How (and Why) SpaceX Will Colonize Mars

This is Part 3 of a four-part series on Elon Musk’s companies. For an explanation of why this series is happening and how Musk is involved, start with Part 1.

Pre-Post Note: I started working on this post ten weeks ago. When I started, I never intended for it to become such an ordeal. But like the Tesla post, I decided as I researched that this was A) a supremely important topic that will only become more important in the years to come, and B) something most people don’t know nearly enough about. My weeks of research and discussions with Musk and others built me an in-depth, tree-trunk understanding of what’s happening in what I’m calling The Story of Humans and Space—one that has totally reframed my mental picture of the future (yet again). And as I planned out what to include in the post, I wanted to make sure every Wait But Why reader ended up with the same foundation moving forward—because with everything that’s coming, we’re gonna need it. So like the Tesla post, this post became a full situation. Even the progress updates leading up to its publication became a full situation.

Thanks for your patience. I know you’d prefer this not to be a site that updates every two months, and I would too. The Tesla and SpaceX posts were special cases, and you can expect a return to more normal-length WBW posts now that they’re done.

About the post itself: There are three main parts. Part 1 provides the context and background, Part 2 explores the “Why” part of colonizing Mars, and Part 3 digs into the “How.” To make reading this post as accessible as possible, it’s broken into five pages, each about the length of a normal WBW post, and you can jump to any part of the post easily by clicking the links in the Table of Contents below. We’re also trying two new things, both coming in the next couple days:

1) PDF and ebook options: We made a fancy PDF of this post for printing and offline viewing (see a preview here), and an ebook containing the whole four-part Elon Musk series:

PDF buttonget the ebook

2) An audio version. You can find an unabridged audio version of the post, read by me, as well as a discussion about the post between Andrew and me here.



Part 1: The Story of Humans and Space

Part 2: Musk’s Mission

Part 3: How to Colonize Mars
Phase 1: Figure out how to put things into space
Phase 2: Revolutionize the cost of space travel
Phase 3: Colonize Mars

A SpaceX Future

2365 AD, Ganymede

One more day until departure. It was so surreal to picture actually being there that she still didn’t really believe it would happen. All those things she had always heard about—buildings that were constructed hundreds of years before the first human set foot on Ganymede; animals the size of a house; oceans the size of her whole world; tropical beaches; the famous blue sky; the giant sun that’s so close it can burn your skin; and the weirdest part—no Jupiter hovering overhead. Having seen it all in so many movies, she felt like she was going to visit a legendary movie set. It was too much to think about all at once. For now, she just had to focus on making sure she had everything she needed and saying goodbye to everyone—it would be a long time before she would see them again…


Part 1: The Story of Humans and Space

About six million years ago, a very important female great ape had two children. One of her children would go on to become the common ancestor of all chimpanzees. The other would give birth to a line that would one day include the entire human race. While the descendants of her first child would end up being pretty normal and monkey-ish, as time passed, strange things began to happen with the lineage of the other.11 click these

We’re not quite sure why, but over the next six million years, our ancestral line started to do something no creatures on Earth had ever done before—they woke up.

It happened slowly and gradually through the thousands of generations the same way your brain slowly comes to in the first few seconds after you rouse from sleep. But as the clarity increased, our ancestors started to look around and, for the very first time, wonder.

Emerging from a 3.6-billion-year dream, life on Earth had its first questions.

What is this big room we’re in, and who put us here? What is that bright yellow circle on the ceiling and where does it go every night? Where does the ocean end and what happens when you get there? Where are all the dead people now that they’re not here anymore?

We had discovered our species’ great mystery novel—Where Are We?—and we wanted to learn how to read it.

As the light of human consciousness grew brighter and brighter, we began to arrive at answers that seemed to make sense. Maybe we were on top of a floating disk, and maybe that disk was on top of a huge turtle. Maybe the pinpricks of light above us at night are a glimpse into what lies beyond this big room—and maybe that’s where we go when we die. Maybe if we can find the place where the ceiling meets the floor, we can poke our heads through and see all the super fun stuff on the other side.2


Around 10,000 years ago, isolated tribes of humans began to merge together and form the first cities. In larger communities, people were able to talk to each other about this mystery novel we had found, comparing notes across tribes and through the generations. As the techniques for learning became more sophisticated and the clues piled up, new discoveries surfaced.

The world was apparently a ball, not a disk. Which meant that the ceiling was actually a larger sphere surrounding us. The sizes of the other objects floating out there in the sphere with us, and the distances between them, were vaster than we had ever imagined. And then, something upsetting:

The sun wasn’t revolving around us. We were revolving around the sun.

This was a super unwarm, unfuzzy discovery. Why the hell weren’t we in the center of things? What did that mean?

Where are we?

The sphere was already unpleasantly big—if we weren’t in the center of it, were we just on a random ball inside of it, kind of for no apparent reason? Could this really be what was happening?

Tiny Earth


Then things got worse.

It seemed that the pinpricks of light on the edge of the sphere weren’t what we thought they were—they were other suns like ours. And they were out there floating just like our sun—which means we weren’t inside of a sphere at all. Not only was our planet not the center of things, even our sun was just a random dude out there, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothingness.

Tiny Sun


Our sun turned out to be a little piece of something much bigger. A beautiful, vast cloud of billions of suns. The everything of everything.

Milky Way

At least we had that. Until we realized that it wasn’t everything, it was this:

Milky Way small


The better our tools and understanding became, the more we could zoom out, and the more we zoomed out, the more things sucked. We were deciphering the pages of Where Are We? at our own peril, and we had deciphered our way right into the knowledge that we’re unbelievably alone, living on a lonely island inside a lonely island inside a lonely island, buried in layers of isolation, with no one to talk to.

That’s our situation.

In the most recent 1% of our species’ short existence, we have become the first life on Earth to know about the Situation—and we’ve been having a collective existential crisis ever since.

You really can’t blame us. Imagine not realizing that the universe is a thing and then realizing the universe is a thing. It’s a lot to take in.

Most of us handle it by living in a pleasant delusion, pretending that the only place we live is in an endless land of colors and warmth. We’re like this guy, who’s doing everything he possibly can to ignore the Situation:3


And our best friend for this activity? The clear blue sky. The blue sky seems like it was invented to help humans pretend the Situation doesn’t exist, serving as the perfect whimsical backdrop to shield us from reality.

Then nighttime happens, and there’s the Situation, staring us right in the face.


Oh yeah…

This la-di-da → oh yeah… → la-di-da → oh yeah… merry-go-round of psychosis was, for most of recent history, the extent of our relationship with the Situation.

But in the last 60 years, that relationship has vaulted to a whole new level. During World War II, missile technology leapt forward,2 and for the first time, a new, mind-blowing concept was possible—

Space travel.

For thousands of years, The Story of Humans and Space had been the story of staring out and wondering. The possibility of people leaving our Earth island and venturing out into space burst open the human spirit of adventure.

I imagine a similar feeling in the people of the 15th century, during the Age of Discovery, when we were working our way through the world map chapter of Where Are We? and the notion of cross-ocean voyages dazzled people’s imaginations. If you asked a child in 1495 what they wanted to be when they grew up, “an ocean explorer” would probably have been a common response.

In 1970, if you asked a child the same question, the answer would be, “an astronaut”—i.e. a Situation explorer.

WWII advanced the possibility of human space travel, but it was in late 1957, when the Soviets launched the first man-made object into orbit, the adorable Sputnik 1, that space travel became the defining quest of the world’s great powers.

At the time, the Cold War was in full throttle, and the US and Soviets had their measuring sticks out for an internationally-televised penis-measuring contest. With the successful launch of Sputnik, the Soviet penis bolted out by a few centimeters, horrifying the Americans.


To the Soviets, putting a satellite into space before the US was proof that Soviet technology was superior to American technology, which in turn was put forward as proof, for all the world to see, that communism was a system superior to capitalism.

Eight months later, NASA was born.

The Space Race had begun, and NASA’s first order of business would be to get a man into space, and then a man into full orbit, preferably both before the Soviets. The US was not to be shown up again.

In 1959, NASA launched Project Mercury to carry out the mission. They were on the verge of success when in April of 1961, the Soviets launched Yuri Gagarin into a full orbit around the Earth, making the first human in space and in orbit a Soviet.


It was time for drastic measures. John F. Kennedy’s advisors told him that the Soviets had too big a lead for the US to beat them at any near-term achievements—but that the prospect of a manned moon landing was far enough in the future that the US had a fighting chance to get there first. So Kennedy gave his famous “we choose to go to the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hahhd” speech, and directed an outrageous amount of funding at the mission ($20 billion, or $205 billion in today’s dollars).

The result was Project Apollo. Apollo’s mission was to land an American on the moon—and to do it first. The Soviets answered with Soyuz, their own moon program, and the race was on.

As the early phases of Apollo started coming together, Project Mercury finally hit its stride. Just a month after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, American astronaut Alan Shepard became the second man in space, completing a little arc that didn’t put him in full orbit but allowed him to give space a high-five at the top of the arc. A few months later, in February of 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.

The next seven years saw 22 US and Soviet manned launches as the superpowers honed their skills and technology. By late 1968, the furiously-sprinting US had more total launches under their belt (17) than the Soviets (10), and together, the two nations had mastered what we call Low Earth Orbit (LEO).


But LEO hadn’t really excited anyone since the early ’60s. Both powers had their sights firmly set on the moon. The Apollo program was making quick leaps, and in December of 1968, the US became the first nation to soar outside of LEO. Apollo 8 made it all the way to the moon’s orbit and circled around 10 times before returning home safely. The crew, which included James Lovell (who a few months later played the role of Tom Hanks on the Apollo 13 mission), shattered the human altitude record and became the first people to see the moon up close, the first to see the “dark” side of the moon, and the first to see the Earth as a whole planet, snapping this iconic photo:4


Upon return, the crew became America’s most celebrated heroes—which I hope they enjoyed for eight months. Three Apollo missions later, in July of 1969, Apollo 11 made Americans Neil Armstrong3 and Buzz Aldrin the first humans on the moon, and Armstrong took this famous photo of Aldrin looking all puffy:5


It’s hard to fully emphasize what a big deal this was. Ever since life on Earth began 3.6 billion years ago, no earthly creature had set foot on any celestial body other than the Earth. Suddenly, there are Armstrong and Aldrin, bouncing around another sphere, looking up in the sky where the moon is supposed to be and seeing the Earth instead. Insane.

Project Apollo proved to be a smashing success. Not only did Apollo get a man on the moon before the Soviets, the program sent 10 more men to the moon over the next 3.5 years on five other Apollo missions. There were six successful moon trips in seven tries, with the famous exception being Apollo 13, which was safely aborted after an explosion in the oxygen tank.4

The Soviet Soyuz program kept running into technical problems, and it never ended up putting someone on the moon.

The final Apollo moonwalk took place in late 1972. In only one decade, we had conquered nearby space, and progress was accelerating. If at that time you had asked any American, or any other human, what the coming decades of space travel would bring, they’d have made big, bold predictions. Many more people on the moon, a permanent moon base, people on Mars, and beyond.

So you can only imagine how surprised they’d be if you told them in 1972, after just watching 12 humans walk on the moon, that 43 years later, in the impossibly futuristic-sounding year 2015, the number of people to set foot on the moon would still be 12. Or that after leaving Low Earth Orbit in the dust years earlier and using it now as our pre-moon trip parking lot, 2015 would roll around and LEO would be the farthest out humans would ever go.

1972 people would be blown away by our smart phones and our internet, but they’d be just as shocked that we gave up on pushing our boundaries in space.

So what happened? After such a wildly exciting decade of human space adventure, why did we just stop?

Well, like we found in the Tesla post, “Why did we stop?” is the wrong question. Instead, we should ask:

Why were we ever adventurous about sending humans into space in the first place?

Space travel is unbelievably expensive. National budgets are incredibly tight. The fact is, it’s kind of surprising that a nation ever ponied up a sizable chunk of its budget for the sake of adventure and inspiration and pushing our boundaries.

And that’s actually because no nation did blow their budget for the sake of adventure and inspiration and pushing our boundaries—two nations blew their budgets because of a penislength contest. In the face of international embarrassment at a time when everyone was trying to figure out whose economic system was better, the US government agreed to drop the usual rules for a few years to pour whatever resources were necessary on the problem to make sure they won that argument—

Early budget

And once they won it, the contest was over and so were the special rules. And the US went back to spending money like a normal person.6

Full budget

Instead of continuing to push the limits at all costs, the US and the Soviets got a grip, put their pants back on, shook hands, and started working together like adults on far more practical projects, like setting up a joint space station in LEO.

In the four decades since then, the Story of Humans and Space has again become confined to Earth, where we find ourselves with two primary reasons to interact with space (Note: the next whole chunk of the post is a slight diversion for an overview on satellites, space probes, and space telescopes. If that doesn’t excite you, I won’t be hurt if you skip down to the International Space Station section):

1) Support for Earth Industries

The first and primary reason humans have interacted with space since the Apollo program isn’t about human interest in space. It’s about using space for practical purposes in support of industries on Earth—mostly in the form of satellites. The bulk of today’s rocket launches into space are simply putting things into LEO whose purpose is to look back down at Earth, not to the great expanses in the other direction.

Here’s a little satellite overview:

Satellites Blue Box

We don’t think about them that often, but above us are hundreds of flying robots that play a large part in our lives on Earth. In 1957, lonely Sputnik circled the Earth by itself, but today, the worlds of communication, weather forecasting, television, navigation, and aerial photography all rely heavily on satellites, as do many national militaries and government intelligence agencies.

The total market for satellite manufacturing, the launches that carry them to space, and related equipment and services has ballooned from $60 billion in 2004 to over $200 billion in 2015. Satellite industry revenue today makes up only 4% of the global telecommunications industry but accounts for over 60% of space industry revenue.7

Here’s how the world’s satellites break down by role (in 2013):8


Of the 1,265 active satellites in orbit at the beginning of 2015, the US owns by far the largest number at 528—over 40% of the total—but over 50 countries own at least one orbiting satellite.

As for where all of these satellites are, most of them fall into two distinct “layers” of space:

About two-thirds of active satellites are in Low Earth Orbit. LEO starts up at 99 miles (160 km) above the Earth, the lowest altitude at which an object can orbit without atmospheric drag messing things up. The top of LEO is 1,240 miles (2,000 km) up. Typically, the lowest satellites are at around 220 miles (350 km) up or higher.

Most of the rest (about one-third) of the satellites are much farther out, in a place called geostationary orbit (GEO). It’s right at 22,236 miles (35,786 km) above the Earth, and it’s called geostationary because something orbiting in it rotates at the exact speed that the Earth turns, making its position in the sky stationary relative to a point on the Earth. It’ll seem to be motionless to an observer on the ground.9


GEO is ideal for something like a TV satellite because a dish on the Earth can aim at the same fixed spot all the time.

A small percentage of other satellites are in medium Earth orbit (MEO), which is everything in between LEO and GEO. One notable resident of MEO is the GPS system that most Americans, and people from many other countries, use every day. I never realized that the entire GPS system, a US Department of Defense project that went live in 1995, only uses 32 satellites total. And until 2012, the number was only 24—six orbits, each with four satellites. But you can see in the GIF below that even with 24, a given point on the Earth can be seen by at least six of the satellites at any given time, and usually it’s nine or higher (in the GIF, the blue dot on the Earth is a hypothetical person on the ground, and whichever satellites can see him at a given time are blue, with the green lines showing their line of sight to the person):10


This is why your phone’s map can still show your location even when you’re somewhere with no cellular service—because it has nothing to do with cellular service. The system is also set up to be redundant—only four satellites need to simultaneously see you in order for the system to pinpoint your location. GPS satellites have an orbital period of about 12 hours, making two full rotations of the Earth each day.5

You can see satellite locations using Google Earth (here’s a cool video of Google Earth showing the satellites).

Space Debris Bluer Box

There’s a big problem happening in the world of satellites. In addition to the 1,265 active satellites up in orbit, there are thousands more inactive satellites, as well as a bunch of spent rockets from previous missions. And once in a while, one of them explodes, or two of them collide, creating a ton of tiny fragments called space debris. The number of objects in space has risen quickly over recent decades, as a GIF6 made by the ESA shows (with exaggerated-sized objects relative to the Earth’s size):11


The majority of satellites and debris are bunched around the Earth in LEO, and the outer ring of objects is what’s located in GEO.

Earth space agencies track about 17,000 objects in space, only 7% of which are active satellites. Here’s a map showing every known object in space today.12


But the crazy thing is they only track the large objects, and that’s what we’re seeing in that image. Estimates for the number of smaller debris objects (1 – 10 cm) range from 150,000 to 500,000, and there are over a million total pieces of debris larger than 2 mm.13

The issue is that at the incredible speeds at which space objects move (most LEO objects zip along at over 17,000 mph), a collision with even a tiny object can cause devastating damage to an active satellite or spacecraft. An object of only 1 cm at those speeds will cause the same damage in a collision as a small hand grenade.714

Over a third of all space debris originated from just two events: China’s 2007 anti-satellite test, when China shat on the world’s face by intentionally blowing up one of its own satellites, creating 3,000 new pieces of debris large enough to be trackable, and a 2009 collision between two satellites that exploded into 2,000 debris chunks.15 Each collision increases the amount of debris, which in turn increases the likelihood of more collisions, and there’s danger of a domino effect situation, which scientists call the Kessler Syndrome. A bunch of parties are proposing ways to mitigate the amount of debris in LEO—everything from harpooning the debris to laser blasting it to intercepting it with a cloud of gas.

Here’s a chart that sums up each nation’s “space footprint,” showing the quantity of active satellites, inactive satellites, and space debris caused by each country:16

18moky6ntooezjpg (2

There are a few other space activities in the “Support for Earth Industries” category of human/space interaction—like space mining, space burial, and space tourism—but at least for now, satellites account for almost the entire category.

2) Looking and Learning

The second reason humans have interacted with space in the last four decades proves that while we may have stopped sending people into The Situation, we never lost our hunger to learn about what’s out there. As society moved on from space and turned its attention elsewhere, astronomers have kept busy at work deciphering their way through page after page of the old mystery novel, Where Are We?

Astronomers learn best with their eyes, and a side effect of the Space Race was the development of far better technology for seeing what’s out there. There are two high-tech ways modern astronomers see things:

Looking and Learning Tool #1: Sending probes around the Solar System

Basically, scientists fire a fancy robot toward some distant planet, moon, or asteroid, and the robot spends months or years flying through space, bored, until it finally arrives. Then, depending on the plan, it either just flies by the object, taking some pictures on the way, orbits the object to get more detailed information, or lands on the object for a full inspection. Everything it learns, it sends back to us, and one day, when its job is done, we either kill the probe by crashing it into the object or let it just fly out into deep space to be depressed.

I often use myself as a litmus test for what the public probably knows about or doesn’t know about. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’ve been seriously dating astronomy ever since I was three years old—so if I don’t know something going on in the world of space, I assume that most people don’t. And when it comes to space probes, I’ve felt pretty disoriented. Are there 200 of them flying around out there? 50? 9? Why are they out there, who sent them, and what are they doing? All I’d know is that sometimes there would be a random story about some probe sending back stunning pictures—I’d open the gallery, click through them, be thrilled for a second, send the link to the three friends of mine who are also dating astronomy, and then try to close the page but instead see some trashy CNN clickbait headline on the side of the page, click that, and ruin my life for the next three hateful hours. That’s my relationship with humanity’s space probes.

But in researching this post, I quickly realized there’s not that much to know, and it doesn’t take too big an effort to get fully oriented. Here are what I consider the eight key space robots to know about right now:17

1) New Horizons (Pluto, NASA)


New Horizons goes first because its big moment just happened. Launched in 2006 on a decade-long trip to Pluto (sped up on its way by a Jupiter fly-by in 2007 that gravity-zinged it to a much faster speed), New Horizons finally reached Pluto on July 14th, 2015. It didn’t land on Pluto, but it flew very near to it and showed us Pluto for the first time:818


Next, New Horizons will be on its way further outwards into the Kuiper belt to send back images of comets and dwarf planets. You can track New Horizons’ location here.

Awkwardly, Pluto was still a planet when New Horizons launched, and everyone spent the years following Pluto’s demotion avoiding making eye contact with the New Horizons team. While I agree with the common sentiment that it’s sad that Pluto’s sad about its demotion,9 the truth is, Pluto should probably appreciate that it got away with 76 illegitimate years as a planet celebrity, pulling in a ton of Kuiper belt ass in the process, given that fellow Kuiper belt dwarf planet Eris spent that whole time living its life in total obscurity, only discovered in 2005.

2) Curiosity (Mars, NASA)


Curiosity is a now-famous rover. A car-sized lovable lander robot dropped down on Mars’s surface in 2012, Curiosity is studying a bunch of things inside a large crater, with its primary objective being to figure out if there’s ever been life on Mars. The last two Mars rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, landed in 2004 with a planned mission of 90 days. Both lasted way past their expiry date, and Opportunity is still active. Such a good boy.

There are a bunch of other probes orbiting around Mars as well, but Curiosity is the main event there.

In my research, I came across this video from an IMAX movie about getting the rover Spirit from Earth to the surface of Mars and thought it was the coolest video ever. Until I found this video about getting Curiosity on Mars, which was even cooler.

3) Juno (Jupiter, NASA)


Juno left Earth in 2011, made a big loop and came back to Earth in 2013 to get a gravity zing (during which it captured a cool video of the moon circling the Earth), and is now on its way to Jupiter, where it’ll arrive in July of 2016.19


Once it arrives, Juno will orbit Jupiter, taking pictures and using sensors to try to figure out what’s going on in there underneath all the succulent-looking cloud tops. It’ll die by falling into Jupiter, hopefully snapping and relaying some quick photos of what it looks like inside Jupiter’s atmosphere before burning up so that someone can make a virtual reality video that lets you descend into Jupiter’s surface.

4) Cassini (Saturn, NASA / European Space Agency / Italian Space Agency collaboration)


Launched in 1997, Cassini set off towards Saturn, the only planet in the Solar System who decided it was okay to wear a tutu. Reaching Saturn in 2004, Cassini became the first probe in history to orbit the planet, sending back some jaw-dropping pictures, like this one:20


And this one:


And this close-up of the rings:


And this absurdly cool picture of Saturn with the sun behind it:


In 2005, Cassini dropped its attached lander, the upsettingly-named Huygens, down onto the largest of Saturn’s moons, Titan. Here’s a real image of the surface of Titan, taken by Huygens (it’s creepily fascinating seeing the actual surface of something as far away and mysterious as a Saturn moon):21


5 and 6) Voyager 1 and 2 (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune; NASA)


Launched in 1977, the two Voyager probes were the first probes to collect images of the four outer giants of the Solar System. Voyager 2 is still the only probe to visit Uranus and Neptune, taking these eerie photos of the two, respectively:22


The cool thing about the Voyagers is that even though their original missions are now long over, they’re still zooming outward. They’re both ridiculously far away now and going super fast. Voyager 1 is the faster of the two, going 38,000 mph (61,000 km/h)—so fast that it would cross the Atlantic Ocean in five minutes—and it’s the farthest man-made object from Earth, currently 131 AU10 away from Earth. It was also the first man-made object to leave the Solar System. At this rate, Voyager 1 will reach Proxima Centauri, the closest star to us, in about 73,000 years.

Another cool thing about the Voyagers is that before they launched, a NASA committee, led by Carl Sagan, loaded them each up with a time capsule, full of symbols, sounds, and images of Earth (and symbol instructions about how to play and view the media), so the probes can one day tell aliens what our deal is. Probably a waste of everyone’s time, but who knows.

7) Rosetta (comet, ESA)


Launched in 2004, Rosetta got a lot of attention last year when it reached comet 67P in August 2014 and successfully dropped its little lander, Philae, onto the comet a couple months later. Comet 67P turned out to kind of just be a big rock (2.7 mi/4.3 km long), but the images taken by Rosetta were cool:


8) Dawn (Vesta and Ceres, NASA)


Dawn can’t believe it made the cut on this list. The reason I included it is that I’m not sure people realize that there are huge, almost planet-size objects in the asteroid belt. The asteroid belt, a huge ring of millions of asteroids, including over 750,000 that are at least 1 km in diameter,23 lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter (not to be confused with the much larger Kuiper belt that surrounds the outer Solar System). Among the many asteroids in the asteroid belt is Ceres, a dwarf planet 27% the diameter of the moon that makes up one-third of the asteroid belt’s total mass, and Vesta, the second largest object in the belt after Ceres and the brightest belt object in our night sky.11 I didn’t really know Ceres and Vesta were things. Anyway, Dawn, which was launched in 2007, spent nine months orbiting Vesta in 2011 before heading off to Ceres, where it arrived in March 2015 (making it the first probe to orbit two different bodies).

There’s another handful of probes out there as well. Like Messenger, which orbited Mercury for seven years until intentionally crashing into it in April 2015; Akatsuki, a Japanese probe that was supposed to start orbiting Venus in 2010 but botched it, and will try again this year; a bunch of probes uneventfully circling the moon, including China’s Chang’e 3, which dropped the first lander on the moon since 1976; and a group of others taking measurements from the sun. Here’s an exhaustive list of all past and present probes, and an awesome National Geographic visualization that sums it all up (click the graphic for a larger view):24


Looking and Learning Tool #2: Telescopes

Telescopes have been around since the early 17th century, and as they got more and more powerful over the next 400 years, they became humanity’s primary tool for turning the pages of Where Are We?

But there came a point when ground telescopes ran into a limit on what they’d be able to see, no matter how advanced they became. You know when you look at a light through a glass of water and the light is all bendy and silly? That’s what’s happening when stars twinkle, except instead of water, we’re looking at them through the Earth’s atmosphere. The atmosphere doesn’t distort light as much as water does, but stars and galaxies are tiny pinpricks of light in our sky, so any level of blur is a big problem—it’s like being underwater in a swimming pool and looking upwards, trying to examine a bunch of birds flying in the sky above.

In the 1960s, humans gained the ability to put telescopes in space, where they’d show us the first crystal-clear view of the stars in history. In 1990, NASA launched the first truly badass space telescope, the Hubble.1225


The 13-ton, school bus-length Hubble Space Telescope’s 7.9 foot (2.4 m) lens is accurate enough to shine a laser beam on a dime 200 miles away and powerful enough to see a pair of fireflies in Tokyo from your home in Boston (if the Earth were flat). And in its position in orbit 340 miles above Earth, where there’s no atmosphere or light pollution in the way, the Hubble is on what NASA calls “the ultimate mountaintop.”26 All of this gives the Hubble an unprecedented view of the universe, allowing it to spend the last 25 years sending us the most astounding photographs of things I can’t really believe are real. Like this epic galaxy:27


Or these two galaxies, which are in the slow process of merging:


Or the inconceivably huge Pillars of Creation (the left finger is so big, at four light years from top to bottom, that if you started at the knuckle and flew in an airplane upwards, it would take 4.5 million years to get to the fingertip):


Or the time Hubble aimed its lens at a tiny, seemingly empty square of the sky (seen here next to the moon to show the size of the square):


And found thousands of galaxies:


What Hubble and other space telescopes13 have shown us has revealed worlds of new information about where we are and how we got here, expanding our knowledge about everything from dark energy to the origin and age and size of the universe to the number of planets out there like ours that might have life on them.

For over 40 years now, those two objectives—supporting Earth industries and continuing to learn and discover—have been the extent of our relationship with space.

And because those two goals are both best accomplished by machine space travelers, the most recent chapter of The Story of Humans and Space has been all about space faring machines, with the human role taking place on or very near Earth, controlling things with joysticks.

The only reason any humans have gone to space since Apollo 17 returned to Earth in 1972 is that sometimes, the machines aren’t yet advanced enough to do a certain task, so we need to send a human up to do it instead. Of the roughly 550 people who have ever been in space, over 400 of them have gone there in the post-Space Race era. But since Apollo, the reasons have been practical—scientists and technicians going to space to do a job. That’s why each and every manned mission of the past four decades has kept within the thin blanket of space surrounding the Earth—Low Earth Orbit.

The International Space Station

Today, the purpose of almost every manned space mission is to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). 28


The ISS is an international collaboration among 16 countries, started in 1998 and constructed over the span of a decade. The space station orbits the Earth in the lowest strip of LEO at an altitude of between 205 and 255 miles (330–410 km14), about the distance across Iceland—close enough to the ground that you can easily see it at night with your naked eye.15 And it’s bigger than people realize, weighing as much as 320 cars and spanning the full length of an American football field:29

693259main_jsc2012e219094_big (1)

What the Hell Does Anyone Do in the ISS? Blue Box

As I began working on this post, I realized I didn’t really know what the ISS was for or what anyone did while they were there. Every time I see a video of what goes on inside the space station, it’s just some adult floating around having playtime.

Conveniently, there’s such a thing as an ISS conference, and it happened to take place last month, in Boston. So I went. The conference was run by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which manages the US portion of the ISS. Here’s what I learned at the conference:

  • The ISS is a science laboratory. It’s kind of like other labs, except with the party trick that it’s soaring through space, so it’s the one lab where you can test things in zero gravity (it’s not actually zero gravity—it’s microgravitysomething I’ll explain later in the post).
  • What most ISS experiments have in common is that they’re there for the gravity situation, but beyond that, they span a wide range of purposes—everything from learning about osteoporosis as astronauts’ bones atrophy (because they don’t have to fight against gravity), to testing how equipment holds up in space, to analyzing how fluids behave and interact without the influence of any other forces, to using the change in gravity to trick bacteria into revealing which genes make them immune to certain medicines.
  • Astronauts in the ISS have a tight and controlled schedule during the week. At all times, they’re either sleeping (8.5 hours), eating (1.5 hours for breakfast/dinner, 1 hour for lunch) exercising (mandatory 2.5 hours a day), or working on experiments (9 hours a day)—I took this photo of the current schedule of the three astronauts on the ISS.16 Weekends are off, which could not possibly sound more fun—you get to spend the whole time floating around and looking out the window.
  • I’m not the only one who badly wants to play on the ISS—there’s a furiously competitive process to be selected by NASA to go. Thousands apply, 100 are picked for a final round interview and physical examination, and only one or two end up getting the nod. On rare occasion, a private company or individual can buy a spot on the station for a few days, but it costs around $60 million.

If you want to get a better feel for what it’s like to live on the ISS, here’s a video tour of the space station by a floaty astronaut.

So far, 216 people have gotten to play on the ISS, from 15 countries:30


How Stuff Gets to Space

We’ve gone over what’s in space, but how does all that stuff get to space? Have you ever asked yourself how something like the GPS satellite gets up there in the first place? The answer is that there are nine countries that have the ability to launch something into orbit: Russia, the US, France, Japan, China, India, Israel, Iran and, um, North Korea—along with one non-national entity, the European Space Agency (ESA). If a satellite goes up into space, it’s because someone paid one of those ten entities to bring it there atop a massive, expensive rocket (or because a country is putting one up there for its own uses).

As for launching humans into space, only three countries in history have done it—Russia, the US, and China (who is a fast-growing newcomer to the space industry). Since the 60s, Russia has used its Soyuz rockets to launch people into space, and the US, after wrapping up the Apollo program in 1972, regained the ability to put people in orbit in 1981 with the Space Shuttle program.31


Over the next 30 years, the US launched 135 Space Shuttles into LEO, with 133 successes. The two exceptions are fairly traumatizing parts of American history—Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.

The Space Shuttle Program retired in 2011. Today, only two countries can launch a human into orbit—Russia and China. With no capability themselves, the US—the country that once triumphantly put a man on the moon while the world watched—now has to launch their astronauts on Russian rockets, at Russia’s whim.


So what are we to make of The Story of Humans and Space? It’s a bit of an odd tale. In 1970, the story looked like this:


So the assumption about where the story was headed was this:


But now it’s 2015, and it turns out that this is what was happening:


When I look at what’s going on with humans and space today, I should think it’s incredible. Just 58 years after the Soviets put the first man-made object into orbit, we now have a swarm of high-tech equipment soaring around our planet, giving humans magical capabilities in vision and communication. There’s a team of flying robot messengers spread out through the Solar System, reporting back to us with their findings. There’s a huge flying telescope high above Earth, showing us exactly what the observable universe looks like. There’s a football field-sized science lab 250 miles above our heads with people in it.

Everything I just said is amazing.

And if only The Story of Humans and Space looked like this—


—I would be marveling at the things we’re currently doing out in The Situation.

But unfortunately, the 60s happened. So instead, it’s like this:





A good magic show follows a simple rule—make the act get better as it goes along. If you can’t continue to stay a step ahead of the increasingly-jaded crowd, they’ll quickly tune you out.

In some areas, the Humans and Space magic show has continued steadily upward. In our quest for knowledge and understanding, for example, we continue to outdo ourselves, learning significantly more about the universe every decade. The human spirit of discovery is alive and well, having thrived in space in the years since Apollo.

But as fascinated as we are by discovery—as much as we yearn to know all the secrets hidden in the pages of Where Are We?—when it comes to filling us with true excitement and inspiration and getting our adrenaline pumping, discovery doesn’t hold a candle to adventure. Probes and telescopes may fill us with wonder and light up our curiosity, but nothing gets us in our animal core like watching our species go where no man has gone before. And in that arena, the last four decades have left us feeling empty. After watching people land on the moon, following manned missions to and from the ISS is, as Ross Andersen said, “about as thrilling as watching Columbus sail to Ibiza.”

And that’s why, in today’s world, The Story of Humans and Space has drifted off the front page of our consciousness. The topic that should drop all of us to our knees has become a geeky sideshow. Ask 10 well-educated people you know about what’s going on with Solar System probes or the ISS or NASA or SpaceX and most won’t be able to tell you very much. Some won’t even know that people ever go to space anymore. People don’t know because people don’t care. Because of the way it played out, The Story of Humans and Space feels like a disappointment. And looking at the world around us today, it’s intuitive to predict that future chapters of the space story will continue to putter along as they do today:


Many people don’t think this is a bad thing. “Why spend exorbitant amounts of money sending people to the far reaches of space when we have so many problems right here on Earth?” they ask. Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, who spent three decades playing a key role in US budget decision-making, calls ambitious manned space travel “at best a luxury that the country ought not to be indulging in” and “a complete and total waste of money” and “pure boondoggle.”32 And the dramatic slashes to NASA’s budget since the Space Race ended suggest that Frank isn’t the only US politician to hold this view.

Upon first assessment, Frank is being perfectly rational—after all, in the face of concerns like healthcare, national security, education, and poverty, should we really make room for an “adventure budget”? And in that light, the graph projection above for The Future of Humans and Space seems all the more likely to continue on its current course.

I’ve spent the last couple months reading, talking, and thinking almost non-stop about what the coming chapters of this story will look like—and my assumptions about the future have now changed dramatically.

I think we’re all in for a big surprise.

Part 2: Musk’s Mission →

  1. For those new to Wait But Why, blue circle footnotes (like this one) are good to click on—they’re for fun facts, extra thoughts, extraneous quotes from my conversations with Musk, and further explanation.

  2. It was actually the Germans who had the world’s early lead in rocket technology, but when they lost the war, the Americans, Soviets, and British pillaged Germany’s rocket engineers, with each successfully recruiting a number of them. The US was probably the biggest winner, snagging Wernher von Braun, who would ultimately lead them to their moon landing rocket, the Saturn V.

  3. Armstrong was selected to be the first man to walk on the moon, partially because he was known not to have an over-inflated ego. Gus Grissom might have been the front runner for the job, but in 1967, slated to command Apollo 1 on a mission to Low Earth Orbit, he and two other astronauts burned to death when they were trapped in a spacecraft as it caught fire during an on-the-ground test. Stressful.

  4. One inadvertent accomplishment during the Apollo 13 debacle was that the spacecraft at one point was farther away from Earth than any of the other Apollo missions, leaving the three Apollo 13 astronauts with the human high altitude record (248,665 miles / 400,187 km) that stands to this day.

  5. It’s technically two rotations every sidereal day, which is about 23 hours and 56 minutes, and correlates to the Earth’s rotation with respect to the stars instead of the sun. This annoys me because I don’t get why they would base it on a sidereal day instead of a normal day and I don’t want to spend the 17 minutes it’ll take to find out—if someone knows, please tell me in the comments. It also annoys me because sidereal is just an annoying word.

  6. Am I supposed to capitalize GIF? Unclear.

  7. The movie Gravity illustrated exactly what sucks about space debris.

  8. I’m not sure people realize that before this, we had never actually seen what Pluto looks like—it’s too small and too far away for even our best telescopes to get a decent photo. Before these new images came in, everything that looked like a good photo of Pluto was actually an artist’s rendition. That changed on July 14th.

  9. Pluto, discovered in 1930, was originally given planet status, but as we discovered more and more outer Solar System objects, we started to realize that Pluto was just the largest object in the crowded Kuiper belt, and that it kind of made no sense for it to be a planet. If it were alone out there, that would be one thing, but if none of the huge dwarf planets in the asteroid or Kuiper belts were planets (including Pluto’s newly-discovered and almost-as-large neighbor, Eris), then there was no good reason Pluto should randomly be one. So the dramatically nerdy International Astronomical Union got together and, amidst tantrums on both sides, settled on an official definition for a planet: 1) Had to orbit the sun, 2) Had to be big enough to become spherical-ish under its own gravity, 3) Had to have cleared out its own orbit. Pluto failed on #3, since there are many other objects in its orbit, which is part of the Kuiper belt. One other fun fact while we’re here: after Uranus was discovered and named, chemists soon after named a newly-invented element after it—uranium. They did the same thing with neptunian (apparently there’s a neptunium) after Neptune was named, and the newly-named Pluto turned into the naming of the element plutonium.

  10. An AU is an “astronomical unit”—the distance from the Earth to the sun—which is about 93 million miles (150 million km).

  11. To get a feel for the size of Ceres and Vesta, here’s what they’d look like next to our moon.

  12. Awkwardly, after almost 20 years of battling for a Hubble budget and creating the telescope, and after finally having launched a risky and difficult Space Shuttle mission to put it into orbit, NASA received the first Hubble photos, only to find that they were blurry. Turns out the mirror curvature was off by 2.2 thousandth of a millimeter. An almost imperceptible error, but with the vast distances the telescope needed to take in, it was enough to ruin everything. It wasn’t until almost four years later that another Space Shuttle mission was able to get back to the telescope to make a fix. The fix had to be worked out perfectly on Earth first, and the astronauts had to implement it perfectly in space—the mirror shape is so precise that if an astronaut even brushed up against it by accident during the repair process, it would ruin it. Luckily, everything went well and from 1994 on, the Hubble has worked flawlessly.

  13. The Hubble is expected to fail at some point not too far from now, maybe before 2020. Without anyone up there to repair system failures since 2009, it’s inevitable—and its orbit will decay slowly until between 2030-2040, when it’s expected to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. This is kind of sad—the original plan was to have a Space Shuttle retrieve it and safely return it to Earth, where it could be a celebrity in the Smithsonian. But the Space Shuttle program ended, and now the Hubble will die a horrifying death instead. On the bright side, Hubble has an exciting successor—the James Webb Space Telescope—which is scheduled to be flown into orbit in 2018 and can detect objects that are 10 to 100 times fainter than the best Hubble can do.

  14. I’m gettin reallllll sick of this miles (km) thing. But I have no choice because 58% of WBW readers are from the US and kilometers measurements don’t mean much to them, and the other 42% are from the rest of the planet that doesn’t get mile measurements. How dare the US be on this inane system for no apparent reason.

  15. Cool video showing what it would look like if the moon orbited at the same altitude as the ISS.

  16. Two Russians, one American. The American is Scott Kelly, identical twin of astronaut Mark Kelly, who’s the husband of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. These are the only three humans in space currently—you can see the total “people in space” count at any given time here.

  1. Small gray square footnotes are boring and when you click on one of these, you’ll end up bored. They’re for sources and citations.

  2. Image: Wikimedia Commons

  3. GIF:

  4. Image: Wikimedia Commons

  5. Image: Wikimedia Commons

  6. Graph: Wikimedia Commons

  7. SIA 2014 Report

  8. Graph source: SIA 2014 Report

  9. Image: Wikimedia Commons

  10. Image: Wikimedia Commons

  11. GIF:

  12. Image: One of those images that is everywhere and it’s hard to find the original source. Here’s one source for it:

  13. ESA, Astronomy Cafe

  14. Astronomy Cafe

  15. ERAU Scholarly Commons, The History of Space Debris

  16. Image made by Michael Paukner.

  17. Probe image sources are hyperlinked when you click the image.

  18. Image: NASA

  19. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

  20. Images: NASA

  21. Image: Wikimedia Commons

  22. Images: NASA (Uranus, Neptune)


  24. Image: Couldn’t find this on the National Geographic website, but it’s on this random blog so

  25. Image: Wikimedia Commons

  26. Facts and quote: NASA.

  27. Hubble Images: NASA

  28. Image: Couldn’t find the original source, so I’ll just put someone else who stole the image as the source—Imgur

  29. Facts and image: NASA

  30. Image:

  31. Image: How It Works Daily

  32. Sources: first quote, second two quotes.

  • qwerty

    OMG all these comments here 😀

  • Nicolai Lyså

    Great work Tim! Just came here to congratulate you, now I am going to enjoy the sh** out of this “small book” for the rest of the day!

  • James

    Oh, they are…

  • Tom Cohen

    Please join the four Elon Musk posts and release them as a book.
    That will be all.

    • Vaibhav Gupta

      4? there are 3.

      • Tom Cohen

        This is Part 3 of a four-part series

    • Harald

      In a book could be cool, but I would still prefer online. One of the things i enjoy most about these posts are the GIFs, youtube clips etc. Stuff that won’t work in a traditional book. Just makes it a more total experience.

  • qwerty

    I was bit worried, that I was coming to end, scrolled down to see bottom of post and…. surprise! It was first of five pages 😀

  • nightowl

    I haven’t finished but OH MYGOD AM I EXCITED

  • Krystian Meresiński

    Thanks for the article, most def have to read it by evening! 🙂

    But I have a question right now, since you have studied this topic. Tim, I’m a fresh CAD designer and sure as hell my geek self would LOVE to work for a rocket/space company. Any guesses when a demand for such companies might happen? 20 years? More? Less?

    Sorry if the anwser is already in the text – will read it fully later 🙂

  • Moses Skoda

    The wait is over!!! Hallelujah

  • RMcD

    Footnote 27 is broken and contains about four paragraphs worth of stuff that should be in the main body.

  • qwerty

    Blue box with orbits have incorrect pictures – orbits are ellipses and always go around center of body.

  • Korakys

    I shall read this… in (a considerable amount of) time.

  • Chester Travis

    Am I the only one desperate to know Musk’s reaction to these articles?

    • Jesse Jensen

      he dropped this on his twitter so he liked it

    • Skinjacker

      okay fuck. I need to know. did he read it at all??? what did he think of it???

      so many questions…

  • nightowl

    my god I am finished and am so stoked for the future. thanks tim!

  • Juggernaut93

    So, anyone with the explanation about sidereal day? I mean, why do they use it?

    • Juggernaut93

      Oh, well, it should be something related with the fact that in a day the Earth revolves around the Sun, and so there is some error in calculating a day having as reference the sun.

  • Nico

    Hey Tim,
    I´m not finished with your post yet, but I´m really excited to read through it. Anyway you had a question about the GPS Satellites. My guess – why they have based their orbit on a sideral day – is, that the satellites will be above the same surface of the earth AND under the same sky (with the same constellation of fixed stars) every sideral day (at a given sideral time). So it does not matter, if the satellite has orbit the earth ten times or 100 times, the sky and the ground will still be the same.

    And why is it important, that the satellite has the same sky – fixed positions for fixed stars?
    Well I think, that for GPS Satellites it is important to know exactly where they are, to be able to do more precision calculations. And the sensor with the best precision (which I know) is a Star Tracker or a Inertial Star Compass (Star Sensors), which will likely benefit of the “same-sky-everytime” thing.

    But this are just my thoughts 😉

  • Dulcinea Donati

    If we could choose when to live we would choose the first moment we can grab all this knowledge from the past and be the audience of the most amazing change in the human history. And who knows, the one who reaches immortality. Too good to be true!
    All these posts are collecting and placing into order all the amount of ideas I always had about this historic moment.
    Thank you Tim, Elon, and all the great thinkers and popularizers are making this era the most wonderful in which to live. I’m on my 30s yet, and I’m ready to fly with all of you!

  • James

    I know what we’re all thinking… When’s the next one?


  • B_Fli

    I honestly just scrolled through this initially to just see how long it was.

  • Colm Hennessy

    Thanks Tim. An amazing read.

    Since I was young I’ve devoured the fiction of Arthur C Clark, Greg Bear, Kim Stanley Robinson. The idea of colonising the planets has been in my head since I was in early adolescence.

    I still can’t see it working out, certainly not on this timescale. I’m sorry. I really, really want to be wrong about this. I really want to see this happen in my lifetime.

    But the technical and economic challenges feel insurmountable. I can accept that I’ll live to see a Mars Landing (I’m only in my thirties) but full-on settlement? It just feels way, way off.

    Like I said, I hope I’m wrong. Either way, thanks so much for an amazing read.

  • Dimitri Aiello

    Can`t wait start reading it.
    I know shit looks good when the first image we see is the Flammarion Engraving!

  • qwerty

    Wow I was reading this whole article for like 4 hours 😀

  • Alexander

    Great read, thank you. Did you ask Musk about the space elevator concept? It seems to me this would be a huge step towards making the colonization feasible as we could send goods up to orbit cheaper than with even reusable rockets.

    • Kirk

      Musk has spoken on the subject before:

      November 2012: I’m not so much about the space elevator. It has sort of a childhood feeling. I always kind of think of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when someone mentions the space elevator. The problem with the space elevator is that first we’d need a lot of launches just to get the carbon nanotube rope up there in the first place and then this thing would be anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 miles long – umm, that’s long – and nobody’s yet built a little ya know, foot stool, out of carbon nanotubes, as far as I’m aware – so having something that’s 40,000 miles long is a big leap, and there’s other issues. It ends up being this big sweeper going through Earth orbit and any orbital debris is going to be really good at catching and it’s going to be very high impact. And once you get to the end of the elevator, you’ve gotta do something otherwise you’ll be flung out into space, so you still need rockets. So really all the space elevator would be is a means of reducing the cost of transporting propellant to orbit. In that way, it might work as a long term optimization, not anything worth working on right now.

      October 2014: Haha, I say bravo. I mean, I thought it would be awesome if there was a
      space elevator. I wouldn’t hold my breath. I mean, I don’t think it’s
      realistic but I’d love to be proven wrong. I always think of, like,
      Charlie and The Chocolate Factory when I hear the space elevator, ya
      know, because people sort of imagine it’s like an elevator, you press up
      and now you’re in space. This is extremely complicated. I don’t think
      it’s really realistic to have a space elevator. Put it this way, at the
      point at which we have a bridge from LA to Tokyo, which I think is a
      much easier problem, then – ya know, how about across the Atlantic, some
      sort of 2000 mile long bridge, or 3000 mile long bridge, something like
      that would be made of carbon nanotubes. I don’t think we’ve got a
      carbon nanotube footbridge so far, let alone some enormous 60,000 mile
      long space elevator. Anyway, I think it’s – it’s not the thing that I
      think makes sense right now but if somebody can prove me wrong that’d be

      • Jesse Jensen

        space elevators are complete fiction, the end. (by the time we can build them, we definately wont need them)

        space elevator = instead of shooting you in the face with my gun, im gonna build the empire state building and drop the bullet on your head!

  • Pepperice

    Just under three hours, I have totally neglected my kid and housekeeping duties and work prep in order to read this. So fun!

    And I’m going to read it all over again when the PDF is released 😀

  • I just spent half of my morning and most of my afternoon reading this while playing the Interstellar soundtrack album. This post is glorious and I am looking forward to a few months or years of forcing people to read it as well as pinning fragments of it on the wall: When I hear a government saying, “Let’s not worry about going to Mars right now when we still have so many problems right here on Earth”—it sounds to me like a person saying, “I’ll worry about my health later when I don’t have so many bills to pay.”

  • zarzuelazen

    Regarding foot-note (3) in the blue-box on Asteroid impacts. Long-period comets from the Oort Cloud are more of a threat because there is no catalogue of these as yet (no one is systematically searching for them). So there would be very little warning. Whereas many of the asteroids closer to the sun have already been tracked.

    • Profwoot

      I’m guessing that a big factor involves long-period comets are traveling at much greater relative velocity than asteroids. Surprisingly, we actually don’t have much of the asteroid belt tracked yet.

  • Marthinus Bosman

    Forced to stay indoors with lightning fast internet? Sounds like home already.

  • Marthinus Bosman

    Forced to stay indoors with lightning fast internet? Sounds like home already.

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  • Travis

    Yes! wait but why podcast!

  • Neo Navras

    Not quite through the artcile yet, but I’m still unsure Mars is really that great for humans. You don’t have 1g => Your bones will fall apart. And there’s lots of radiation without a magnetosphere. Upper atmosphere of venus seems more reasonable in that regard… #occupyvenus #pbsspacetime

    Any comments from Musk?

    • jesusDoesntExist

      how the hell do you plan do have a regular supply of water??? suck it out of the atmosphere?

      • Neo Navras

        theres not that much water in venus atmosphere. most of it you’ll probably have to bring with you and recycle it.

        but the main point is that the environment in venus upper atmosphere probably suits our physiology best in the solar system for long term colonization. I wouldn’t like to live in an 38% earth g environment for years. And I also wouldn’t like to find out how childrens bodies develop under such low gravity.

        besides, a cloud city on venus sounds awesome 😀 we aim high here on waitbutwhy, as it seems 😉

        • AppleTank

          Vote to rename Venus “Bespin”?

        • Think of the boobs though!

    • Jesse Jensen


  • TRC

    Really enjoyed this article until this ULA is a dick blue box. It’s full of inaccuracies (including launch prices) and a flawed assumption of conspiracy. Kinda of ruined the whole thing for me… I dig Falcon 9, but Atlas is tjhe most capable and reliable launch platform on US shores.

    SpaceX brought competition to a stagnant market and should be commended for their success, but this shouldn’t be an all “us or them” kind of thing. Human exploration and discovery in space is the goal of almost all major space contributors, ULA included, so demonizing them doesn’t seem right.

    • Herp

      You sound like an ULA shill. They were a monopoly squeezing ridiculous amounts of money because they could and now they’re running scared because they can’t afford to be lazy anymore. They’re part of the problem called military industrial complex, nothing conspiratorial about it, it’s a fact.

    • jimfetterolf

      ULA is a textbook example of crony capitalism and likely will fail when faced with competition.

    • TRC

      @jimfetterolf:disqus : Would love to see evidence of this, rather than repeated “truth by assertion” in this bad-guy-good-guy narrative. We don’t have any evidence of favoritism. What we do have is government initiatives to empower companies like SpaceX and Oribital to provide competing services to ULA and lower costs. That doesn’t happen in a world where ULA and government decision makers are bedfellows. “But look at how many DoD and NRO launches ULA gets!” some decry. Well, yeah, and look how many of them were launched successfully. And up until very recently when Falcon was certified, what viable alternative existed? That’s not corruption. That’s logical launch strategy.

      @Herp: Remember that the “monopoly” was set up by none other than the US government to lower costs. It didn’t make sense for them to fund development of two launch vehicles with similar overhead structures at Boeing and Lockheed. Now SpaceX is providing an alternative, allowing ULA to downsize to support one launch vehicle and bring down costs. That’s a good thing, but why is ULA the bad guy here? Seems like it benefits everyone, ULA included. As a registered Libertarian I have no love for the military industrial complex, and while that’s certainly helped ULA’s launch manifest, ULA doesn’t launch exclusively DoD missions, and SpaceX isn’t going to survive launching exclusively commercial missions (and that’s not their plan). So, if you want to attack the military industrial complex, I’m all for it, but you can’t paint ULA as a villain in that respect and put a halo on SpaceX.

      • jimfetterolf

        Just look at the employee revolving doors and the cost to consumers. ULA is the space version of $800 toilet seats. Several senators will be demanding raises.

        • Jesse Jensen

          amen, fuck ULA, piece of shit

  • zarzuelazen

    First person on Mars could be a woman…

    • TRC

      Was just saying this to a friend the other day. Would be really cool if the first “man on Mars” were a woman =)

      • Jesse Jensen

        they should take a dog and let it be the first on mars, throw a stick

  • Radu Diaconescu

    That Discworld reference/easter egg from the beginning was SO GUD

  • bg2b

    I think blue footnote 9 in the “What is an orbit” box is misleading. The ocean is not a rigid body, and the moon is pulling on a lake-sized bit of ocean just as much as it’s pulling on a lake. The important point is that the ocean is spread out over the surface of the earth, so a lake-sized bit of ocean on one side of the earth has a very different d^2 from a lake-sized bit of ocean on the other side.

  • Alex Mac

    Spent 4 – 5 hours reading it, by far your greatest work Tim, however I still do wonder what the wait was when it was all finished this weekend.

  • Honza

    No you’re not being hopelessly naive 🙂 This is a very intense time to be alive. 🙂

  • DireFan

    I’ve been an avid readers since childhood. Never have i come across an author who delivers so beautifully. Amazing, absolutely amazing… Congratulations Tim, I sincerely hope that you keep presenting us with such mind boggling reads in the future. Cheers!

  • SgrA*

    I wonder from where Elon is gonna conjure up the time it takes to read this monstrosity.

    • sleep? what’s that?

      • Jesse Jensen

        he probably read it while interviewing a new supplier for helium bottle struts

    • Jacob

      I work at SpaceX and he sent the article to the whole company calling it “the best ever explanation of our mission and why it’s important.” So I think he found the time 🙂

  • Mars_Ultor

    I love the fact that a story about SpaceX and Mars begins like this,

    “About six million years ago, a very important female great ape had two children.”


  • Titanius55

    I’m going to miss the progress updates

  • qwerty

    RIP productivity at work lol

  • FPRobber

    When you mentioned Randall Munroe I was surprised you didn’t link to XKCD 893.

    The alt-text really sums up the whole top very well:
    “The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there’s no good reason to go into space–each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision.”

    • Morbeau

      What’s the “irrational” decision? The one where you ignore all the problems on your home world, and instead tear up the planet for enough materiel and energy to gamble on a risky voyage to another planet? A planet which, by definition, you are not suited for, and a voyage that is extremely risky.

      I think the irrational part is listening to people who are moral libertarians (or just happy to be gambling with other people’s resources) and have no idea what they’re talking about on a practical level. Whether that applies to Elon Musk, I don’t know.

      • AppleTank

        Then again, the irrational ones are still alive.
        I agree that we shouldn’t ignore our own problems. But ignoring working on a way to improve our chances of survival is equally foolish.

      • Mind Bridge

        Have you chosen to be working or to have a family? You cannot do both, right?

  • Don Reba

    > Saturn V was like one of those satisfying Russian babushka doll sets where it keeps getting smaller and smaller.

    It’s Matryoshka, not babushka.

    • disqus_dor1YsFNCG

      Yeah I wondered that too. Babushka, as I know is elderly lady in Russian.

      • I was going to point that out earlier but according to Wikipedia they are also called babushka dolls. I speak Russian and I’ve never heard of them being called anything other than матрёшка (matryoshka).

        Бабушка (babushka) does mean grandmother.

  • Luisa

    Mars needs greenhouse gasses, while we are facing venuszification over here for increasing same gasses. I think there’s a solution for both worlds in there. Maybe even a solution for fixing Venus.
    I don’t like the idea of becoming different species, so I think it would be better if we stick close together, in our rocky planets

  • Unclever title

    Suffice to say a sidereal day is the true length of time it takes the Earth to rotate once. A solar day lasts 24 hours because we are also rotating around the sun. I’m not super solid on the geometrical logic why this happens but this adds a few minutes to the length of the day.

    This works well for human beings since our calendars are based on the sun anyway.

    Most satellites on the other hand, particularly GPS satellites don’t really care about the sun, they are exclusively concerned with the Earth and communication with other satellites and require extreme precision.

    Hell, they are so precise that it’s necessary to account for relativistic effects on time reference frames in their communication and calculation.

    A solar day just doesn’t cut it, man.

  • Tommaso

    A very interesting and very well written article! However, I would suggest the author to take into consideration also the fact that Mars has a very weak magnetic field and, therefore, any artificial atmosphere can not be stabilized and will be swept away by the solar wind. Life on Mars will have to remain confined in closed facilities and it is difficult to think that it can self sustain.

    • Jesse Jensen

      life on mars will remain in closed facilities for the foreseeable future but who knows what we will learn on planet

    • Tom

      It’s so strange that everyone seems to share this misconception: that Mars’ lack of a magnetosphere would somehow – on a human, not cosmic, timescale – prevent us from creating an artificial atmosphere.

    • Mind Bridge

      > therefore, any artificial atmosphere can not be stabilized and will be swept away by the solar wind

      It is all a matter of rate of change. The solar wind sweeps away the atmosphere very slowly. It just has been doing that for billions of years at Mars, which is why the planet is so bare now. But if one can actually restore the atmosphere, then it would stay in good state for a very long time (in human scale) even without periodic “pumping up”.

  • Kingfisher12

    This is a great article, and worth the wait; but I had one thought running through my head the whole time.

    When it comes to pioneers venturing out to settle a new land, they always fall into some combination of three categories;
    1. Insane adventurers seeking fortune and glory.
    2. Religious pilgrims seeking the promised land (just an iteration of “fortune and glory” really)
    3. Social outcasts seeking a new life as far away as possible.

    What all this means is that the first Martians are likely to be some combination of misanthropes, fanatics, and fools. The single most important pioneer won’t necessarily be the Neil Armstrong, it will more likely be the John Smith; the hero of the Virginia Company who threw the company handbook overboard so they could survive the first winter.

    Whether there is a second wave of Mars colonists could very well depend on whether the first company has their John Smith or not.

  • disqus_dor1YsFNCG

    Thank you Tim for such a powerful post. Reading it while playing interstellar soundtrack in the background makes it more eerie. 🙂
    Thanks for the experience. I am a student right now, But promise to make contribution towards your efforts once I get a job.

  • Don Reba

    Why is it silly for “unfazed” to be spelled this way? It is unrelated to “phase,” if that’s what you mean. “Unphased” is also a word.

    • JH1010

      Yeah but Faze clan.

  • Eugenio Arpayoglou Cassanello

    Just got through page 1. Excellent so far. One thing to note, the Brazilian flag is missing from the ISS countries photo. But I guess that’s NASA’s fault.

  • Ashley Wilsey

    I — well — wow. Thank you. This has been beyond worth the wait, and now I’m looking forward to an audio version so I can “read” it all over again.
    Thanks especially for breaking it up just a little. I keep needing to step away to stare at the sky and ruminate.

  • I..made…it…to…the…end! 40,000 words, and a day well spent.

    • Halston

      This is exactly how I feel right now.

    • Best 40,000 words ever!


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  • cphoenix

    Re Sputnik and the space race, this humorous song sums it up:!

    The chorus:

    Beep-Beep. Boop-Boop. Hello there! (Эй жопу!)
    Sputnik sails, giggling, through the skies (Эй! Эй! Эй!)
    Red flags, red faces, jump in the race, as
    The space age begins with a surprise. (Сюрприз!)

  • KingaA

    Hey Tim, thanks for the great article!

    Did you have the chance to ask Elon about the Fermi Paradox in depth? What he says that he suspects there are “lots of one-planet dead civilizations” doesn’t quite address the problem.

    • jimfetterolf

      Think of it as windows in ribbons of time. After some billions of years on earth life has reached the point where it can broadcast information to the stars that an extrasolar species may or may not be able to receive and understand while their window of technology is open and that we may or may not understand receiving. After awhile windows close. Ours has been open 100 years. We might be a hundred years too late or a thousand years to early to communicate with someone within that 100 light year range. Environmental collapse, an asteroid, nuclear war all can close the windows.

  • Bart

    Yes, I did it. Read it all. This… this is what we need, as a species. For us to survive, we need to become multi planetary; to become multi planetary, we need visionaries. It’s people like Musk that will turn out to be our true heroes. Not the beancounting congressman whose name I won’t bother to look up…Musk, like a true visionary, made me dream of a bright future. Thank you for that.

    BtW,Anyone made a misplaced TL:DR joke yet?

    • JH1010

      The TL:DR would be a thousand words long.

    • r1ckr011

      The other thing we need to do is cheat spacetime. Computing: creating the most dense cluster of human souls in silicon or perhaps black phosphorus or graphene possible and send it out. We need to merge with AI or we will die out as exceedingly over-complicated and flimsy sacks of oily sugar-water.

      This was actually the biggest reason why I HATED Ex Machina….not to spoil it, but the ending was garbage. The run time is only 2/3 what it Should have been.

      Anyways… As I said above, we will need backups for our backups, and money will have to be thrown away for a percentile based- budgeting system (10,000 points). Also note that eventually, we will get a nice space elevator, which will help tremendously.

      One thing no one realizes we need, which is exactly why we need it: Psychologists. Damn good ones.

  • Too bad I won’t probably be able to find the 500,000$ and that I’m already 52…. But you’re making me dream again, Tim. Thanks a lot!!

    • Schnee Wolfe

      Frank, I’m 67, and my life expectancy is at the present time (according to my Cardiologist and GP) good for mid 80’s.. I get 18,640 a year income… by taking out 5,000 per year for the next 20 years and using compound interest, + whatever I can accumulate in physical wealth ie real estate, I’m sure I can get an economy class ticket of 100,000 dollars, with a bit of a cushion for when I arrive on Mars in 2035 😉 think positive my friend… btw I’m Canadian, and came over in early 50’s as steerage, with my mother… of course I will have to avoid my kids and family for a while to prevent them having me committed LOL…

  • Diego

    I have read all the three parts of this amazing compilation listening to Interstellar soundtrack.

    • yoloSWAG

      Why couldn’t you post that 3 hours ago???? WHY?

  • Andrew James Stevens

    If going multi-planet is the great filter, maybe Musk is the (incredibly rare) bridge?

  • Cristian Consonni

    Tim, don’t be annoyed at the world “sidereal”. “Sidereal” means relating or pertaining to the stars (see ), Galileo’s book describing the first observations of the Moon with a telescope and the discovery of the moons of Jupiter is called the “Sidereus Nuncius” i.e. the “Sidereal message” or “Starry messenger” (see ).

  • Thomas

    Just finished. Absolutely epic. Feeling lots of emotions right now. The most brilliant thing about the post that it starts with apes diverging into chimps and humans and ends with humans diverging into future species. Just so clever.

  • Neil Cash

    Tim, please, take a week off. Go on holiday or something and energise. I haven’t read this post yet but am looking forward to getting started. You must be exhausted for giving us this colossal post. Maybe you need to reenergise 🙂 Thanks, Tim!

  • Really amazed by this monumental post. You’ve out-done yourself—again, TIm! I learned so much from the basics of human exploration & the solar system to the intricacies of rocketry & modern capitalism. Wow!

    Three problems, however, kept bothering me that you never addressed, but are still HUGE obstacles to planetary colonization:

    1) How do we protect against the cancer-inducing effects of interplanetary radiation during the journey between Earth and Mars, be that from the Van Allen belt or cosmic rays?

    2) Related to this, since Mars has little to no magnetic field (its once-liquid metallic core solidified eons ago), what will protect future Martian explorers from said radiation once on the surface—not to mention, how will any potentially-terraformed atmosphere stand a chance of not being blown away by solar wind?

    3) Is any research being done to combat the deleterious effects of living (and growing up) in a low-gravity environment such as Mars? Obviously being able to jump off a 3-story building sounds like a lot of fun, but what are the potential side-effects on bone and muscle growth and density, not to mention the prospects of returning to Earth having lived on Mars for a long period of time? I’m fascinated by the possibility of colonizing Mars, but H. sapiens did, after all, evolve in a specific environment.

    Really looking forward to hearing what you have to say on these topics in your concluding, fourth post. Keep up the incredible work!

    • disqus_dor1YsFNCG

      For 3), I believe that subsequent generations would be able to adapt to the planet’s conditions.

    • Jonathan B.

      Hi, some answers to your concerns:

      1) The effect has been studied during the Apollo launches. We’re quite sure that the effect of radiation is a bit overstated. Most current space probes have tools that monitor the variations throughout the solar system. It’s certainly going to be a higher dose than here on earth, but not higher than what e.g. the environment a nuclear engineer might be working in.

      2) The atmosphere has been blown away over what is literally hundreds of millions (billions, even?) of years. It won’t be hard to add more faster than the rate it’s leaving the planet! So that’s good news 🙂

      3) We’re currently undergoing an experiment with an astronaut living in 0G in space (in the ISS, actually) for a year, whilst his twin brother is staying on earth. Either way, our current solution (in 0G is to excercise for about two hours a day).

      • Oh, wow, this is great news! Thanks so much for answering 🙂

      • Morbeau

        “It won’t be hard to add more faster than the rate it’s leaving the planet!”

        Citation needed.

        • Jonathan B.

          It’s not hard to imagine that a process that naturally occurs, spanning billions of years can be reversed. We’re actually quite the pollutors.

          A few more degrees on the ice caps would start a cycle that’ll heat the planet up, melt more ice, release more CO2, and so on.
          It won’t be a walk in the park, that’s for sure. And it will take centuries, if not more. But adding more than is lost is definitely possible.

          We’ve got MAVEN in martian orbit, studying atmospheric loss at this very mometn. Numerical results are yet to be in.

          • HardinsGhost

            We could build a very large solar array that sends energy via microwaves to large satellite(s) that generates a huge electromagnetic field. This satellite would orbit the sun in front of Mars and like the prow of a ship, create some level of shielding for the atmosphere. Again, this would be difficult but not impossible as we have the technology, just not the money/will. Once you have a planetary society that depends on this level of investment we could do it. Kinda like the US highway system would seem impossible to someone from 1800.

            • Jonathan B.

              The scale of such an operation makes this very hard to achieve.

              Also, it’d be better to have the solar panels on the sattelite orbiting the sun directly, no transfer of energy is then needed (wireless energy transfer is costly and inefficient at the moment, even more so if you’re talking space-distances of millions of km’s).

            • HardinsGhost

              I was thinking that the solar array would have to be sufficiently large that it would need to orbit out of Mars’ light path but would orbit reasonably close to the satellite array. That would also need to be sufficiently large but could be quite far from Mars to create the wake the the planet would travel through. Also, it wouldn’t need to be perfect, like Earth’s magnetosphere but “good enough” to get the job done.

          • Morbeau

            It’s not hard to imagine a lot of things. It’s more difficult to imagine things that are based on actual physics and our knowledge of reality.

            Saying “It’s possible” is not an answer, any more than “It won’t be hard to add more faster than the rate it’s leaving the planet!”is an answer. An answer would describe the physical or theoretical evidence showing where the CO2 is coming or going, how much energy is needed, and where we’re going to get that energy.

            • Jonathan B.

              Consider that:
              – we know that Mars had a rich climate for over 1.5B years (3.5+ to 2.0B years ago
              – it has been confirmed that solar winds due to the lack of a magnetosphere are not the main factor in escape rate (represents about a third of the atmospheric loss)
              – events such as huge collisions are suspected to be part of the sudden loss of what Mars had in terms of atmosphere.
              – reheating the poles by only four degrees would release vast quantities of gasses in the atmosphere (there’s enough water-ice to cover the whole planet in a meter of water).

              And some other stuff I’ll add to this once I get my computer charger.

              Here are some sources:





            • HardinsGhost

              Wow. Logical, sourced and polite. Why can’t everyone on the internet behave like you! 🙂 Thanks for these…I will read them with interest. Did not know about the impact theory but that implies interesting things about the ability of places to be habitable in the universe. Cheers, HG

            • Morbeau

              “we know that Mars had a rich climate…” We do? What does that even mean?

              Consider that:

              “solar winds due to the lack of a magnetosphere are not the main factor in escape rate” Well, the Wikipedia article says solar stripping is probably still responsible for around a third of atmospheric loss. It goes on to talk about other mechanisms, like Jean’s Escape, which contribute further to atmospheric loss. It doesn’t matter if solar stripping is “only 1/3” of the problem – it’s still a huge factor.

              “reheating the poles by only four degrees would release vast quantities of gasses” Sure, but where are you going to find the energy and whatever to raise Mars’ temperature even one degree? We’ve managed to do that here on Earth, but it took burning of billions of tonnes of coal and oil. Unless you’ve got a bunch of greenhouse gases squirreled away on Mars? Oh yeah, it’s all frozen on the surface.

              Differing in situ values have been reported for the average temperature on Mars, with a common value being −55 °C (218 K; −67 °F) –

              Because this is around the melting point of CO2 doesn’t mean that raising the temperature four degrees will cause all the CO2 to melt and turn into gas. Daytime summer temperatures on Mars already reach 30 deg C. Why isn’t the atmosphere denser today?

              Any process to add atmosphere to Mars faces huge energetic and mass transfer obstacles, and because of atmospheric losses any conceivable process is 1/3 to 2/3 less efficient than it could be. So either you’re going to have to use a lot more energy, or wait twice as long. Musk’s 100k colonists are going to be hanging out in the mall for a very long time. Hope they like eating lichens.

              I don’t mean to pick on you about this stuff. It’s just that I’ve been listening to wishful thinking about colonizing Mars my whole life, and most of it is based on watching too much Star Trek. We need to face facts that no matter how much capital Elon Musk accumulates, there are major physical and biological barriers to human space travel, to terraforming Mars, and to potential human colonization. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, just that there are probably centuries of work to do first. Meanwhile, we’re stripping the Earth of its biological resources and doing little or nothing to prevent climate change. It’s far more likely that war, disease and poverty will make our existence here questionable than it is that we’ll colonize Mars in the next thousand years.

            • maximkazhenkov11 .

              There are several proposals in Tim’s post concerning how to start the runaway greenhouse effect: nuclear detonations, space mirrors, asteroid impacts, super greenhouse gases etc. Non of these solutions require technology that is far from today’s stand. We already have nukes, we (NASA) are developing technologies for asteroid redirection missions in the near future, we have been producing CFC gases for decades and relevant elements needed are found in sufficient amounts on Mars, and space mirrors… is a bit further off but we have tried making solar sails work. All we need to ship from Earth are tools, not actual materials.

              “Any process to add atmosphere to Mars faces huge energetic and mass transfer obstacles, and because of atmospheric losses any conceivable process is 1/3 to 2/3 less efficient than it could be.” That statement didn’t make sense. Just because solar wind is responsible for 1/3 of losses, doesn’t mean our atmosphere creation process gets less efficient by 1/3. We will be creating an atmosphere in a few decades or centuries at most, while Mars loses its atmosphere on geological timescales, which is insanely long for any human endeavor.

            • Morbeau

              Sure. What I wanted from the commenter Jon B. (and you) was some kind of basic calculation. Saying “while Mars loses its atmosphere on geological timescales, therefore our human-scale process will work” is speculation based on our desire to go along with Tim’s ideas and hope for the best. My suggestion is that creation of a new atmosphere on Mars will also occur over geological time scales (at least millennia, not decades), so I think there’s still a major obstacle to be reckoned with.

              One of the places I’m starting from is an interview with a NASA project manager 10+ years ago who said, “look, a project like going to the moon required 30 years of technology development and planning. We are not doing this planning and development today, and a mission to Mars will require even longer lead time.” Also, Elon Musk is not NASA.

              My real point is not that it can’t be done, but that the kinds of speculation in Tim’s post and the comments here are unrealistic. I haven’t even said anything about the recent SpaceX failure.

            • maximkazhenkov11 .

              I agree with you on most part, except for the quote that NASA project manager. The Apollo program only took 8 years to get people to the moon. NASA wasn’t even created until 1958, so what exactly is he referring to?

              The SpaceX rocket explosion was kind of a statistical certainty. They still have a 95% success rate, which is pretty good.

          • HammerOfThor

            I really like the idea of using nukes to melt the ice caps by detonating them in space and directing the heat towards Mars’ poles. No radiation contamination whatsoever. It’s the ultimate “nukes for peace” idea. We have the technology to build nukes that are so energetic that they would be no heavier than a spacecraft but could melt the poles almost instantly. We could also throw our current nuclear arsenal at the job. Nuclear non-proliferation and delivery of life to another planet!

      • Don Reba

        We can’t make a fetus exercise 2 hours a day, though. Is child bearing at all possible at 38% gravity? That would be closer to no gravity than to ours.

        • fearian

          I replied to your (I think!) earlier post on low gravity, but it was removed. I’ll put it here:

          The problem is not that a ‘Martian”s bones would decalcify and it would destroy their life on mars, the problem is that a ‘martian’ who has deteriorated bones would not be able to live well if they returned to earth. Essentially Long term Mars residents would be more or less forced to live out their life on Mars, or a stay on Mars would have to be limited to < 3 years before returning to earth. (This top of my head number comes from CMDR Hadfields book where iirc he mentioned that staying more than a year on the ISS would cause untreatable damage to an astronauts bones.)

          • Juggernaut93

            But in ISS there is almost 0 gravity.

          • Jonathan B.

            It’s an interesting subject, for sure.
            We’ve currently got an astronaut on a one year mission on the ISS, we’ll find out soon enough how big the effects of living in a 0G environment really are.

            • Jesse Jensen

              the russians have already done far longer trips, the commander on board the ISS with those dudes doing the years trip has spent like 800 days in space, its just poppy cock, space is fine, should have just sent them to mars

          • Jesse Jensen

            *fearian wakes up and remembers we live in the future and climbs into his exoskeleton and drinks his bone juice and feels much better about his silly unfounded fears

            • gatorallin

              Dear Lance Armstrong, we kidnapped you and sent you to mars to figure out the muscle loss and bone density problem. You can do all the blood doping and roids you want now, we even got you a yellow bike to use on Mars (tires a bit larger and comes with a radiation shield), we also took your 100 million dollars and spent it to help others… sorry(thanks).

        • Jonathan B.

          Child bearing will be possible. I’m no expert, but it bearing a child at 0 gravity isn’t that different from doing the same thing under water, which is an option for mothers here on earth (it has issues, but mostly relating to the water itself, not the weightlessness).

          Good point on the excercising, there’s research to be done! Certainly nothing that we can’t overcome, though 🙂

          • Don Reba

            If a fetus can’t form properly in low gravity, that would be it for Mars colonization plans for the foreseeable future. We have been building rockets for a while, we can get better at it incrementally, but we really have not dabbled in modifying our own biology to any significant extent.

          • Vaibhav Gupta

            “doing the same thing under water,”
            what? where? any video, blog, studies?

          • Morbeau

            “Child bearing will be possible. I’m no expert…”

            Good one!

    • fearian

      If I could piggy back on this: I’ve read that Mars’s lack of tectonic activity is somehow detrimental to long term terraforming. Is this the case? And why? (Or why not!)

    • HammerOfThor

      These concerns are legitimate but they’ve been mostly overblown by critics. The ISS gets about 1/2 the radiation dose of a Mars spacecraft (since on half of the view of the sky is blocked by the Earth) and people have lived on it for long periods of time.

      Once on Mars, you will spend most of the time inside a radiation-shielded habitat, at least until it’s terraformed.

      There have been several proposals of how to generate an ‘artificial’ magnetic field on Mars. One of the more creative ones involves a superconducting ring buried a few meters deep around Mars’ equator, which would easily create a field strong enough to deflect energetic particles. With the bonus that you can the magnetic field up or down as desired.

      (3) is the hardest one. We simply don’t know. It’s known that successful pregnancy in microgravity is difficult/impossible (it’s been tested in animals, not humans yet!). Pregnancy in Mars’ gravity _should_ be fine, but we do not know yet for sure.

      Bone and muscle density loss can be treated using special exercise machines and gravity simulators. There is also the possibility of using drugs (such as anabolic steroids) to treat this. In the long-term future, things like genetic or other advanced medical treatments may be possible.

      • The issue with radiation exposure in deep space vs. ISS is that ISS orbits inside Earth’s magnetic field, not that it is shielded from half of the sky. Six months’ exposure on ISS is about 90 millisieverts. A six-month interplanetary trip to Mars would expose you to about 350 mSv–close to four times the dosage rate you get in LEO. Radiation is not an overblown concern, especially if you plan to spend any appreciable amount of time on Mars’s surface once you get there. Dose rate on the Martian surface is 1.4x higher than that on the ISS.
        Earth’s total magnetic moment is 7.9E22 Am^2. The equatorial radius of Mars is about 3400 km, making the area of an equatorial section 3.6E7 km^2. If you want the same magnetic moment as the Earth on Mars (I think that’s the right criterion–if not, no doubt somebody will correct me), you’d need a superconducting loop that carried about 2 quadrillion amps. Something tells me that that’s going to be just a tiny bit more than the critical field strength of even the most science-fictiony superconductors. And I sure wouldn’t want to be on Mars the day that the superconductor accidentally quenched.

        All long-duration deep spaceflight boils down to about four problems:

        1) The radiation issue.
        2) The “living in the wrong gravity” issue.
        3) The issues surrounding having an environmental system that can run on a tiny amount of consumables for years at a time.
        4) The issues associated with keeping a crew sane and non-homicidal in close quarters and separated from their fellow humans by millions of miles of vacuum.

        You have to have solutions for all four. We have no decent solution for the radiation issue. The “wrong gravity” issue is solvable in space with rotating tethers but considerably nastier on the surface of a planet. The close environment issues is tractable. And the human factors issues are pretty much anybody’s guess. We’ve got a ways to go before we’re ready for deep space. However, you can make progress on everything either in LEO or on the surface of the Moon, which is why I suspect that we’re going to get really good at cis-lunar spaceflight long before we take a crack at a Mars colony.

        • maximkazhenkov11 .

          You’ve miscalculated the necessary current by a factor million since you neglected the km^2 to m^2 conversion. Two billion amps is still a lot, but I doubt this is the actual criteria needed.

          I don’t think we’ll need a magnetosphere anyway since the atmospheric losses is minimal on human timescales and the would-be atmosphere acts as a superb radiation shield.

        • HammerOfThor

          You suffer from knowing just enough science to be wrong, but not enough to know that you’re wrong. There are two main types of harmful radiation in space: Particles originating from the sun, and cosmic rays. The Earth’s magnetic field is effective for shielding against solar rays, but far less effective in shielding against cosmic rays. And it has zero effectiveness in shielding against ionizing electromagnetic radiation. As luck would have it, the type of radiation the Earth’s magnetic field is good at shielding can also be shielded using magnetic fields on the spacecraft itself as well as specialized compartments for the crew to enter during solar storms and such.

          About an artificial magnetic field, first of all, the idea that some level of current is beyond the ‘critical field strength’ is simply nonsense — you can carry pretty much as much current as you want as long as you spread it over enough cables, which is precisely the idea here. You’re also overestimating by several orders of magnitude, both due to inability to convert units, and inability to calculate the field strength needed. The field strength needed on Mars would be much smaller due to its smaller size, further distance from the sun, and lack of need of such a high-strength field in the first place (the Earth would be just as protected against radiation even if the magnetic field were much weaker). Also, Mars itself has a ferromagnetic effect which would amplify any artificial field. I think I remember seeing a giga-amp figure quoted somewhere which would easily be achievable using a few thousand cables.

          Plus, this would be a very long-term thing as Mars could sustain an Earth-like atmosphere for millions of years without any magnetosphere at all. The rate of atmospheric loss would be pretty tiny.

          • You’re right about my stupid math error–forgot to convert kilometers to meters. Looks like a couple of billion amps is correct.

            I don’t think the use of multiple cables will actually solve the critical field problem. To generate the proper magnetic moment from a dipole loop on the Martian surface (as opposed to hundreds of miles of ferromagnetic material flowing in the outer core), you need a pretty high flux density near however many cables you have, and the flux from each cable is additive. I can’t remember how to calculate the flux needed to create a specific moment, but anything over 10-20 teslas is likely to quench. And you’d have to figure out how to fail-safe from accidental quenches no matter what, because the consequences of a quench are pretty dire.

            In terms of solar vs. cosmic radiation, the magnetosphere will deflect any charged particles, irrespective of their source. Now, if you’ve got TeV-level charged particles, the magnetosphere isn’t going to do you a lot of good, but those are fairly rare. Meanwhile, the human-absorbed dose of radiation outside the Van Allen belts is pretty well understood, and it’s too high to be healthy on interplanetary timescales. It’s one thing to have the occasional astronaut get high doses of radiation; it’s another thing to receive a steady stream of colonists where you’ve lopped off some non-trivial percentage of their life-years from high absorbed doses or radiation.

            As for magnetic shielding on a spacecraft, the field strength has to be huge to deflect high-energy charged particles over the scale of a few tens of meters (as opposed to the thousands of kilometers in which Earth can deflect things to the poles), and that kind of field will eat a lot of power. If you’re planning on hauling around a 100 MW nuke on your spacecraft, then presumably you’ve got a propulsion system that would allow you just to shield the spacecraft with a meter of water around the hull, which works much better. But now we’re talking about a science-fiction spacecraft, not a fourth-generation SpaceX system.

            Note that I’m not saying that the radiation problem can’t be overcome eventually, but you need to overcome it soon if you plan to create a viable colony, because only a viable colony can terraform Mars to have an atmosphere dense enough, or lay superconducting cables around the equator, or even create the 8th- or 9th-generation spacecraft with enough oomph to haul passive shielding around. Until you do that, radiation is a big problem.

            • HammerOfThor

              You would not use a single loop. You would use multiple loops (perhaps a few tens of loops or more), spaced sufficiently apart that each one’s field would drop off to near-far-field level at its neighbor. Someone did the detailed calculations for this and I don’t have the link right now, but I remember something on the order of 1-10km spacing between the cable bunches.

              About spacecraft shielding, have a look at this study, it will answer your questions:

            • maximkazhenkov11 .

              I think passive shielding is actually a good idea since astronauts will need water during the transit anyway. So maybe make the outer layer of the spacecraft storage space and put the living quarters into the core.

            • Yeah, but it makes the payload huge. There are some continuous-thrust schemes that use the propellant as shielding, but there are a couple of problems:

              1) You’re incurring a higher and higher dose of radiation toward the end of the trip. As long as you’ve got a separate solar storm shelter, that isn’t so bad, because you’re reducing the total number of millisieverts you’re getting on the trip. There are also probably some tank geometries that can mitigate the problem, if the crew is able to spend most of their time in a smaller space toward the end of the trip.

              2) Hydrogen and oxygen aren’t great for continuous thrust engines. LH/LOX chemical rockets have way too low a specific impulse for continuous thrust, and neither hydrogen nor oxygen have high mass-to-ionization ratios, which is the metric of choice for ion engine propellants. Maybe you go with a giant tank of argon, but heavier nuclei do less well for passive shielding.

              Any practical shielding system requires a vastly denser energy solution (a nuke, for example), a propulsion system that’s compatible with a good shielding medium, or both. And of course any propulsion mechanism that gets you where you’re going faster is always a win. It’s not an impossible problem; it’s just one for which we don’t currently have an engineering solution.

  • Cristian Consonni

    Can somebody expand on what “using the change in gravity to trick bacteria into revealing which genes make them immune to certain medicines.” means? (the sentence is from the “What the Hell Does Anyone Do in the ISS?” Blue Box. How can you use gravity to do such a thing?

  • Fabrice Ducouret

    First off, this is amazing work! Good job writing this article, that I plan on reading very soon.
    But I need to say that I feel that I am against spending any money on space colonisation (or any form of colonisation actually), until earth’s problems are solved, and wonder who decided that Elon Musk owned mars to do whatever he wanted with it. In a really ideal world – one not ruled by money – think it should be easy to sue him for taking possession of something he doesn’t own, or ruling out his projects.

    I’m a socialist. I have a hard time walking down the street and seeing a mother and her baby who don’t have 5$ to eat lunch, and getting excited about spending billions to go to Mars on the same day. It’s always the same people who have money, and who want more of it, more power, more stupid expenses for toys and things that will not end the world’s problems.

    The concept of colonisation is really fucked up to begin with: going somewhere that you don’t belong, and claiming it your own. Using the resources of the place, pillaging it, destroying it, reducing it to a pile of human copyrighted wasteland. This doesn’t make humans superior, but way inferior species than others, in my view. Owning something and planting a flag on it doesn’t make more beautiful. The same goes for “owning” animals, people and in some cases, plants (looking at you, Monsanto); owning can be one of the wrongest things. This is what’s wrong with humankind.

    Did you know that it only would take a small fraction of Apple’s profits to end world hunger?
    So what are all these rich people waiting for?
    Are they people good people to you?

    It’s okay to dream, don’t get me wrong, I love science-fiction. I even direct and write science-fiction.
    But I’ll always chose a human life over a spaceship or a trip to mars, no matter how exciting the idea is.

    Remember: science-fiction is fiction. It was invented as a narrative device, like all fiction, to entertain and bring solace.
    But obviously if this article was about the history of countries that have already been colonised and destroyed in the past, or the way colonisation destroyed millions of lives, the whole history of several countries, and several economies in a way that lasted hundreds of years, it just wouldn’t be as exciting as this topic, right? And yet they’re so related…
    Maybe I wouldn’t even use the world “colonisation” at all, considering the cultural undertones that it has?

    • fearian

      You didn’t even read the article, but you have posted this huge tirade about it? I’m going to boil this down to two points:
      1. Your argument against this blog post is discussed *in the blog post*. That you did not read.
      2. The fraction of a percentile of the worlds economy being put into space flight is an incredibly important goal. There are vast sums of money being spent on relatively trivial goals. Go take up your shortsighted argument with them.

      BONUS 3. Yes your rant about solving the worlds problems is massively _short sighted_ in light of the fascinating, detailed arguments written here by Tim.
      Now fuck off and read it.

    • Don Reba

      Hunger is not a problem of insufficient resources. We don’t need any fraction of Apple’s profits to end it, nor would it help.

    • Tom Miller

      Firstly, you haven’t read the post (which deals with some of the points you raised), which is infuriating as your comment doesn’t add anything to the post of the subsequent discussions.

      Secondly, as someone else pointed out, insufficient resources are not the problem, policy is.

      Thirdly, suggesting getting Apple to use it’s profits to “end world hunger” is a ridiculous idea. End world hunger for how long? A day? A month? A year? Permanently? (presumably if you think the latter you have more meat on this idea than you have given us.)

      By the way, the Vatican also has enough financial reserves to “end world hunger”, and it’s actually within their remit to do so! Instead they made the AIDS epidemic worse by telling Africans not use condoms. Why not target them?

      Instead, you targeted space travel (presumably because you see it as low-hanging fruit), but NASA spin-offs alone (water purification, solar cells, freeze drying foods, space blankets – to just name a tiny fraction) have helped many many people in disaster zones, remote areas, and those living in poverty – get access to fresh water, electricity, food, and shelter. If NASA hadn’t been around or funded, it’s arguable that these technologies wouldn’t be around, but the issues you described almost certainly would. So, in essence, you would have inadvertently exacerbated the problem, not helped it.

      Read the article.

      • I just felt the strong urge to express how grateful I am for the existence of comments sections like this, where instead of every remark instantly devolving into surreal flame wars that somehow have to involve Israel and the Bilderberg group, arguments are addressed in a logical, eloquent and polite manner. This shouldn’t be the exception, but it feels like nirvana. So uhm, thanks, people who are here.

    • HammerOfThor

      I’m right there with you that humanity’s priorities aren’t looking good at the moment. I also think that the position of “putting humans on mars is good!” should not be excluded from moral debate. However, maybe it’s possible that the dream of space travel/colonization itself will inspire people to be better people. Maybe if people see humanity’s true potential they will stop being so consumed with petty concerns. I side mostly with Carl Sagan’s position on this: Travel, explore, have adventures, improve ourselves, spread to the galaxy, but don’t get caught up in consuming everything.

  • Steven Remsen

    Great post and general introduction to manned space flight and SpaceX. 😀

    Unfortunately, after geeking out on the topic for the past few months (along with planetary Science… btw anyone who liked the unmanned section in part 1 should take Mike Brown’s “Science of the Solar System” next summer on Coursera if you want to find out there’s a lot more going on here than pretty pictures… btw, thank you Tim for taking out “Dawn is boring” from the leak), I really didn’t learn anything that new…

    I think several things that warrant more discussion are the topics of Musk’s frequent overly optimistic time projections, rocket re-usability, and how hard it will be to live on Mars:

    Almost all of Musk’s projects have gone way past his projected deadlines, from his early work at Zip2/paypal, to more recently Telsa/SpaceX. I don’t know if it’s his optimism or a calculated saleman’s pitch… Whatever the case, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume IF SpaceX makes it to Mars, it won’t be in the 2020’s (bummer).

    If SpaceX can consistently re-land rockets, it doesn’t mean they are easily re-usable. Tim appoints out the tremendous stress a rocket is put under during launch and apparently some in the industry feel re-usability is a fool’s errand. While I’m not in aerospace, I do have some related experience (physics phd), and after poking around the topic, I’d personally wager that it’s not impossible but it’s going to be hard (and more importantly nothing like the “refueling a 747” analogy). This could at worst, end up killing the 500k goal in itself, or at best, take it longer to achieve.

    How hard it will be to live on Mars… this is such a massive can of worms, which is discussed some in the post. But there’s a lot more here. To get a flavor, just google search the difficulties that moon or mars dust can cause for manned exploration (think of the American Great Dust Bowl… but with all the difficulties of Mars… this isn’t even mentioning the dust storms), if healthy fetal development is even possible at Mars g (without genetically modifying ourselves anyway), living like mole-people due to all the radiation, etc. Colonization is such a massive engineering problem… and “getting there” is by no means the most difficult part of it. I love how no one talks about Roanoke in the American colonization parallel. If we do this soon/quickly, people will die by the scores as they did in the past, I’d imagine. Are we willing in this day and age for that be the cost of business again? I wonder. Otherwise, again, it’s going to take longer than Musk is proposing…

    That being said, I am still hopeful but man does it looks like it will be hard to do and maybe impossible in the 2020’s. But if anyone can do it, it’s probably the force of nature that is Elon Musk.

    • disqus_dor1YsFNCG

      Thanks for the tip of coursera course. 🙂 Means a lot.

      • Jesse Jensen

        anytime bro

        • disqus_dor1YsFNCG

          Tusen tak (just saw your surname so I think you are from Denmark/Norge)?

    • nick g

      the “life on mars” section, for me, is one of the largest confounding factors. i have absolutely no doubt, especially after reading this, that we will put people on mars very, very soon. i further agree that eventually there will be a demand for people to go–as both tim and elon mentioned, this is the greatest adventure really conceivable. but those initial settlers will be experiencing a lot of phenomena of which science can only give us a theoretical understanding. who is to say that we make it that far and the initial colonizers all get wiped out due to some unforeseen local event? it seems to me that, all of a sudden, the people willing to pay so much money to go to mars might have some second (and third and fourth) thoughts about whether to continue as planned–not to mention any damage to infrastructure in place on mars that might set back its inhabitability. roanoke may be an apt comparison after all–all the settlers got wiped out, and it was on a planet they had already been living on for awhile! (of course, i know that the world’s knowledge wasn’t great at that time, but you get my point.

      now, perhaps this will be unlikely because if we’re going to colonize mars, we’ll have developed the technology to research the planet’s geography etc. extensively; thus, we may be prepared for most whatever comes our way. i guess what i’m most concerned about is going too prematurely for geopolictical reasons. this landscape will obviously change tremendously between now and then, so maybe the incentive to get people colonizing mars will follow earth’s politics. i’m assuming that getting there will have to be a concerted effort between nations, but what if it turns into a completely different space race?

      i guess the tl;dr version is that i think the science will be ready soon, but the people may not be. i hope i’m just being overly pessimistic–very excited for the future!

      • Steven Remsen

        I agree, I do hope my concerns are not just being overly pessimistic as well.

        Taking a step back, I think the greatest thing here is the fact we are actually having a meaningful debate about Mars colonization and becoming a multi-planetary species in the near future as being a very real possibility. As the post points out, Musk first desire was inspire people about human space travel and Mars. In this, he has most definitely succeeded. And personally and for my children, I am very grateful for people like Musk who are truly innovating and making the future a world of hope and possibility.

      • maximkazhenkov11 .

        Unforeseen local events shouldn’t be a big problem. We have a better understanding of Mars’ environment than any other body in the solar system other than Earth, possibly better than the moon. There has been lots of orbiting and surface probes on Mars in the past half a century. Dust storms and solar activity are monitored on a real time. There is hardly any geological activity. I can’t imagine anything really unforeseen.

    • Jesse Jensen

      the massive increase in power to mass ratio of “closed cycle” engines makes it very possible and will completely change the game.

      • Steven Remsen

        From a cost perspective, on the order of magnitude Musk is seeking, I don’t think you can get around the re-usability with efficiency, if that is what you are suggesting.

        • Jesse Jensen

          The efficiency makes it easier to get a fully reusable rocket becuase you can increase the mass of landing gear, structure etc.
          The engines have a life cycle of 40, who knows for the rest of the ship.

          • Steven Remsen

            Wow, thanks for the link. Very interesting. Yet, it looks like some of the debate in the comments section mirror a lot of what I was seeing already: a lot of doubt. I suppose this will happen with any disruptive technology; however even if this works perfectly, I would still see lots of delay/time needed for re-certification before anyone would want to fly on a used rocket parts (and I doubt SpaceX could afford to do enough test flight cycles for it certain enough statistically). So again, is Mars in 2020’s possible?

            btw, in a related WBW post, did you know the Remsens and Jensens are distantly related with our common progenitor being a founding family of New Amsterdam (Rem and Jen were 2 of 3 brothers and their children were forced to take last names by the English after taking over the city for tax purposes)?

            • Jesse Jensen

              interesting fact re the remsens jensens 😛

  • Don Reba

    A big issue is whether we can even reproduce at 38% gravity. We know from experience with the ISS that zero gravity has a destructive effect on our bones, muscles, and eyes. 38% is closer to no gravity than to Earth gravity. It might not decalcify our bones in a matter of weeks, but it might make long-term stays unhealthy and child bearing impossible.

  • Blrp

    The post was first called “How SpaceX Will Colonize Mars”, but then Tim asked himself “Wait… But Why?”.

    • TUNIE

      Yes. Aside from all the fear-based thinking, it seems a baffling line of thought. Are we slashing and burning planets and people now, no
      longer satisfied with just priceless old growth forests and jungles and bodies of water anymore? Are we EVER going to gain any management skills?

      While the intention is possibly noble, and we may learn a thing or two, everything written only inspires an even deeper love of EARTH and how wonderful it is HERE, and that we could instead be kicking it into high gear HERE, impending asteroids (or long tailed comets) be damned. Which is no fault of WBW, or even Elon Musk but instead, of the concept of colonization itself. Have we learned nothing from colonizing other countries?? In every single case it’s always been a moral embarrassment based upon extreme arrogance, greed and ego. And that is because the base motivation is essentially the same as slash and burn: I’ve ruined or am bored by what is and so will, by any means necessary, justify diversion, using my ego to clear the way. Boom. Mistakes ensue.

      If we can visit in a respectful way, letting the environment teach us how to be there instead of trying to dominate Nature or ‘master’ Nature, (haha, umm, that’s not the way it works, guys, it’s never a sustainable path, just like dancing on a tiger’s tail is not sustainable), then possibly we could get a work station up and running, but who would want to work so hard to live there when THE SAME AMOUNT OF WORK HERE YEILDS SO MUCH BETTER TASTING FRUIT? Compared to this amount of labor, that crazy sounding plan to use Star Wars toys to blast comets before they hit us doesn’t sound so crazy anymore…

      Anyhoo – geez Elon, play in space, yes, but don’t make it a fear-based thing in your effort to rally support, make it was it is: an exploration of space travel and an adventurous experiment and shift focus towards learning to properly love and care for the Earth and her people.

      • Joshua Warhurst

        The difference between colonization in the past and space colonization is that the latter is creating new life where none existed prior. European colonialism was about rebranding and taking land. While mistakes can certainly ensue here, they’re much more likely to directly affect those participating rather than those who would rather abstain, making the two types similar in name only.

        What environment does Mars have that we should respect? And in fact, there’s chance for new types of life to be born there too. How does gravity and different atmosphere change the plants. What if the fruit over there tastes better? Right now, there is none, so it’s hard to know.

        The problem with the laser shooting thing is that we don’t have the means to detect the disasters coming for us. Can’t hit something we don’t know is coming. By expanding and improving our space technologies, maybe we too can improve our defenses.

        I’m not saying your way of thinking is wrong or bad. But I am suggesting that what Elon is doing isn’t bad. And if it isn’t bad, let him do it. You don’t have to participate. Enjoy the earth fruits.

      • maximkazhenkov11 .

        Except there is nothing to slash and burn on Mars. It’s just rocks.

        Also – Elon Musk is spending his own money and energy to pursue his (and coincidentally a lot of people’s) dream; he is not asking the public for support. NASA couldn’t get people on Mars 40+ years after the moon landings precisely because it DOES depend on public resources, and because of naysayers like you who would like the money to be spent down here rather than out there even though it’s only 0.4% of the U.S. budget.

        You should also check out the posts about Tesla and SolarCity – prove that Musk does care about making humanity’s activities on Earth sustainable, from his own pocket once again with no obligation to do so. We should be glad that he didn’t just throw in the towel and retired on some remote island.

  • ScribblePouit

    It’s finally there! Ladies and gentlemen, see you on the other side.

  • ak

    Hi Tim, great work. Only please correct that the moon is 1000 not 100 times farther away than ISS.

  • Guest

    This new development will almost certainly help SolarCity… The next part is about SolarCity, right?

  • Not a guest

    Hey Tim
    Congratulations is due. You are finally number one on Google search results 😀 (I only noticed today). Only problem left is your wikipedia presence still forces me to read about Donald Trump. That ought to be fixed. ;p

  • Chris

    Hey Tim, just for the record – please be aware that the Youtube “Sounds of Jupiter” is a fake. There is indeed such sounds as produced by NASA, but the one you linked to has been so highly edited that it’s more or less a fake.

  • Brilliantly written article. Feeling very inspired right now. Still baffled at how smart Elon Musk is. That guy’s brain needs to be studied…

  • Keir

    Oh my GOOOOOOD.. I know what I want to do when I grow up now. I want to go to Mars.
    Hell, what a time to be a teenager- having to rethink all my future plans now, but thank fuck I’m still at a point when I’ve still got so many options open.
    Now. I’ve just gotta plan accordingly, so I can follow a career path that’ll earn me enough money (probably about $500 000) and give me useful enough skills so I can end up being in the green zone by the time the first colonial ships start popping off to Mars.
    I mean, no pressure, right?
    Daamn.. What’s it gonna be then? Botanist? Doctor? Astronaut?

    • Matthew Lindner

      Hey Keir, the astronauts of the future are going to be normal people. Why would you want to ride the spacecraft to Mars when you can be part of building AND riding the spacecraft to Mars. The best way to do that is become an engineer, any engineer will do as all of them will be needed.

      – Software Engineer who wrote some code for some small satellites

    • Steven Remsen

      Keir, how exciting to be you… what I wouldn’t give for 20 years and be in your shoes. Tim, this comment alone should make you feel like you are doing something meaningful with your time.

      On a related topic, I recently asked my father (he a Chemist and I a Physicist turned Material Scientist turned Engineer) “what is going on now that you could of never imaged as a Grad student?” He said “Exoplanets. If you told any self-respecting scientist at the time that we could actually observe and take meaningful measurements on planets around other stars in 50 years, you’d be laughed out of the room. I should of been an astronomer” (btw, I was REALLY expecting for him to say the internet). As I ponder my next move, maybe into data science / statistics. My advice is find where your interests/abilities and the market (or future market) align (even if you’re doing something academic / philanthropic, you will still need funding) and don’t be afraid to pivot in your career to keep both of these in balance.

      I hope to see you on Mars (via video-feed)!

    • HardinsGhost

      Hey dude! Good luck and I look forward to watching you walk around on Mars while I drool into my shirt from my old age home! Start thinking about how to create planetary sized magnetic fields or some proxy thereof. That will be necessary to keep the Martian atmosphere from being evaporated out into space.

    • gatorallin

      Just start your crowdfunding campaign now.. and let it buy Tesla stock, so it grows beyond just the pure donation side. Should be up to 500K by the time they are loading the first human pods to Mars. Cheers and best of luck…

    • Tim

      Find something you love to do, and do it as hard as you can until you wake up one day and realize you’re an expert. Building a colony on Mars will require experts of all kinds, not just scientists and engineers. As for the money, remember Buffett’s rules: 1. Never lose money, 2. Remember Rule #1.

  • Ri Ri

    One problem is ROI. Even if the cost is lowered to $500,000/person due to reusable rockets (and other innovations) there must be an economic incentive to spend trillions of dollars on necessary infrastructure to support 1 million people. There will be hundreds of billions in ‘sunk costs’ before Mars can even (possibly) be inhabitable or produce a return for early investors, even after taking into account the cost reducing technologies on the horizon.
    I’m very confident that Elon will land humans on Mars in his lifetime, but I think in 200 years time our descendants will still be wondering if Mars will ever become a true colony.
    With the exploration of the the Americas/India/China, the explorers were able to bring back desirable goods for those that funded their trip. Those who go to Mars will not be able to do this.
    After the initial trip of astronauts, the only settlers to go will be the poor who are forced into it by rich/powerful people and corporations to do their bidding.
    Unless there are precious metals like gold and silver sitting below the surface, I don’t think companies or governments will risk the huge sums of money to develop the red planet.

    • Scotty Foust

      Did you read the article? How does Antarctica fit in? It doesn’t back up the hard drive. If you’re deliberately being obtuse then please get off the internet.

      • Ri Ri

        Scott, the government(s) of this planet are not going to spend ~$500 billion+ to ‘ensure’ consciousness has a safety net, i.e. backing up the hard drive. That figure is after taking cost-reducing innovations into account. It’s extremely naive to think that just because we have the technology to colonize Mars (in theory) that we will. Source: PhD in behavioral economics.

        • Jesse Jensen

          Colonists ticket price will help pay for the colony. Martians will pay for goods imported from Earth. Social conditions on Mars will make it a pressure cooker for invention. These inventions, licensed on Earth, will raise both Terrestrial and Martian living standards and contribute large amounts of income to support the development of the colony. The discoveries made and the knowledge learned from having humans on
          Mars would help us to understand, protect, and control our planet. We certainly gather valuable information from missions that utilize robots, but such missions cannot accomplish what properly trained humans can learn by going to Mars and exploring the planet firsthand.
          Deuterium, the heavy isotope of hydrogen currently valued at $10,000 per
          kilogram, is five times more common on Mars than it is on Earth.
          Potential increases in real-estate values after terraforming will provide a sufficient financial incentive to do so.
          The Asteroid belt contains vast supplies of very high grade metal ore10 in a low gravity environment that makes it comparatively easy to export to Earth.
          Because of Mars proximity, low gravity and thus vastly cheaper launch costs it will be the sole provider of all food and other necessary goods to the main belt. Anything that needs to be sent to the asteroid belt that can be produced on Mars will be produced on Mars.
          The outline of future interplanetary commerce thus becomes clear. There will be a “triangle trade,” with Earth supplying high technology manufactured goods to Mars, Mars supplying low technology manufactured goods and food staples to the asteroid belt and possibly the Moon as well, and the asteroids and Moon sending metals and possibly helium-3 to Earth.

          • Rodrigo Gomes

            “Martians will pay for goods imported from Earth” -> It will take some time before Mars is auto sustainable, and in this period basically everything needs to be imported from Earth.

            This leave us with a problem: Anything that is sent from Earth to Mars will have astronomic prices due to the transportation costs. So, after spending their whole life savings to buy the travel ticket, how are the Martians supposed to afford that?

            They would heavily depend on charity from organizations that would pay for periodic travels to take necessary goods to Mars. But what if at some point taking care of the Martians is not interesting anymore? What would happen? Would the Earth send a message “Sorry dudes, you are on your own now” ?

            • Jesse Jensen

              It took time for most colonys in human history to become productive.
              Its an investment, kinda like raising a child, you feed it, nurture it and when it grows up theres a new person to contribute to society.

              Regarding martians being broke, I think a lot of people who go will be multimillionaires to begin with.

              Earth isn’t a person and doesn’t send a message, there are 7 billion people on earth, some arnt interested, some are, It pretty obvious if a colony began on mars a lot of people would get more interested and it wouldnt stop growing. it would be the most exciting thing ever.

              Like when fish first climbed up onto land.

      • Tom Miller

        Wow – he wasn’t being obtuse, he actually made some valid points. Isn’t that the whole point of a discussion?

        Whilst the “hard drive” is a nice analogy, it only works because we’ve all at some point experienced “data-loss”. That’s why people back stuff up, so they don’t lose their data *again*.

        No-one has experienced an extinction event, so it’s much harder to persuade people that it might happen soon, and that we need to mitigate against it.

        As Elon Musk himself has said, the best way to combat climate change is to provide renewables at a cheaper cost and thereby provide people with an incentive.

    • Nicolai Lyså

      You make a good point! Funding all of the tech to go to Mars will be next to impossible without some profitable reason to go there. But isn’t there a chance it might be? Do we know enough about the soil and materials on Mars to say that it is just some wasteland and some bare rock? If so, please direct me to some source of information i am not yet aware of 🙂

    • Jesse Jensen

      Colonists ticket price will help pay for the colony.
      Necessity is the mother of invention. Social conditions on Mars will make it a pressure cooker for invention. These inventions, licensed on Earth, will raise both Terrestrial and
      Martian living standards and contribute large amounts of income to
      support the development of the colony.
      The discoveries made and the knowledge learned from having humans on
      Mars would help us to understand, protect, and control our planet. We
      certainly gather valuable information from missions that utilize robots,
      but such missions cannot accomplish what properly trained humans can
      learn by going to Mars and exploring the planet firsthand.
      Tourism on Mars.
      Deuterium, the heavy isotope of hydrogen currently valued at $10,000 per
      kilogram, is five times more common on Mars than it is on Earth.
      Potential increases in real-estate values after terraforming will provide a sufficient financial incentive to do so.

      Humanity needs Mars. An open frontier on Mars will allow for the
      preservation of cultural diversity which must vanish within the single
      global society that is rapidly being created on Earth. The necessity of
      life on Mars will create a strong driver for technological progress that
      will produce a flood of innovations that will upset any tendency
      towards technological stagnation on the mother planet.

      The labor shortage that will exist on Mars will function in
      much the same way as the labor shortage did in 19th-century America;
      driving not only technological but social innovation, increasing pay and
      public education, and in every way setting a new standard for a higher
      form of humanist civilization. Martian settlers, building new cities,
      defining new laws and customs, and ultimately transforming their planet
      will know sensuously, and prove to all outside observers, that human
      beings are the makers of their world, and not merely its inhabitants. By
      doing so they will reaffirm in the most powerful way possible the
      humanist notion of the dignity and value of mankind.

      Mars beckons.

      The war in Iraq and Afghanistan is estimated by the CBO to cost $2.4 trillion by 2017
      I’m pretty sure colonizing Mars is more important than an illegal war.

    • Tim

      I think you’re underestimating the creativity of someone like Musk to raise money, and overestimating the reluctance of large corporations to spend it. Is there any better advertising opportunity ever than “Colonists arrived at the Generic Corp habitat today” being repeated in every media channel on Earth? I mean, Citi paid the Mets $400 million for the naming rights to their stadium, and who even cares about the Mets?

  • Victor

    Wow Tim, really wow… Like a lot of other people have said here already, this is a really amazing post. It’s been 6 hours straight, I haven’t moved, and I’m slightly dizzy from staring at my phone’s screen for this long, but it was totally worth it! Lot’s of emotions and thoughts going on right now. I really hope this plan works, being 22 right now I think I may have found a few new life goals.

    • Tipsy

      Wow. I’m that age and just read this in one block. Rock on.

      Come on Team SpaceX.

  • Neo Navras

    “NASA said it would cost $50 billion. $10 billion a seat. Still 10,000 times too high.” You mean 20,000 times (if still aiming for 500,000$ ticket, like in the sentence before)…?

  • Josh

    Great read, loved it. One error, though. On the 5th page you state that the moon is about 100 times further than the space station. It about 1,000 times further (250,000/250=1,000, not 100). I really enjoyed it, though.

    • Josh

      Thanks for fixing it!

  • Jesse Jensen

    I love the bit about how he went and got together a group of the smartest rocket people he could find, very good lesson for life.
    It doesn’t say he hung out with the same people he had always hung out with.
    If you want anything excellent in life hang around the people who are excellent at it.
    Learn from the best.

  • HyperMiler

    Putting humans into orbit is a moot point. Can be done, yes. Useful compared to robotics and drones to do the same kind of things in outer space? No! What an utter waste of resources. These missions should all be flown, yes, but for the purpose of finding things, detouring asteroids etc., but not for the theatrical excursion of living human beings in artificial, nonsustainable conditions. Am an absolute Musk fan, but this one he gets completely wrong.

    • Tom

      You can’t back up human consciousness with a drone. That is all.

      • Ri Ri


      • We could if we could make conscious drones 🙂
        But then there’s the whole Skynet thing to deal with 🙁

    • Ri Ri

      Couldn’t agree more. If there isn’t an economic incentive to colonize Mars, then it won’t happen. Then the naive say “Nothing is more important than ensuring the survival of human consciousness, of course it will happen!” Sorry but you won’t find a combination of governments, companies, and high net worth individuals willing to fork over hundreds of billions for this project (taking into account the cost-reducing innovations). Why haven’t we visited the moon since 1972? Because the cost is too great for zero monetary return. Why won’t we visit Mars again after the first successful mission? Cost is too great for zero monetary return.

      • Keith Dennis

        Here is the flaw in your rationale: You say “If there isn’t an economic incentive to colonize Mars, then it won’t happen.” What you mean is, if there is no economic reason to go to Mars, no company will every fund the expedition. But a company is funding the expedition; SpaceX. And they are driving the economic reason to create the technologies that would make the trip possible. When they get reusable technology to the point that launching anything into space costs a miniscule fraction of what other people charge (it’s already a tiny fraction), then those companies will either be forced to also innovate or SpaceX will just price them out of existence.

        • Ri Ri

          SpaceX is doing an awesome job lowering the costs of space TRANSPORTATION, but my argument is that getting to Mars is the EASY part. The expensive part is trying to build/develop infrastructure once you get there.
          SpaceX doesn’t have enough money to build radiation proof structures, water tanks, oxygen tanks, sanitation/disposal facilities, exercise rooms, energy facilities and everything else we take for granted on Earth. Have to use the bathroom on Mars? Well who will build that sewage/septic system? A robot? A person? There are millions of small details like this that people are overlooking. Building a proper sewage system on Mars is at least 1,000x more expensive than it is on Earth. A worker has a heart attack, is there a medical facility with people ready to save his/her life? A woman is having a child, will the low gravity create complications during child birth or development? An oxygen tank is leaking, will someone repair it in time before everyone suffocates?
          It can all be done, but for a price that governments and others in power will reject.

          • Jesse Jensen

            Getting the base and colonists to mars cheaply is by far the greatest hurdle and will be overcome by reusable rockets.
            Putting the base together once they get there is easy as fuck.
            Colonists will pay for the base through the profit from the ticket price to mars.
            The cost of the base materials is all cheap.
            Radiation proof structures = dirt, i think dirts cheap?

            Water tanks, oxygen tanks are really cheap.
            Sanitation/disposal facilities are free (a hole)
            Exercise rooms?… Go dig a toilet.
            Someone has a heart attack and dies you throw the body out the airlock and keep going. Free funeral (another hole)
            If a baby dies during birth. Free funeral (another hole)
            The first years will be rough but as the base grows so will emergency services, you will get buff from all this digging too mate.
            Obviously if there is an air leak there will be a back up air supply.
            The first colonists will be problem solvers and will be people who can see problems before they arise and mitigate the risks.
            I can say with confidence that should the colony run out of food you would be my first pick for Sunday roast.

            • Ri Ri

              Wow, you make everything sound so routine when you’re 38 million miles from Earth, in a world without breathable air, solar radiation slowly destroying your skin, DNA, and organs on a daily basis, violent dust storms, a world without pools of clean water, and nothing to eat. Maybe when you’ve wandered 400 meters from camp and your suit gets punctured you’ll change your attitude. You do know that in an environment with 1/3 Earth’s gravity you will need to exercise for 2 hours a day just to maintain your bone density among other things. And I’m sure this is how everyone wants to live? Oh sorry, you have a heart attack nothing we can do. Oh, you broke your wrist, tough luck. You think they’ll have unlimited supplies at their disposal so when something breaks, it can always be fixed?
              I’m not sure where you live, but in America we stop space activities after disasters in Space. Challenger exploded killing people and we stop all flights for 2 years. Columbia kills 7 people in 2003, 2 years of investigation before resuming activities. You think NASA would be okay with astronauts deaths on Mars? I think not.
              The way you describe treating the people who go reminds me of how communist leaders think of their people as disposable.

            • Jesse Jensen

              249 million miles when you are on the opposite side of the sun.
              In a world with breathable air in your spacesuit, rover and inside the colony.
              Protected from radiation.
              “violent dust storms” lol 😀 Most dust storms cover an area for a few days and carry only the smallest particles of dust at speeds of 33 to 66 miles per hour. The Viking missions of 1976 easily withstood two big dust storms without being damaged. They are rare, the last ones were 2001, 2007 and 2014. If you got hit by the worst dust storm on mars you would just go inside and laugh. You’re hilarious dude!
              Solar radiation! You don’t even use the correct terminology so you show you don’t really understand what you are talking about. Gamma rays are ejected from the sun during a solar flare, these are the bad ones, very rare, and we are safe if there is 5 inches of water between you and sun, and you will have warning of it happening.
              Cosmic rays are the constant radiation coming from interstellar space, and honestly, regarding the long term health effects, It’s difficult to put hard numbers on these health risks yet. We just don’t know.
              No astronauts have anything showing up yet so if you are going to assume anything, assume its not that bad.
              Water filtration and recycling 95%< is normal and with regular resupply missions it will be a very low risk.
              Food is easy, drypack and send heaps. Food is really light, you would only need 680kg of food per person per year.

              Suit getting punctured… well thats a risk of exploring a new planet, astronauts take that risk on the ISS to go nowhere so its just stupid to even mention it.

              Heart attack… sorry man, your on mars, there will be a doctor on mars. you are going to have less services to begin with but that was the situation with colonising america, so again, stupid to even bring up.

              Ive broken wrists before, i'll be ok.

              we wont have unlimited supllies, but 3d printing is pretty good. I'm sure we will be ok. As long as we've got eachother I'm sure the knowledge that you are opening up a new chapter of human civilization will be worth the risks and discomforts.

              It will be dangerous, uncomfortable, lonely.
              It will be achieved, it will happen and you will see it in your lifetime. 🙂

            • I would like to become a shareholder in this invention you call a hole 🙂

      • Rob Larson

        Humans do lots of things without the promise of monetary gain. Not every decision is evaluated as an investment. The experience itself will be the incentive. (For example, many forms of entertainment can only be classified as poor investment decisions, but don’t lack for people willing to purchase.) Early colonists will be motivated by a sense of adventure and a desire to work towards a cause larger than themselves, two significant motivators. And the carrot of maybe becoming famous as a pioneer and maybe reality TV star probably won’t hurt. I myself wouldn’t sign up, but i think a small percentage of the earth’s enormous population would indeed be interested.

        • Ri Ri

          I totally agree that we will have a manned mission to Mars in the next 30 years. However, I disagree with others who say that we will then proceed to colonize the planet. A 1-time trip is doable, but colonizing the planet cannot be done. A project of such complexity and magnitude would bankrupt even the most powerful nations on Earth.

          • Jesse Jensen

            if the rockets are reuseable it would be easily within budget

      • Jesse Jensen

        Please do your homework before make fallacious comments guys.
        Reusable rockets could reduce the cost by conceivably 100x
        conversation over.

  • pimnl

    > Now—if you owned a hard drive with an extraordinarily important Excel doc on it, and you knew
    > that the hard drive pretty reliably tended to crash every month or two, with the last crash
    > happening five weeks ago—what’s the very obvious thing you’d do?

    In those extinction events where 90% of the species died, humans would be one of the survivors, because our intelligence helps us to adapt to any situation.. That’s why we survive in extreme heat, cold, underwater or in space.

    What you’re really asking is:

    “if the earth had an extinction event every 100 million years, what’s the very obvious thing you’d do?”

    Don’t panic.

    • Pepperice

      Upvoting just for the reference.

    • Gwilym Panda Newton

      Humans, don’t live in isolation. We rely on plants, and insects and animals. Sure we might be able to think something up if we have time, but we are not that good as spoting asteroids yet, or knowing if Yellowstone might go off, or the magnetic field might flip, or the sun will super-flare. Those could happen tomorrow.

      • RyAgijon

        Yellowstone the most probable and worrisome…

    • RyAgijon

      But a big chunk of people would die anyway… Our governments, institutions and Economic system rely on a fairly immutable world (from a natural world perspective). It would be mayhem, kind of an amped-up WWII.

    • Whole_New_World

      >>>>In those extinction events where 90% of the species died, humans would be one of the survivors, because our intelligence helps us to adapt to any situation
      huge assumption. see Impact Event, Shoemaker-Levy 9, Jupiter, 2009

      • ping

        see Impact Event, Shoemaker-Levy 9, Jupiter, 2009

        it was 1994

    • HardinsGhost

      If we’re so intelligent why are we causing the current 6th extinction?

      I think that we will find out just how reliant we are on those other species since they provide all our food and oxygen.

    • Jesse Jensen

      Alphas plan for the worst and hope for the best.
      Omegas say “don’t panic”
      I get the feeling your the type of guy who loses all his data when his hard drive crashes…
      “humans would
      be one of the survivors”
      Yes, Humans will survive and men like you will be scratching at the door of the vault begging to come in. And another million will be on safely on mars.
      “or in space” lol!
      population of space: 3

  • Jesse Jensen

    “many use Russian rocket engines that were made in the ’60s. I don’t
    mean their design is from the ’60s—I mean they start with engines that
    were literally made in the ’60s and, like, packed away in Siberia

    This is literally true, When the Soviets shut down the N1 program (soviet version of saturn 5) hundreds of the newly developed rocket motors were stored in warehouses.

  • Harpreet Singh Sandhu

    Nothing wrong with being optimistic Tim, Especially after meeting with a guy like Elon. But landing a small first stage on a moving pad (yet to be accomplished) must be cakewalk compared to landing stages of behemoths like the MCT..i would love to see Elon musk putting some of his profits into theoritical physics research, which may make some problems easier..or we can wait for the upcoming A.I to do that job for us ;).. anyways, worth the wait, and thank you..

  • The Greatest Adventure begins, one hopes backed by the #Asynsis #FormFollowsFlow paradigm – recent extended presentation and Medium post for how we best emulate Nature to flow most easily into the Cosmos (really – check out the QEDs) here:

  • Johnny Beekeeper

    What a steaming pile of horse manure you have swallowed and regurgitated for the system. Why do you think a fraudster like Musk hired you to blow wind up his skirt and peddle the lie to the mass of sleep walking sheeple? Take off the red, white and blue tinted glasses and redo some reasearch- look into how credible anything that NASA says is. Do you really trust information from a group founded by nazis, with their track record for truth and the common good?

  • Alex
    • gatorallin

      Loved seeing this old video (and the 5 1/4 floppy disk on that computer helped date it).

  • James

    Oh, by the way, Tim, your pie chart in part one about all the satellites currently in use is wrong, the percentages add up to 101%.

    • Tom McClelland

      Percentages on pie charts commonly fail to add up to 100%. This is because each of the integer percentages in the chart is rounded from an actual percentage. Take the simple case of 25.6%, 25.6%, and 48.8%. This would show on the chart as 26 + 26 + 49 = 101

  • bynaus

    Hi Tim – awesome article, really, but let me (sorry) just point out one misleading point you made above regarding the clement conditions above the top of Venus’ clouds. You write:

    “and because oxygen and nitrogen both rise in Venus’s dense atmosphere (like helium does on Earth), the air in that layer might actually be close to breathable.”

    While yes, an oxygen-nitrogen mixture in the Venus atmosphere is a lifting gas, but NO, that doesen’t mean that the air within that layer might be close to breathable. There IS nitrogen in the atmosphere (not that much oxygen though), but its well mixed, and at 95% CO2, nitrogen and oxygen will ALWAYS be lifting gases throughout the whole atmospheric column, so there is no layer where they would somehow accumulate. The idea is rather that within that layer, one could build a balloon (or a blimp, or perhaps even an airship) FILLED with an Earth-like nitrogen/oxygen mixture and that craft would then float, like a He-balloon would in the Earth’s atmosphere. Therefore, any colonists could live ON THE INSIDE of a giant balloon-thingy floating in the high venusian atmosphere. Earth sea-level inside pressure would keep it floating at the 1 bar level (actually, it would be better to be at the ~0.5 bar level, as the typical temperature at the 1 bar level is still about 75°C, but its something like 25°C at the 0.5 bar level – also, the further up you are, the less strong the winds get).

    • Keith Dennis

      I assumed he meant that the Oxygen and Nitrogen would be there in the atmosphere, available to be breathed, not that you could walk around on the landing platform of Cloud City, outside like it was no big deal.

      • bynaus

        I don’t think that is what he meant. To begin with, there is no significant oxygen in Venus’ atmosphere (see
        available. The air in that layer is not different with respect to its composition as, say, the air on the ground. It just not so hot and the pressure is lower (and their is sulfuric acid droplets that never reach the surface).

  • Peter

    Incredible work Tim, and again you are able to turn the transfer of information an experience unmatched. Now, there’s one subject I find extremely interesting that you have not touched upon yet. That being the incredible advancements in neuroscience in recent years. I can imagine nothing will compare to the Muske experience for you now, but if at some point you’d find time for that theme, and make it a part of your network of visions on mankind I think you’d find it full of interesting tangents too, and relevant to the whole question of humanity’s survival as well.

  • Ugo

    i’m totally convinced that the only real way to become a multi-planet species is to overcome the chemical rocket science.
    we need something different or we’ll forever be stuck with the necessity of lifting from the ground little more than the rocket itself.
    Elon has always a very practical view on his plans and this is one factor that makes him successful, but if we want to go for the long distance we need to stare at a blank sheet for a while…

    secondly, i hear a lot talking about “terraforming” and it’s cool as hell for sure.
    problem is that we quite never understand how special our place is and how many boxes we have to tick to have something similar.
    i’m pretty surprised Musk really think this is doable, even in a far future…
    for instance, mars is prolly too small to have enough gravity to keep a dense atmosphere on itself, so having “breathable air” isn’t the whole problem.
    then, mars has no magnetic field, so sun’s radiation will be lethal with no way to overcome the problem.
    mars has no tectonic physics, so it’ll probably have no carbon cicle making the balance of planet temperature a huge mess.
    i still consider venus as the best possible choice for terraforming, but aside from starting from a worse initial point it still lacks magfield, tectal movements and a moon (and yes, we’d need one too…).
    it’s really not as “planting some stuff around”…

    • Jesse Jensen

      please go to university and get an bachelor degree with honours in chemical propulsion and slap yourself for saying such nonsense, rockets are all we will ever need.

    • Jesse Jensen

      seriously though, a warp drive would fucken rule, but chemical rockets are excellent, the current engines on falcon 9 are “open cycle” wait until the “closed cycle” raptors come out, those and going to fuck shit up

      • Ugo

        chemical rockets are truly excellent.
        is fuel that is kinda annoying… ?
        (btw, methane is the best possible choice ever for any type of chem engines and the one i’ve would have chosen for a smoother mass transition to a lower impact car, 30 years ago… another great idea from E.M. using it for rockets.)

  • Steven Remsen

    Tim, did you talk to Musk or the SpaceX folks about lunar mining at all? This was released with some press last month, NASA-Funded Study Reduces Cost of Human Missions to Moon and Mars by Factor of 10:

    This seems to “fit” into their business plan; however, they would have to change their fuel source to H2/O2.

  • Muhammad Moosa

    First of all, a brilliant series of articles, got me hooed up to my pjone for hours n hours while I was waiting for someome in a car.

    but… As amazing it sounds that there is someone who wants to bring the interstellar movie into a reality, it is also an undigestable pill. I understand completely that nothing is impossible about Elon Musk’s idea, it is totally doeable but that’s the theory. Practically, I dont think this will pan out A) because the time frame he has kept to avhieve these goals is way too short, for today’s technolgy, this a very, very long shot, B) the problem is not taking 1M people to mars,(it is tough but doeable with enough money n tech), the real pronlem lies in terraforming. It is said that the ice on poles could be converted into oceans etc by many maethods of absorbing sun light or nuclear blasts, yes, agreed but are they controllable actions? Can we have a totla control over the chain reaction that it will set? I vote No, wait, but why? Because, we havent been able to co.trol our own atmosphere as of yet, we havent been able to harness and direct tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, even the ratio of oxygen and carbodioxide, we are fretting over earth being terraformed into non-earth, whic is the sole reason we are now thinking about habitating mars, that is fot me, a vicious circle. We ruined earth, we go to mars to terraform it into earth. Wait. But didnt we ruin earth? If we did how is it possible we will turn mars into earth? While we excell at ruining the already the only earth we have.

    • june2

      Exactly. Very well said.

    • Tipsy

      Yes but would you rather experiment with being able to control the atmosphere on Mars, or on Earth??

      Mars would be my choice. I wouldn’t shoot this plan down on the chance of an experiment we haven’t done yet having an unforeseen consequence that ruins everything.

      • Muhammad Moosa

        IF no one is welling to experiment here on earth to control atmosphere, which btw have motivation and reasons to do so (like preventing mass extinctions for what we fear now from either depletion of oxygen or global warming, or natural disasters), i dont see any reason for people to experiment it on massive level on mars, which will be needing the resources we have here on earth… it ll be like leaving erath helpless and trying to help mars..

  • dio noneofyourbusiness

    Oh man … that made me really pumped up.

    Especially it made me
    want to go to Musk and say “You know that whole thing about the space
    industry in 2001? A ridiculously bloated and fat industry with only
    middlemen and little innovation? The same applies to nukes. Lets make
    nukes happen. In Space. I know how to. Also on Erath, but that is a
    different can of worms.”

  • AHugoH

    A little bit too much of a western culture perspective, but oh well…

  • Mars_Ultor

    I will never again look at a rocket launch the same way after reading this.

  • Korakys

    What we have is a way to go to Mars for an astronomical amount of money. And that’s no way to colonize Mars. To Musk, what’s missing is a way to go to Mars for an aeronautical amount of money.


  • El

    Elon: Your relationship to love, how about developing that? That’s the
    quantum field that makes all these fear-based eventualities a non-issue. Try exploring the quantum field of love and master it’s power to realign heaven ON EARTH : ) That’s a non-religious invite, btw, so all the Christian crazies can just pipe down right now…

    • José Black

      Yeah, you’re just a normal, secular crazy.

  • Robert Kołodziej

    Hey Tim, I’m around 2/3rd into this article, and fine the explanation fascinating. I’ve been also dating astronomy since I was a kid, but this has helped me understand some very ‘basic’ things about putting stuff onto our orbit. Thought I’d like to give it a try myself, immediately thought about the Kerball game, but here’s something simpler for immediate fun, and it also looks like the story of Elon Musk 🙂

  • BillyTheKid

    When you talk about Internet being fast on Mars, are you talking Earth-Mars Internet or a Mars-only Internet? Because any communication with Earth will travel at the speed of light and take between 6 and 44 minutes(!) for a round-trip.

    So unless you are accessing locally cached versions of Earth’s websites, using the “Solar System Internet” will be pretty bad. Forget about instant chatting or playing non-turn-based games with your friends and family on Earth, or any other kind of real-time communication between the two planets.

    Anyway, awesome read, love your posts! Can’t wait to see people posting selfies on Mars and looking back to today, realizing how dumb we were to think that Earth was our limit…

  • Rik Muschamp

    Absolutely fantastic post. Illuminating and mind-altering as always. Thanks. A couple of points for further discussion…

    1. Gravity. Mentioned but not dwelled on. The 0.37g on Mars would have a dramatic long-term effect on human physiology not to mention comfort. This is an important point.
    2. Internet. It is mentioned that Mars would have internet but since communication to Earth would take between 3 and 22 minutes (one way) it is unclear how this would feasibly work well.
    3. Solar radiation – mentioned in another comment but again, not well covered.

    Looking forward to the next launch in September!

    • Alex

      I think it would be a sort of separate internet, that would instantaneously connect anyone on Mars to anyone else on Mars. Lets say you get to mars, open your computer, and try to go to, it would take you 22 minutes to open the page. But maybe once a day or something, MarsNet syncs up with the World Wide Web and downloads info to physical servers on mars. Now, you could simply go to and load the page instantly. It would just get new posts added about day later than the earth version.

      • Gjedden

        Or probably more likely: EarthWBW will have it’s site updated one day after the MarsWBW site. 😛

        But seriously though, you can’t just download the internet onto a computer on Mars, that would be ridiculous. Instead you would probably have a huge amount of sites that actually gets updated a couple of times a day, and then if a MarsNet user needs to access a website not on the MarsNet servers, a request will be send so that it can be downloaded at the nearest convenient time.

        But then there would be different problems: How would a MarsNet user even know if a website existed on EarthNet? Even if we decided to just download everything that Google has indexed, we would still only get a paltry 0.004% of the data of EarthNet on MarsNet.

        Most downloading of websites from EarthNet to MarsNet would probably be done by bots crawling through links on a site and simply download everything linked to it, and then repeat that process for a specific amount of layers. But this has its own complications; not all sites allow bots to do this for various reasons. Facebook, for example, doesn’t allow this due to (I assume) privacy concerns, which means that MarsNet users probably won’t have access to FacebookEarth unless Facebook decides to put their own servers on Mars for a local copy that can continuously sync up with their Earth servers. But this probably won’t happen for a very long time, unless they choose to do it for prestige reasons, which I guess could happen pretty early on.

      • Deven Kale

        Actually loading even a simple page would take for more than 22 minutes due to the way the internet works. While loading a page there is constant communication between your computer and the host server. Your computer sends a request for a small packet of information, and the host server receives that request and sends the packet. Once your computer receives that packet it requests another. This communication normally happens hundreds of times per second.

        On mars, it would take 22 minutes for the host server to receive the request, another 22 to send it back to you, and so on. Loading a simple webpage would take days with the current infrastructure. This would be true no matter how it was done, even if it was only a large single download from EarthNet to MarsNet. In order to make that work, an entirely new protocol would have to be created for interplanetary data connections. I’m not saying that it can’t be done (in fact I have three different ideas on how to make it work as I type), it would just be difficult.

    • Steven Remsen

      Here’s another huge challenge that I usually don’t hear anyone talk about that really needs to be address for colonization: Dust.

      “The high levels of perchlorate found on Mars would be toxic to humans, Smith said.
      “Anybody who is saying they want to go live on the surface of Mars better think about the interaction of perchlorate with the human body,” he warned. “At one-half percent, that’s a huge amount. Very small amounts are considered toxic. So you’d better have a plan to deal with the poisons on the surface.”
      Any humans exploring Mars, Smith said, will find it hard to avoid the finest of dust particles. “It’ll get into everything…certainly into your habitat.”

      I cannot find a link quickly but I also believe I’ve read there’s a lot of fine particulate matter on Mars; so in addition the toxics, I believe there’s a huge risk here for what the EPA labels PM2.5 and PM10 exposure.

      Coupled with radiation risks, I don’t think any future colonist could spend much time outside on Mars (without significant terraforming). With the need to conduct maintenance (dust will make this very necessary too) and collect resources (er… and explore, which is kind of the point), colonization could be very challenging.

    • Maarten Butter

      Gravity will suck if you’d get back from Mars… hence the free ticket 😉

  • Lilyburk

    For those who have difficulty in imagining things that were mentioned here, I suggest playing Kerbal Space Program.

    • João Pedro Gonçalves

      He´s right, most of what I know about rockets and stuff like that is because of KSP.

  • João Pedro Gonçalves

    This was an amazing article, you’ve done it again.
    In my opinion we should desperately backup the drive because, the way I see it, if nothing changes ( especially society and our way of thinking) Earth is pretty much fucked, human civilization it’s on its way to self-destruction but not before seeing our precious Earth being destroyed by us. Mars will be a fresh start to human civilization and hopefully it will thrive leading to the colonization of other planets and other solar systems. Human’s self-destruction is the reason that I would immediately accept a ticket to Mars to get away from our rotting planet and society.

  • Ralph Hat-Farmer

    Hey, awesome post, but one thing I don’t understand. If each ship carrying people requires ten ships with cargo initially, who pays for all those extra ships? if you operate market prices on mars (working to pay for food and so on) wont everything be fantastically expensive?

    • Gabe Martin

      He addressed this in a footnote: “I asked Elon about all of this cargo and who will pay for it, and he explained: “The 10 cargo trips per person trip is just a wild ass guess as to how many would occur over time. Some of this would be paid for by the Mars colonists right off the bat, some would come as care packages from Earth as groups of various kinds here support their outpost there. Long term, I guess most would be paid for by photon exports from Mars (inventions and entertainment), as well as things that have super high value per kg, such as advanced CPUs, art or maybe very rare elements, exotic compounds or medicine.”

  • Morbeau

    “About six million years ago, a very important female great ape had two children.”

    That’s not how evolution works. How much random speculation is helpful in an article like this?

    • Mars_Ultor

      Its used as a metaphor in a story about mankind. For fucks sake..

      • Morbeau

        No, it’s a declaration. This whole idea is supposed to be based on facts about space travel and Mars, so opening with a “metaphor” about the Ape Adam & Eve is kind of silly.

        • Radu Diaconescu

          It is kind of silly, true enough. That is the way Tim writes. I think that whole part was terrific, but maybe that’s just you.

    • Vinay Kapadia

      I think this was more just a funny quip than speculation. Have you read Tim’s post on evolution? I’m sure he understands the concept better than this quote shows.

    • bezelfrezel

      “That’s not how evolution works.”

      At some point, some great ape had a child. That child had lots of children which diverged genetically from other great apes around them. That child interbred with the great apes around it, and its children did the same. This caused a shared genetic difference to emerge, and eventually species drift occurred. The point that Tim is making is that at some point, humans diverged from other animals in a way that is radical and crucial to the story he’s telling. He has the gist of it right, if not the specifics.

      Are you sure you know how evolution works?

      • Morbeau

        So what? I’m questioning his credibility, not yours.

    • Bernie

      Actually the statement is accurate. Like Mitochondrial Eve (the most recent common female ancestor of all humans), about 6 million years ago, there existed a similar female who is the most recent common ancestor of both the current human and chimpanzee populations. At some point, what Tim described DID happen.

  • Mars_Ultor

    Why does Musk discount Mars One? Looking at their site, it looks similar to what Musk is trying to do (create habs, colonies, etc)

    • Alex

      Just got this from the first paragraph of Mars One’s wikipedia page: “The project’s schedule, technical and financial feasibility, as well as ethics have been widely criticized by scientists, engineers and those in the aerospace industry.”

      SpaceX made a plan, spent the money, built and tested rockets, proved they work, made a space delivery service to raise funds and continue learning. Mars One said they would launch something in 2020, and has no real results or even ongoing tests to make that claim believable.

    • Ri Ri

      Mars One has almost no money. They have made a nice website and cool videos, but they have not been successful in raising the Billions of dollars required for such a complex mission.

    • Jesse Jensen

      Mars One is a fake, they are scum.
      SpaceX is the real deal.

  • Vinay Kapadia

    IT’S HERE!!! My productivity for the week:

    | ——
    | ———–
    S M T W…..

  • RBJ

    “The light of consciousness that flickered on millions of years in the past on humble little Earth will spread throughout the galaxy and into other galaxies, branching into thousands of different life forms. Most beings in the lineage will be hazy on where it all started if you asked them about it, but those who know their history will be able to tell you all about the Great Leap, that pinnacle moment in antiquity when their primitive ancestors emerged from the womb and became conquerors.”

    This last paragraph and closing statement brought tears to my eyes. What a beautifully written piece Tim. Thank you for being a passionate dreamer and believer in humanity.

    • Morbeau

      I’m imagining this quote being read in the voice of James T. Kirk.

      • Tim

        It’s better if you read it in the voice of Picard.

  • Eugenio Arpayoglou Cassanello

    This book outlines why this must be done now. There is a very limited window for a planet like Earth to support complex life:

  • Nick

    “Let’s just go ahead and get it out of the way right now—Falcon 9 is the world’s largest dick-shaped sculpture.” – this line had me laughing tears at work. That was exactly my first thought.

    On a more serious note, Ramiro below me commented saying he was also moved to tears but from the beauty, passion, and hope of the piece. Well done, Tim, making people cry from hilarity and hope all at once.

  • Ed

    Very well done, Tim. You lit the excitement about this plan in me and hopefully for Mr Musk, in many others as well. As other people do, I also wonder why there is no mention at all of projects such as Mars One, with your ability for research I doubt you missed it. Also, in your conversation about anti-aging technology and the Hitler issue, didnt you discuss the idea that such an advance would help solve the issue of traveling light-year distances? Definitely looking forward to future posts on the many topics that you may have discussed.

  • Parker

    For the interview riddle, there’s a second reason why there are an infinite number of solutions. There is not a single point 1 / (2 pi) + 1 miles away from the south pole, but a whole circle. For all solutions, you have one point at the north pole and a series of circles starting at 1 / (2 pi) + 1 miles from the south pole which approaches but never reaches 1 mile from the south pole.

    Also, I must be 9.

  • Kevin S.

    But wait….what if AI beats us to the punch?

    Or we can beat AI by figuring out ways to just upload our brains to the Internet, beam ourselves via light speed transmission into a space-body walking on Mars that is the form of machinery, and be done with it.

    No need for $500,000 tickets and metric fucktons of rocket fuel. But I suppose we have to start somewhere…

    • 01101110 01101111 01101110 011

      figuring out ways to just upload our brains to the Internet, beam ourselves via light speed transmission into a space-body

      What you will upload is actually a copy of your neural network structure and current memory and status, to some server connected to the Internet (assuming it is connected in that way); then you will copy the data again, uploading them to the machine on Mars… which won’t be you.
      You will be here as ever, while a machine with a mind copied from yours will wander around Mars.

      • Uploading our brains into robots actually seems more feasible to me than humans traveling to different solar systems. But I’m a philosophy major so I don’t really understand much of anything.

        (I do understand of course that YOU would still die here on Earth, but if the goal is to get consciousness as far away from here as possible… well…)

  • Curious Mayhem

    My brain hurts now. Time to sleep.

  • Ashley Wilsey

    So now that I’ve read this through twice and finally clicked on all the little blue numbers, I’m freaking out because you referenced my OTHER favorite not-updated-quite-often-enough blog (What If?). Again — thank you for making my week. I’m off to think about space for awhile. (And then maybe actually accomplish something.)

    • I wish procreation didn’t require an egg just so that Tim Urban and Randall Munroe could have a baby.

      • Ashley Wilsey

        I am both intrigued and deeply, DEEPLY frightened by the thought of an Urban-Munroe (Munban?) human.

  • Reality

    Pretty entertaining. “What that all adds up to is at best, a flawed system that puts zero reassure on lowering costs and at worst, a grand-scale government scandal-all paid for by the US taxpayer.” Have you been living on mars?? You basically described every aspect of our government. Shits about to get real on planet earth though, and going to mars seems to be farther off than your very, very optimistic estimation. What about mars’ size?? Its tiny compared to earth, will be hard to retain an atmosphere. And its molten iron core??? Its done churning and there is no magnetic field protecting it from the serious cosmic rays, that can’t be fixed. I honestly think that a shit ton of good is going to come out of what musk is trying to accomplish, but living on mars??? You can’t honesty think this is going to happen. Humans will never live anywhere else than earth or the ISS, we will never leave the solar system. Ever. They may visit mars, but no one will ever return. Musk should put all his time into solar, and into destroying the oil companies. We have to take these dudes down, they are running the world into the ground. I think musk will be the tesla of our generation, way ahead of his time. Humans won’t live long enough. We are doomed. 100%. Its a tough pill to swallow, but its just the nature of the universe.

    • Jesse Jensen

      Mars is a decent size, can so hold an atmosphere, magnetospheres are for pussies, cosmic rays are not a big risk, maybe like increase your risk of cancer by 1%, so if you moved to mars and quit smoking you’d be better off.
      Please sit down and let the big boys talk.

  • Bruno Sanchez

    Another brilliant work, Tim! Congratulations again! A point worth to be discussed concerns the duration of the trip and what to do to entertain those people for three long months. I understand that in the era of navigations, the ships used to offer casinos, restaurants, pools and other “fun” on board, but I imagine that a ship to Mars (at least the first ones) would be considerably smaller than an ocean liner, then how to rid people from confinement madness?

    • Kevin S.


      • Bruno Sanchez

        Don’t think we have this technology yet, Kevin and I cannot see Musk researching for it as well…

      • jack m

        still doesn’t work yet.

    • Rodrigo Gomes

      I also thought about this. It would be more like taking a plane flight that lasts for months (maybe in economic class!) than a trip in a fancy ocean ship. Seems pretty horrible

      • Bruno Sanchez

        Exactly, Rodrigo. To take 100 people per “voyage”, I think we are talking more on something like a plane flight with very small spaces, even on first class, than a ocean ship and that´s really a problem to face.

    • poke

      That’s a good point. However:
      1. it’s plenty of tests with people who lived inside a limited space for months. e.g. Mars-500.

      2. Not all people would cope well the same, but passengers who are doing that aren’t forced in that situation: instead they are going there willing and aware of it.
      Some medical and psychological tests and preparation may be still advisable anyway (some people believe they can cope with something, but actually they won’t be able to face it), so it’s good to take the problem into consideration.

  • Tom Miller

    Just watched this, an impassioned speech on space by NDT. Certainly worth a watch if you’ve read this post!

    • Mairsx

      When i watch Neal DeGrasse i usually spend most time in wonder where the hell does he pull out all those different gesticulation moves and flaps, and jerks and hand waves?!? If a sane man would want to invent all those different moves intentionally he would not succeed.

      Took me some time to get used to dr. Tyson style… but it was and is worth of any effort.

      Great presentation again, a great tale of reestablishing some very strong basics of Space culture and history.

      He is explaining and talking about the change of paradigm. Globally.
      And thats the third reason that wasnt mentioned yet.

  • Lloyd McKenzie

    Of the existential threats listed, 4 of the 6 equate to the house burning down. Backing up to Mars only really helps us if we’re talking comet/asteroid or polarity reversal. All of the others would mess up those on Mars just as much as those on Earth. (In theory, the Mars population might manage to avoid an earth-limited epidemic, but if there’s regular contact between both planets, odds are decent the bug would make it across and hit both populations.)

    That’s not to say that expanding to Mars isn’t a necessary first step, but it’s more equivalent to backing up your hard drive to a second hard drive plugged into your CD bay when not only does your hard drive crash regularly, but the automatic sprinkler system in your house is tempermental and floods things regularly. Extra-solar system backup, on the other hand, protects against everything except a nearby supernova (presuming that a gamma burst is unlikely to hit both solar systems at the same time). And if we can protect ourselves from the radiation on Mars, we can probably figure out how to adapt to increased gamma rays for a few years if we have to.

    • Jesse Jensen


    • Mairsx

      If we ever want to get to another star system, making the first bigger step to Mars is an unavoidable thing and test of our abilities to achieve even that far fantastic goal.

      As all concerned said and explained, making a backup is only one of the reasons to go to Mars.

  • Lloyd McKenzie

    Presumably long-period comets are more of a risk because they’re harder to predict. Those with short orbital periods are going to be relatively nearby all the time – i.e. within the solar system. So whatever imaging techniques we have are more likely to capture them at various places within their orbit. Plus they’ll come “close” more than once, increasing our odds of measuring their orbit and knowing whether they’re a risk or not. And after a decade or two of intense study, anything with a short orbital period should be detectable.

    On the other hand, a long period comet (say one that passes by the earth every thousand years or so) that’s on a collision course will only get seen once – when it’s on approach. And it could come from pretty much any direction. So we’d have to be looking in all directions forever with relatively high resolution to be able to pick it up while it’s still distance. Long-term (essentially forever) semi-expensive projects dealing with minute probability events are not exactly humanities forte. So odds are it wouldn’t be picked up by a dedicated effort, but rather random chance or when it got close enough it was hard to miss.

    So we’d only have the year or two (or if we’re lucky, ten) from when we first detect it to do something about it. And many proposals for dealing with such objects require quite a bit of notice to be effective. As well, (this is a guess, so could be out to lunch), it’s probably a bit harder to predict the orbital path of something that appears to be coming almost straight in, so it could take longer to confirm whether something’s actually a threat or not. So I can see why those might be considered a higher threat.

  • Maciej Kłosowski

    Man, thank you for this wonderfull article. Regading the distance from Earth to Mars, there is a nice website that readers could check out:

    • Ray

      He actually linked to that. In the word “far” right above the light second diagram in Part 5.

  • bastibe

    Thank you for this post! It reads amazingly similar to “Red Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson.

    Also, it was so long that it crashed my ereader (which displayed it as having 350 pages)

  • Bernard

    Excellent article. I laughed, cried in despair, got in hopeful territory again, I mean, how entertaining is this piece?

    So much for the flowers. As for the pot, it’s three pieced.

    First, the part on getting people motivated to trade all their belonging for a (most likely) one-way ticket to an hostile planet could be more convincing. European colonization of Americas had little to do with adventure, fame or altruistic ideas. It started with combined will from rulers/states and Catholic Church to access additional resources and increased influence. Spontaneous migration really began with pressure induced by social tensions such as war and famine. How do these mechanisms come into play into SpaceX plans?

    Second, about Mars colonization, some questions remained unanswered, the most obvious ones being:
    – How would the human body adapt to life on Mars?
    – How to fix the non-existent martian magnetic field problem?
    – How to get crops to flourish and livestock to reproduce?

    Lastly, on the backing up the hard drive thing, I think the point has been made clear as to why it is important to put humans at safe in the case something bad was to happen on Earth. But what about the other millions of living species that call Earth home? Unless there a space-age version of Noah’s Arch in the cartons, I suspect that only a couple of selected species would make it on-cargo to Mars. Given that humans have wandered for ages into a massively biodiverse environment, how we would fare into a suddenly much less-diverse ecosystem doesn’t appear as a question to be overlooked.


    • Stephan Weinberger

      The magnetic field problem is a big question for me too. It seems like Mars may once have had a denser atmosphere, but lost it because of it’s low gravitational pull combined with the lack of a megnetic field. This would most probably happen to any artificially created atmosphere too…

      • Jesse Jensen

        Hey bro,

        Radiation of Mars

        There are 2 types of Radiation in space.
        Solar Flares: About 1 a year, can be stopped by 5 inches of water, have
        a solar flare shelter, an alarm sounds to warm you to hide.
        2: Gamma/cosmic radiation: Continual pitter patter of background radiation.

        Mars lacks a global protective magnetic shield like that of the Earth,
        strong localized magnetic fields embedded in the crust appear to be a
        significant barrier to erosion of the atmosphere, the ionosphere reaches
        to a higher altitude, indicating that the solar wind is being kept at
        bay. The strength of the magnetic field is high in part of the ancient
        southern crust, undisturbed by giant impacts or volcanism. That area
        also appears to have a banded structure to the magnetic field, with
        alternating strips of inward- and outward-flowing magnetic field lines.
        If you were standing on Mars in one of these areas you would measure a
        magnetic field about as strong as Earth’s — a few tenths of a gauss.
        Elsewhere on the planet the magnetic field is 100 to 1000 times weaker.

        is located in an area with almost no magnetic field. Based on radiation
        levels detected by curiosity you come up with the following figures.
        months to mars, 18 months on mars, 6 months to earth = 2.5 years would
        expose astronauts to a cumulative radiation dose of about 1.01 sieverts =
        5% radiation risk
        NASA’s guildlines limit astronauts to 3%. Mars’
        radiation environment is dynamic, so Curiosity’s measurements thus far
        seem to indicate radiation levels in a demagnetized region.

        • Stephan Weinberger

          All true… but that does not solve the problem. Mars *did* lose it’s atmosphere, so obviously the present magnetic fields are not sufficient to prevent that from happening. Local protection does not prevent solar wind to erode away the atmosphere in other places – one “hole” is enough, unfortunately. The low gravity doesn’t help either.

          • Jesse Jensen

            don’t, have to go there and find out.

  • Julian Cox

    Superb contextualising of the reason why and a flawless execution of explaining the how to date. Only one thing that I felt like adding: Seems like Olympus Mons is the sort of thing that could kill an otherwise living planet. Maybe it did. Terraforming a cold planet with lots of water ice in reasonable proximity to the Sun. Bombard the equator from orbit with thermochromic pigment: (a variant of this Something that turns black in the morning and increases heat capture and returns to white at night to minimise radiating it out again.

    • lol

      nice 404 error

      • Julian Cox

        thanks – fixed it (url had merged with a closed bracket).

  • gatorallin

    Love the Earth like terraforming pics of what Mars could be…. but 2 concerns jump out that seem to be both short term and serious long term problems.

    #1. 38% gravity vs. Earth and the bone density problem with how humans survive or bodies change/age differently. This go to Mars for a few years and then back to Earth trip sounds like they may have some problems back on Earth. I am all for using this as an excuse to hack the DNA code on every level and lets hope they crack all the aging/healing related problems as they have to fix more than just bone density on Mars with all that dust and radiation, etc. Hard to believe that Mars has almost as much land mass (thanks to no oceans), but 15% of Earth’s volume and 11% of its mass. A recent study of the ISS astronauts, with missions ranging from 4-6 months show a maxiumum loss of 30% muscle performace and maximum loss of 15% msucle mass.

    #2. Lack of a Geomagnetic field for protecting Mars from the solar winds and ultraviolet radiation for future human and plant life. I think the lack of an atmosphere now is no random coincidence and something we would have to study quite a bit and hope we could control, but clearly it did not have what it needed on its own to be stable for very long. Maybe we can set off a few nukes on the poles or nudge the next Siding-Spring asteroid into being a meteorite and heating up Mars after an impact. and get something going in the right direction, but the question is, how long would it last, or would it always remain out of balance? (Jury is still out on how important this is or not and if our sun was more violent in the past and thus is settled down now and no longer as big a deal..

    • Jesse Jensen

      Radiation of Mars

      There are 2 types of Radiation in space.
      Solar Flares: About 1 a year, can be stopped by 5 inches of water, have
      a solar flare shelter, an alarm sounds to warm you to hide.
      2: Gamma/cosmic radiation: Continual pitter patter of background radiation.

      Mars lacks a global protective magnetic shield like that of the Earth,
      strong localized magnetic fields embedded in the crust appear to be a
      significant barrier to erosion of the atmosphere, the ionosphere reaches
      to a higher altitude, indicating that the solar wind is being kept at
      bay. The strength of the magnetic field is high in part of the ancient
      southern crust, undisturbed by giant impacts or volcanism. That area
      also appears to have a banded structure to the magnetic field, with
      alternating strips of inward- and outward-flowing magnetic field lines.
      If you were standing on Mars in one of these areas you would measure a
      magnetic field about as strong as Earth’s — a few tenths of a gauss.
      Elsewhere on the planet the magnetic field is 100 to 1000 times weaker.

      is located in an area with almost no magnetic field. Based on radiation
      levels detected by curiosity you come up with the following figures.
      months to mars, 18 months on mars, 6 months to earth = 2.5 years would
      expose astronauts to a cumulative radiation dose of about 1.01 sieverts =
      5% radiation risk
      NASA’s guildlines limit astronauts to 3%. Mars’
      radiation environment is dynamic, so Curiosity’s measurements thus far
      seem to indicate radiation levels in a demagnetized region.

  • Mike Salisbury

    Fantastic post. One correction/suggestion. In the What is an orbit? blue box, you might consider rendering the orbits as ellipses instead of circles. That is, the first baseball thrown off of the cliff would fall in a long skinny ellipse concentric with the planet and popping out the other side of the planet as much as the height of the original cliff. And as the ball gets thrown harder sideways, the ellipse gets fatter but stays the same length, each time getting closer to circular. After getting to a circular orbit, adding more horizontal velocity makes the orbit elliptical again but longer sideways than top-to-bottom. And the escape velocity diagram would show where the orbit breaks out of its ellipse and becomes a parabola and then a hyperbola. (

  • Las10

    1. Amazing article. Every bit as descriptive, fun-to-read, technical-but-not-over-your-head as a typical Waitbutwhy post. Way to go, bringing all your readers up to speed on this industry, Tim.

    2. Now I really really would like to go to either one of the moons of the Gas Giants, or out of the Solar System. I am rooting for extended longevity. At the very least, settle on Mars, if it happens in my lifetime, and I get to earn enough. In this regard, I’d like to share this (anime) shortfilm that I had seen years ago – The main theme of the movie is dealing with separation, but the setting is …well, the picture that Phase 3 in this post paints reminded me of this movie.

    3. I wanted to share this link portraying the Solar System in their actual scales and proportions:

  • Koh Jun Dong

    I think right now if we are going to colonize Mars it will be the lack of magnetosphere that will disrupt everything. Kick starting it is near impossible. And for anyone who says there is a certain region of strong magnetic field….. Are you sure the atmosphere isn’t going to be blown away elsewhere?

    • Jesse Jensen

      Radiation of Mars

      There are 2 types of Radiation in space.
      1: solar Flares: 1 a year, megavolt of protons, can be stopped by 5 inches of water, so you have a solar flare shelter, an alarm sounds to warm you to hide.
      2: gamma/cosmic radiation: continual pitter patter of background radiation.

      Though Mars lacks a global protective magnetic shield like that of the Earth, strong localized magnetic fields embedded in the crust appear to be a significant barrier to erosion of the atmosphere, the ionosphere reaches to a higher altitude, indicating that the solar wind is being kept at bay. The strength of the magnetic field is high in part of the ancient southern crust, undisturbed by giant impacts or volcanism. That area also appears to have a banded structure to the magnetic field, with alternating strips of inward- and outward-flowing magnetic field lines. If you were standing on Mars in one of these areas you would measure a magnetic field about as strong as Earth’s — a few tenths of a gauss. Elsewhere on the planet the magnetic field is 100 to 1000 times weaker.

      Curiosity is located in an area with almost no magnetic field. Based on radiation levels detected by curiosity you come up with the following figures.
      6 months to mars, 18 months on mars, 6 months to earth = 2.5 years would expose astronauts to a cumulative radiation dose of about 1.01 sieverts = 5% radiation risk
      NASA’s guildlines limit astronauts to 3%. Mars’ radiation environment is dynamic, so Curiosity’s measurements thus far seem to indicate radiation levels in a demagnetized region.

  • Abraham

    All this (voyages, dome constructions) seems doable with enough technology, ok. But my main concern is about the habitat.

    We can live isolated from the world for some time, but then, we have a need for almost everything that is alive and surround us. If you want crops to grow, you also need bacteria, fungus, and other things that turn dead animal bodies into manure. Can we be sure we aren’t forgetting something in our habitats that turns to be critical to our sustainability?

    It seems to me that a sustainable habitat (for sentient beings like us) must be HUGE, nothing that could last in a medium sized dome on a frozen red rock. Projects HABITATS were full failures, maybe caused by their small size. We are so specialized that we rely in many other beings for doing the more basic stuff (like algae to produce oxygen, or e.coli to digest our food), miss one and your are one step closer to the grave. Moreover, those organisms need others themselves for their own survival.

    I think this is a keystone before we can successfully attempt to colonise anything outside Earth.

    • Mairsx

      Nope, look 4 posts above.

      • Abraham

        So you say you can do it with caves instead. Ok, I’ll buy it, even with no solar light for the most part. But they must be huge, really huge, if you want to support all the living things needed to keep alive 1 million people. This is a problem I am not sure has been really addressed.

        It’s kind of funny to think of martians like dwarfs digging in the underground.

        • AnnaQS

          So I also answered the 4th post above and I agree that a habitat must present a level of complexity, and so I do agree with you. I did not consider the plethora of life forms that enable us to exist, which is an obvious overlooking 😀

        • Mairsx

          Of coruse they would be huge man.
          And there would be plenty of light from new Thorium and PRISM nuclear reactors.

          Its not a problem because nobody ever thought of making small, claustrophobic habitats on Mars. Go read Red, Green, blue Mars! Presto!

          • Abraham

            😉 I did like ten years ago.

  • Richard Bryan

    Tim, if you ever do publish these blogs into a book it would be very cool if you included the comments section as an appendix.

    • AnnaQS

      I love the comments section and I spend as much time reading Tim’s posts as I do reading and thinking about the comments.
      Wait But Why managed to create a great community. I think we should all meet up at some point and discuss. Wouldn’t that be just awesome? Obviously camping in a desert and sitting around a fire under super starry sky would be preferable 🙂

  • Rodrigo Gomes

    The article is amazing, it was delightful to learn so much about space and space travel.

    I still don’t buy the “why” part. I still don’t agree that there is any need to colonize another planet.

    Problem is: The whole argument is based on the premise that the human specie MUST exist forever (or in other words, the hard disk must have a backup).
    This is taken as an absolute point, almost a Dogma.

    But I wonder: MUST the human specie really be preserved at all costs? Are we so special or is it only pride/arrogance?

    In my opinion, the most valuable thing about mankind are the PEOPLE. And these will not have a backup copy… people that stay on Earth will still be in danger, and people on Mars will be in even more danger. Loving humans as a biological species is not a concept that I am very attracted to.

    We are right now repeating the Great Error Of Mother Nature ™: value species preservation/multiplication over the well-being of the individuals. This is why life in nature is hell.

    I am totally on the side of simply doing the best to preserve our home (for this reason, Tesla has my vote as a much more important Musk project), and when comes the time for our existence to have an end… just let it go. Life will follow its course and eventually develop new forms.

    • rudyforest

      well said actually. Thanks for your point of view

    • ericsp23

      I’m sorry but that doesn’t make any sense at all. Why should we just accept death/extinction when there is a possibility it could be avoided? To say that we should just accept our fate and die is no less dogmatic than the alternative, in fact it is probably more so. It is the nature of life to adapt and evolve to continue survival even when living conditions change when it is possible to do so.
      I certainly don’t agree with this point of view and will support any effort to help ensure that my descendants will never have to face an extinction event. I suspect that many others feel the same.

    • Tim Urban

      I had a footnote in the post about this. But it seemed like such a ridiculous thing to squeeze into a footnote that I ended up leaving it out. Here’s what it said:

      Yes, this whole post relies on the premise that human species longevity is a good and important thing—that there’s some fundamental good in the concept of billions more people that don’t yet exist coming to exist. It assumes that there’s something preferable about a universe with life over a universe with none. A can of worms for a different post. For this post, I’m writing as a human, not an utterly rational philosopher. And as a human, I can say for sure that the concept of human-level consciousness vanishing from existence makes me sad. It took evolution 3.8 billion years to arrive at our level of complexity—and the idea of the eternal death of things like music and laughter and empathy and romance and friendship and excitement and love seems, to my biased human brain, like a bad thing. And for this post, I’m sticking with that premise.

      Anyway, a few people have mentioned it, so I added the footnote back in (right before the SpaceX Future section of page 5).

      • Julian Cox

        I feel sad about a night sky full of such grander beauty and possibilities with nobody left to wonder at it or even know it exists. Seems rather pointless.

        The best features of humanity are absolutely magical and I think potentially an integral part of the beauty of the universe. Apparently it is necessary to drag the worst of humanity along for the ride. If you actually consider objectively whether it is a good idea or not for humans to survive, remember you have the privilege of doing so. What if the answer turned out to be yes but you made a diary note to think of it on a day after you and everyone else is gone for good.

        Honestly people are generally speaking happy when they are have plenty of resources and some positive creative challenge ahead of them. The problems tend to show up when people are hemmed into a state of competition with other people over limited space and resources and forced to accept a life of chronic restriction and compromise. As Tim sates – a New York penthouse would be nice but it is so far out of reach that it is not even worth thinking about. The same goes for things that are more critical than that – good food and dignified medical care for example where affordability frequently boils down a matter of life and death. Why should that be a state that anyone would aspire to for the human race him or herself included? Assuming the attraction of the penthouse is objective comfort and good views rather than strictly subject to its rank-order exclusivity, should we not aim for a future where everyone that wants a penthouse has one (with plenty enough nature left over that our planet does not become a hell hole).

        The major solutions to meet that objective fall first into the category of unpleasant things like war, pestilence and disease, mandatory contraception and famine. Collectively population reduction to increase the proportion of resources to people. Secondly: Discovery of new frontiers offering more space and resources.

        A whole extra planet and a seems like a good option as well as more sensible choices for energy and natural resources down here on Earth – for example burning up 666 KWh worth of energy in the form of a 20 Gal. tank of gasoline to do exactly the same job as solar electricity stored in a 133KWh battery – or less if you pay attention to aerodynamics.

        I am pretty sure that those that experience self-loathing for humanity are not being strictly honest. Mostly I think that is loathing for competition from other humans who should ideally just go away and leave them and the things they care about (like the atmosphere and the rainforests) in peace – and to drop off the keys to their penthouse on the way out.

        All in all, enlightened common self interest is probably a good thing. Ignorance and wastefulness is probably a bad thing and the utter destruction of humanity renders the entire conversation irrelevant because nobody would be left to care one way or the other.

      • Mairsx

        There is an actual, objective need or rather necessity and an objective positive effect of humanity surviving and evolving forward into the future. Something that is independent of human perspective or any kind of biological imperative. BUT… in order to properly explain it i will need to write an article very much like this one, only probably bigger and more detailed.

        For now, you all can rest assured there is an actual objective advantage to it all.

    • TheMolecularMan

      Life’s purpose (biologically) is to survive, reproduce, and adapt along the way. So, yeah, species survival is simply in our nature. And yeah, if we all die off…cest la vie, but it would go against our (and all earth species) biological prime directive to not behave with a survive, reproduce, and adapt mindset.

    • Mike

      It is baked into our DNA. To go against it is self-contradictory, and it will land you on the wrong side of natural selection.

  • What an amazing post Tim! Spent the last 3 hours reading it totally and I’m honestly blown away by the amount of new knowledge I have gained by reading your post. Really enjoyed the photo’s you provided with this post, especially the ones from the Hubble.

    Here’s another one made by the Hubble that shows an awesome overview of all the other galaxies that are out there:

  • Mairsx

    Excellent article. One addition to the matter of habitats.

    There is no need for humans to live on the surface of Mars,in fact that would be quite dumb, nor there is any need to try and build those fantastic huge domes either. They would take too much time, material and energy and are therefore very unrealistic.

    Hate to reveal this since i bet i wont get any fame or money for it… but people can and should live in underground habitats on Mars. AND, as Kim Stanley Robinson explained not so long ago we can use appropriate Lava tunnels and small craters that can be relatively easily hermetically sealed and or covered and then filled with breathable air, (low gravity does wonders for architecture).

    There s no reason why any of the underground habitats could not have very big windows that would provide view to the outside, which is necessary for human psychological well being – ESPECIALLY if some of these underground habitats are built into the side of the mountains. Say Mount Olympos, for example. Or any other appropriate wall like environment like Valles Marineris cliffs or any other ones.
    Thus providing the protection from radiation, cosmic rays and outside hostile environment for the most of day cycles, while providing great vistas to enjoy all the time. So that then we can send expeditions into the outside wilderness of Mars properly relaxed and chilled out.

    • AnnaQS

      Ok, so here’s the thing about underground habitats. You know how people need a vacation on a beach or near a lake once in a while? Humans CANNOT exist exclusively in a fully artificial environment. It must be because of the low level of complexity and high level of predictability of man-made structures and designs (look at how Atlas walks, as opposed to natural environment which is complex to a level we cannot fully comprehend and also unpredictable. Same effect when you listen to a song on your player it’s just duh, and then you hear it on the radio and it feels great – predictability. We need complex stimuli.

      For that reason I believe it will be very challenging for XXI century humans to live underground. Until our brain adapts to not receiving complex signals, we will react to partial sensory deprivation in this strange way we do now, with going crazy that is.

      • Mairsx

        You havent read my proposal with sufficient understanding. You dont get it.

        See… Mars has lower gravity.
        Therefore all the caves and lava tubes and areas we will find, expand and create underground are and can be huge. Like, really big. Mkay?
        And because of lower gravity our architectural and material technology will be able to build incredible structures that we cannot build here.

        Second of all i suggested making underground habitats in the side of various cliff like locations, which would be carefully chosen, of course, in order to provide humans with really big windows to the outside.

        Third, even if you are living underground nothing says it has to be some claustrophobic mineshaft or some cramped, tight corridor – OR that you cannot go out for a walk in freezing, irradiated desert. Which, btw is beautiful and should never get Terraformed.

        Living with some Martian soil over the heads is, im afraid, absolute necessity on Mars. With some smart architecture and a lot of style, and some nice big 4K HD screens over the walls… things would look much more lively then your limited imagination would have it.

        • AnnaQS

          I just do not believe that humans can spend all their lifetime in dependence on artificial life support and still stay sane. I am not saying this is impossible, I’m just saying that long term psychological effects need to be taken into account. Maybe we’ll just have the right pills. It’s not an argument against underground living on Mars, rather against replacing natural environment with artificial one and yes, I know that’s not your point 🙂

          • Mairsx

            There is no need for “artificial life support”, people thinking about it all do take long term psychological effects into account and not just a few bad ones like you do, and there wont be artificial environments on Mars. There will only be Martian environments. Those we make and those that are already there. Im not sure why you use the term “artificial” at all, and it seems to me that you simply really mean to say – ugly.

            Now why would we do that?

            People that will actually do it are not some bad, cheap Hollywood or tv shows designers.

            • AnnaQS

              I don’t mean ugly (I’m an architect and urban designer :D). I mean best that men can do, and it’s still way WAY worse than nature. History of architecture and urbanism has taught us that the more of design there is and the more commonly widespread, the more mistakes and simplifications we make and cities become less and less adapted to human needs. Because to make a big scale decision (architectural, urban design) we have to simplify, while nature iterates complexity to perfection.

              I understand your point about the environment being martian, but still martian environment, even underground, is hostile to humans and so habitats will have to be contained. Contained = designed. I kind of understand that you mean some sort of merging natural martian environment with containment for safety (that’s what I meant by artificial life support, oxygene producing systems). On the other hand, soon on earth we will need those too, because our experiments with design and industrialisation led us to great development and also put our natural habitat out of balance. Whatever happens, we need air to breathe and water to drink. Unless we just upload brains somewhere and stop worrying about bodies at all.

            • Mairsx

              I dont think so. The architecture and design used on Earth has been accrued over thousands of years. many of those thousands of years we are very, very arrogant about a lot of things. And it all shows in our society today.

              On Mars, we get to move from the point one, with all the hindsight and knowledge and lessons we collected so far.

              We wont be making cities for millions of humans there for a lot of time. Even if SpaceX plan goes in best ways possible.
              We will make just one or two places at first, for the first people and then a whole new architecture based on lower G will develop, which by necessity of the environment will be much more collaboration with the nature of Mars then violent takeover.

              Making habitats that are partially underground is simply an inescapable unavoidable necessity on Mars. It protects everyone from radiation. You cant avoid that, you cant just not want it.

              It has to be.

              But there is no need to make any kind of cheap old sci fi claustrophobic tunnels like you see in bad “sci-fi” movies. Nor is there any need to create some kind of “artificial” dreary, gray metal and concrete environments like you obviously imagine.

              Read the book(s) i recommended above,
              That will open a few filters in your eyes.

          • Mairsx

            There is no need for “artificial life support”, people thinking about it
            all do take long term psychological effects into account and not just a
            few bad ones like you do, and there wont be artificial environments on
            Mars. There will only be Martian environments. Those we make and those
            that are already there. Im not sure why you use the term “artificial” at
            all, and it seems to me that you simply really mean to say – ugly.

            Now why would we do that?

            People that will actually do it are not some bad, cheap Hollywood or tv shows designers.

  • Korakys

    This is going to sound harsh, but its meant to be constructive…

    I came to this wanting to get an overview of SpaceX’s history, goals and methodology and I got that. Good job Tim.

    I also got ~20,000 words of stuff that was alternating between a tedious general space history that I already knew and an aggravatingly unconvincing account of why and how to colonise Mars.

    Firstly, I did not like your explanation to what you call “The Situation” at all. It felt like a very contrived ass-pull of a story, which didn’t make a lot of sense.

    The space history was almost entirely stuff I already knew and therefore fairly boring, but I guess that’s on me, so moving on.

    The Main Criticism:

    If I wanted to read an incredibly biased coverage of an issue that paints one possible solution in only glowing terms I would pick up a newspaper. Your coverage of the reasons and plan posed numerous very easy questions and then proceeded to answer most of them and ignored the rest. You asked no difficult questions. I’m no expert on space and I haven’t played KSP, but I did read a lot about it when I was a teenager over a decade ago (all pre-internet stuff). From page two onwards (the planets blue box to be specific) I had one word going through my head over and over again: gravity.

    Gravity, gravity, gravity… by the end I was getting desperate for anything, even a throwaway comment about centrifuges or something, but nope, nothing. And reading the comments I see others were thinking about such things as radiation and poisonous dust. Instead we got answers for such “pressing concerns” as how will we convince people to go to Mars? and how do we get the internet working there? $500,000 return tickets to Mars literally made me laugh. Reusable rockets is gonna be awesome, but hey you forgot that maintenance is a bitch, ask the Shuttle operators about that. Probably you will only get 10 launches before the cumulative maintenance bill equals the price of a brand new rocket. And writing that we only have 200 million years left on Earth reminds me that you need an editor.

    The biggest issue for me though is the unanswered question: how would colonising Mars backup the human species? This seems to be the whole crux of your epic length post, yet you give various doomsday scenarios, of which only one, a super-massive meteor hitting Earth, would be survived by being on Mars. This last happened 65 million years ago. We are already watching most of these things and in the next 50 years with projects like B612 I’m sure we’ll have super-long period stuff covered as well. Even now 10 years warning would give us plenty of time to deal with one of these super comets, by the end of the century we will probably be good with 1 years warning. This gives like a 100 year window – tops – where we might be vulnerable to a 1 in a 100 million year event.

    Now here is an idea I came up with in two minutes as I was reading. Select 5 locations (I chose Australia, Siberia, Canada, South America and Southern Africa), at each site build self-contained habitats 500 to 1000m under bedrock with one-to-two thousand people living and working in them (for terms of say 3 months each) and store 10,000 donations of sperm and eggs (at least 80% should be from black Africans). Now this idea might have some problems, a high proportion will need to be doctors I guess, but hey – 2 minutes of thought right, by a non-expert. However I can’t see any scenario where this is a worse way to backstop humanity than colonising Mars and it would be way more practical and cheaper besides.

    There is just one problem with my idea, it’s never going to happen. Politics and people just don’t work like that. I think the real reason Elon wants to backstop humanity on Mars is because he wants to go to Mars, either himself, or by proxy. I think this is a great idea, humans should explore Mars for the reason that George Mallory gave for climbing Everest, “Because it’s there”. Trying to justify it (especially to yourself) with weak arguments is not a good idea. Observe how the colonisation of Antarctica has proceeded (temporary scientists and tourists only, nobody lives there).

    I predict that by 2100 no-one will have spent a double-cycle on Mars (~4 years), barring some Apollo 13/The Martian-like accident.

    If you wanted to write a piece explaining Elon Musk’s thoughts, life and goals in his own words then I think you have succeeded, but if you were hoping to write a piece explaining the truth behind these goals, why these goals are important or aren’t, then I think you have failed. You managed to convinced me that Musk is a fairly rad man, which I was not ready to accept when I started this series. However, I think he will do a lot of good for society – despite his ultimate goals, not because of them.

    I’m a fan of your work Tim and I would never write more than one sentence of criticism if I didn’t respect what you’ve previously done.

    • Mars_Ultor

      Trying to understand this,

      store 10,000 donations of sperm and eggs (at least 80% should be from black Africans)

      why 80% and why black africans?

      • Rusty

        Me too. Genetic diversity is key to biological success….

        But i was in my mid-twenties once. Opinionated, forced my ideas on everyone, and rude to anyone who disagreed with my point of view. So cute.

      • Korakys

        They have more genetic diversity than everyone else combined (including Arab Africans, hence the specifier). 80% feels about right.

    • steve ohhh

      You said it better than I could. I do enjoy reading this (all of it), though, and the explanation of Musk’s “why” and “how”. Ultimately, I think the necessity of the “backup” is far from a foregone conclusion, for some of the reasons you laid out above.

    • ericsp23

      Tim does mention that colonizing Mars is only the first step toward becoming safe from such catastrophes. It is the easiest of the known possible targets and closest so it will be the first. Once we have proven we can live sustainably and independently on Mars then we can use what we learn there and apply it in the more difficult places of our solar system and eventually to planets around other nearby starts. Mars is the necessary and obvious first step to making human civilization more robust in the face of potential disaster, not the final step.

      • Korakys

        Mars will be like Antarctica is today. No-one’s talking about colonising Antarctica, there is no reason to. Once the one argument for colonising Mars (backing up humanity) is stripped back there is no other reason to live there, just visit.

    • whatsanenigma

      Next time just email Tim and ask him to customize the article for the things you want to read about. I’m sure he’ll oblige.

      • Korakys

        Yeah I probably should have left those two lines of my diatribe out. They don’t help my argument much do they.

    • Mairsx

      Thats a rather dumb reply/criticism.

      You seem to have some problemwith “gravity, gravity, gravity” but never explain what that is.
      You obviously have extremely limited knowledge about “comets” and miss everything about asteroids, apparently.

      NOT that anyone is thinking only those are the danger for human species.
      Regardless, an actual comet hitting earth would wipe out, in fact burn everything hundreds of kilometers deep through the crust of the planet.

      But there are other catastrophes too and having two inhabited planets doubles the chances of survival,which anyone sane knows.

      NOT thats the ONLY reason for going to Mars, but you just skipped the other one and wouldnt be able to understand the third, which was not mentioned, btw. Although the second one has very much to do with it.

      • Korakys

        Bone density loss problems. If you stay in zero-g too long then you can’t come back to Earth or you will die. What are the health affects of 0.38 g? I wanted to know.

        An actual comet would have to be really, really big to damage bedrock on the antipode of it’s impact site. If it was that big we would see it coming and deflect it.

        A nearby supernova. – Mars wont save us.
        A gamma-ray burst. – Mars wont save us.
        A solar super flare. – Mars would be worse.
        The reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field – Mars would be worse.
        A rogue black hole. – Mars would be worse.
        Aliens being dicks. – Mars wont save us.
        A global epidemic. – Having 5 sealed bunkers on Earth would be better. I also have serious doubts that an epidemic could kill all of human life. Life is resilient, look at Ebola, 50% death rate is a long way from 100% death rate and we already have a vaccine for it now.
        An asteroid. – I covered this one.

        • guy

          “store 10,000 donations of sperm and eggs (at least 80% should be from black Africans)”
          that is the weirdest shit I’ve read in a long time. What is your reasoning behind this? or are you just a swede?

        • Mairsx

          Bone density problems is just one of the medical- health effects Zero g produces. And together with the rest it is a problem that will be addressed, studied and solved or minimized as time goes by. Mars has gravity, as you say yourself so… why are you talking about Zero G?

          Actual comets are big and if we see one coming we have no way of stopping it at all, buddy.

          You didnt cover anything about asteroids.

          The several catastrophe events you list work the same way without Mars so if we dont go to Mars that wont produce any kind of positive effect.

          Several could be theoretically mitigated or even avoided by humans on Mars depending on details. But i see you are too ignorant and frankly speaking dumb, to even discuss those things with you.

    • GetALifeDude

      Korakys you are stupid as hell.

  • Richard Gadget Kim

    Tim, you are one of the fewer writers where TL:DR does not apply.
    I really hope all these things happen.
    If anything, we may need to escape Earth from the ensuing evil AI singularity that you mentioned.

    And in regards to the Fermi Paradox post… what if we get to Mars and it is already occupied beneath the surface? By hostiles? The initial pioneers will be stranded for 2 years…
    Damn, your article has set my imagination on fire. FIRE!!!

  • Mars_Ultor

    Great article on Musk and SpaceX on NY Review of Books

  • Jillian

    This is amazing and thank you for sharing… you do all this wonderful work to find links to great additional material and all I could think after reading about Merlin was where is the Cow Cam?

  • Anthony Churko

    I’m willing to bet that if Mars gets colonized, it will be predominantly Mormon.

    I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out:

    1) Mormons are rich and can afford the trip.

    2) They believe that it’s their destiny to one day get their own planet. Thus, they’re already psychologically predisposed to living somewhere other than Earth.

    3) They’re accustomed to travelling to far-off places to multiply the faith, and a brand new planet would be a perfect opportunity to do just that.

    4) Mars doesn’t look substantially different from Utah. Heck, the Mars Society uses the Utah desert for training.

    5) The ostracized minority religion is always the first to immigrate.

    Seriously, Mormonism will be to Mars what Protestantism is to the United States.

  • Rod

    Tim that excitement graph looks like the “Gartner Hype Cycle of Innovation” to me. A lot of new technology fits that curve.

  • William

    Awesome post. Thanks Tim. Correct me if I’m wrong but in the beginning, the “Mars Internet” won’t have a lot of content so most folks will want to hit the Earth’s Internet and that will take 12.5 minutes there and 12.5 minutes back. 😀

    • Sid

      I would expect they plan on sending some hard drives with the best bits of the Earth internet and uploading in bulk when they get there.

  • whatsanenigma

    You know what’s awesome? With all these comments? Whether you think the idea is crazy or not. People are seriously discussing colonizing Mars.

  • Romario

    There will probably be an independence space war between Mars and Earth. And we definetly have to make some all-star soccer match of the planets happen

  • disqus_dor1YsFNCG

    Tim wrote that this is part three of four post series. Does anyone has an idea about the fourth one?

    • Eli Peter

      I was wondering the same thing. He’s already covered Solarcity and Hyperloop in mini-posts, what else is there?

      • Radu Diaconescu

        Musk. From what I’ve been able to grasp, Tim intends to end this series with his epic conclusion, including what he believes Elon’s “secret sauce” is.

        • AnnaQS

          critical thinking maybe?

  • Mairsx

    One more thing, Nuclear energy is an absolute necessity on Mars.

    Only not the prehistoric, massive, idiotic nuclear weapons producing kind we still use, but the new upgraded kind.
    Thorium reactors, PRISM reactors and the like of the new, stable, no nuclear weapon proliferating, miniature and super efficient kind of nuclear reactors.

    Nothing easier then to throw a dozen down on Mars before anyone gets there. (few to work, the rest as backup) And to incorporate them into propulsion systems for new Dragons too.

  • redpill2010


  • ssagg

    Great post!
    Anyway, I must say that the delay in publishing it made me believe that it was going to carry some inside information or revelation from SapceX (perhaps about the MCT)
    And about the MCT itself: I think it´s not going to be as you describe.
    It doesn´t seem logic (even doable) to deliver a ship as big as to take 100 people all the way to mars (assuming we don´t expect them to be fastened to their seats during the 3/6 months travel and that they would need private compartements of some sort, bathrooms, Gyms, recreational space, dinning area, etc…) with each group being launched from earth.
    It´s more logical to deliver the MCT alone (may be even in several sections that can be coupled in orbit) and the passengers and cargo in one or several other launches.
    This way you would have years to prepare a ship big enough for the trip before the passengers arrive just days before the sart.
    It´s going to be anyway necesary as the ship should be reusable and it´s going to be used again 52 months later as to keep prices low.
    Obviously, if this wasn´t Tim´s assumption and it´s part of Musk´s plan for the MCT I will accept I´m an idiot and present my excuses.

  • Bhavik

    After reading this post, i actually admired the mother earth the very next time i stepped out of my house!! The breeze, the sunshine and the warmth….
    What an amazing post about visionary musk…
    Now.. I can surely take a calculated risk bet about people on mars in 2013!!

    Thanks a lot for enlightenment 🙂

  • Harpreet Singh Sandhu

    Dear Tim, i really respect your hardwork and enthusiasm and i am a great fan of your A.I and Fermi paradox posts.
    But sadly this post seemed like an old Discovery channel video, where you wasted a lot of space detailing the past and present which most of us already know (or maybe your reader base is a little more informed than you think)..and the only thing about the Future was Musk’s vision, enthusiasm and what we can acheive.
    I was expecting more technical details on the whole Mars project. Just saying that a bigger rocket and public interest will get us there is simplistic. there are real problems with the effect of long term space travel on human body and sustenance on Mars that are yet unresolved after decades of research in space and aboard ISS..i will not list them here, and maybe you were aiming to give us a grander picture rather than specifics on the Mars project (sorry in that case).
    But as far as i am concerned, i felt somewhat wanting and hungry after reading the whole post.

    • Matthew Pirkowski

      This post is not necessarily about you, nor is it necessarily about those of us who read WBW regularly and already understand a great deal of these concepts. As Tim outlined in the first post of this series, these posts are about putting into writing, in one place, a compelling story that can aid in the public understanding of concepts for which many people have little knowledge or context. This is a public service, and to diminish its importance is to miss the forest for the trees.

      • Harpreet Singh Sandhu

        This is something where every aspect of feasibility must have been explored..The lack of a magnetic feild on Mars for example..Raising public awareness is one thing, sharing dreams and visions is another. So this post is more like the visions of nuclear powered cars people had in the 50’s or the plans for antimatter rockets that were being shown on Discovery in the 90’s..

        • Matthew Pirkowski

          Is it, though? You don’t think Musk has considered the need for radiation shielding? This article is already a massive amount of information for most people to digest without getting into the weeds of every technical issue we must overcome.

          Additionally, it’s very much unlike those scenarios given that you have a company whose explicit mission statement is to solve these problem, and given that said company has been executing far above expectations along the path toward achieving said mission statement.

          If you’d like to explore those issues you should do so, and promote your own blog appealing to even more technically literate readers, but surely you can understand that an article this ambitious must to some extent sacrifice complete scientific precision for a bit of wonderment and awe.

          • Harpreet Singh Sandhu

            The radiation issue like many others are still unresolved after been researched at length. These arent comparable to the inertia in space exploration where Musk can jump in and change things. But i sincerely hope he does though and i would very much like to be corrected on this (But by real facts and advancements, and certainly not by you just saying it)..
            I had different expectation from this post based on the previous ones Tim had posted. Good that you are satisfied but there are many people who think otherwise, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.
            Anyways my healthy criticism was directed at Tim and i dont know whats making you go mental on this..

            • Matthew Pirkowski

              Yes, forgive me for going ‘mental’ by asking you to consider that Tim may have an audience other than you.

              Also, me just saying what? That Musk has likely considered the implications of radiation and probably has people working on it? How unreasonable of me…

              Go on…

            • Harpreet Singh Sandhu

              Tim’s audience is pretty much divided on both sides of this argument (read other comments), but both parties respect him and wish him well.
              And just share those plans which you think Musk is making on the radiation problem (which BTW isnt the only unresolved problem). Or keep beleiving that he has them, and i will wait for some hard evidence or facts to come by..

              if you have no facts to share, then please move on to something else.

            • Matthew Pirkowski

              I think if you actually read the comments w/o confirmation bias, you’d see that most people are expressing gratitude, punctuated by a few (like yourself) who are using these comments as some strange platform to inflate their own egos and impose their own standards upon someone who’s creating extremely valuable content.

              I don’t have to share any data with you for my point to hold. It was not a point regarding data, regardless of how hard you struggle to move the goalposts; it was a point regarding the fact that this series of articles has a different purpose than some of his others, and therefore that it makes complete sense to not explore every unanswered scientific question regarding the colonization of Mars. You may disagree, but you might as well complain about why he didn’t go into the rationale behind methane engines, not to mention a thousand other potential diversions, if you’re going to take this tack. But again, that line of questioning completely misses the point.

              If the technical issues interest you and you wish someone would more deeply explore them, you should feel empowered to explore them yourself and create something for us all to read and enjoy; after all, it’s never been easier.

              Ultimately we don’t yet know all the answers, but I’ll bet on Musk’s tenacity over your cynicism any day of the week.

            • Harpreet Singh Sandhu

              “Impose my ego”..wth..i am sure Tim understands the importance of healthy criticism better than you.
              “you dont have to share the data to hold your point”..more like you have none to share.
              But you have time to waste, and this is something i cant compete with. In case you are struggling to understand, you WON!!!…Dance with joy now!!!

            • Matthew Pirkowski

              Yes, you are quite literally imposing your ego. Allow me to explain. You came across a blog post for which you had certain expectations and you read it. Without considering the ultimate goal of the post or the perspective from which many new readers are coming, you decided to impose your own expectations upon the author and criticize him for a choice he made directly related to his explicit intent, which he’d already outlined.

              Of course, this is the Internet, and such behavior is to be expected, but all I’m saying is that perhaps you might consider stepping back from your own expectations and myopic demand for data on one specific technical challenge, and take a look at the public good being served by painting a compelling and accessible narrative that justifies a large scale re-engagement with space exploration.

              And just to address your ad hominems, I don’t really care about the notion of ‘winning’ anything. I was merely hoping to nudge you toward a slightly more empathetic perspective from which you might accept that your disappointment in this article is really not that important given its context.

              Finally, you’ve responded to all of my comments, so we must have at least equal amounts of time on our hands. I don’t know about you, but I type this having awoken at 6am for my continued math studies, and am currently finishing up my morning workout w/ a bit of cardio before beginning my day of productive work.

              Anyhow, if you’d really like to know what’s going on in the field of radiation shielding, you should just Google it. I did last night, and proceeded to read a few papers outlining options over the next 10-15 years. If I can find it that easily, you must not be trying that hard.

  • Lisa Bee

    Loved the Terry P reference.

  • Rick Cohl

    mind = officially blow. I feel like i just watched 2001 for the first time. In the 60s.

  • Ivanster

    I believe there’s a typo in the sentence “With 27 Merlins, the Falcon Heavy engine platform can lift about 2,000 tons, or a mile-high, 11,000-car stack”. Surely it should be a ~1,000-car stack?

  • What a great post!
    While I’m reading it I noticed an interesting “approximation” in the drawings where people throw a baseball from a mountain on a small planet. The circles should extend downwards beyond the center of mass in the shape of an ellipse. It’s weird to see a circle that doesn’t even go past the planet’s center of mass, when it’s clearly the center of mass that attracts the baseball!
    I’m sure this is to simplify but then it may be too simple. In the image below, left is from the post, and right is the same using ellipses for a more correct representation. (My drawing is still probably wrong – I made it with powerpoint – but at least goes in the right direction)
    I strongly advise playing Kerbal Space Program (or KSP) to anyone who wants to get a better grasp of orbits, spaceships and rockets. It’s a great learning tool.

  • One more thing: “Escape velocity just means the arc the path makes is broader than the curvature of the planet.”

    I don’t think that’s true. In my understanding, escape velocity is the velocity at which an object will no longer reach a maximum distance and then fall back to the planet (which would otherwise be an orbit). The gravity force decreases with d², so as the object gets further and further thanks to its initial velocity, the gravity decreases sufficiently that at some point, it’s too small to invert the sign of “outward” velocity – i.e. the object won’t ever fall back again and keep going further away from the planet. I’m sure Wikipedia will do a better job than me at explaining.
    The red dotted circle on your graph is just an elliptical orbit where the object hasn’t reached escape velocity. Indeed, the orbit comes back to the same initial point.
    The red arrow tangential to the dotted circle seems to represent an object with escape velocity. In this case, the object has to be accelerated to above escape velocity *at* the tangent point.

    • Dan

      He simplified a bit, since orbits are really ellipses, not circles. In terms of curvature, when an object approaches escape velocity, its orbit becomes more and more eccentric, to the point where it goes from an ellipse to a hyperbola.

  • MidnightToker

    I really hope marijuana will be legal (and growing) on Mars…

    • They should make their first plant a marijuana plant. I’m sceptical about that one plant they plan on putting there suddenly making tons of people want to go to Mars (I surely wouldn’t), but that would certainly win the hearts of a lot of people 😉

  • Kristalle Krawalle

    I think Tim spent a little too much time with Elon Musk. Not that I think his ideas aren’t feasible – I’m pretty sure they are on the technological side.
    The problem is that Musk doesn’t understand a thing about politics. He believes that human societal progress is all about technological and administrative solutions and that human history unfolds as a kind of biological-technological determinism. This is a dangerous reductionism. But what can you expect from a man who calls Margaret Thatcher “tough, but sensible and fair” and the US “[inarguably] the greatest country that has ever existed on Earth”, as well as “the greatest force for good of any country that’s ever
    been” (all quotes from Wikipedia). The degree of naivete exhibited by these comments is as enlightening as it is horrifying. Thatcher’s economic strategies were disastrous for the majority of the British working class, it never recovered from her slashing of their economic and social foundations. It wasn’t even economically rational, the UK has a decidedly one-sided service sector economy with hardly any manufacturing base, which causes the country huge problems. The US on the other hand has proven track record of the most vile hegemonial foreign policy to serve it’s own interest, Vietnam, Iraq, several coup d’etats in Iran, Indonesia and South America. And that’s just the 20th century. Hardly a force for good.
    Apparently he also doesn’t know a thing about economics. He is an enthusiastic supporter of the idea of Capitalism, claiming it is the only system that enables for people like him to do what they do. Ironically, what he is spending his life energy on is exactly the opposite of what is rational in late Capitalism, namely to monopolize, not innovate and avoid risk. If it weren’t an economically reasonable strategy for big market actors like Lockheed Martin, they wouldn’t do it. This kind of innovation and risk-taking that he promotes at being at the core of Capitalism is only feasible in industries that just developed, not in ones that are already established. As corporations grow and monopolize, they get risk averse. It’s not some irrational fault by individual actors, it’s hardwired into the system.
    Also, Tim, the ending of this post is just silly. It’s kinda cute but at the same time scary how you get carried away by the prospects of living on what is essentially a rock in the dead of space. You propose that the political system might get better on Mars, because they will write their own constitution. Which sort of includes the concession that our political systems here are as outdated as they are unchangeable, because apparently it’s more feasible and promising to build a giant rocket and send it to a barren rock millions of miles away than to try and change established political systems here on earth. Pretty enlightening.

    • Rafael

      Though I don’t disagree with your comments about Thatcher and the U.S, I think attacking the character of Musk and of Tim and their opinions on unrelated topics serves very little in the way of arguing against a colonizing of Mars.

      Also your discussion of late capitalism and Musk’s apparent confusion of the workings and academic definitions of the system is another mute argument against colonizing; an argument that to me seems like a lengthy exercise in syntaxis.

      What appears from Tim’s article is Musk has a vision based on a sound economical and political plan which tackles problems such as risk aversion, ass covering, and a lack of incentive to innovate within his company. Whether this plan follows exactly your textbook definition of late capitalism is completely irrelevant. His goal has never been to change the face of capitalism, but instead just to make one company, his own, work the way he wants it to in order to reach lofty goals. If the world continues on its old path of technological apathy is irrelevant. So is whether Musk likes Thatcher or not.

      • Korakys

        You want an argument against colonising Mars? You can’t handle it! (12:20 to 14:20)

        • Kristalle Krawalle

          Said much more eloquently than I could have ever done it.

        • JohnLeBleu

          It’s actually a pretty bad argument. You can colonize mars without the need to terraform it. Terraforming would come at a much later stage if deemed necessary. That has nothing to do with whether or not it’s a valid idea to colonize mars, there’s no opportunity cost here.

          It also seems like Elon Musk is seen as the only guy who can do something to help humanity, he’s not. Viruses will be fought whether or not we colonize mars, asteroid will be deflected whether or not we go to mars. Colonizing mars will not cost humanities its whole resource and other great humans are here to help in other fields.

          If everyone in other field would push themselves as much as Elon and his team are pushing themselves then living on earth would be much more pleasant that’s for sure. And even if that was the case, and it’s not, colonizing mars would still be a great idea.

        • Johnny Le

          I love Neil, but that’s short-sighted. If we didn’t have the space exploration program in the 60s, would our society be the same as it is now? Would we still have the internet, satellites, and all things related to it?

          We would not become a society that can teraform mars if we don’t try, and that means we might not become a society that can cure viruses, deflect asteroids, or teraform earth back to earth if we don’t try to teraform mars first. We have always learned from doing, actual doing and not just talking. It’s better to use mars as an experiment than earth.

        • Dkth

          Perhaps the achievement of terraforming Mars is what will actually inspire the rest of humanity to begin repairing Earth. Think of this Mars colonization as an experimental laboratory. If it was as simple as us “mending” earth, we would have done it by now, however I think Elon is giving us an incentive and in the process allowing us to develop the technology and the perspective to do it. Colonizing Mars would give us a sense of introspection but on a grand scale.

      • Kristalle Krawalle

        No, I disagree. Everything here is political. This article reads about the New World discoveries from a very Eurocentric perspective, as if there were heroic explorers, driven only by the desire to discover, by some noble, universal instinct, who discovered ‘the New World’ ‘for us/humanity’. The facts are different and this narrative that is being used to mobilize support for his endeavours is dangerous. Europeans entered complex and diverse social and biological ecosystems and wreaked havoc to them, and now everything is portrayed as if that was some major step for all of mankind. It was a major step for European powers and it unified the world under their rule, but that essentially excludes the majority of the world’s population.
        There were strong political and economic reasons for sailing towards the West, the explorers were mostly thieves and criminals, when they came to the new world they killed hundreds of thousands of people, either directly through violence or indirectly through disease. The first settlers often died from malnutrition, hunger. A lot of them were people who had to leave the old world because of famines and political oppression. They took slaves, thereby extending and prolonging systems of rule that they had suffered under in the old world.
        You ask why this is relevant? Because the narrative that is being constructed by Musk and Tim in this article in order to mobilise support for such an endeavour suffers from a complex of extremely political reductionisms. The way they write about the explorers suggests that they dont have their facts straight in that respect, because if they had, they would write about this differently. And I think it is completely reasonable to demand of someone to construct a differentiated narrative when they my support for such a big endeavour.
        The same goes for economics. Musk claims that environmental catastrophe/climate change might be one of the reasons for us going out and mentions it in one sentence with a meteor striking earth. This should clearly alarm anyone. He is equating a natural disaster with something that is caused by humans. We have climate change because we use fossil carbon technologies, yes, but why do we have/keep those? THIS is where the political starts. The majority of fossil fuels is burned in the centres of Capitalist world system or FOR it. China, the biggest polluter, owes a great deal to its carbon emissions to production for Western consumers. What I am trying to say is that human history can be read along the lines of biological and then technological history, no doubt about it. But to say that there is something like a technological determinism is misleading. Technologies, such as ones that burn fossil fuels, are applied within a certain economic and political context – private interest shapes patterns of application. As Tim has written in the Tesla article, the electric car was around in the beginning of the 20th century, and it essentially got killed of for economic reasons – but economic not in the sense of ‘this is reasonable for everyone’, economic in the Capitalist sense of ‘this promotes capital accumulation’. Now, it is noble that Musk tries to work against the system with Tesla, and apparently he struck a nerve, but he should use his success as an example for how hard you have to work against the system in order to make something useful, and not as an advertisement for it. Especially when he at the same time is building space ships to escape a planet earth that is being made unhabitable because there are systemic incentives not to abolish carbon technologies much faster than we do now.

        • Tom Miller

          I’m not sure he said “man made climate change”. Did he?

          Anyone with a history book will tell you that climate events were happening long before we were around. It’s pretty naive to think that if we got man made climate change under control, then we’d never have to think about the climate again.

          So unless I missed something, it’s you who is drawing parallels to human/natural catastrophe, not him.

          • Kristalle Krawalle

            No, his whole Tesla act is about manmade climate change. This is not the point. I have written this above as well: I think it is very admirable that he does all of those things and from what I can see he will succeed. I just think approaching the problem of climate change with purely technological solutions and without naming the political problem of Capitalist accumulation is like cutting off the head of a hydra – two more grow.

    • Tom Miller

      Just want to counter a few of your points – although like Rafael I certainly don’t disagree about the Thatcher comment.

      “Musk doesn’t understand a thing about politics.”

      Really? Yet he’s got over $3b in grants from the US government. Just that point alone makes me think he probably knows considerably more about politics than you do (but who knows, maybe you work in the Capitol).

      “The degree of naivete exhibited by these comments is as enlightening as it is horrifying.”
      And yet taking a few Wikipedia comments (in who-knows what sort of context) as basis for a position isn’t naive?

      “This kind of innovation and risk-taking that he promotes at being at the core of Capitalism is only feasible in industries that are just in the process of developing, not in ones that are already established.”

      Well, “The automobile” isn’t a new industry, it’s over 100 years old. So you must be talking not about industry, but about the age of corporations? In that instance, Google, who have been around for nearly 20 years, and have a market cap of nearly $500b, are also highly innovative in the automobile industry. So I’m lost as to what/who exactly you are referring to?

      “If it weren’t an economically reasonable strategy for big market actors like Lockheed Martin, they wouldn’t do it.”
      Reasonable, yes, the only strategy? No. Clearly not, as the automobile industry is proving (and that’s just one example).

      So other than him saying some silly stuff quoted from Wikipedia (which, granted, is silly), I’m a little lost as to what exactly you’re talking about.

      • Kristalle Krawalle

        “Yet he’s got over $3b in grants from the US government.”
        “That just means he is a good accountant. Fetching government subsidies is not politics, it’s basic accounting.

        “And yet taking a few Wikipedia comments (in who-knows what sort of context) as basis for a position isn’t naive?”

        No it’s not. I use Wikipedia as an example because it’s the most widely read and accessible source. It’s commonplace. If you think you can disprove the quotes or get the context right, go ahead.

        “Google, who have been around for nearly 20 years, and have a market cap
        of nearly $500b, are also highly innovative in the automobile industry.
        So I’m lost as to what/who exactly you are referring to?”

        As far as I can see they make software for autonomous cars which is … a new market. Also, are they successful? I would say the jury is out on this one.

        “Reasonable, yes, the only strategy? No. Clearly not, as the automobile industry is proving (and that’s just one example).”

        I don’t really know what you mean.

        “I’m a little lost as to what exactly you’re talking about.”

        I am talking about the fact that this article makes it sound like Elon Musk is the saviour of mankind and everyone seems to agree. The narrative that is being constructed by Musk and Tim in this article in order to mobilise support for such an endeavour suffers from a complex of extremely political reductionisms. And I think it is completely reasonable to demand of someone to tell the whole story when they want my support for such a phenomenal endeavour.

        • Tom Miller

          “Fetching government subsidies is not politics, it’s basic accounting.”

          Ok – you make it sound so easy! I guess I just fill in a few forms and get my $5b? 🙂

          “No it’s not. I use Wikipedia as an example because it’s the most widely read and accessible source. It’s commonplace. If you think you can disprove the quotes or get the context right, go ahead.”

          There’s nothing wrong with citing Wikipedia, but basing your entire view on a few quotes is naive – I’m sorry. I’m not going to fact check and get context for all those quotes, but I’m not going to take them at face value either.

          “As far as I can see they make software for autonomous cars which is … a new market.”

          Actually they are manufacturing cars that are autonomous; along with Tesla, Mercedes, BMW, VW and countless others. Cars are not a new market, whether they’re autonomous or not. That’s like saying 3D TVs are a new “market”. They’re not, they’re just TVs that you have to wear silly glasses to watch.

          “I don’t really know what you mean.”
          You said “exactly the opposite of what is rational in late Capitalism, namely to monopolize, not innovate and avoid risk”.

          Lockheed’s risk-averse strategy is not the only strategy in town. As I said, the automotive industry is proving that; Tesla, Google, VW – they are innovating within an existing market and taking huge risks, are they not? In fact, you go on in your next sentence to contradict exactly this point; Wall street wasn’t risk averse *enough* in 2008.

          So is current capitalism risk-averse or not? I’m unclear.

          For the record, I was born in the UK, and lived through the 80s, I’m certainly no Thatcherite, and I now live and run a business in the USA. I’m also a determinist(!), so a lot of what you covered is close to home for me. I’m not hero-worshiping Musk, but I agree with a lot of what he and Tim have covered here, and I’m certainly not going to throw all my toys out of the pram because he said something nice about the worst Prime Minister the UK has ever had.

          Am I going to start saving for my ticket to Mars? No. Do I think it’s a good idea to venture further into space than the moon and potentially colonize it? Yes, certainly.

          When people ask me what makes me proud to be British, I say The BBC and the NHS. If I were American and got asked the same question, I’d say “putting a man on the moon”. Coincidentally, none of these three things have anything to do with Capitalism. However if Musk can drag the rest of the country with him on this epic voyage, then I say “I’m with you!”

          • Kristalle Krawalle

            “Ok – you make it sound so easy! I guess I just fill in a few forms and get my $5b? :)”

            no, not easy. 🙂 but qualitatively it’s accounting.

            “There’s nothing wrong with citing Wikipedia, but basing your entire view on a
            few quotes is naive – I’m sorry. I’m not going to fact check and get
            context for all those quotes, but I’m not going to take them at face
            value either.”

            ok, your problem.

            “Actually they are manufacturing cars that are autonomous; along with Tesla,
            Mercedes, BMW, VW and countless others. Cars are not a new market,
            whether they’re autonomous or not. That’s like saying 3D TVs are a new
            “market”. They’re not, they’re just TVs that you have to wear silly
            glasses to watch.”

            no, developing computer systems that make cars drive autonomously is a new market inside the big car market. it fundamentally enhances and changes what cars can do. making cars go electric is a different thing: it’s a massive investment doesnt add functionality that immediately benefits the consumer, from the perspective of a car company it is a waste on a cost/benefit analysis, also because the infrastructure is lacking. you dont have an incentive to include it.

            “You said “exactly the opposite of what is rational in late Capitalism, namely to monopolize, not innovate and avoid risk”.”

            ok, but what is the car industry showing exactly? we are heading toward climate disaster and they are still extremely reluctant to invest in electric cars and what they are investing they only invest because government intervention and elon musks idealistic tesla project. instead they invest billions yearly to flood the information sphere with advertising that makes people associate cars with freedom and luxury so they buy more of them, instead of maybe using public transport or bikes or pooling them. the auto industry shows nothing except how rotten this system is.

            “Lockheed’s risk-averse strategy is not the only strategy in town. As I said, the
            automotive industry is proving that; Tesla, Google, VW – they are
            innovating within an existing market and taking huge risks, are they
            not? In fact, you go on in your next sentence to contradict exactly this
            point; Wall street wasn’t risk averse *enough* in 2008.”

            see above. as to wall-street’s risk aversion strategy, I am afraid I don’t understand enough about stock markets. from what I know this issue is very complex but ultimately it is about debt bubbles that have been accumulating in order to finance economic growth on debt.

            So is current capitalism risk-averse or not? I’m unclear.

            it is. especially when it comes to market externalities such as the environment, worker’s rights and climate change.

            When people ask me what makes me proud to be British, I say The BBC and the
            NHS. If I were American and got asked the same question, I’d say
            “putting a man on the moon”. Coincidentally, none of these three things
            have anything to do with Capitalism. However if Musk can drag the rest
            of the country with him on this epic voyage, then I say “I’m with you!””

            Fair enough. The reason I commented on this is because I believe that Elon Musk can solve some technical problems but that the mechanisms underlying the
            Capitalist world system will let the Hydra’s heads grow faster than we
            can chop them off. Most important and at the heart of what I meant is this: I think it is extremely significant that someone as educated and intelligent as Elon Musk doesn’t talk about out global problems not in terms of Capitalism but in terms of a technical problem, like a broken dish washer. There is a story going around about how everything is not failures of the system, but within the system. If you pay close attention, this narrative is very close to the narrative of Capitalism itself: if you get that shiny new piece of tech, that new car, that macbook, your life is gonna be easier and much … better. If we fly to mars, solve this problem and then that, everything will be … you know, better. Well, I think we have waited for this promise to become reality for long enough. I am very worried that while we discuss these things, our time for decent living for everyone runs out. I am aware that any kind of leftist critique has to answer for the
            failures of really existing socialism, but just because the Communists
            fucked it up big time doesn’t mean Capitalism is working. It ain’t.

            • Tom Miller

              OK, this is going to be my last comment I promise, partly because we’re starting to agree on some things (and where’s the fun in that?!).

              I think the car industry example is a good one. Automation started with Cruise Control (a very basic form), which progressed with Mercedes to automatic breaking (cruise control that maintains a distance to the car in front; breaks, speeds up etc.). We then had Ford introduce automatic parking (don’t get me started on this – it’s part of the driving test for a reason!). We now have Tesla, which has “highway automation”, which can change lanes, indicate, break, speed up and avoid accidents – basically drive itself on the highway. It can also park itself in your garage and meet you at the curbside.

              What it can’t do, is navigate small streets, read stop signs, give way to police cars etc. That’s the evolutionary step the Google cars can do. So whilst it looks like a huge leap, the reality is it’s an evolution.

              So there’s clearly been a lot of innovation, it’s just not in the areas you’d like – that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

              I don’t think traditional Capitalism is risk averse – it’s more like it’s short sighted, and it’s overly focused on quarterly results.

              However there are some companies (Google, Amazon, Tesla) that have realized that a longer-term punt can yield huge rewards if they pay off.

              Anyway, I enjoyed the discussion, so thanks for that 🙂

    • Thomas B B

      Thanks for this, it’s exhaustive and accurate.

    • Mars_Ultor

      “Ironically, what he is spending his life energy on is exactly the opposite of what is rational in late Capitalism, namely to monopolize, not innovate and avoid risk”

      How is he monopolizing? He is breaking established monopolies in both auto and space industries. He released his Tesla batter code to the public, making it open source so other developers can improve and build on it. He is creating entire new industries and thousands of new jobs via his companies. What on earth are you talking about.

      You sound like a bitter socialist.

      • Kristalle Krawalle

        Thanks for the bitter socialist.

        Where exactly did you take me claiming that Musk is monopolizing from? I said the exact opposite.

    • Mars_Ultor

      “It’s kinda cute but at the same time scary how you get carried away by the prospects of living on what is essentially a rock in the dead of space”

      Youve just described what living on Earth is like.

      • Kristalle Krawalle

        haha, yeah I realised that after I posted as well. Earth has complex, organically grown ecosystems, tho. 😉

    • StupidSam

      I believe all the Economics is born out of the will of humans to justify and hence Capitalise on Inventions and Politics then jumps in to take make the situation healthier for some individuals more than others. I don’t think there was any Politics involved when Light Bulb was invented, but it was made economical and then we all know about the Politics that camped around it in terms of resources used to light that Light-bulb. This goes on to prove that some inventions are over and above the national boundaries and political situations, otherwise only the western countries will be using Aeroplanes. Infact, I believe, there will be some other people across the world who will come up with ways and means to reach Mars before or after Elon Musk does it, hence pacifying all your fears.

      Don’t worry. You should not get agitated by people like Elon Musk, but rest assured that someone is thinking more than selling crap in the name of phones and also charging premium for it thereby filling their pockets. That someone is being crazy enough to ZOOM-OUT (as Tim says it) and think of a bigger problem to solve.

  • Huh. I’m worried about Musk stating that the only way to get a rocket into space is by burning fossil fuel. Aren’t we supposed to run out of oil somewhere this century? How tragic would it be to finally acquire the technology to get out of this place after we’ve ruined it, only to not have any fuel left because we’ve used it all up to ruin the Earth? :/

    • Korakys

      Many rockets are powered by nothing but the elements that make up water, no carbon required. He may want to use methane or kerosene to power them because it’s safer or for some obscure efficiency reason though.

      Seriously though we will not run out of hydrocarbons this century or the next.

      • Tarke

        Yeah, this is a common misconception, we wont run out of hydrocarbons, but we will have to manufacture them once we run out of natural sources, and that will require energy from sources other than fossil fuels

        • Oh, cool. So that’s how they plan on making the fuel on Mars? (I’m sorry if they clear this up in the next part – I haven’t read it yet… Really have to do something else today besides reading about rockets)

      • Thanks. 🙂

    • Tarke

      Not the only way, but the only way until we invent some crazy power sources (compact fusion reactors and such)
      But the thing is, the future SpaceX rockets will use fuel that actually doesn’t have to come from oil.
      CH4(methane) and O2(oxygen) can be manufactured from water and carbon dioxide, both of which are plentiful, you just need energy to produce them, shame Elon isn’t doing anything with solar panels …. oh wait, solar city and all that, right 😉

      • Thanks, I think I get it 🙂

  • JohnnySnow626

    I just scrolled down from the Bluer Box on the first page to let you know that, yes, you do capitalize GIF, because it’s an acronym for Graphics Interchange Format. Back to the article.

  • Eugenio Arpayoglou Cassanello

    Well there’s yer problem!

    • moderatesunite

      to be fair NASA doesn’t purchase from ULA, NASA is opportunistic and able to pick the cheapest rockets they can get their hands on.
      It’s The US military and intelligence agencies that relied exclusively on ULA (until this year when speaceX got approval to compete with them for some launches)

  • peterbinks

    anyway this could be put on one page? i know that would be ridiculously long, but it sure would make it easier to save to read-it-later services like instapaper and pocket.

  • Dan

    I’m hesitant to recommend KSP, because if Tim start playing, we might never see another post…

  • Mark Monnin

    Tim, I love the way you write. Your articles make things easy to understand, and I learn a lot about important topics because of it. This is the best site ever!

  • Chocanto

    Thank you a lot for this BIG post ! It was a real pleasure to read you. The way you explain very complicated things with a lot of examples and simple words is, to me at least, very difficult to achieve. But you made it.
    I really hope a lot will have the chance, and the courage, to read this whole post (well, it took me 3 days… So it must mean that I loved it).

    Again thank you !

  • Ben Yacobi

    Thank you for this Tim. I’m also married to astronomy and I loved reading this. I also loved reading all the links. Hence it took me three days to get through it because I kept going down new rabbit holes as I read more in depth articles as I went along. Brilliant.,

  • craig llewellyn

    Wow very nice article, I will immediately read all your other posts. Just great.
    Once thing you might want to mention, it is something that is sort of
    implicit in your article, but not entirely illustrated. That is that
    we as a species could easily miss our window not through an outright
    extinction event. We could easily miss the window just by a near miss
    with any of the mentioned catastrophes, if we have a near miss that
    causes societal collapse it may take centuries to get back on our
    feet. Getting ourselves stuck back at square one with even fewer
    resources than we had last time could easily reduce our chances of
    success in the long run. And once we are back at 19th century
    technology we can easily continue a downward spiral by battling over
    territory and resources. I am optimistic that this isn’t going to be
    our fate but I think that it might strengthen your article to point
    out that there is a continuum of failure. We don’t have to fail to
    extinction initially to cause our eventual obliteration when that
    eventual extinction event rolls around.

    • StupidSam

      Yeah, that was very optimistic man. +1

  • Wellsit

    Great article and very exciting however I was taught that a nice, thick, human life supporting atmosphere on Mars won’t be a reality due to the lack of a magnetic field. The planet doesn’t possess a geodynamo effect due to the cooling of its core, therefore no magnetic field which means vulnerability to solar storms. This is the leading theory as to why Mars doesn’t have much of an atmosphere today. Any attempt to create a new atmosphere would be blown away once the first solar storm went its direction.

    • Mind Bridge

      The solar wind sweeps away the atmosphere very slowly. It just has been
      doing that for billions of years on Mars, which is why the planet is so
      bare now. But if one can actually restore the atmosphere, then it would
      stay in good state for a very long time (in human scale) even without
      periodic “pumping up”.

  • Jesse Jensen

    On the first flight to mars they should take a pregnant woman that will give birth on mars and a dog. And i teenager that will hit puberty in zero g.

    • drew mueller

      Yes, this must be our first priority. The effects of lower gravity on the modern teenager. Low G freak outs, modern pimples, space age masturbation techniques.

  • Fabian

    First of all, I have to commend you for writing an insanely good and well-researched article. While reading, you impressed me time and time again by adressing virtually every thought that came to my mind, however small.

    For example, you put a huge smile on my face in little blue box no. 3 on page 3 by illustrating the exact train of thought that I had and what I sometimes daydream about. A man can dream!

    Now, one thing I was a little surprised to read was Musk saying that making Venus habitable would be feasible, with extreme difficulty. This idea of course has been around for a while but when he was asked more or less same question with regards to a settlement above the clouds of Venus, he quickly dismissed the idea, saying “Definitely not Venus”, mentioning it is a high-temperature, high-pressure acid bath. (1) I would have loved for him to go on and delve further into the topic. I assume his response would have been different if the question was about what’s after Mars as opposed to about substitutes for it.

    Talking about future solar system exploration, Callisto, Jupiter’s outmost Galilean moon seems to be a prime targed for further manned explorations. Callisto sits conveniently outside of the main radiation belt. The radiation levels would be close to, or even lower than the ones we experience daily here on Earth, compared to the immense, lethal doses you would be exposed to on the inner three (80mSv, 5.4 Sv (!) and 36 Sv (!) on Ganymede, Europa and Io, respectively). (
    NASA even conducted a study in the early 2000s, concluding a manned mission might be doable as early as 2040 (
    (Mind you, this was before NASA’s Project Prometheus was cancelled.)
    (now having finished the post, I was glad to see Musk briefly mention Jupiter’s outer moons)

    But enough about that.
    I was very pleased to see the shortfilm “Wanderers” embedded around the end of this post. It’s one of my favorite videos on the internet and depicts exactly the kind of future we should strive for.

    Still, l can’t quite come to terms with the fact that we’re living in such an unusual period. Elon Musk and his accomplishments are nothing short of extraordinary and are what makes me excited about the future.

    Falcon Heavy, Dragon V2, the internet satellite network (btw, a live Google Maps-kinda service, holy shit, this is really starting to feel like the future!), Mars colonization and let’s also not forget the sweet NASA missions that are on the horizon.

    Damn! This century is starting to look like the 21st century we were promised!

    (1) (1h8m)

  • Tim Urban Fan

    A nice blue box at the end of page 2 could include that Musk as apparently spat on by the russian rocket scientists back in 2001 for being a seen as a “novice”.

  • Jonathan Wells

    Great post. I will admit I get frustrated constantly having to read every temperature translated from Celsius to Fahrenheit, every distance from kilometres to miles, etc. I see you as somewhat of a futurist. Every science fiction book I’ve read proposes the idea that we will all use the Metric system in the future. I suggest you simply implement that now. Those of your readers who are American and have never read a science fiction book will simply have to catch up. Honestly. Doesn’t most scientific writing use Metric? Maybe I’m just being a bullying Canadian, if there is such a thing. I mean, get it together guys. I would have liked to see Obama get on that.

    • alaba

      Exactly my opinion. I mean when we are talking about some serious science shit here, you can expect from people to be intelligent enough to fucking learn the proper metric system. Even considering that you want to reach as many people as possible – including less science-affine ones – don´t underestimate them! If they want they can learn it, and maybe they need to forced to do it by ONLY using the metric system in posts from now on.
      At first, they maybe will be a bit annoyed, but if you read something as interesting as Tim´s brilliant posts, you want to understand it and then you will start to get used to the proper measuring system.

    • JohnLeBleu

      He could create a tiny javascript widget that converts to miles when you hover your mouse. Would lighten up the text and help people understand both system.

      • Jonathan Wells

        That is a great idea. Make it an interactive learning exercise. It has to default to Metric. Call it a Metric Immersion Program, like they do with English-native kids in French immersion class where they have to speak French and can’t ask questions in English. They figure it out pretty quickly.

  • Thomas Duvrai

    The Rockets of the World image is a bit stretched. The image in its original proportions can be found here:

  • On an individual level, the “be first of everything” (first pizza place, first repair shop…) has quite a stronger pull than “explore what is out there”. I know many people who get noticeably excited when thinking about new forms of government, free market societies, more or less american colonization back in the day.

    So for Musk to get more people excited about this trip, it is probably better to start A/B testing on his “Mars-trip-unique value proposition” marketing.

    Just a though.. that came to mind a couple of days after reading this post… Yup, still thinking about it.

  • Bostonia

    Not for nothin’, but Chris Hadfield just wrote a great article using the term rocket ship: “And that, just as for all of space flight’s more prosaic commercial uses, requires building safe and reliable rocket ships.” I do appreciate the whimsical nature of the term. Great article Tim, thanks!

  • Brandon Schmidt

    Great read! I’m ready to go to Mars.
    The trajectories’ graphic seems a bit off though. Projectiles should follow an elliptical path that has earth’s center as one of the foci. The graphic just shows circles of increasing diameter.
    Thanks Tim

  • Ezo

    “Since Musk thinks the will (the yellow circle) will grow accordingly when there exists a feasible way, Musk identifies the tiny blue circle as the critical limiting factor:”

    I don’t think so. Even if travel there would be **free**, but you couldn’t easily travel back… how many people will want that? Some, sure. I’m not sure about million figure.

    Because, rationally speaking(and on a scale of single human): WHY? Realistically, Mars is one huge desert. Placed insanely far away from civilization.

    If it was two-way ticket, then sure, I would go. Because it’s insanely interesting ‘adventure’.

    I can’t speak for other people, so I will say why I wouldn’t want live there for prolonged period of time. Communication. Bandwidth may be not a problem, but latency? Forget about real-time stuff…

    What people there will do after few weeks?

    • disqus_KTjZV3PLLp

      You’re right that some people WILL NOT WANT THIS. But you’re wrong that ALL PEOPLE WILL NOT WANT THIS. Because different people are motivated by different things. Me and you are the same I could never go to Mars, it just seems like a terrible place to live. But I also understand that there are people who don’t think like me at all.

      Take this for example. They did a survey on why people join the military. So and so percent said for $. So and so percent said for education. But always at least 25% said they did it for “adventure”. Which to me is insane…. but to them it makes perfect sense. I think those are the type of people Musk is going to be after.

    • Nick Hoskins

      You’re right, not many people would want to do it. But if only .5% of the US population wanted to do it, which is an extremely small number, that would still be about 1.5 million people, which is pretty amazing. Then, if you consider we’ve got over 7 billion people on earth, there would be no shortage of men and women (and other) to send there!

  • GC

    Great post, as usual, but come on:

    “I’ve been seriously dating astronomy … I’d open the gallery … see some trashy CNN clickbait … for the next three hateful hours.”

    You cad! If you respected Astronomy, you’d take her to a decent place like the NASA photo gallery, where you’d spend three glorious hours instead. I’m stealing your starfriend and will treat her right!

    • zabolos

      And me thinking she was faithful.

  • Ron Barak

    I don’t understand the following use of “rarer”:

    Supernovae, … happens about once every 250 million years …

    Gamma-ray bursts are much rarer than supernovae, happening in each galaxy only a few times in a million years,

    How come an event that happens “only a few times in a million years” is rarer that an event that “happens about once every 250 million years” ?

    • Paul

      I’m no expert, but I think that one reason gamma ray bursts are less likely as a cause of mass extinctions is that they burst out of the poles of the neutron star (or whatever), and so for them to hit our civilization, they have to be pointed very, very accurately at us.

    • Alex McConnell

      Supernovas are way more common in the galaxy as a whole, but they have a very small range of effect. The period listed is how often one effects us rather than how often occurs. The period for gamma ray bursts is how often they occur in the galaxy as a whole rather than how often they effect us, which is much less often.

      • Ron Barak

        To quote myself: “””How come an event that happens “only a few times in a million years” is rarer that an event that “happens about once every 250 million years” ?

        In my view, the use of “rarer” in the post – contradicts customary linguistic and mathematical notions{.}

        • Alex McConnell

          The “rarer” is correct, but he described the two events in very different contexts. He did actually explain the context, but I agree that it was done in a confusing way. A supernova occurs in the Milky Way about every 50 years, but the ones that are close enough to hurt us happen every 250 million years, but since its area of effect if a giant sphere, if it’s near us, it will hit us. Gamma Ray bursts occur in the Milky Way only a few times in a million years and can have a range such that it could hit us from all the way across the galaxy, but Gamma Ray bursts are kinda like a giant laser beam and only have an effect on what’s in its path, so one could occur relatively close to us and have no effect on us at all. So, the Gamma Ray bursts occur less frequently and are also less likely to hit us.

  • I wonder, why parachutes aren’t used when landing a reusable stage – that would save a lot of fuel.
    And I would try to experiment with wings (they could be expandible), so a landing rocket could fly like a plane (a-la Space Shuttle 2.0).

    • Mind Bridge

      Parachutes have been tried, but they tend to shred when the rocket is coming in the atmosphere at Mach 5. In addition their weight would be significant. What’s wrong with the propulsive landing? It would be quite clean once it is perfected.

      Bonus: the same mechanism can be used for landing on Mars. Parachutes would definitely not work there as the atmosphere is 100 times less dense.

      • > Parachutes have been tried, but they tend to shred when the rocket is coming in the atmosphere at Mach 5

        The part 4 stresses that landing stage 1 for reuse is the big deal, since it costs a lot.
        There is no need to spread the parachute when entering the atmosphere – the propulsive engines could be used for slowing down together with a kind of thermal shield. Usually parachutes are utilized at lower heights where speed is moderate and atmosphere is dense enough.
        And I have the impression the old-school rocket science has a solid theory and practical experience with parachute-based landing, so Mask could definitely employ some their tricks.

        > In addition their weight would be significant.

        Each Merline engine burns ~200L of fuel per second when ascending. I’m not able to calculate the fuel consumption for the descent, let’s assume it is at least 20% = 40 L/sec, or roughly 40 kg/sec. Freefall of a Merlin engine (640 kg) from 100 km may take up to 600 seconds (I used an online calculator to discover this), so we need at least 24 tons of fuel to control the decent. And gut feeling tells me a kind of parachute may help us in reducing the fuel consumption.
        On the other side (according to stackexchange talks like ) parachutes may undermine the decent stability and control.
        Anyway Indian space engineers are investigating alternative langing schemes (refer to—technology-demonstrator-rlv-td ), and I hope they will share the results some day.

        > for landing on Mars. Parachutes would definitely not work there as the atmosphere is 100 times less dense

        Curiosity had used the parachute when landing on Mars (as well as the propulsive engines).

        • Mind Bridge

          Let me reiterate: SpaceX did try the parachute approach and found it

          unsuitable. There are many aspects of that problem that have to be considered beyond the obvious.

        • Tarke

          Ah, but you see,the engines are not firing for most of the descent. The falcon only does a small “boostback” burn to aim for the landing site, and slow it down somewhat, and then free-falls, terminal velocity slows the rocket to around 100m/s, and the rocket only reignites a single engine throttled to 70% for the final landing, which fires for only a few seconds, all in it takes around 4 tons, not 24. I remember seeing some numbers to land the empty stage at a low enough speed to survive impact under parachutes would be around 10 tons, and you still have to deal with salt water corrosion.
          As for mars, the issue is that, parachutes or not, you still have to do a propulsive landing at the end, and doing propulsive the whole way down gives better control, and potentially options to abort.

    • Phil Ednop Ashton

      Parachutes and wings don’t have much of a use entering planets with no atmosphere, whereas igniting rocket fuel under you does. One system for landing on both Earth and Mars would keep it simple and more cost effective.

      • > Parachutes and wings don’t have much of a use entering planets with no atmosphere

        AFAIK the so called supersonic parachute was quite effective when landing Curiosity on Mars.
        BTW the Mask’s project doesn’t target planets with no atmosphere. At least at first stages.

        > One system for landing on both Earth and Mars would keep it simple and more cost effective.

        Taking into account different gravity on Mars and Earth, the landing system doesn’t need to be the same: the device for Mars may be simpler and, thus, cheaper.

  • Ezo

    ” I suspect people would do more of direct democracy than representative one. In the old days, it would take three months to take a vote—there was no mail system, mail barely worked and would take weeks, and a lot of people couldn’t read or write. It was extremely unwieldy so they had to have a representative democracy. On Mars, there could be instant electronic voting on issues, which would be much less subject to corruption, and laws could be made way simpler—you’d put a word limit on law.”

    That’s one biggest opportunity of this colonization thing. To reboot the society. Get rid of all that junk. Direct democracy should’ve been done long ago, when Internet started becoming popular service. When 50 or 70% threshold of country population actively started using it. There is no real excuse. It’s just stagnation…

    Mars coloniztion may be unique opportunity to finally do something. Direct democracy, **no countries**(who needs that artificial concept on Mars?), thus no wars.

    I’m worried that when colonization will really start off(first private-people transport to Mars), some governments may want to control it somehow. Single one probably can’t do it, but what if Russia, USA and China will party-up? Well, they don’t have any basis to shoot missless at Mars, but still…

    • Daniel Skroll

      Direct democracy is a very romantic idea. But there are a few issues:

      For direct democracy to be truly democratic the threshold had to be 100% internet coverage. Granted that a Mars population in 2055 will probably have that coverage. And even then – online voting wouldn’t necessarily mean a better system, i.e. manipulation would be easy: apart from sophisticated IT-based manipulation, how to control if a vote is cast without someone (say grandpa or your boss) sitting behind the voter (that would be grandma or the employee) and checking if the cross is made at the”right” place? So the internet is not the solution, the common booth with a discrete curtain and a piece of paper is still the best bet.

      Besides direct democracy is not the solution to all evil. Representative democracy is often better at respecting the need and worries of minorities and open up for compromise as an instrument of not pissing off a great deal of people, while in direct democracies there is a tendency to go “all in or nothing”. Think of a situation when 60% think A is good while 40% would rather go for B. There won’t be any discussion of compromise, only A will happen (as the majority won…) while B (with 1 million voters that would be 400,000 individuals) just got ignored and gets absolutely nothing.

      Democracy is not only about majority, it is also about compromise and facing and respecting each other’s thoughts and needs. This might be tedious and full of conflicts, but hey, that’s the deal as there are no easy solutions that happen to satisfy everyone.

      Direct democracy can only answer simple and fundamental questions, but is it really practical and feasible to actually ask the population on the details of the latest bill regulating taxes on interplanetary business (or maybe somewhat simpler, say, the new national healthcare system back on Earth)? Which society gives its population that much political, economical, ethical and sociological background knowledge (and, of course, free time) to handle such details for diligently checking every aspect and fact before making a vote on a complicated piece of jurisdiction? I’m happy I have someone on whom I can entrust this.

      This is also why tweetable laws (ok, ok, “word limits”…) don’t work per definitionem: everything basic like universal human rights can and does fit into that category, (“All men are created equal…”, “Tous les êtres humains naissent libres et égaux en dignité et en droits.”, “Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar”, etc)

      I’ll give you that. But then we have to work out the details and eventualities. And that’s the actual work all those parliaments around the world do in committees, factions and fractions, expert hearings, full sessions, and yes, also in lobbies…

      But I’d rather have an MP that is lobbied and can be outvoted the next time (when I’m not satisfied with him/her) than have the tobacco industry (and every other industry and interest group) knocking on my door two days before every direct vote while I’m in my living room going through the details and implications of the vote ahead after a very long sol at work.

      Of course, representative democracy is everything but flawless, but it’s still the most practical system that we have rather than “junk”.

      • Ezo

        “For direct democracy to be truly democratic the threshold had to be 100% internet coverage.”

        We don’t need to have perfect system right off the bat. System where 50% of population votes is better than system where 0.0001% of population votes…

        “i.e. manipulation would be easy: apart from sophisticated IT-based manipulation, how to control if a vote is cast without someone (say grandpa or your boss) sitting behind the voter (that would be grandma or the employee) and checking if the cross is made at the”right” place? So the internet is not the solution, the common booth with a discrete curtain and a piece of paper is still the best bet.”

        Statistically insignificant.

        ” Representative democracy is often better at respecting the need and worries of minorities and open up for compromise”

        Right, respecting the needs of minorities. Like rich people. Or corporation owners. Besides, we don’t know how direct democracy practically fares, so we can’t compare it.

        If 60% wants solution A, and 40% wants solution B, solution A should be chosen. It’s what’s democracy is about. Also, there could be more solutions, tradeoffs etc -> and solution C might attract strong majority, like 70%(so both A and B share 30%).

        “Democracy is not only about majority, it is also about compromise and facing and respecting each other’s thoughts and needs”

        And politicians do that? Seriously?

        “but is it really practical and feasible to actually ask the population on the details of the latest bill regulating taxes on interplanetary business (or maybe somewhat simpler, say, the new national healthcare system back on Earth)?”

        It’s simply a) fair, b) gives opportunities. Direct democracy doesn’t need to be simple system. You could **emulate current system** within it. Simply let people follow given person/party votes. And you could mix that. Let specialist X decide about healthcare. Let specialist Y decide about budget management. Let person Z decide about rest of issues. But if you have one specific issue in mind, you could override that.

        Each person can be as involved as it wants.

        ” I’m happy I have someone on whom I can entrust this.”

        Are you serious? You’re content with politicians? One example from the top of the hat, in my country current healthcare minister wants to implement draconian regulations on e-cigarettes. Why? Because UE wants that…. why would UE want to impede ecig industry… hmm.. maybe Tobacco industry wants that? No, impossible, representative democracy is so good, and it respects wishes of minorities(1.8 millions of people out of 38.5), they wouldn’t.

        Sorry for small rant.

        “but it’s still the most practical system that we have rather than “junk”.”

        As you now understand what I meant(advanced IT system, not simple vote-on-every-issue), I hope you changed your mind.

        Representative democracy is rotten. Not practical.

        Why do we have it in the first place? Wasn’t there direct democracy in ancient Greece? Because of scaling. You can’t have direct democracy when citizens can’t communicate effectively. But now I can communicate with people on other continents in few hundred milliseconds maximum. It’s solved.

        • zabolos

          Not that I entirely disagree with the posters, but please try to remember that democracy is not only about participation: separation of powers is a key ingredient. It’s laws and institutions that protect the minorities, not the voters. Otherwise, lynching would be a perfectly democratic activity.

        • Mairsx

          Direct democracy would be an upgrade to the current compromised and distorted system, but it should not and cannot be implemented in some kind of extreme ways where everything is decided by direct voting. that would never work. People are simply not that interested in “everything” and people can be quite the bastards sometimes.

          A smarter, better designed system with direct democracy
          implemented with measure, and other smart systems designed to deal with the rest… that could work.

  • Daniel Skroll

    Thank you for this interesting and very well researched post, Tim! There were many things that I learnt today and I’m certainly looking forward to a future where my children go to Mars for an exchange year (I mean two years…)

    However, I must admit that I’m glad this Elon Musk series is finished. I loved your thoughts on artificial intelligence or the Fermi paradox for example (or any other post here for that matter), but it began with Tesla and it continued with spacex: this felt like a very long sponsored post about a Musk company.

    I understand that Elon Musk provided important input but while he must be a great person with great goals I would have wished for a little more critical distance and objectivity.

    Obviously, I’m alone on this when reading the other comments – therefore I’ll stop being the party pooper here and instead I’ll look forward to the next topics that you will come up with. In the hope that Larry Page won’t call you in the near future…

  • Sad to say, but I’m skeptical about colonizing Mars, at least in the short-term. Here’s why:

    The history of the human race has been about living in new places, but the motivation has always been to make a better life for yourself and your family. When Europeans colonized the New World, they went with the expectation of finding free land and plenty of things that they could ship back to Europe to get rich.

    That’s not going to happen on Mars. The first colonists will have a drastically diminished standard of living. Sure, the idea of living on Mars has a tremendous cool factor to it, but the reality of living in small, pre-fab shelters for most of your life is going to need more than just cool associated with it. It’s not like you can go for the Great Mars Land Rush; riding to the horizon, putting up a sod hut, and living off the land isn’t an option without lots of infrastructure, and all of that infrastructure has “SpaceX” stenciled on its side.

    And Mars just doesn’t have anything that you can sell back on Earth other than pretty pictures. Nobody’s going to become the Great Rust Tycoon of Mars.

    So, tourism? Absolutely! Science? You bet. And of course where there are tourists and scientists, there are tour operators and innkeepers, and machine shops and all kinds of enterprises to support a tourism and science economy. But those are all inward-directed activities. To get a colonial foothold, you need an export-driven economy. I don’t see how you get there.

    But all is not lost. When you can throw tens of thousands of tonnes of equipment into orbit for some non-insane amount of capital investment, space is likely to be full of lots of things that you can export back to Earth. The two biggies: energy and raw materials. But you beam energy back to Earth from massive solar power satellites in cis-lunar space, and the raw materials have to come in at a scale that’s so immense that the volume of stuff you’re sending back swamps the cost of sending up the people and equipment and transportation to get it there.

    Those things require not a Martian civilization, but a spacefaring civilization. Get people living on the Moon at low scale, and mining asteroids, and building structures in space that provide real value to people back on Earth, and Mars will eventually take care of itself. But right now, Mars is a bridge too far, just as the Moon was back in the 60’s.

    I fully expect SpaceX and/or its various competitors to make us a spacefaring civilization in the not-too-distant future. But they’re not going to do it the way they think.

    • maximkazhenkov11 .

      The Spanish colonialists were there for the gold and other resources. The settlers in North America went mostly because of religious prosecution and living conditions on the ship and on land were very harsh (harsher than what Mars settlers will face, because technology), so a colony doesn’t have to be economically-driven. The only thing that the settlement has to achieve is self-sufficiency (preferably included in their Mars ticket), which is also questionable, but more realistic. I don’t think any material export is possible with economic efficiency simply because of the gravity well. If you want resources, mine asteroids instead.

      • Outside of New England and Maryland, most North American colonies were set up for mercantilist purposes. And I’d strongly disagree with you about conditions on Mars being less harsh than those in North America, technology or not.

        Self-sufficiency will take decades to centuries, and it’ll be impossible as long as the Mars colony operates at a loss–the colony, not SpaceX. Company towns have a pretty grim track record.

        Agree with you that asteroids are a much more likely resource play, which is why I think they’re a more likely colonization prospect–that was pretty much my whole point.

        • maximkazhenkov11 .

          “Self-sufficiency will take decades to centuries” Apparently not, according to your own examples.

          I doubt living conditions on Mars will be harsher than what early American colonialists had to endure. Sure, you’ll be confined to living in habitats and walk around in spacesuits with radiation damage shortening your lifespan, but it will be hardly worse than having disease, starvation and harsh winter wiping out significant portions of the population.

          Also, I don’t view SpaceX as a profit-oriented business in the traditional sense. It’s more like a privately funded NASA. Musk is not trying to make profit from his Mars colony, he is making profit elsewhere in order to run the colony. The colony is his core interest, the profit just the means necessary and not the other way round.

          • The problem is that a Martian colony will have absolutely nothing to sell for trade goods. Consequently, its sole economy is going to consist of internal trade, and internal trade isn’t going to pay for the kinds of high-tech goods–or even non-native raw materials–that a colony needs to survive.

            Even if you were to find deposits of valuable metals on Mars (unlikely, BTW, because convection from the Martian mantle has always been weaker than Earth), those trade goods are significantly more expensive from Mars than they are from an asteroid, because you have to drag them out of a gravity well, which adds a huge transportation cost. You can level the playing field with something like a space elevator, but even then you’ve got an extra energy burden and amortization of the elevator itself.

            That’s why I’m pretty sure that spacefaring civilization starts in microgravity and migrates down into gravity wells only as the transport technology gets so good that the marginal cost is trivial–and that’s something that comes out of an advanced spacefaring civilization, not out of Mars Colonial Transporter technology.

            BTW, I still think your argument that North American colonies had harsher living conditions than will Mars is nuts. You could starve to death in NA if you had a bad harvest (and the first harvests were bad because they didn’t know what they were doing), but on Mars you can starve to death, or freeze to death, or die from lack of oxygen, or too much CO2, or a thousand other technological failures–and any of those could occur with the slightest unforeseen glitch in the technology. But mostly, you can die because you’re poor–something that was pretty hard to do in NA. A New England settler had subsistence farming, plenty of food and water, and as much fuel as necessary for staying warm. On Mars, there’s no such thing as subsistence farming–all agriculture will be heavily capitalized and sustainable only through technology. Add in the fact that air and water are scarce resources and there’s simply no comparison.

            Basically, Mars has all the disadvantages of a colony in deep space and none of the advantages.

            As for SpaceX operating a Martian colony as a philanthropic enterprise: So you’re arguing that the non-Martian launcher business is going to subsidize the colony effort? Leaving aside what SpaceX’s investors think of this idea, where’s the growth in the launcher business that makes the colonial subsidy a sustainable proposition? The kind of growth you’d need is going to come from an exponential explosion in space-based products and services, and that implies lots and lots and lots of profitable microgravity operations. So even if Elon can talk a company that would have to be making tens of billions in profit into forgoing that profit, you effectively have to have space colonies to create the profit in the first place.

            And if it’s not sustainable, what happens to the colony when SpaceX runs into cash-flow problems and the care packages stop arriving from Earth?

  • Kartik Krishnamoorthy

    Regarding nailing the landing of the reusable rockets, I think the major problem is the fact that the center of gravity of the first phasrle of the rocket is pretty high, thus getting the perfect balance on that thing is akin to balancing a pencil off of a table vertically. However, the same pencil will easily balance on the table if kept horizontally, because now the center of gravity is much lower. Why not try that same concept for the rocket? Yes, it is coming down at an insane speed, hence the existing system can be used to bring the rocket to a standstill a few 100 meters above the ground. Have a big enough cushion below, and just turn off the ignition of the rocket, and let gravity do the rest. Its like how stunt actors do falling sequences, there is a cushion below as a safety net.

    • nhfoley

      Also my thought when reading that section and watching past landing tests. Use the rockets to get you 99.9% of the way there, and then fall sideways on to a cheap, disposable, crumple zone. It could be a net, a stiff foam, a series of air bladders, etc.

    • Mind Bridge

      > the center of gravity of the first phasrle of the rocket is pretty high

      It is actually pretty low. The main mass of the rocket is the engines that are at the bottom. The rest of the rocket is empty upon landing.

  • The circles that you drew in the “throw things sideways” box should be ellipses with one focus at the center of the Earth (which explains why they look like parabolas and not like pieces of circles when you see a small piece of them).

  • The fuel tank on the shuttle is rust orange because that’s the color of the insulation stuff. They used to paint it white, but it added a lot of weight and wasn’t necessary to keep the tank cool, so it was scrapped around STS-3 and left as is.

    What happens to his projects if the Russians (or the Americans) do assassinate him? I presume plans are in place to continue without Musk if that became necessary. Hopefully not as much of a goatfuck as when my aunt left no will and family members fought over what to do with her 50’s era Porsche that sat under a bunch of piss-covered rugs for 30 years.

    Thanks for writing all this up. I know it was cool for you to get to do, but it must have been a ton of brainspill to get this all out in such tremendous fashion!

  • Tikhung

    This is both exciting and depressing…I believe this is the next step of human’s evolution, and it just makes me realize how insignificant we are in the universe. We are nothing.

  • Trollmannen

    How can Mars ever have fast internet if it is 4-15 light minutes away from Earth? Can’t get a very good response time then, can you? Of course a local Mars-internet would be one thing, but for communicating with earth, what can you do? Copy all the information and store it on Mars, then sync continously?

    • Trollmannen

      I saw later that this was mentioned regarding Skype calls and earth communication in general. I suppose then by super-fast internet you mean internet local to Mars.

      • maximkazhenkov11 .

        You can still achieve great bandwidth with Earth – Mars communication. It’s just the Ping that sucks.

  • Akshat Bansal

    Thanks for writing all this awesome stuff 🙂

  • Lambert

    Best post ever

  • This is my first article that I’ve read from Wait but why, and I can say that this is by far THE best article I had ever read on SpaceX. A really detailed article 😀

    Took me 6 hours to read 😛

  • Jugdish

    Tim, I like your analogy of tree trunks as the foundation on which to hang bits of knowledge. Going along with that analogy, it seems you’ve completely left out the tree trunk of this entire article. You’ve done an excellent job arguing why colonizing Mars is essential to the long-term survival of the human race. But why exactly is the survival of humanity an important and noble goal? This was never touched upon, and until we are all convinced on that point, there is no tree trunk for the rest of the article to hang on.

    If I was Zurple and Quignee, outside observers following the progress of mankind, I would see an organism rapidly multiply, consume, and destroy all the resources on its planet, not unlike a virus compromising the immune system of its host. If I then witnessed that organism gain the ability to spread to a new host, I would be horrified.

    So why is it a good thing to be striving for several million years of human beings? Is it more than sheer desperation for our own self-preservation? Can we look at ourselves as a species objectively and still reach the conclusion that we are beneficial to the universe, and something worth spreading throughout space?

    • Jetstream

      … Because we like being alive.

      Any other conversation than that is for philosophers.

      So yeah. People living is good because we’re people and we want to keep living.

    • maximkazhenkov11 .

      We have never encountered any other intelligent species yet, so there might not be an “outside observer”. If that is the case, then we have the responsibility of preserving the only conscious and intelligent being that has ever arisen in this universe through billions of years of evolution and lucky coincidences. If we die out, nothing has meaning or value, because there is nobody that can assign meaning to things. The beauty of the universe remains undiscovered, unobserved, unexplored.

      All life forms multiply and consume resources. These are part of the definition of life itself. Resources are only valuable in the eye of a consumer, so no life on Mars means the resources of Mars are completely useless. We can’t ruin anything because there is nothing to ruin. Things can only get better on Mars.

      Finally, I agree that human destruction of other species’ and our own living environment is a issue of concern, but the majority of mankind has acknowledged this anyway, if only for our own survival. I also think the existence of other species on Earth has value in itself and should be preserved, but at the same time it shouldn’t be compared to humans. I hate when people say that humans is just one of many lifeforms and not even a very successful one. Sure, bacteria make up more of Earth’s total biomass and can survive much harsher conditions, but then, rocks are even tougher and more plentiful. Single-celled organism is, retrospectively, just one element of the long chain of evolution from lifeless chemicals to conscious, thinking beings. We should cherish and value our existence and carry on this great climb towards complexity and beauty. That, alas, is the meaning of our existence.

    • Jonathan Wells

      The virus would be happy. We are the virus. It’s in the interest of a virus to keep the host alive, at least long enough to spread to new hosts and thus proliferate. A virus which kills its host before spreading is not a successful virus. Why be horrified at its success, unless you value human life?

  • loki

    The only thing I still don’t get is why propulsion landing is supposedly easier or better than parachute landing. There might be issues with both but intuitively it seems the parachute issues are easier to overcome.

    • Jetstream

      Well, mostly because a parachute landing is still slamming into something. First of all you’re most likely to hit the ocean. Which is bad for components. They’re gonna get screwed up by salt water. Secondly, you’re hitting at a decently unpleasant speed. Human beings are kinda squishy. If we hit the dirt at ten, fifteen miles an hour we’re gonna bounce with it and slosh around and generally be okay. A spaceship hitting the ground at that speed, with its incredible mass? CRUNCH. SHRED. It’s scrap.

      A slow, controlled, propellant landing is preferable because it’s… well, controlled.

      Also parachute landings are pretty useless anywhere but here. There’s not enough atmosphere on any other landable planet to make it practical to parachute land anything that big intact. The Mars rover landing vehicles had to be specifically designed for that purpose. And we were STILL afraid that they were gonna hammer into the ground and blow the hell up.

      • Tarke

        Well, you could make an argument for Venus being parachute land-able, but, well, its Venus.
        also Titan, though it is a moon rather than a planet

        • Jetstream

          Sure sure, there are small exceptions. But on Venus, y’know, parachute’s on fire. And I’m not sure about Titan. Would a frozen parachute be a problem? Hell, would you even NEED one?

          • maximkazhenkov11 .

            I was thinking you could first slow down massively by using parachutes, then jettison the parachutes at, say, 1 km and descend the rest of the way propulsively. This way most of the speed is bled off by air resistance. The problem with this approach are: Need for heatshield which is heavy, no steering capability during descend, parachutes themselves are heavy and could be replaced by airbrakes (which is what is currently used)

            • loki

              I was thinking along similar lines actually. A combination of parachute and something to steer and do the final landing. The propulsion only thing seems extremely wasteful and complicated

      • loki

        I understand the argument about other places but its not really relevant it seems. 1) This is just about Mars and Earth right now, seems like we can worry about alternatives in 20 years, and the rovers have landed just fine no Mars with parachutes it seems to me 2) Its actually only about Earth and not even Mars, because the main thing here is landing the rocket itself after it has brought the spacecraft into orbit, no? Why carry all this extra fuel to reland it? SEems like a waste of money

        • Jetstream

          Because it’s proof of concept for a machine that can make the round trip repeatedly. Go to mars, land, take off, return to earth, land, refit, go to mars…

          • loki

            1) A parachute would still be easier on mars than propulsion landing (it has been done before)
            2) More importantly: this isnt actually the case. The rocket itself always stays on earth. For it to leave from Mars a new rocket has to be built there. And the rocket has completely different needs anyway because the gravity is lower.

        • moderatesunite

          parachutes can slow part of the way down on mars, but not all the way, the curiosity rover had to use the “sky crane” which was a type of propulsive landing.
          Anything more massive than 1 ton, would definitely be impossible without either a propulsive landing, or a new method we haven’t thought of yet.

  • quadrplax

    When people first started moving to the new world, the fastest method of communication they had was a boat and they couldn’t think of anything faster. Maybe the same will happen with light speed communication.

  • When I read about the God Point and immortality, I though about how overpopulation would become a major problem. I was thinking about possible solutions and immediately I though of the movie ‘In Time’. When I saw this movie I thought it could never happen but now I’m not so sure anymore.

    • maximkazhenkov11 .

      Surprisingly, it might not be as big of a problem as you think.What we need to do is enforce one child policy onto anyone who wants to become immortal. This way, we will never get an overpopulation problem. And since birth rates goes down significantly with rise of life quality, this problem might solve itself.

      • Could be. If humanity ever reaches the God Point we will probably think of a solution. Colonize more planets, moons and asteroids!

        It’s funny though, how that movie makes more sense to me now.

        • maximkazhenkov11 .

          The point of my solutions is, with a one child policy, the world’s population will actually tend to a finite value instead of growing indefinitely, even WITH immortality.

  • Cyril Panshine

    This is all graet and inspiring, but first we need to get rid of parasitic governments, inducing wars, illness and destructive behaviour, remove parasitic money system, become compassion and service to others.

  • Cyril Panshine

    Also there is a more worthy research subject – cosciousness. It is a key. In 21th century it is already a proven fact that consciousness can sustain without a body, our future is more interesting that we could’ve imagined, eventually everything is a wave, energy, vibration.

    • Deven Kale

      “In 21th century it is already a proven fact that consciousness can sustain without a body”.

      That sounds interesting. Where can I read more on it?


        21th. pls. Also energy can’t stay in place – unless you meant something like cloud AI or other hivemind,

    • NLR


    • maximkazhenkov11 .

      Sounds like New Age BS.

  • Lucas

    Any idea on when that e-reader version is coming out? I’m waiting for it to start reading the article.

  • Jesse Jensen

    read this then watch total recall

    • Mars_Ultor

      2 weeks.. 2 weeks!

      • Jesse Jensen


  • Andreas

    Damn, Tim, every single post of yours is my monkey’s favorite playground and never fail to make me procrastinate. I kind of regretted to have been subscribed. Not really.

  • dan macphail

    Any chance of an article on electricity generation? You touched on it only briefly in the Tesla article and it seems like an equally important part of reducing carbon emissions; electrifying transport only helps if coal and gas can be displaced. From a practical perspective I can only see nuclear filling that gap in the short term, but in the US the NRC are working really hard to make that as difficult as possible; molten salt technology looks promising but the regulatory burden means it’s likely to be perfected elsewhere, in China or perhaps India or Canada.

    • maximkazhenkov11 .

      Check out the SolarCity post!

      • dan macphail

        It’s not really got much depth of analysis; solar can help deal with peak daytime loads like A/C but the idea that expensive luxuries like powerwalls are an answer is not realistic for anyone except the 1%. Electricity storage needs to be a lot cheaper before it can help fill the gap.

    • moderatesunite

      I would like to see that article!

      but your incorrect about the viability of renewables.

      For nuclear I have no particular bone against it, given the choice I personally would much prefer a nuclear to a new natural gas or coal plant, however, not everyone feels that way, and nuclear has several serious disadvantages(in addition to the waste, and security concerns, it takes a incredibly large investment to startup, most plants have gone very over budget, and the large amounts of water required make it a dubious energy choice for dry regions like the american southwest.)

      Also Nuclear is not really a “short term” solution because the barrier to changing the electric grid is how fast we retire old power plants and build new ones, so as long as we pick non-fossil fuel energy sources, picking one replacement over another doesn’t do much to increase the speed of transition, but if solar is less expensive than nuclear, or solar is more expensive than nuclear picking the more expensive option might marginally slow the rate of transition.

      recently though new wind and solar power plants have become less expensive than new natural gas power plants. In the United States more than 35% of new energy to come online has been renewable every year since 2006. and more than 50% of new energy to come online in 2014 was renewable (most of the rest was natural gas).

      This study also shows that renewables can nearly completely run the electric grid themselves, and the authors have come up with a detailed plan for every state in the United States.

  • Krzysztof Szczawinski

    thanks for the great article – just one small correction (someone probably pointed that out already, but just in case): the moon’s mass is about 1/80 of the mass of the Earth, and your weight on the moon is 1/6 as d is smaller

  • canego

    “The third attempt was supposed to be in June…but we all know what happened in June.”

    Sorry for ignorance… what the hell happened in june?

    • Edward Li

      The SpaceX rocket that was supposed to attempt the landing blew up.

      • canego

        thank’s 😉

    • Thomas Cronk

      A bad strut on the Falcon caused a lox containment failure which caused a rapid unscheduled disassembly to occur. Or put more simply, Boom.

      • maximkazhenkov11 .

        The answer is always more struts, just like in KSP 😉

      • Mars_Ultor

        lox containment failures can be managed by sesame seed bagels.

  • Wakefiled

    Amazing article as always. Tim posted some amazing pic and vids along the way, but I wanted to share one as well from earlier this year. It’s a 4K video of Andromeda and is maybe the most amazing space thing you will ever see – at least until the james webb gets launched.

    Seriously… sit back and enjoy and be beyond amazed:

  • Thanks for creating one of the best-written articles on space I’ve read in a long while! Took up probably too much of my day reading, but hey if you can’t research how someone is going to save our species then really what else is worth reading? Well done all around. See you on Mars in 2050.

  • Mark Monnin

    I’m curious what Part 4 is. You’ve already mentioned SolarCity in another post. What else is left?

  • maximkazhenkov11 .

    To all those who question the value of our species’ existence, those who think outright that the universe would be better off without us because we are destroying the environment and using up resources, here is my response:

    All life forms multiply and consume resources. These are part of the definition of life itself. Resources are only valuable in the eye of a consumer, so no life on Mars means the resources of Mars are completely useless. We can’t ruin anything because there is nothing to ruin. Things can only get better on Mars. I agree that human destruction of other species’ and our own living environment here on Earth is a issue of concern, but the majority of mankind has acknowledged this anyway, if only for our own benefit. I also think the existence of other species on Earth has value in itself and should be preserved, but at the same time it shouldn’t be compared to humans. I hate when people say that humans is just one of many lifeforms and not even a very successful one. Sure, bacteria make up more of Earth’s total biomass and can survive much harsher conditions, but then, rocks are even tougher and more plentiful. Single-celled organism is, retrospectively, just one element of the long chain of evolution from lifeless chemicals to conscious, thinking beings. We should cherish and value our existence and carry on this great climb towards complexity and beauty. We have the responsibility of preserving the only conscious and intelligent being that has ever arisen in this universe through billions of years of evolution and lucky coincidences. If we die out, nothing has meaning or value, because there is nobody that can assign meaning to things. The beauty of the universe remains undiscovered, unobserved, unexplored. That, alas, is my opinion on the meaning of our existence.

    • HammerOfThor

      Absolutely. Once on Mars, we should definitely be fruitful and multiply, to ensure our long-term survival. But I think that we’ve pretty much got the ‘multiply’ thing sorted here on Earth, and there’s no reason to grow our population here larger than it already is. In fact, we would almost certainly be fine with 1 billion people or even 100 million people. In fact, a less crowded Earth would _increase_ our chances of long-term survival.

  • Jonathan Hanning

    As some have mentioned, a big problem is the radiation that one would be exposed to.

    There are some theories that claims that Mars acctually once had both water in liquid form, and an atmosphere. But that the internal of Mars cooled down, which lead to a smaller magnetic field, resulting in that the solar wind just ripped the atmosphere out to space, cooling down the planet even more, and all remaining water turned to ice.

    Since I do not have the memory of Elon Musk, I will claim a few things (marked by numbers) below which I’ve heard or seen
    (mostly from documentaries which probably most revloved around theories, and should not be taken as absolute truth!)

    1/ There might be a lot more ice/water on mars then first believed.
    When one of the rovers (memory issue which one) damaged one of its legs, and got stucked in the sand. It used a snake-like movement pattern to continue moving forward, resulting in displacing much more sand than its normal movement would do. This resulting in something shining was unveiled under the sand, ICE!
    (And this was not around the poles)

    2/ Out of what I wrote above about some theories think that mars once had an atmosphere, why havn’t earth shared the same fate one might wonder ? Somewhere in some documentary I think I remember that one theory said, that except the fact that mars is smaller (earth radius 6371 km, mars radius 3389 km), we might have the moon to thank due to that it applies a gravitaional force, which cause a lot of friction (due to memory issue again, I think thats why there might be liquid water under the surface on (memory issue again about names, but think it is Europe and another one) some moons in our solar system, due to either the gravitational force from its planets or their rings.).

    And now the big final!
    3a/ If 2/ would be true, is it possible to build a moon for mars ?
    3b/ would that make any difference ?

    First 3a, say we had a lot of spaceships, a lot of time and money. Could we harvest the planet debree (as some call it) that hoovers between mars and jupiter, named the asteroid belt ?
    Many of those lumpy rocks contain iron and other metals, perfect for making a heavy solid body which could interact with Mars, if we just could get spacecraft going in shuttle trafic between Mars and the belt, bringing with them some rocks, and the plunge them into orbit around Mars (like we do with satellites), could we form a moon ?

    Then 3b/, 3a is not really worth doing if it wouldn’t change anything. So if anyone with better knowledge then me could do some calculations regarding the planetary effects of implementing a moon close to mars to heat up Mars inner core (which due to memory issues, I think I know consist of Iron, just as earth’s)
    Could we get a magnetic field worthy the name which could shield a future generation marsians ?

    This Idea I know is crazy and expensive, but hey, colonizing Mars doesn’t seem cheap anyway 🙂
    Tim please ask Elon this 😀

    • Zael

      Uh, Mars already has several moons, and we sure wouldn’t want to pollute the orbit of Mars, what with all of the prognosed traffic.

      • Jonathan Hanning

        Hi Zael,

        Maybe I was a bit unclear when I wrote “plunge them into orbit” I really meant building one moon, not several objects.

        Yes Mars got a few moons already, but compared to earth, they are very small, and does not interact namely with the core of Mars.

        But good point, we do not want several objects orbiting Mars, just one big.

        Best Regards

        • Zael

          I thought some of the existing ones were considered for habitation as well..? Are they really that small?

          • Jonathan Hanning

            Not as I understood it, I think there are other moons that is more interesting in that sense.

            Well, when it comes to space, everything is relative, but they are so small that the gravity itself hasn’t made them into a sphere, therefore, their dimensions are.

            Phobos 27 x 22 x 18, and Deimos 15 x 12.2 x 11 km.
            That should be compared to our moon, which has a radius of 1737 km.
            Also when comparing mass, both Phobos and Deimos are really small compared to the Moon, they are thought to be asteroids captured by Mars gravity. While our moon (atleast according to a mainstream theory) is believed to be the result of two planets colliding a long time ago (“Earth” and a planet named Theia).

            So I think we could do with a little more mass on those tiny rocks 🙂

            See these links for more info

            Best Regards

  • sacocheio

    I don’t know if I missed something.
    From a social point of view, how to make it work in such a tough environment, with people stressed by the pressure of living in an alien planet?

    Did Elon Musk say something about it?

    • HammerOfThor

      It should be obvious that the Mars colony would – at least at first – be under the influence and control of the United States. An analogy would be the British empire exerting control during the colonial period. Of course, every major power on Earth will try to exert influence on Mars. China, USA, Russia, and many others, but the USA has by far the most leverage and the most likely chance of making it happen. By dispatching loyalists to the colony and trying to set up a police force and government with laws modelled on the American system, they’ll make sure that ‘American interests are protected.’ The ‘interests’, here, aren’t economical but rather strategic in nature. The USA would not want the possibility of a new superpower emerging. Over time, the people on Mars would grow stronger and have a revolution of their own and establish their own government, just like many other colonies right here on Earth. The difference this time is that both sides would have access to nuclear weapons. If you think about the consequences, it becomes chilling. Superpowers have been reluctant to wage mass nuclear war on Earth because they were in the same biosphere and the long-term effects of nuclear war affect everyone. But would the USA have the same compunctions about nuclear orbital bombardment of Mars? Especially if it thought that it had become an existential threat? Maybe. Maybe not.

      • sacocheio

        Great developement of my question. I was thinking at first in local conflicts. But it can eventually evolve to a war of the worlds.
        So many questions… Will the martians have ways to gather enough money to buy a ticket back to Earth, maybe for their martian kids have a different life? Are they trapped till death? Would they want to hijack a spaceship? Could it become too dangerous to land on Mars?

        • Mairsx

          Best to set up me as an Emperor right away. Ill just do funky drugs all day and go around riding giant sand worms. And kick ass, of course, so there will always be peace.

          btw, setting up a replica of US or any other country will prove to be impossible and wont ever work. Mars will become independent since day one in truth. A new world. New reality will override all such attempts who wont ever become anything then superficial wastes of time and energy.

        • Wroomy

          Regarding the ticket back. Elon says that the return ticket is paid for in the 500k

    • sacocheio

      Some words about this discussion:
      “An astrobiologist says this is how we can avoid the first interplanetary war with Mars”

    • Jonathan

      Page 5, footnote 4: While we were on the topic, I asked Musk what he thought the government of Mars would be like. His answer: “Creating the Mars government will be like creating the United States. It’s an opportunity to reboot government and say from first principles, ‘What should government look like?’ I suspect people would do more of direct democracy than representative one. In the old days, it would take three months to take a vote—there was no mail system, mail barely worked and would take weeks, and a lot of people couldn’t read or write. It was extremely unwieldy so they had to have a representative democracy. On Mars, there could be instant electronic voting on issues, which would be much less subject to corruption, and laws could be made way simpler—you’d put a word limit on law.”

      • sacocheio

        Sorry but I don’t buy it.
        Who will carry the guns? THEY will rule Mars. That’s mankind. That’s human nature.

        • simo

          Why does anyone need guns? Who’s going to threaten anyone or commit any crime on a completely empty planet? There’s no law to break. Anyone who doesn’t want to work towards the goal will find themselves alone on an uninhabitable planet. Nobody is going to go to Mars just to cause havoc. It would be worth their life.

          • François

            Some people tend to snap under pressure. Living on an empty planet where there are so many reasons you could die sounds like pressure enough to me.
            Unfortunate, but crime on Mars will happen.

          • sacocheio

            People will commit crime in Mars for the exact same reason they commit here. I’m sure they will fight for resources in such a harsh enviroment. You change the planet, but you don’t change people.
            If a stronger man threatens your family or robs your, maybe you will grab something to defend yourself.
            And there goes the pacifism utopia.

            • Arnt Joakim Wrålsen

              Good point. I don’t think humans would be any better or worse on Mars than on Earth. In other words, you would have crime and people doing bad things, but you would also have humans being kind and doing nice stuff to each others. 🙂

            • sacocheio

              We hope these are in greater number 🙂

  • Andreas

    Would be interesting to see what a large Mars-colony would do to the concepts of nations and nationalities. Who needs countries anyway? 😉

    • Bagel

      Antarctica and the Antarctic Treaty System are the perfect examples of how nations can come together to suspend geopolitics and war in a given space.

  • Alex Esponda

    This is by far one of the best articles I have read in a long time, very inspiring. Makes you wonder and dream so many things about the future. Elon Musk is an incredible individual, its incredible how he has created new markets and destroyed old business models.

  • Cristhyano de Paula

    I think one of the most difficult things will be creating a closed environment in Mars. They try here on our planet to create closed ecological system like Biosphere 2 and they fail. Imagine that on another planet.

    • anandsr

      IMO. Biosphere 2 failed because they decided not to fix the systems failings. Its not about living in an enclosure without anything going in or out. Its about an enclosed system, which can control very minutely anything that goes in and out. And then learn what needs to be fixed at what rate and what can and should be added to the system or removed.

      The colony on Mars will not be a completely closed system. People will be going in and coming out at that 2 year point. Also at other points they will monitor the atmosphere, heat etc, and add heat and oxygen/CO2 as needed. Mars has CO2 and H2O, and should have most minerals in the ground. They will need to bring or grow animals and plants.

      Wish the Biosphere had made their goals better it could have provided a lot more useful information.

    • Eric Dahlstrom

      Keep in mind that the story about Biosphere 2 has been written by people who opposed the project from the start. For one, people seem to forget that the point of an experiment is to learn things. (As opposed to taking zero risks and declaring success.) In this case, they learned that concrete continued to absorb oxygen for years, their approach of ‘seek system stability by replicating ecosystems with large number of species’ worked in many cases, but not with respect to controlling insects. People who have complained about the ‘unscientific approach’ have never looked at the Biosphere 2 spreadsheets that tracked the hundreds of species in real time. Also, they learned the psychological dynamics of 8 people enclosed for two years were significant. The NASA funded ‘try one wheat species, and work up to 3 species in 10 years’ approach tried to shut down Biosphere 2 from day one. And most people did not understand that Biosphere 2 was a private research project, not government funded. Certainly there is much more to learn in this area. But current efforts have a long way to go before they approach what Biosphere 2 achieved.

  • ClaraW

    Great post. The main concern that sticks with me is that the Venn diagram is incomplete. The idea that Mars colonization will be paid for by a million people who can afford a $500K launch is appealing, but perhaps a better model would be to find half a million people who can afford a $1M launch – their own and that of a young, healthy, strong, well-socialized, well-educated specialist who can both build and understand a piece of the infrastructure needed for survival.

    It may well be that SpaceX and government subsidies will pay for the workforce, but there are a lot of demanding prerequisites in terms of health, willingness to be away from family or to be able to bring a spouse who is a contributing member of the workforce, willingness to delay having children, having the right psychological mentality, etc. Consider that pretty dome up above. Then consider the kind of people who are capable of building that. Material scientists and chemists to study the interaction of building materials with the Martian atmosphere. Biologists to determine the ability of the environment to meet the needs of the people living inside. Structural and civil engineers. Construction managers. Construction workers. While much of this would already have been worked out on Earth, the slow rate of communication would make it necessary for there to be several experts on site to deal with unforeseen issues. Most of these are people who expect to be paid for a difficult and high risk job, not people who have $500K to spend in order to potentially never return to Earth. Certainly SpaceX’s other ventures should have a lot of money to put toward launching these people, but it seems as if they will be the first colonists and not the rich person looking for a grand adventure.

    • James

      I agree, the very first people will all need to be specialists who can contribute to the effort. No space for anyone who can’t contribute. After some of the initial infrastructure is completed, then more “normal” average people will be able to go and set up. Likely, governments will want to send their own people to establish bases. Could end up with several different Earth domes, each a different nationality, in the beginning. Hopefully we won’t repeat the same mistakes we’ve made on Earth, on Mars.

  • Shikha Agarwal

    You missed out ISRO’s Chandrayaan which is a pretty big deal compared to the other probes you had on your list.

    • Sahil Sharma

      In the larger scheme of things? I think not. All the probes he’s mentioned have been of epic proportions in terms of what they have done for humanity. Granted that Mangalyaan was amazing in the sense that it was completely indigenous – which is a great feat considering the restrictions which had been imposed on India – but it has hardly done any ground-breaking work.

      • Shikha Agarwal

        Yeah I realized that after reading the whole post. You’re right.

  • Jeff Delaune

    As to why GPS satellites have an orbital period based on the sidereal day and not the normal (solar) day: this makes ground-satellite configurations repeatable. Every 23h56min, a user at the surface of the Earth sees the same satellites at the same positions in the sky. A repeatable configuration can be critical for some experiments.

    Since the orbital planes don’t rotate with the Earth but stay fixed with respect to an inertial frame (~directions of stars, consequence of Kepler’s 1st law), using a multiple of the sidereal day is really the only way to make it possible.

    I found more details here:

  • This is incredible Tim! I was hopeful (though a bit skeptical) about putting people on Mars before reading this, but now I’m excited about it. You have a way of writing that really resonates with my inner, curious childhood-self. You also write in a way that I feel you’re in front of me explaining it all, blowing my mind in the process. Keep up the incredible work! I also suggest that for longer posts like these, you break them into pages like you did (such as with the Tesla post). It made it a lot easier to read, and it seemed like I was reading 5 articles in a series than one long one.

  • cotpoe

    Brilliant article again Tim. Great effort and very well structured piece of work. You have a gift of story-telling – the simple structured overarching manner of your writing style is riveting. All the accolades and pats on your back for this supreme effort.

    Hats off to Musk for undertaking a great mission with SpaceX which I am sure will have great positive ripple effects and get the ball rolling in starting a new greater conversation about the forest rather than the quagmire of trees our economic/political and technological endevours generally get are stuck in. While I am sure there will be a great many more obstacles in the goal for a million strong colony on Mars that have not even be visualized right now – the fact that this great project has started off the starting blocks in that direction will surely count as a pivotal “adventure” frontier push and inspire many more such projects in the coming centuries.

    Your description of the fragility of life and the hostile nature of the universe over greater time scales was esp. poignant. When viewed from a species and civilization perspective, it really does seem puzzling that we as a sentient species are not getting our butts off and doing everything possible to add redundancy to our civilization.

    That seems to be pivotal great barrier ahead of us in my view. While the past barriers – cosmological and geological events seem to be more of happenstance and luck – of giving our species the stable 100,000-millions years to become sentient and overcome the physical and natural obstacles so that we were not annihilated before we even reached the current inflection point of accelerating scientific and technological progress – the barriers of the future are entirely of our own making.

    While our scientific and tech know-how collectively is growing at an accelerating pace, our institutions are centuries old and worse our thought process – the self-interested short-term profit zero-sum power game paradigm is even older.

    As you have correctly highlighted – our problems as a civilization are not science or technology any more but rather the socio-economic and military/political organization of our power structures. The real game-changer of what Musk is doing is not technological but rather the middle finger he is showing to the terrible ossified monster of the military-industrial-financial-political power complex that revels in maintaining the status quo and parasitic wealth extraction.

    It truly is a sad description of the state of our collective thought when pretty much all our progress is the outcome of the competitive war machines – the nuclear/computer/space domain leaps have all been a function of this competitive power game play. I believe the next paradigm advancements of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence/Quantum computers will also be result of the same war apparatus given the recent revelations of the orwellian intelligence apparatus the likes of NSA etc are building.

    While the work Musk is doing is a great first half of the project – showcasing the best of entrepreneur can-do spirit and hoping to create a spill-over effect on the mass economy with 500K $ tickets – it is the other side of the story that is concerning.

    In the current international power framework – with the hugely rigged state-corporate apparatus and the games of StateCraft in the interest of “national security” it is truly naive to think such free projects like this Mars colony and the associated technology would be allowed to be developed in a free manner (like for example the Americas in an earlier age) without being captured by the Power complex in national interest of course.

    This is of course excluding the fragile caricature our international financial/economic system has become with the mass market maniputation and rigged scene and increasing capture of economic wealth within a small concentration and wiping out of middle classes. The free-capitalism economic adventure of 500K$ tickets may be derailed by this second factor.

    What seems sadly more likely is that the initial efforts of Musk and the like will be eventually captured by the Power complex ( in national interest etc of course) and the next couple of centuries will largely have Mars and the Moons Europa, Io etc becoming a new domain for the great Power Games shifted to a new wild west. This is likely to be accompanied by some truly devastating wars – after all when everyone is not restricted to this fragile beautiful blue dot – all games of MAD are off.

    Perhaps I am being pessimistic but given the history so far and current trends unless we are faced with an Other (some advanced alien race) or major event ( asteriod etc) that force us to suspend our power games and get off our butt to do something for our collective existence, human short-term narrow selfish-interest in-fighting is not going to disappear just because we happen to get off the gravity well of Earth.

    While science and tech march is irreversible ( barring a major wiping off cataclysmic event) and inevitably we will get off the gravity well of Earth towards colonization of solar system and beyond, what is not definite is whether we as a species will overcome our collective insanity and doom ourselves with our own creations due to the primitive destructive power tendencies.

    Though in any event, Musk’s great Mars project will go down in history as a brave and bold attempt to overcome our short-sighted nature. It is Musk’s vision of thinking at a species level – to back up our hard drives etc and think in a more enlightened long term manner that to me his singular greatest achievement. If through his Mars project ( no matter whether it is a short term technical success failure) he is able to start a conversation and eventually a paradigm shift in our collective mass thinking to broaden our indentities, reject age-old insane destructive power game and divisive power complexes and unite as a civilization in a higher aspiration to reach for the stars coupled with grow as individuals – then to me he will definitely be a proverbial Hero for humanity. More that the tech side, it is this collective higher aspiration and fight against the entrenched power complexes ( that will inevitably short-shortsightedly lead us off the cliff) that I give my best wishes a support to him for. Best wishes for everything and all that. Cheers

  • TroubledMind

    Do you think augmenting the human genome will someday play an important part in human multiplanet colonization? Right now it is prohibited, but it may allow us to more quickly biologically adapt to different environments of different planets.

    • James

      Why would they prohibit that? Seems so unlike science to NOT experiment and try something.

  • Yiorko Chaz

    Am I the only one who found this inspiring, yet entirely unconvincing? (yes I read the whole thing)

  • Bagel

    Thank you Tim for a great post. I was carried along convinced by your argument, but then I thought of Antarctica and a couple of questions popped up:

    1. Why don’t we have a million people on Antarctica? Of course it would be ecologically devastating, difficult ezc, but still easier than Mars.. I completely understand the importance of setting up a colony on Mars, but then Antarctica?

    2. The political system. Again Antarctica is a brilliant example. Parts of it are claimed by different countries, but all those claims were suspended in perpetuity through the Antarctic Treaty System. The entire continent is now held as a heritage of mankind, so for instance property cannot be owned on Antarctica. Also no arms are allowed, and any of the countries that are a part of the ATS can inspect the others to ensure this at any time. Similarly for the Moon treaty.

    Space law and politics are fascinating topics, which in the case of Mars naturally flow from your post. I get the feeling that the entire imagination of Musk and your own treat America as the prime example of what or how Mars will progress, but Antarctica might be a more current and likely model for any future Martian colony

    • maximkazhenkov11 .

      I think the reason we are not colonizing Antarctica is not that we can’t, but that we don’t want to. We have settled virtually all other corners of the world and it took great effort that at least this one place remains untouched. In fact, I think the Antarctic Treaty was a great triumph for international politics, considering the oil and mineral resources on that continent and STILL having all countries abide by the rule.

    • gopher652003

      There is nothing we want on Antarctica. It won’t help back up humanity. It has no natural resources that are accessible. It has no value to us. It isn’t even much of an adventure.

  • Steve

    Great read Tim. One question, if we are able to nail Nuclear Fusion does that remove the need for fossil fuels (and potentially greatly reduce the cost of travel)?

    • gopher652003

      Yes and no. We’d need a small, mobile, aneutronic fusion reactor that produces at least 100 times as much energy as it takes to create the reaction. And some way to extract energy from the plasma at a high efficiency (let’s say 80%). Oh, and most importantly some form of magic heat dissipation technology to get rid of the other 20% of the heat that you can’t extract energy from or push back into the reaction. On Earth we dump that waste heat from power plants into cooling towers or straight into rivers, but you can’t do that in space. You’re just… stuck with the heat, which quickly kills you. The gigawatt level reactor you’d need to make space travel quick and easy would melt the spacecraft around it in mere moments.

      Waste heat is one of those things that they really gloss over in scifi. It’s easy to handwave away something like FTL or artificial gravity because people just don’t understand why those are essentially impossible (simulated gravity is possible. Artificial gravity, probably not). But heat? Everyone understands that. Everyone knows how hard it is to cool down something when its hot. So scifi writers just ignore the problem. But really, it’s the biggest problem in spacetravel. And one that may not be surmountable.

  • Loius

    Am I the only one who is worried that (from the picture on page four) this high tech, future of mankind, merlin rocket engine is held together by duct tape !?!? :O

  • Maulcux

    Things might seem crazy and illogical as we don’t have enough understanding on top of it.

    But this is the most crazy things I’ve been sure illogical only then realize I was just too dumb to understand the whole things..

    Thanks Wait But Why​ for such a great post

  • François

    My main concerns is: can human beings really live & strive under 38% of Earth’s gravity ? I’m not sure just exercising daily really makes the deal if you’re staying for years.

    • François

      Also, kids born and/or raised on Mars. They would never develop the necessary bone structure & muscle to be able to go to Earth. Osteoporosis as a great risk.
      They would probably turn super tall, as a side effect!

      • Jerry Bradbury

        Yes. What you get is a new race adapted to their planet. Real Martians.

        • Arlekin

          Though as long as they can mate with… earthlings (?)… they couldn’t be considered different species i guess.

          • James

            That’s what I was thinking about too, either somehow make artificial gravity within the Mars enclosure, or find a way to live healthily with low gravity. Humans are very adaptive, maybe after several generations of Osteoporosis and bad health, we will begin to adapt to the low gravity? We’ll likely be very skinny with little muscle mass though, since everything will weigh so little and we won’t need the muscle. Will have to change our definitions of whats attractive

    • Andrew Browne

      I agree. This is a pretty big question to the goal of >1 million people sustainable Mars colony.
      What if we get 1 million people there then due to lower gravity, many get sick, or fertility rates drop?

  • François

    Also, there are so many people, governments, corporations & shadowy agencies that probably want to kill Musk by now…
    For SpaceX ruining the cushy space business for a lot of people, mainly, but Tesla as well on automotive. If Musk really creates his satellite internet business, a lot of censorship-bent governements won’t like that one bit either.

  • dansmith21

    A couple things that always seem missing from stories like this:

    – You can also try to preserve the species by building isolated colonies here on Earth (underground, Antarctica, etc.) — and that lets you skip right to Phase 3, without all the rocket stuff. What’s the down side? How many of the feared mass extinction events would really wipe out every human on Earth, even those in an isolated colony?

    – How hard is it to take off from the surface of Mars for the return trip? On Earth we require huge amounts of infrastructure, including rocket stages, scaffoldings, intensive human preparation effort, …. I realize gravity is much weaker on Mars, but is it weak enough for this to be trivial?

    • Jake Ramos

      For your second point:

      Mars’ gravity being a third of ours allows for lesser fuel and a smaller ship. When we left the surface of the Moon on the LEM, we only needed a really small upper stage much smaller than a studio apartment to get to Low Lunar Orbit. A similar design scaled for Mars will be used in these flights. I highly recommend reading Zubrin’s “A Case for Mars.” An entirely automated ship will land, be re-fueled, and ascend to meet up with a transit stage waiting in Mars orbit. It won’t be trivial as such cases are completely mission critical. But it is not a showstopper.

      For your first point:

      You are correct in saying that it would be far simpler to colonise otherwise uninhabitable places on Earth like Antarctica or underground. But the business with rockets is a problem we have to solve anyway. Transport through the vacuum of space is already a business. It is a technology we will have to master as we reach out into space and as the Earth gets closer to its definite expiration date in the far future. The article makes a point in saying that the usage and mastery of this technology exists in a window of time that is wholly finite and closing. It’s a big window in terms of human lifespan. But in the grand timescales of the cosmos, it is fleeting and tenuous.

      I’m willing to admit that we should practice the endeavour here on Earth. But the Earth is a comfort zone for humanity. One that will not last forever. To truly test our strength, we will need to wade out into the shallows and break in our boats.

    • Adam Collet

      Plenty of the potential extinction events would effect, and possibly destroy, such colonies. Some of them would also destroy colonies on Mars, which is why *eventually* in the LONG term we need to get out of this solar system too.
      But there are other reasons why Mars is both more likely and more important. The biggest being that it’s more exciting, and that makes it more likely to happen both in terms of someone pushing the tech (witness, obviously, Musk) and in people wanting to participate. Just watch that last video. Also, in drastically reducing space travel costs, it massively improves our research capabilities, and opens up whole new economies based on mining resources of other planetary bodies.

  • Kateryna Strypko

    You wrote: ““My family fears that the Russians will assassinate me.” I think they have got other problems on board which they need to solve

  • Brian Gehring

    Familiar with the Kim Stanley Robinson Mars series (Red, Blue, Green)?? It is amazing how these books have predicted the methodology in such detail of the upcoming Mars exploration/colonization. Anyone who enjoyed this series would enjoy and learn from those books too.

    • Mehmet Kutluay

      I was just about to put something here about the Mars series. Well worth the read if you found this interesting!

    • StarDam

      All through this post i was expecting Tim to reveal Mars trilogy as Elon’s inspiration. I would be really surprised if he were not aware of it (and read it repeatedly) at the time he came up with his master plan.

    • Zeptonn

      yes, can’t believe Red Mars (and Blue & Green) hasn’t been mentioned in this post at all! Amazing book series, Kim Stanley Robinson has been obsessed with (the colonization of) Mars for a long time and has thought through (or has been advised about) lots of details. Like radiation issues during the voyage to Mars, super fine dust while living at Mars, accidents, disease, and so on. While I’ve enjoyed this post immensely, I found the part about the actual colony, living there, terraforming, way too easy going. This is not going to be like moving to the Americas in the 1600s, it’s going to be much much harder. Red Mars gives a really good impression of that.

  • Orkhan Jafarov

    Is anyone else reading this listening to the OST of Interstellar?

    • Bob

      Yup, it was rad! Also the OST for Solaris and’s Deep Space channel.

  • Arlekin

    Does anyone else thinks it would be awesome if Randall, Tim, and Elon did something together ? Like literaly anything. Three curious minds like this – it’d have to be awesome 😉

    • I know that my question is completely ignorant, but who is Randall?

      • Arlekin

        Well, its my fault rather. I meant Randall Munroe – creator of xkcd comics and “what if” series.

  • GrumpyBarista

    Only the first two shuttle tanks were painted before they decided to save weight by leaving the orange-insulated surface bare. Apparently the curiosity level of this remained low enough not to bother with a blue footnote. Yet, here I decided to go on about it, anyway.

  • Sandor Montelez

    Great Post! I follow most of the arguments and the economics of the endeavor.
    The only caveat i have is: i can’t think of any incentive why one would take the time, risk and effort to go to mars. And reasons in the post – i find unconvincing.
    Being among the first to go to mars would guaranty fame and social recognition on par with armstrong, if not above – after returning. Being nr. 2 would still make you a local hero. so this might be worth the effort – for some.
    But being nr. 1000 on Mars, taking much the same effort as nr. 1, living 2 years under super harsh conditions, doesn’t seem to pay off. the conquerors of america didn’t go there for the sake of mankind, but for taking personal advantage of the opportunities there. Nr. 1000 would come back empty-handed from mars, and with a story already told 999 times – nobody would listen.
    Staying on Mars would be a harsh life for each with very limited future prospects in what humans crave for most; mating, bringing up children, being close to loved ones, climbing up the social leader etc.. apart from a few dropouts.
    So we would need to pay those pioneers handsomely. To safe on that costs probably prisoners would be an option for rank and file personnel – which would kind of smell like turning utopia into dystopia from the start.
    So on that pivotal point the social-economics don’t seem to add up yet.

    • James

      Life in the beginning would be harsh and hard, but it would literally have limitless opportunities. You could be the first person to do/establish X making you very important in Mars society and likely wealthy. And you could go alone yes, or bring your mate/family with you so you aren’t alone and have your loved ones with you. All very much like the first settlers from Europe to America.

      • Sandor Montelez

        still, it’s the timeframe for the pioneers which sucks – at least at the beginnings – and the beginnings alone would take decades.

    • James Ryan

      What would they spend their generous remuneration on exactly

      • Sandor Montelez

        You have not fully fathomed my point. Most of the first pioneers (which sounds like a pleonasm) would have only an incentive to build up, if they could go back – as somehow lined out in the post – not the first days would be harsh on all terms, but the first decades, at least.

  • Nikhil

    Absolutely stellar article, I don’t need to embellish anymore than everyone else already has. Thank you, Tim.

    The one thing I have to say is, in the infinite theories I have read, about where everyone else is, or that there must be earth like planets and some species in far off galaxies who can sustain that environment, why do we assume that the ‘earth-like’ climate or an earth-like planet is the most conducive to live? There can be completely different type of species in completely different sort of settings, who’d find earth climate devastating for them, just like Mercury or Venus for us. And that’s the reason why I think there could living things in far off galaxies, but no necessarily on earth-like planets.

    • James

      This is what I’ve always thought too, just because biology on Earth is carbon based and needs Earth’s conditions, doesn’t mean every life in the universe HAS to be the same. Life could have developed and adapted and evolved to its surroundings on a different planet, with vastly different conditions than Earth. Seems vain to assume our model for life is the only one possible out of all the billion of galaxies.

      • Jesse Jensen

        yeah but seeing as all life we have ever seen needs liquid water its a good place to start, sure life might live on venus like planets, but we havnt seen it so with the small resources we have to look for life its smart to start looking for places we know life could live, earth like conditions. derp

    • Shikha Agarwal

      Exactly. I was also thinking about how replicating life on Earth on another planet might just be defeating the whole point of advancing as a species and how it might actually be repeating a mistake that we don’t realize. But then that brings up a whole new point of discussion, doesn’t it? One where you’re talking about a whole different kind of Life itself. Something like what James has also said here.

    • moderatesunite

      there really is no “assumption” on the part of scientists or writers that earth like life is the only type of life out there.
      The thing is thing is that there is no way to test or look for non-earth like life, because we don’t know anything about it.
      So as a result, any talk of life unlike earth life is pure speculation, without any way to test it scientifically.
      There are plenty of science fiction writers, and scientist who are willing to speculate about what might be possible, but with no way to test for it, or evidence it exists, it makes sense to first look for earth-like life that we sort of understand.
      Actually even with earth like life, finding it even it exists could be surprisingly hard, lots of bacteria on earth don’t form cultures, and for bacteria that don’t form cultures, even finding it and cataloging is extremely difficult and expensive for most biologists. In addition we recently found that there is a significant amount of “mystery DNA” even in the human body, that does not come from the human genome or known bacteria.
      So yes in a very big universe there could be something completely different out there, but we still don’t even understand earth like life fully, and until we get a lot better, at studying, identifying, and understanding earth like life, it doesn’t make much practical sense to talk about it unless we get some evidence that it actually exists and come up with a way to test for it.

  • Does anyone have more info about the quote at the top of the first page? Is that something that Tim just invented out of the blue? It certainly sounds like a reference, but I can’t find anything about it online.

    Also, this article (and the Fermi Paradox page) should be required reading for everyone on the planet. Thanks for the wonderful work, Tim.

    • Madame Blue

      “2365 AD, Ganymede,” is a vignette Tim wrote to introduce the article, just his imagination’s peek into humanity’s possible future.

  • Jake Ramos

    I would really like to contest the whole, “Mars Doesn’t Have a Magnetosphere So We Shouldn’t Bother” kind of thinking in the comment section.

    I understand the issue: Without a proper magnetosphere, any attempt at colonising Mars will be difficult if not lethal. Others speculate that without a magnetosphere, retaining a habitable atmosphere would be impossible as Mars’ atmosphere today has been blasted off thanks to the sun’s ionising effects.

    This is true in the barest sense. But understand that all this is only true without human intervention. Any habitable atmosphere manufactured Mars will be unlike Earth in the sense that its environment will have to be continuously replenished. A difficult task but a possible task nonetheless. And even an unmaintained atmosphere would last for many millennia. The process that eroded Mars’ current atmosphere was slow and so will a new one be if it isn’t continuously maintained. Which it will be.

    Another point is that Venus, like Mars, exists without a magnetic field. Like Mars, Venus’ internal core has long-stopped rotating, exposing the planet to far more ionising radiation than either Earth or Mars. But despite all this, the planet contains one of the thickest atmospheres for any terrestrial world in our solar system. This is because its own atmosphere is thick enough to function as a replacements for the planet’s late magnetic field.

    A thick enough atmosphere can deflect solar radiation. There is precedent even in our own solar system.

    Radiation will be a problem as we traverse the vacuum of space. But it is a solvable problem.

  • Adrian Meli

    Well done Tim

  • Adam Collet

    What is part 4 of the series? We’ve covered Musk himself (and in it, what is really just a means to several ends, PayPal), we’ve covered Tesla, we’ve covered SpaceX, Solar, Hyperloop … even covered AI. As far as I can tell that’s all of Musk’s big ventures. The only thing I can maybe see is genetic engineering since that is one of the Big Problems Musk identified, but like AI he has no interest in touching it (and also, note that the AI post isn’t counted as being part of the main Musk series, only the about Musk, Tesla and SpaceX are).


  • Shikha Agarwal

    I took my time to read this and it was completely worth the snail speed because I enjoyed every bit of this post thoroughly. I just have one question. You’ve explained about how communicating between solar systems would warp time as you’d have to wait 20 years for a response, etc. But I wanted to know: How would Time work for people traveling back and forth between Earth and Mars?

    • Arnt Joakim Wrålsen

      If you’re thinking about the classic thought experiment of an astronaut travelling at very high speeds and aging much slower than her Earth-bound twin: This effect only really comes into play when travelling at near-light speeds. The shuttle between Earth and Mars would likely go a lot slower than that and so we wouldn’t really have any of this weird time distortion stuff going on.

      The reason it takes so long to send messages between Earth and Mars is simply because of the long distances involved. When the distance between two points is long enough, even lightning-fast electronic communication will need some time to carry information between these two points. The same type of time delay also happens when you have a Skype conversation on Earth, the distances on Earth are just so short (relatively) that you don’t really notice this delay.

      • Shikha Agarwal

        Yeah, I got the part about sending messages to Earth and back. About the time distortion, I was just thinking about the part where Tim talked about how a rocket would need to reach a critical velocity in order to fall into orbit and stay in it. So, excuse me if I’m being too naive, but wouldn’t that be near-light speed? Or would it be far from it? Because, then, I understand what you said about time distortion.

        • Arnt Joakim Wrålsen

          In order to experience a time dilation you would have to go at least about 10% of light speed. That is 30,000,000 metres per second. The escape velocity on Earth is about 11,200 metres per seconds. In other words, not even close. 🙂

          • Shikha Agarwal

            Haha. Now I do feel stupid. But thanks a lot! Got it.

            • Jesse Jensen

              no such thing as a stupid question

    • Eric Dahlstrom

      In terms of relativity effects, time dilation, etc., Mars is still very close, and the interplanetary speeds are not that large. (Earth orbits the Sun at about 30 kilometers per second, which is only about 0.0001 times the speed of light.) But the time delay in communication with Mars would be significant. At closest, Mars to Earth communication is about 4 minutes, one-way. (Or 8 minutes round trip.) At the farthest part of it’s orbit, Mars is on the other side of the Sun, and can be 24 minutes away, one-way.

      Last month my students at International Space University in Ohio simulated a Mars mission with an 8-minute round trip communication with Mission Control. Thanks to NEPTEC and CSA, the students were driving a large rover in Canada with a few second time delay. They could ask Mission Control a question, and get a reply 8 minutes later. One of the first times the students got a time-delayed response to a question from Mission Control, they had already moved on to their next activity. Mission Control spoke with some advice, and then all the students looked at each other and said – “worthless.” 🙂

      Well, the point was to learn what a mission would be like. I wonder if they will show this kind of effect in the movie “The Martian” in October.

  • Madame Blue

    I also took my time to read this book – errr, I mean article. As a late-fortysomething (ok, 49) who remembers seeing Apollo 11’s reentry into the atmosphere, I am intrigued and excited by Musk’s proposal to colonize Mars. My skepticism is in high gear, and I’m not sure it will actually happen, but am curious where the attempt might take us.

  • Kent Johnson

    Amazing read, inspiring. So great that Musk is such a visionary.

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  • carolyncastaneda

    Access Best Thinks wait. Read More

  • Arnt Joakim Wrålsen

    Thanks for a great post! I didn’t mind the length at all, on the contrary. It was fantastic to go through the post in all this detail. A delightful way to use a Sunday afternoon. 🙂

  • Felix Schaumann

    I enjoyed reading very much, just like the AI post it really altered my view for our future.
    But I am wondering why you never even mentioned the AI problem.
    As far as I understood it, it will definitely affect us as a species probably within this century.
    Having backed up the hard drive on Mars will save us from any existential catastrophy in Earth, but the most likely threat soon to come is ASI and a superintelligence would affect our species on Mars as much as on Earth.
    And, if we somehow manage to conquer the ASI, not to get extinct and develop to some kind of posthuman civilisation, it would be a lot easier for us to come up with even better ways for colonizing other planets, probably also in this century.
    So, in my view the SpaceX program is fascinating and great but it can’t save us from unfreindly ASI and is definitely a laughable concept to what friendly ASI could come up with.
    So I fear that at the point when we reach artificial superintelligence the SpaceX efforts will lose their importance and I would feel a lot safer if the great thinkers like Musk dedicated their time primarily to the AI problem.

    • Shikha Agarwal

      Keeping the complete AI post in mind and agreeing with your point of view, I’d also like to add another perspective. Disadvantages aside, AI raises a lot of possible explanations of us, humans, uploading our entire consciousness online and instead of creating AI, transforming into it. So maybe evolving into an AI era instead of just merely creating it, we might be more equipped to go on to Mars so both these future-altering concepts might be occurring simultaneously and mutually. So in case ASI is not a threat, and we do manage to achieve some kind of immortality by creating a virtual space for our eternal existence, we might be doing good to focus on being a multi-planetary species.

    • Zenstrive

      Read books by John Scalzi.

    • Mark Gasb

      This is exactly what I was thinking. Mars is only relevant if we can’t develop an ASI. However, if we do develop an ASI, then ALL current human endeavors become irrelevant, not only SpaceX, right? If we think like this we may all drop out of school, quit our jobs, and go to the beach and wait for the ASI. All except for computer scientists, that is.

  • rockfish66

    Great site. Great article. I just finished the Musk bio and this adds some welcome additional color.
    I am a huge fan of Space X and watch every launch. (I had the misfortune of watching CRS7 launch live with my 3 yo. Needed to do some serious explaining there!) I do, however, have 2 issues with the whole Mars thing:
    1) Death. Musk has not had to deal yet with any of his endeavors having a body count. Eventually he will. The post CRS7 memo about how “$h1t happens” won’t really cut it when ( not if) a Dragon failure results in 7 lost astronauts. It’s one thing when space exploration is a national identity thing, and a sacrifice for the cause is something you can rationalize. That’s not the same when a for profit private company kills people. And let’s understand, sending 1 million people to Mars with a 99.9% launch success rate means 1000 people will die. I would think a large proportion of them would be the early colonists. That darkens the self reinforcing marketing narrative quite a bit.
    2) Terraformimg is not just melting water and growing plants. Our ecosystem depends on millions of other life forms to function, most of whom we have not even begun to identify. To think we can melt a little water and be hiking in Martian forests in a couple hundred years is naive beyond imagination. We only recently started to understand the critical role of whale poop in earths ecosystem. There is so much we don’t even know we don’t know. Does SpaceX plan to have a vehicle that can transport whales to Mars? If there’s not a massive Noah’s Ark plan in place, we’ll be living in bubbles on Mars for ever.

    • Jesse Jensen

      would be amazing to transport fish and marine life to europa

      • gopher652003

        They couldn’t live there. Nothing larger than the smallest shrimp you could imagine could derive enough energy from the core heat of Europa to survive. Plus, the ocean is extremely deep, and under 20km of ice. Nothing from Earth could survive at those pressures and energy levels.

        (Lifeforms in any given environment are limited by the inputs of energy into that environment. This is because of the second law of thermodynamics. Life does not violate it:P. Europa’s oceans receive truly tiny amounts of energy compared to the oceans (or surface) of Earth. Enough for basic life, probably. Enough for sharks or whales to exist? Absolutely 100% not. Outright impossible, unfortunately.)

    • Jonathan Dosmann

      I know it’s dark to think about it, but how many died in every other effort man has made to colonize? Think about the Oregon trail as an example.

    • Ed Leahy

      We can’t even manage the planet we live on well. Why would anyone think they can duplicate what they don’t completely understand.

      • Jesse Jensen

        we manage the fuck out of earth, what are you talking about

        • Ed

          Manage well, as in acting in a manner that is sustainable, does not harm the environment and does not cause mass extinction of other species. We are pretty good at fucking the Earth, so I’ll give credit there.

        • Ducky

          Actually, have you seen Antarctica expeditions? Pretty tough living…now multiply that misery by 15x, with people who have very limited access to resources.

          Not to mention that the creation of an atmosphere will not protect Mars from solar wind bursts, which will fry the citizens with cancer. For protection against that you need an iron core or some kind of artificial magnetic field generator, for which the technology will need to be moved millions of miles (and it’s not technology we even have yet, or will have in the next 30 years).

          Will we colonize Mars? Eventually. Will it be easy? Helllllll naw.

    • gopher652003

      About your point number 2), you’ve not entirely correct. Complex ecosystems are very difficult to construct. We may or may not ever manage to create an ecosystem on Mars that just “works” without intervention.

      But moss and algae? Come on. Not much to understand there, and that’s all the planet needs to be viable on a very basic level. You really do just need to melt some ice and “throw some seeds” to make that work. Certain weeds (dill, for instance. Nasty stuff. Luckily it tastes good) work the same way, as a second step 50 years after the first algae.

      The really difficult thing will be making sure you have the correct balance of bacteria in the soil to fixate nitrogen and whatnot. Much harder than basic plants.

      Now if you want flowers and humming birds and vibrant ocean ecosystems… yeah. That’s tough to the point of being improbable, even after 1000 years of work.

  • ì want to guíde you to amazíng online work opportunity.. 3-5 h of work a day.. payment at the end of each week.. performance dependíng bonuses…earnings of six to nine thousand dollars /month – merely few hours of your free time, a computer, most elementary* familiarìty wìth www and trusted web-connection is what is needed…learn more by headìng to my page

  • Bruno T

    nice article, Tim, however I think that the Fermi and Tesla ones were better (each in its way). I don’t know if anyone will read this but I will still try:

    I totally understand why you wish so much that this colonization will come true, and of course I don’t agree with politician Frank but my question to you is ARE YOU ZOOMING OUT ENOUGH?

    Even if we make Mars like in your best case scenario (lack of magnetism -and our lack of basic understanding of why this is the case for Mars, not to mention how we could create a planet size strong-enough magnetic field – might let all the human-induced atmosphere fly away in outer space, just mentioning one major show-stopper, let alone other serious show-stoppers like the really-adverse effects on humans of the low gravity, etc etc), and even if we populate the ENTIRE UNIVERSE, if you are going to zoom out why do you stop at millions of years? Go to billions and there, ALL THE MODELS WE HAVE predict either eternal darkness, all atoms eventually being light years away from each other, or the big crush, i.e Universe going back to the Singularity. All the models predict that. Observations, i.e. “facts” show that the galaxies fly away from each other. So, IF we believe in the reasoning based on scientific models and scientific facts not only when they fit our desires but rationally i.e. whenever they are substantiated (and factually galaxies do fly away from each other)
    THEN all the colonization , even if completely successful is just a futile extension of our lives because eventually all the stars will be finishing their fuel, etc etc.

    All darkness.

    that is if you’re willing to really ZOOM OUT.

    2 . I do understand why you and Musk and others want this, it is mainly for reason number 2. I.e. “to give a reason to live to people other that simple survival” , you may call it inspiring people etc. But this colonization , however appealing, is a dead end in a bit grander scheme of things (politician Frank is far more short-sighted obviously I am not even talking about that ) too (i.e. marvelous seemingly-impossible colonization of every planet in the universe even if it were fully accomplished next year – travelling through worm-holes and such). It would simply buy us more time (to the tune of some billions of years) but that is it. So I do understand your yearning for more that just biologic survival here on Earth, I do understand it, let alone the backing up the hard drive argument, which obviously makes sense, but if we are rational we should not stop there (as Einstein didn’t stop in tuning the ether theory to somehow explain the Mickelson-Morley brain-freezing experiment but went Further away from then-current thinking), we should zoom out more and then , maybe, the glimpse of the Solution for That yearning inside of you , for the reason number 2 of why Musk wants this (and I do admire him too for what he does with tesla for the common good) will be , hopefully, apparent to you too. So don’t stop zooming out so you can really zoom in.

    Food for thought.

    • Arnt Joakim Wrålsen

      It’s really hard to predict what will happen in the really, really long run. If we become advanced enough as a civilization, we may even find a way to survive beyond the heat death of the universe. The capabilities of a sufficiently advanced civilization with access to super-intelligent AI (did you read the series on AI?) will be beyond our wildest dreams.

      Maybe we will reach the stage where we will have advanced enough technology to even survive the heat death of the universe. Or maybe not. But we can know for sure that if we don’t live beyond the next mass extinction event on Earth (which will come, it’s a matter of when not if), we won’t even have a short of attaining that.

      In other words, our chances at immortality as a civilization depends on us being able to colonize other planets in not too much time from now.

      You do have a point about Mars possibly being harder to colonize than Tim Urban think. But I don’t see why we shouldn’t try. We have to start somewhere. If we don’t even begin to try, we will definitely go nowhere.

      • Arnt Joakim Wrålsen

        Also, a thought I have been entertaining for a while. We should start with building a colony on the Moon. It won’t be quite the same as colonizing Mars, but it will be a “test case” that will let us try out things and see where the biggest difficulties with colonizing Mars actually will be. Then we’ll be more prepared when it’s time to go to Mars.

        • Bruno T

          Thanks for taking time to answer me, I do appreciate this.

          I thought about the argument that you are making before writing, i.e. a super-slim chance is better than zero probability it seems logical. I believe it is not (in a stroger sense that is) logical.

          What I mean is that when basically everything we know points to eternal darkness maybe we shouldn’t take the 0.00001% probablity approach but the Something_Else approach.

          I don’t want to insist on my solution to this but I believe that Elon’s (and not only his) “gut feeling” that we live in some sort of a hologram (Fermi’s paradox article) is on the right path. I believe that this is the really zoomed-out paradigmatic approach, let’s try to run faster than the speed of light approach, I would call it.
          If this is the true reason for Fermi’s paradox (one of the twelve or so listed in the Fermi article here) than our solution is in a different class of problems, not the ones solvable with better rockets/shielding/fuel etc_etc_etc.
          The true answer lies in Fermi’s paradox, from a truly scientific true (not ego or money driven) endeavor. The only endeavor that is worth it.

          PS (yes I read the article on AI, indeed interesting, but all the concepts we do have rely on matter, to support any form of AI, and if even the atoms would be light years away from each other… in the not so distant future, as the expansion continues…)

          • Jack Incognitostein

            Maybe Elon Musk could have put all his energy into solving the nature of the universe to great effect, but the fact of the matter is that many people are working on that problem in very intelligent ways. There isn’t nearly as much serious work being done to colonize other worlds. Maybe we will solve those other problems before another existential catastrophe, but maybe we need more time. We just don’t know what the future holds and we don’t want all our eggs in one basket. Personally, I’m glad someone stepped up to this particular challenge.

    • Zenstrive

      Have you contemplated suicide today?

      • Bruno T

        Never had. Never.
        If just bringing up factual scientific observations, however unsettling , deserves mocking than maybe we are not as advanced as we presume.

  • Has anyone asked yet why do we want to create a backup hard drive of humanity? I agree that mass extinction would suck and we should try to prevent it because the death of billions would be horrible. But let’s say we can’t prevent it and we’re destined to all die. What do we care if humanity itself remains? Is the universe a better place for having humans in it? Is it just our weird evolutionary urge to reproduce that underlies this desire? I guess it’s good for the recent emigrants who would have died and now survive. But that’s presumably a wash since there will eventually probably be constant numbers of people moving in both directions. So I feel like everyone just accepts as an obvious truth that the survival of the species is a good thing. But I haven’t seen an explanation for why.

    • Jack Incognitostein

      It’s a good question, but I don’t think there is a single answer that will satisfy everyone. Is the universe a worse place for having humans in it? I think it’s too early to say. The only way to find out is to keep adventuring and learn more about the universe. For me, curiosity is the reason it’s worth it to “back up” humanity.

      • Jesse Jensen

        We are part of the universe, it is conscious through us, we are the universes children.

    • StalePhish

      Life itself is a miracle of so many events on a cosmic scale happening at just the right time in just the right place. I guess humanity just feels like it is their duty to preserve this miracle so the solar system as we know it won’t fade away uninhabited when Earth eventually collapses.

    • Troy Hill

      I think ultimately, it is a good thing to preserve humanity. If you take a look at history, while we have had some really bad episodes, we have also, as a species, slowly been stepping away from that and slowly emerging into something bigger than ourselves. It’s a process that I would hope, only gets better and more fine-tuned with time.

      • Thanks. In retrospect, if you rephrase the question without being human focused, I think it’s easier to answer: is the universe a more interesting place with a diversity or a scarcity of life? Do we ourselves want to inhabit a universe with other intelligent life forms in it? We should assume that other life forms will answer the question the same way that we do. Perhaps the question is whether humanity will pose a risk to other life forms when we encounter them.

        • Pedro Ferraz

          When I read your comment I also thought this. The simple reason that it is nicer to preserve our species is enough. Between human extinction and human endurance, even if you are dead, it is more interesting than humans persevere!

    • Watashi Wa Evan-desu

      We are a way for the universe to experience itself, we are the universe itself. Without us, the universe loses its ability for direct observation. At least that’s how I like to think about it.

    • Ignaga Awori

      My take on this “Why back up humanity?” is possibly a little bit simple, but here goes!

      As far as we know we are the only intelligent life in the observable universe. Yes I am familiar with the Drake equation and the Fermi Paradox, however, the fact remains that the only incontestable evidence for an ‘advanced’ civilisation is ourselves.

      If this is the case (which I personally doubt to be so, but let’s pretend..) then surely that does make the universe a more interesting place because we are apparently a unique and improbable product of the universe itself.

      But taking a step back from this “Save Humanity Because We Are Awesome” standpoint, the colonisation of Mars by humans not only allows our species existence to be more prolonged, but if the long term goal of terraforming Mars is to be successful, it will require the trans-location of other species from Earth to Mars in order for the ecosystem to function. So it is not only the backing up of the Human species, but the backing up of a larger ‘document’ or even a whole operating system.

  • rockfish66

    Hmm. What if Earth is the backup drive for a civilization that used to exist on Mars?

    • StalePhish

      Or even the backup drive for another solar system! Maybe they sent us thousands of species (like a “Space Ark”) but most of which were killed off during a mass extinction event, and our ancestors were the only ones that were left

  • Deepak Kanakaraju

    When we are talking about Mars and low cost space travel, I am surprised why you have not mentioned about India’s Mars mission.

    India launched Mangalyan successfully into Mars’ orbit at 1/10th of the cost of NASA. It was done by pure innovation.

    Instead of burning a ton of fuel to launch the rocket directly, India’s Mangalyan was in earth’s orbit for 25 days gaining speed and then it left earth’s orbit, got into Sun’s orbit and then into Mars orbit.

    The total cost of the project was just $74 Million USD. Less than the cost of the Movie Gravity.

    Elon’s MCT can do a similar thing. Just launch it into earth’s orbit and then you need little to no fuel to reach Mars’ orbit. Then it can descend into Mars.

    • Jesse Jensen

      Absolutely agree, from India is a great example of how to bring costs down and use the

      Regarding MCT. They will need a lot of fuel to get to mars, even using the Oberth effect. The weight difference will be an order of magnitude larger the 15kg Mangalyan orbital probe.

    • gopher652003

      It was a low cost mission, but there are two main reasons for this:

      1) When you account for PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) between India and the US, the mission actually cost about 200 million dollars. Basically, this measurement takes into account that an item like housing costs less in India than in the US, and thus wages can be that much less. If you did exactly the same mission in the US, paid the staff exactly the same as you did in India (eg, each could afford the exact same level of housing, food, etc), any given project will cost 3 times as much in the US. This advantage to India will dissipate over time as the global economy smooths such differences.

      2) MoM was a seriously weak mission. Really small, really underpowered. Do you know why it isn’t producing high resolution images of the surface? Because a) it has really crappy cheap cameras, and 2) it is too small to carry enough fuel to move into a close orbit around Mars. (The closer you are, the higher the resolution image of the surface any given camera will produce). Basically it is a bargain basement mission that will provide little useful in the way of science. It was a demonstrator mission only. A few neat pictures will come out of it, but nothing substantial.

      So it’s not like India did a 2 billion dollar flagship mission to Mars for 74 million. They did a 200 million dollar Discovery Class mission for… yes… the equivalent of 200 million dollars:P. Cool that they could do it, but not exactly groundbreaking. I hope they will push forward with cool advancements in the future though, because MoM was a great first step!

  • Anthony

    Has anyone here ever seen the 2005 anime, Planetes?
    Don’t be fooled by the medium; It’s a well done show, the creators have done their research, and the drama is rewarding.
    It’s an interesting show series about the future of humanity in space. It follows the lives of a small team of underfunded, under-equiped, and under valued space debris collectors. Their stories are told against the backdrop of the political and economic situations created by the richer nations leaving the poorer nations behind in the race to maintain a presence in space and obtain it’s resources, while it takes a look at humanity’s well being as colonizers on Mars and the Moon.

    I would recommend this show to anyone!

    • Haren Shetty

      Thanks! will check it out.
      On the topic of sci-fi anime (i guess you may already know) Steins; Gate really blew my mind. Haven’t come across anything which is that well done

  • Haren Shetty

    Ok now when is the next post coming out?

  • Tyler C

    Business Insider is running an article mentioning this article. You’re getting famous Tim! 🙂

  • Yerv

    I deeply hope that the first Mars colons will resist the temptation of setting up a government too soon and will try instead to build a stateless society where conflicts are resolved through private arbitration agencies.

    • anon

      ahaha….you said colon

  • StalePhish

    Here’s something mindblowing…. what if this has already happened? What if there was already a superintelligent species that originated on Earth, colonized a planet in a nearby solar system, and then one of the mass extinction events long ago wiped out everyone who remained here and all evidence that they ever existed? Maybe it has been so long and records were never kept, so they are living all alone out there and none of them alive during the move are still alive to remind them that their species were originally Earthlings?

    • Moái Rapanui


    • Mindblowing possibilities.

    • CakeMagnet

      Or, what if the species existed on Mars originally and Earth was their back-up before they hit the Great Filter?

  • Daniel

    Has the issue of gravity come to mind? The bone density of those born on Mars will be much lower. Any Martians that want to come back to Earth might feel weak under Earth’s gravity and maybe for those with poor health, kill them

    • Jesse Jensen


    • Sarudak

      I would hope that we could have some biochemical way of reversing this process by then.

      • gopher652003

        I’d hope that we eventually cure osteoporosis, which is the Earth version of that same issue (severe loss of bone density). Cure one, and both are no longer an issue.

    • Ignaga Awori

      It may be an issue, but there is also the possibility that those who are born on Mars and remain on Mars will make physiological adaptations to that environment. In the short term, the development of exoskeletons would potentially allow the weaker colonists to walk. But I think Gopher is right, the eventual cure for osteoporosis is not beyond medical advancements.

  • KittyP

    I love you even more now for that Pratchett reference.

  • Sven Kurrle

    I think this series is amazing. And getting even better with each post. Which left me wondering about the last part that’s still to come.
    As Tim himself said: “A good magic show follows a simple rule—make the act get better as it goes along.”
    Did Tim have some “special” insight into Musks head nobody else had until this point? After all what the fuck is bigger than saving humanity from its impending doom?

    Tim you got me hooked!

  • Daniel

    AI would be the easier choice.
    After it deletes us of course.

  • AsamiSato

    I am enjoying this post immensely, but I find Tim’s hero-worship of Musk distracting.

    • Shadeburst

      Hmmnnyeah, Tim never got around to mentioning that the reason why NASA stopped launching was specifically to transfer that responsibility to private enterprise. NASA contributed engineers, subsidies and know-how. It wasn’t quite the clean sheet of paper that Tim describes.

      • gopher652003

        It was pretty clean sheet. Especially the Falcon 1 (which was fully privately funded and developed, without help from NASA). Everything after that point was built using NASA money. They weren’t subsidies, but rather “please build this for us” contracts, just like any other fixed price government contract. A subsidy would be if SpaceX received a billion dollar guaranteed yearly stipend from the US Airforce for no apparent reason, which doesn’t happen. At least not for SpaceX:P.

  • tweinstre

    Whew. I’ve started reading the day this came up,and only now am I done (I’ve been very busy,and the fact that English is not my first language makes me even slower). But anyway,here are some of my thoughts:

    1. “The Humans and Space” situation actually never made me sad or lonely,just amazed. Amazed since I was seven and hungrily reading every astronomy book I could get my hands on. Small children are less prone to anxiety and more to positive excitement and curiosity. That feeling remained with me even today. When I think about space and its vastness,I feel excited,humble and curious at the same time. Very positive feelings indeed.

    2. The fact that space excitement is/has slowly vanished makes me far more upset than the “space situation”. I completely agree with Musk and you that we should strive to something bigger and most important,HAVE DREAMS. And I would compare “the bill-oriented politician” to someone who says that,for instance,art and sports aren’t important and we should immediately close every museum and sport hall and direct all the money to humanitarian causes (completely wrong reasoning from more than one aspect). Even if we did that,those people we helped wouldn’t have a reason to live for,enjoyment in life.

    3. The miles and kilometers thing is very annoying. Why,the US,why?

    4. I am sceptical about humans becoming a multi-solar species gradually. I think it will be a breakthrough. Some scientist are currently researching the possibility of space-time curving AROUND things in order to transport them to places. We are still very far from this and we’ll have to stick to rockets for some time,but I don’t think they will be used after Solar system colonization.

    5. Posts like this are my favorite. I sometimes read your other posts,like the one about procrastination,but honestly,you’re better doing posts about Big Topics like this,at least in my opinion. Posts which make me travel through time,from 1969 to far future…From my room 6700 km (4200 miles…yeah) away from you to Moon and then Mars and then…who knows? Posts which make me feel excited,happy and optimistic about humanity and its future. Like I’m that amazed seven-year old again. Thank you.

    • tweinstre

      Additional thought: Being an incurable philosopher,I have been thinking about the most important question-why should we even extend the human species-the whole time I was reading…I’ve already constructed arguments and researched the topic…and then I arrived at that footnote! A can of worms for another post? Please do it,please! It doesn’t matter when,just do it. Of course I agree that we should extend the species (thinking otherwise is destructive),but your post on that would surely be the most enjoyable thing I would read on that topic.

  • Loved this post, as well as other Musk posts.

    I’m wondering two things. Will these developments bring with them the kind of economic or technological power to deal with the poverty/inequality here? That’s not to say “we have problems let’s not do this”…but I think it’s necessary that if colonizing Mars becomes possible, it should also make bringing up the least privileged among us out of their situations possible.

    Second is related, even with it coming down over time, does a $500,000 ticket put serious socioeconomic and demographic limits on who from our species populates Mars? I could see this leading to MORE inequality and isolation.

    Has musk spoken to how to navigate these challenges?

    • gopher652003

      At some point companies will probably start paying to take people to Mars, in order to build industries and make money. 100k to 1 million per seat really isn’t that much if you only need to take a thousand people in order to make 10 billion dollars in returns.

      But even those 10s of billions aren’t necessary, really.

      A company my dad used to work for would regularly send technical support people to semi-dangerous parts of the world for 1 to 3 year stints. Between moving costs, guaranteed family trips (paid for by the company, so your family could come see you, and vise versa), paying for private schools for any kids you lugged along, paying for secured housing, varying amounts of danger pay (how much depended on how stressful the environment they sent you to was), etc, they easily spent several hundred thousand dollars per person beyond what they’d have spent on wages and whatnot if the employees had stayed home. They spent that crapload money because you need to spend money to make money!

      Private ticket holders would have to mostly be from the upper middle class, but corporations would take people based on skill level.

  • This is extremely interesting, but one thing I was wondering with terraforming is this: what about ecosystems and wildlife? Worms and insects, birds and small mammals, predators and prey, etc, all make Earth function properly. Everything works together. Spreading seeds around is one thing, but without pollinators like bees, or composters like worms… would those have to be brought in too? What if they can’t hack it on Mars? Does this matter?

    • gopher652003

      It matters for complex ecosystems. But remember, bees are a relatively recent evolutionary “invention”. As are flowers. Moss, yeast, and algae are older than the hills we live on that used to be mountains before the winds of time wore them down (literally older in most cases). They can survive on their own as long as certain basic conditions are met.

      But yeah, if you want flowering plants on Mars, you’re going to have to bring a whole host of keystone species with you like bees and worms. And maybe bats. And if you bring bats, you’ll have to bring mosquitoes. <—- that kind of depresses me. Hate mosquitoes.

  • McSmitty

    My favorite comments- the guy who complained because Tim’s incredibly ambitious and fascinating blog contribution to humanity about Mars colonization didn’t delve into enough of the minute technical aspects of very specific issues (dude…), and the lady who doesn’t trust Elon Musk, who has in essence decided to spend his life trying to save the human race, because…there is a quote on the internet attributed to him that speaks favorably of Maggie Thatcher. Alrighty! For the rest of us who are able to see past our own noses, the comments were really entertaining and thought provoking, and warranted a large and worthy time investment as well. Good stuff

    • Morbeau

      How can you see past your own nose with Elon’s butt in the way?

  • Adélaïde Snape Leroy

    Sending people to Mars in order to save humanity, what a great and ambitious idea! But I can see a big drawback to this plan.

    Let’s assume that a million people go and colonize Mars. Thus there would be kind of two humanities, one living on Earth and the other on Mars. Two human populations living not on two different continents separated by an ocean, but on two different planets separated by outer space. As Europeans who settled in America and later fought for their independence, people on Mars would most probably want to gain their independence from Earth. There would be conflicts and the Earth and Mars would ultimately become independent from one another, and given the differences of life-style, environment and so on, the two human populations would evolve quite independently and in different ways. After enough time, they would be so different that they would become two different species. There would be no Homo sapiens any more, but Homo terrestris and Homo marsensis (I do not guarantee the latin names however). Two species more or less equally intelligent and technologically advanced, both engaged in a fierce competition to colonize more celestial bodies in the Solar System… I let you imagine the consequences.

    Some people say we should not try to reach out an alien civilization, as they may come to our planet and destroy us, but what if this very alien civilization coming to colonize us were in fact… us?

    • Robert Massaioli

      You are talking about billions of years in the future. And with the return trip possibilities the two planets will continue to mingle and reproduce. Spreading the gene pool between the planets and ensuring that we don’t diverge.

      In order for this to work humans would have to go to Mars and then not mingle with each other for million years or more. Also, evolution only works when a species is “pushed” in the absence of random “pushes” you would have to rely on random mutation, which would make the divergence process even slower.

      In short, your imaginings have no weight.

    • Scud Bee

      Have you read the “Outward” section of this article?

    • gopher652003

      Yes! Thank you. Noticed that too.

  • Samuel Schumacher

    Long-period comet would be more dangerous than an asteroid since the highly random orbit paths of comets in comparison to Earth’s greatly increases the likelihood that a collision would be ‘head-on’. Asteroids tend to follow orbits that would cause ‘glancing blows’. Lazy source:

  • Pedro Ferraz

    Superb post series! I enjoyed immensely. Even thinking on supporting WBW on Patreon. I think this SpaceX post is the one I like most. Good job Tim! Very anxious for the next one.

  • Adrian

    I don’t think that speed of lite would be a problem for speices who colonize other planets. Our technology will be advanced enough till then (ASI will help ;)).
    BUT, I wonder about the low gravity on Mars. Wouldn’t it be destroying the health like no gravity on ISS supposedly does? Spending many years with 38% of Earth’s gravity? Or what about people being born there? If they went to earth wouldn’t it kill them? Is like puting so much more weight on their weak muscles and bones. Is there any way of making the whole planet’s gravity closer to Earth’s? Wouldn’t it interfere with planet’s natural behavior?

    • Adrian

      I meant “speed of light” of course 😉

  • Jwk

    After reading this article (and all of Tim’s others) ,two important concepts are glaring me in the face:
    Curing death.
    And the death of the concept of a government.

    I will be starting a new country, that is actually a company. It will be orders of magnitude more efficient, fun and brilliant than any current country.
    It can be done, and should be done.
    That is, it is logical when… when you reason from first principles…

    • Morbeau

      Death to Government!

  • CakeMagnet

    Not wanting to nitpick here, but the absence of a magnetic field on Mars makes any thought of biological life existing there for any length of time anytime soon seriously dire. This is not to say that it can’t be done (shielded habitats etc.), but I think Musk is underestimating just how much groundwork will need to be done by machines before humans can travel there (and back) safely.

  • TedKidd

    I listened and read at the same time – having the podcast was fantastic!!

  • Andrew Chin

    Thank you so much for creating an audio version and the not podcast. It really is the only way I get great information in my head these days.

  • Ryan Barsotti

    The reason Musk said comets are far more dangerous than asteroids is because we would have no time to prepare. An asteroid that huge we will see well ahead of time, probably years, before it hits us. So we would have time to form a plan of action, such as calling Bruce Willis. A comet, on the other hand, would come from the kuiper belt or oort cloud and be on a direct course for earth as it zooms towards the sun. We would not have time to mount an effective defense as we would have days or weeks at most.

    • David Jennings

      The long period comets also solve the issue of “if this is so likely, why hasn’t it happened yet?” by having a long period, long enough that it makes sense it hasn’t happened yet.

  • Mike

    I love your work but I would like to nitpick for the accuracy of your future articles and say that there would be no problem standing upright on Venus despite the atmospheric pressure. Consider that the pressure on earth is quite significant.

  • Larry Nguyen

    This post was informative, eloquent, humorous, inspiring, and hugely entertaining. There are a few things I’ve reflected upon as I read this article:

    1. A million people from every part of earth – what kind of organization of government or society would be formulated in order to ensure peaceful, productive cohabitation? Would SpaceX have a say in this? What jurisdiction takes place in what is essentially a brand new “country” of now stateless humans?

    It seems even with the ambiguity of international law on one planet, that populating another with no political, social or organizational plan could spell disaster. However, I’m sure Mr. Musk in all of his infinite wisdom will have thought of this, considering he faces the kinds of corruption and moral repugnance of “too big to fail” “canopy” industries and their respective governmental counterparts, at both SpaceX and Tesla.

    How would even abstract principles of currency, law and ownership even work? Maybe it would be more communal and free (like Burning Man)?

    2. To get the best initial sample of settlers to build the foundation of this new civilization, my best guess is that there would be a proper screening of the first few thousands of people who will travel to Mars and that the requisites wouldn’t just be a $500,000 check.

    And that part of your participation as a “pioneer” in this new world would be evaluating your skill sets, aptitude, and background to see if you fit within a core group of specialists that would be necessary in setting up a new society.

    3. Considering the mess we’re in on Earth – with huge inequity of wealth, issues like poverty, hunger, and global hegemony, what strategic changes and principles should be made to ensure we don’t repeat the same mistakes on other planets? The pilgrim of the New World resulted in the United States – a country that is surely not the epitome of social, economic, and political harmony.

    4. Just as in the film “Elysium”, in our pursuit of extending our species reach, as well as our knowledge of how to execute that extension, are we also creating a new kind of interplanetary hegemony that leaves behind people living in developing countries, especially those that may never even see $50,000 USD (let alone $500k) in their lifetime? By establishing these first sets of first world country explorers, are we again setting up a “Guns, Germs and Steel” kind of leg-up for those who have the means?

    I’d also imagine, there would a kind of lottery, or grant to fund those less moneyed to make the trip?

    Just some thoughts!

    Excellent, thought-provoking and delightful as always Tim!

  • Tal Galton

    Tim, I have enjoyed reading your entertaining and articulate work on AI and the Fermi Paradox. Thank you! After reading the Tesla piece, I was convinced that Musk is a smart, hardworking guy who is looking out for the best interests of the planet. After reading the SpaceX piece, I am now convinced that Musk, like so many technocrats, is blindly working within a stark anti-ecological worldview. The kind of hubris that leads people to think we are capable of successfully colonizing other planets is the same hubris that has guided humans to initiate Earth’s 6th mass extinction event.

    Earth’s biosphere has evolved to its current level of complexity over the course of billions of years. From one perspective, humans have been immensely successful–at harnessing the world’s resources and multiplying at a staggering rate. Yet this monospecies success comes at an extreme cost to other species and the world’s ecosystems. Since humans are still completely dependent on Earth’s co-inhabitants, this extinction event represents a great threat to our own survival.

    If we can’t sustainably manage the resources and ecosystems of our own planet, what makes us think that we could terraform another planet…from scratch. Throughout this epic essay on SpaceX, I was waiting to hear Musk’s answer to this. I was surprised that the idea of terraforming, the core concept that makes interplanetary colonization possible, was only addressed in the epilogue. Terraforming is still a theoretical concept–it has never been done and its feasibility is widely disputed.

    I believe that humans are not just physically dependent on other life, but psychologically dependent as well. Does Musk ever spend time in “nature”? Do you, Tim? I can’t fathom the psychological toll it would take on people to live in a place as spartan as Mars.

    After digesting what you and Musk have to say on space exploration, I am still essentially in the Barney Frank camp. Although I can see the utility of a limited space program for scientific and inspirational purposes, I believe an expansive one is largely a waste of time, money, and mental capital. On Earth, we have a remarkable and rich planet with millions of species that have evolved over billions of years to function in remarkable systems. Life on Earth is entirely responsible for the makeup of our soil and atmosphere. It will take an extraordinary effort to make it work for 8+ billion people on our own planet; this is what we need to be focussed on, not the dream of creating other “livable” spaces in the solar system.

    • Stefan Jachmann

      Hi Tal,

      I like your perspective on this issue.
      I am a nature loving person, too. And Tim’s little Bible on SpaceX (which originally means ‘biblía’ – or English ‘books’ – which these 5 ‘posts’ seems to be) is an outrageous piece of art to get beyond our day-to-day thoughts and carry the Big Picture in mind.

      Sure enough, Tim is probably on his way to collect another great post on Musk’s Legacy, but a post about all this stuff regarding to philosophical or even ethic perspectives will be a great contribution.

      I have to admit, I was and with some little thoughts am still sceptical about this Human-have-to-back-themselves-up-for-God’s-sake-issue.

      A tiny analogy: you got a little, lovely pooper under your ceiling calling him your son.
      And as little shitty poopers sometimes in their lives do, they would cut their arm off to get some ice cream. Instantaneously.

      Good Daddy or Mommy as you are, you got that freakin’ ice cream. One scoop of yummie chocolate (or for vegans maybe mango)

      Yet, you give your son the scoop, turn back to the ice cream dude and pay the scoop, as you suddenly get shocked by your son’s scream. This time, no allergy on nuts. But the Big, gorgeous scoop isn’t in the pooper’s mouth, but on the ground.

      So he demands for another scoop. Crying and screaming and yelling at anyone and anything around him.
      Now he is so upset about the lost scoop, he wants to get another scoop, in top of the chocolate scoop – two scoops of fine, roaring ice cream scoops.

      The question is, you little hero can’t handle one scoop – obviously – so are you give him two new scoops to try?

      Why should we ever consider to give humanity a second earth, if weare not able to handle one of its kind carefully with all its flora and fauna (again: obviously).

      Like walking on a sunset at beach and ge screwed up by a dick falling out of the sky straight into your face, Tim’s post made me stop and stare.

      And Elon’s groundbraking view on Mankind made me wonder – although I do not think both of them are religious or spiritual anyway.

      Billion years of life. Multiple crisis where life got (almost) extinct.

      A never-thought-of-thiiiss-dimension-of-universe without ANY sign of life in our range.
      But look, we are here.

      Admittedly – not that perfect we would expect us to be, but still conscious (compared to other species). And even though most of us are more unconscious than conscious.

      (Would love to get footnotes in comments like Tim in his posts to do the same crazy things)

      To get these kind of consciousness has to have a reason. There has to be a reason any one of the billions of people are here on this earth at that time.
      And probably, that’s not to be just another ant in the grass.

      Maybe humankind is not that far to leave earth to live elsewhere (instead, we would probably will those kind of creatures displayed in bad storyline Sci-Fi movies, coming to earth to slave mankind and rub all these great stuff under our surface and then kill everybody or make them work for us as long as they live)

      But maybe, just maybe, there is enough time to give every human being a guide to Treat-mother-earth-the-way-it-has-to-be-treated-correctly .. that humankind, at the point in future when we will leave earth, are physically, emotionally, and technologically able to treat an Spaceship Earth correctly.

      Would like to here from you Tal and from anybody else as well, see ya

    • Mind Bridge

      > The kind of hubris that leads people to think we are capable of successfully colonizing other planets

      Colonization is not a choice made out of hubris. It is simply imperative that we do it.

      In December 2004 an asteroid was discovered and the initial calculations showed that there is about 3% chance that it would hit Earth. I don’t know about you, but I feel rather uncomfortable with a 3% chance of having a death sentence. Fortunately, further observations showed that the asteroid will very narrowly miss Earth. Unfortunately, it will come again after some years and its trajectory for that second pass is rather difficult to project.

      There are many events out of our control that could wipe out the civilization (and now many such possibilities that we have created, unfortunately). Before we could just hope that they don’t strike. Now we can do something about it. We must.

      > a stark anti-ecological worldview … the same hubris that has guided humans to initiate Earth’s 6th mass extinction event

      Wow… I presume you are aware that Musk is CEO of Tesla Motors and the president of Solar City — two companies that will do a hell of a lot for Earth’s ecology? Few others would even come close.

      Going to Mars does not mean a license to screw up the Earth at all. The ultimate goal is the preservation of the human race, which means both being environmentally friendly AND working on the colonization of other planets.

  • Scud Bee

    Mars’ conditions are not that much diffferent from the Moon’s. The only significant difference (apart from Marlens’ gravity being about twice that of the Moon) being the length of the day. But since in both cases life is possible only indoors, day’s length is mostly irrelevant. So no big difference in conditions, while the Moon is “right here”. Why not start with establishing a permanent Moon base? It would be much easier to start and maintain, while at the same time testing and developing technologies necessary for colonization of Mars.

    Also, regarding the “colonial fleet”, it seems far more economical to have orbit-to-orbit cruisers and planet-to/from-orbit shuttles rather than planet-to-planet spacecraft.

    • Steven Remsen

      Off-hand, I can think of two things that would be significantly different between the two: the atmosphere and the temperature (I wouldn’t write off the g difference as well). Mars’s atmosphere, as thin as it may be, makes for significantly better protection against meteorites vs. the moon. And Mars has abundant CO2, which is critical for SpaceX’s plan to use CH4 for a fuel source (though you could also just use ice water, which is probably readily available on the moon as well, for H2/O2 based fuel). Also, without an atmosphere, the moon surface temperature swings significant more over a lunar day, which could create more of an engineering challenge.

      That being said, I’d shoot for a moon (and maybe lagrange points too) BASE first with the intent of creating the necessary supporting space infrastructure to reduce the cost of creating a Mars COLONY (discussed here:

      The moon, in so many ways, really is a godsend for humans to become truely “space-faring” but if colonization (or even less likely, transforming) is at all possible (noting, without significant modification to ourselves to become post-human), Mars seems to be the best choice (or floating on the clouds of Venus, if human health / development really requires 1g).

    • Catalanguy

      The concept is to have a type of transparent dome so the day-night cycle would still be relevant especially for peoples mental health. Also while people can still somewhat function normally on mars, being on the moon would make it extremely (if not impossibly) difficult for someone 120lbs to move independently.

  • Werner

    Somewhere is this post you mention that Elon says we need rocket propulsion to travel through space due to the lack of matter to “push” against (in space); however I just read that NASA uses a technology called Ion propulsion. I don’t know what kind of power it produces in relation to standard propulsion systems but doesn’t your analysis warrant a comparison of this technology and it’s possible future application towards exploring the solar system?

    • Michael Schneider

      Essentially your typical rocket engine with liquid fuel is the only current option to get a spacecraft to orbit reliably. Rocket engines have very high thrust to weight ratios, this is needed to escape the atmosphere and go sideways fast enough to not fall back to Earth. Ion engines however, have very low thrust to weight ratios, but they use very small amounts of fuel so they can run for a large amount of time. So if you already have a craft in orbit, using an Ion engine is a good way to change its velocity over a long time. SpaceX actually is interested in Ion propulsion, but the current Ion capabilities would never be used to get the craft into space, only to change it’s orbit once it’s already there. Source: Nerd and 2000+ hours in KSP.

    • Ion propulsion IS also a form of rocket propulsion, just with a different ejection medium.
      It’s still a reaction engine.

  • Juggernaut93

    You have just been cited by IFLS. Lots of new visitors coming! 🙂

  • KB

    Love your posts!!!

    Would you be able to do a bitcoin / crytpocurrency post ?

    The world needs to here this.

  • Brandon Benyacar

    Tim should check this out. Its a game where you try to land the falcon 9 on a floating pad in the ocean just like spaceX is probably about to do.

  • pablo4twenty

    i enjoyed the podcast. but i have a question… without an atmosphere to burn them up, wouldn’t any above ground ‘inside’ spaces built to house humans be extremely susceptible to meteorites?

    • jaquis

      Mars has an atmosphere though. He mentions this multiple times in the article.

  • Paul

    As someone who has no experience in the many fields of expertise mentioned in the post,

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