While watching Elon Musk's presentation about his new Interplanetary Transport System today, a realization dawned on me. If we were to take away Musk's fame, fortune, and the fact that he's one of the main driving forces behind two of the most innovative tech companies in the world—Tesla Motors and SpaceX—he would sound like a total lunatic up on that stage.
According to Musk, SpaceX is going to build a giant spacecraft capable of accommodating 100 people—but probably more like 200 people—and about 1,000 of these spacecraft will be built—fully reusable—to take humans to Mars—and by around 2050 there should be about one million people living on Mars.
Uh-huh. That sounds more like something a six-year-old would say while playing with LEGOS, followed immediately afterwards by them choking on their own saliva while pooping their pants.
But Musk's talk was, well, comparatively successful. He really believes in what he's selling. And hordes of people believe in him. And that belief is infectious and it allows things to happen that wouldn't otherwise happen—like the conversation about colonizing Mars in the near future, period.
Without belief, Musk's Interplanetary Transport System wouldn't exist. Actually, it doesn't exist, but Elon Musk would tell you otherwise. He talks about it like it's already a real thing—and he does so in the same sort of way that a pastor would talk about how Jesus Christ is his one true friend. And if you believe in Jesus, you'd probably say "heck yeah, he's my friend too!" But if you're an atheist in the congregation, then that same guy just sounds like a psychopath with an imaginary friend. It all comes down to perspective.
This is the Cult of SpaceX: Musk is the Pope, Mars is god, rocket engines are the holy ghost, and every oopsy-doopsy rocket explosion is our newly crucified Jesus.
Maybe Musk is a psychopath. If so, he's a psychopath that many people accept and hail as a visionary. They'll accept his vision as their new reality and go along with it. But today, logic pulled me away from that vision. My rational brain looked me straight in the eye and said: "dude, you're being seduced by an illusion of the FUTURE—and it doesn't even make sense!"
Usually, I'm an extreme optimist about the future of humanity. But today, I don't see Musk's vision coming to fruition in the manner he describes it. Not that his description is particularly bad... it's just...
Some Highlights of Musk's Talk:
- SpaceX will soon begin sending at least one spacecraft (unmanned tests at first) to Mars every time the transit window between Earth and Mars opens up—about once every two years. This will provide researchers with a consistent launch window with which they can send cargo (read: experiments) to the surface of Mars. Initial price is yet to be announced.
- The Interplanetary Transport System is planned to be able to accommodate 100 people, but Musk claims that this may be expanded to accommodate as many as 200 people per spacecraft. Also, tickets will start at $200,000 and may eventually get lower than $100,000 one-way.
- Musk also throws around some fairly arbitrary numbers: if SpaceX builds 1,000 Mars transporter spacecraft and all of them are loaded with 100-200 people and launched to Mars every two years, he estimates that it would take just twenty to thirty years to have a fully self-sustaining civilization of one million people on Mars. That is, in case Earth gets blown up by the Death Star, humanity can live on via Mars.
- According to Musk, one of their primary challenges is building fuel tanks for these next-generation rockets entirely out of carbon fiber—this would save a significant amount of weight but is also proving extremely difficult to do.
- The Interplanetary Transport System should be able to complete a transit to Mars in as little as 80 days once it's fully optimized, with 'distant future' technology dropping that time to as low as 30 days.
- Musk claims the crew cabin will be full of fun and games... "you'll have a great time!"
- The goal here is to build the initial transportation infrastructure—the equivalent of building the first-ever railway linking the East Coast of North America to California. At the time, it seemed like a terrible investment because nobody really lived in California anyways. But fast forward 150 years, and California is now the mecca of innovation and technology. So, Musk wants Mars to become the new California?
- The spacecraft doesn't look very modular, so if something goes wrong, I think everyone probably dies?
- It doesn't look like there's any launch escape system, or any safety features at all.
- SpaceX is planning on using a 'fuel tanker' system to refuel these spacecraft in orbit. Musk admits that the refueling process could end up taking a very long time in zero gravity, and the whole process only adds to the complexity. On top of that, people may have to wait in orbit for weeks (or months?) while their spacecraft is refueled prior to launching to Mars. And that sounds "fun?"
- SpaceX is currently investing a few tens of millions of dollars per year into developing the Interplanetary Transport System. Within a few years, Musk wants to ramp that up to $300 million per year. But he didn't elaborate on what would happen to the Falcon 9 rocket series if all of his engineers are working on this new Mars rocket...
- Musk is just assuming that support for the Interplanetary Transport System will snowball over time. But he has no backup plan in case it doesn't...
- There will probably be a significant risk of fatality on the initial missions to Mars. Musk says that whoever is chosen to go will need to be "willing to die," just in case. So good luck, early adopters!
Another criticism I forgot to mention: none of this hardware actually exists. And Musk is severely underplaying the technical complexity of building such a system. What he usually does is claim that his company is going to make something similar to what other gigantic companies are making, but make it better and cheaper. Then everyone laughs. And then he does it.
But in this case, he's saying that he's going to do something that only Science Fiction geeks have ever even really thought of, and that it's going to be simple and easily affordable to most people. It's like he's being the biggest troll ever, except that in this case the troll is dead serious and everyone listening actually believes in what the troll is saying. Go figure.
Sure, without Musk, there probably wouldn't be rocket boosters capable of launching to space and then landing back on Earth ready to fly again. And without Musk, there probably wouldn't be an electric car manufacturer poised to seriously disrupt the entire automotive industry at this point in history. With this track record, it's easy to then suggest that, without Musk, we wouldn't be planning to send humans to Mars any time soon.
Even with Musk's colonial space rocket, getting humans to Mars is going to be difficult. And it probably won't turn out anything like his plan. But that's not really the point.
The point is that Musk's unbridled vision is clearly able to create some positive change in the world, and that's a spectacular accomplishment in itself—regardless of whether it looks like his original vision or not. Even if this Interplanetary Transport System proves to be a complete failure, the effort of making it into a reality will propel us all forward.
I'm not longer a believer in what this guy is selling. But I am a believer in the power of believing in what this guy is selling.
Next time you see Elon Musk make some sort of public announcement, try and imagine that you have no idea who he is—and just listen. It's perplexing. Without that aura of belief, the whole house of cards falls apart and he just sounds like a rambling lunatic—or a six-year-old (what's the difference!?)—obsessed with Science Fiction.
But with the power of belief, he makes highly implausible sound, well... Normal. After talking about it for this long now, it's not like we can just decide to not send humans to Mars after all. That would be crazy.
If you missed the talk, you can watch the full thing here.