Elon Musk and SpaceX announced their vision for a solar system exploration vehicle last week in Mexico at an international astronautical conference.
It was indeed visionary, with a forward-looking business analysis of the financials needed to get to Mars as well as a first look at the hardware (see replay).
But what about...
Since then, however, many commentators have highlighted the lack of detail around some of the major technologies required for traveling long distances away from Earth and for staying on any of the planets or moons in our solar system.
It’s true that those details were missing. But I think Elon’s message was for everyone else to figure that out. He basically said: “we will get you there for cheap”.
The major technologies needed for deep space travel revolve around the life support systems to keep humans alive, and power systems for everything we do out there. On Mars, these systems need to be sustainable over very long periods of time.
A lot of work around life support on the ISS has focused on re-using as much of the available materials as possible, but only from a “physical/chemical” (machine- or chemical-based) system perspective.
At Gilmour Space, we believe that biological (plant-based) systems are needed for long-term space missions. Our plan is to build a Mars habitat test bed for using biological life support systems – such as for converting CO2 into oxygen, cleaning waste water and keeping harmful chemicals out of the air.
In a recent meeting with NASA at Johnson Space Center, it was conceptually agreed that more long-term studies on biological systems and self-sustaining systems were needed over the next 10 years.
So let's get on it
I hope the SpaceX vision will inspire the space agencies of the world to look more closely at the non-transportation issues of deep space travel. It really is a matter of life-or-death – if oxygen runs out, or if there is a pressure leak in a habitat, people die quickly.
Other issues to consider include what these people will be doing on Mars. If they work, who will pay them? How would a Mars colony generate income? Who will pay for the infrastructure?
Over the next 30 years or so, it is conceivable that large space-focused nations will be setting up bases on Mars. This could be similar to what’s happened in the Antarctic, where roughly 30 countries operate bases, with up to 4,000 people working in research stations during the summer months.
In the case for Mars, if the cost to set up a base there for 100 people were under US$2 billion, I think we might see up to 30 countries put their hands up for it; I’m very sure the big ones would.
How many should go? 3,000-10,000 people on Mars might be a good start. That’s enough people to maintain and expand bases, conduct very thorough research, explore for resources...and to form the basis of a long-term human settlement, if/when living on Mars becomes economically viable.
So let’s not just rely on Elon or NASA to get us to Mars and beyond. Let's get there faster, together.