoes. Those are both slim chances. If we get wiped out it will be us who does the wiping. We have been waging less war recently, but if resources become scarce that will change fast. I don't think we'll kill ourselves off, but it is a great way to make the point the reason to go to space is to change Earth. It will take a large cultural change on Earth to remove the risk of devastating wars, and simultaneously free the resources needed to make all our lives much better. That can be done from space, but you have to stay close enough to home to have that impact. So, go to the Moon.

We can all agree changing our future is what we are trying to do, right? All of us in the space community are trying to lift the collective gaze of humanity from our petty thinking to the boundless expanse of the heavens. That gaze will not stay lifted unless people can SEE something out there and feel they might be able to reach it themselves if they try. And now let's contemplate how much accessible water, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen in huge quantities on Mars matters, if the goal is to get people to another world where they can live happily for the rest of their lives at a price many could afford: it doesn't matter one bit. Because it is all about the transport.

The irony of the owner of a rocket company failing to see this is rich indeed. Especially one who has correctly nailed reusability as the key to everything, and advanced so far towards that goal. I wonder if slapping him a few times would help...

The entire point of SpaceX's Mars plan is that by making the cost of transport really cheap, you can get the massive payloads needed out there within your budget. Unfortunately, you can only launch every 2 years, when Mars is in the right spot, so the advantage gained is limited. You can launch to the Moon at any time, though, and not only that, the same ship will be back in LEO in only a week to be reloaded. (Slap.) What do you care if you have to add a bunch of trips so that you can send all the water, carbon, and nitrogen the colony needs? Your launcher is reusable. The more you use it, the cheaper each trip is for you. Your whole business plan is based on that. (Slap.) In fact, you couldn't possibly use it to load Mars ships enough times to make that pay off, to leverage that benefit 95% of its payloads would need to be going someplace else - even if the launch market for Earth satellites was several times the size it is today. In fact - how are you supposed to make the money needed to create the giant fleet for your Mars city? Where is all that business supposed to come from? You know what you need in order to have that much business? A destination that is only 3 days away, at any time. You need the Moon. (Slap.)

Besides, if you aren't sending people with all the food, water, and other supplies needed to live for several months in space, then you have freed up the payload you need to send enough supplies for them to live on the Moon forever. Because it will need to be a closed ecosystem, so send the food for a Mars journey instead as stuff to enrich enough lunar soil into garden soil to support one person, and you're done. (Slap.) But wait, why would you endlessly send basics from Earth when you could go catch some near-Earth asteroids, put them in lunar orbit, and get all that stuff from them? And since you have been studiously working on collapsing the cost to LEO by two orders of magnitude, the precious metals that would also be in those asteroids could be profitably returned to Earth and help finance the venture. I will forego the virtual slaps for that, and for not considering that the transport costs between LEO and the Moon can be vastly reduced again by developing a system of tethers between the two worlds, because that depends on things that aren't directly implied by the very transport system SpaceX is working on. But the ITS does imply the ability to move massive amounts of stuff around space, so if that was used to build a city on the Moon instead of Mars, it is easy to see how you could use that city and your ships to then build other things in cislunar space, such as space stations, more space ships, space-based solar power that actually makes sense, satellites. And since you made the Moon city possible, you would have a stake in that and make money off it, whereas there is no possible business model with a Mars city, other than the city itself. (Slap.)

Is a Moon city harder to build than a Mars city? No, it is easier. The first structures can be built by robots operated remotely from Earth, a technique not possible on Mars due to the signal transmission time. That also means you can get much more out of each kilogram of payload you put on the Moon before people arrive, and when they do, a big beautiful place will be there for them, not a few tin cans with dirt heaped on top. Which means those people are a lot more likely to stay, and live happily, and do great things. Great things that impact the Earth, because they will be just as connected here. They will tweet and game and make phone calls and post photos and videos and stream stuff and surf like they'd never left. On Mars? Nope. Eventually they will go back and forth regularly, and lots of people will visit. So don't talk to me about how Mars has more resources. The Moon has big-time resources where it counts - 7 billion people 3 light-seconds away, to whom the Moon is relevant, and Mars is not.

By far the easiest and best place to make a city where you could take people for a few hundred grand to live for the rest of their lives, happily, and not go broke, is the Moon. Also, you might save the Earth while you are at it. Stop it with this Mars stuff. It makes no sense.

(Note: while it may seem that i get undue pleasure out of visualizing slapping Elon Musk, that isn't true. I would be just as happy slapping Robert Zubrin.)

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