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Dream of Mars Colonization as Sold by Elon Musk is a Hilarious Fraud: 1

July 7, 2018 20 comments

Over the past few years, I have noticed a recurring theme which emerges during any prolonged defense of Elon Musk by his fanboys. It involves their firm belief in his increasingly outrageous claims about the relative ease and plausibility of human colonization of Mars. While establishing permanent human settlements on Mars is an interesting idea, doing so is not plausible without very significant technological advances in multiple areas as well as abandoning the organization of society around any form of capitalism. In the rest of this post, I will provide an overview of the many technological and other problems which will doom such an endeavor.

Let us start by quickly going over the unsuitability of the BFR (as currently envisaged) for such a mission. Imagine, for a moment, that Elon Musk somehow finds a way to build and successfully test that particular launcher design. Let us also imagine that it can put a payload of between 150-200 tons into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). So, how much of that can be put into a Hohmann Transfer Orbit bound for Mars? And that brings us to the first problem. Moving a payload from LEO to TLI or any Mars transfer orbit requires a pretty large amount of fuel to achieve the delta V changes necessary for such a change- and the fuel for that has to some from within the payload.

For example: Saturn-V could put about 130-140 tons into LEO but only 45-50 tons of that could be injected into a TLI orbit. Furthermore, the third stage of Saturn-V utilized a very efficient LOX-H2 engine with specific impulse values close to maximum possible for chemical rocket engines. To put in another way, 200 tons injected into LEO translates into barely 70 tons of useful payload for simply entering into a Mars transfer orbit. And that 70 tons must contain enough fuel to inject itself into a circular orbit around Mars (once it reaches that planet), soft land on its surface and then climb into Martian orbit for re-entering the reverse Hohmann transfer orbit to Earth.

Of course, there are ways to increase the payload deliverable to Mars. It is possible, for example, to use multiple BFR launches to build a Mars transfer spaceship in orbit. Nuclear- or solar- powered machines pre-delivered to Mars could produce the methane and oxygen from local resources to power return flights to Earth. But regardless of how you try to solve this problem, the actual amount of payload deliverable to Mars by even the largest rockets imagined by Elon Musk are pretty meager for starting anything approaching a small permanent settlement.

And it gets worse. A one way trip to Mars using chemical rocket engines and the minimum energy Hohmann transfer orbit will take about nine months. To be clear, nine months or even a year in LEO is doable largely because the spacecraft is still partially protected from solar and cosmic radiation by the earth’s magnetic field. Also, post-journey physiotherapy and rehabilitation on Earth can (over a few years) reverse most deleterious effects of living under conditions of micro-gravity. That is not the case if you travel to Mars, because there might be nobody or very few people to help you after landing on it.

Living under conditions of micro-gravity for more than a couple of weeks has serious and long-term negative effects on bone density, muscle mass and the cardiovascular systems- even if you exercise every single day on the spacecraft and take drugs to counteract some effects of micro-gravity on your body. Decades of medical experience with counteracting the physical effects of micro gravity has shown us that those who have lived for more than a couple of months on space-station take year or two (at least) of physiotherapy to start feel close to normal once again. And don’t forget those astronauts are returning to a planet with normal gravity and tons of medical personnel and facilities.

Mars, on the other hand, is an uninhabited planet with 1/3rd the surface gravity of Earth, a magnetic field too weak to shield you from solar/cosmic radiation and surface atmospheric pressure barely 1/100 th of that on earth. In other words, the “living conditions” on Mars are pretty dismal. Perhaps more importantly, the combination of significantly lower surface gravity (than earth) and high radiation environment is almost certain to cause tons of negative health effects in humans foolish enough to live for more than a few weeks (or months) on its surface.

While living a few meters below its surface, and under a layer of ice, would reduce the amount of ionizing radiation from space to less horrible levels, it would not be surprising if almost everyone living on Mars for any prolonged length of time ended up developing (and dying from) some form on cancer or other chronic diseases. Let us also not forget about the large amount of resources necessary to supply even the smallest Martian colony with food, medicines and equipment from Earth. While it is possible to use small nuclear reactors or solar panels to convert subsurface ice and atmospheric CO2 to oxygen, water and methane- almost all other consumables and equipment to maintain, and perform repairs in, such a colony will have to be ferried from Earth.

In the next part of this short series, I will write about how the currently dominant socio-economic paradigm of capitalism (especially late capitalism based on financialism and metrics based “productivity”) are an even bigger obstacle to human colonization of Mars.

What do you think? Comments?