How much can a freight forwarder ask you to blow your order from Earth to Mars?
Elon Musk tell U.S. podcaster Lex Fridman said in December that the establishment of a “self-sustaining civilization” on Mars science fiction would continue until the cost of flying goods there dropped by a factor of 1,000 from its current level of $ 1 billion to about $ 1. million per tonne, or “ideally much less.” A cool million is still quite expensive, even when the recent rise in the cost of boring old earthbound trade is taken into account. Musk thinks 1 million tons of material will be needed to make the necessary to build infrastructure on what he acknowledges is “a doer-upper” of a planet, so it costs $ 1tn; a fairly solid price tag.
However, according to Musk, it is imperative that humanity make life on Mars a reality by reducing transportation costs. Reducing costs per tonne “may seem like a trade goal, but it’s actually the thing that needs to be optimized,” Musk said. Somehow people are doomed unless we “go multi-planet”, the billionaire cheerfully explained: if we are not wiped out by an asteroid or a virus, we will be roasted alive by the sun alive in about 500m years word. It would be illogical not to prepare for a self-sustaining colony on Mars when, as Musk put it in the podcast, it is “life insurance for life.”
Musk is not the first to try to set a price on the cost of transporting goods as well and from Mars and beyond.
Traveling between solar systems will “cause completely new considerations”, said economist Paul Krugman in a tongue-in-cheek paper on interstellar trade from 1978. Given the theory of time removal, for example, how does one calculate interest rates on goods traded that move at the speed of light?
Krugman admits his theories amount to a “serious analysis of a ridiculous subject… The opposite of what is usually in economics.” Musk on the other hand just admits that he may not be living long enough to see his dream come true.
Musk, however, deserves to be taken seriously, even if his plan needs a series of small miracles to happen, says Casey Handmer, author of How to industrialize Mars: a strategy for self-sufficiency and a former software engineer at Nasa.
Spaceship, designed by Musk’s SpaceX to one day carry 100 tons of cargo, consists of a spacecraft attached to the top of a reusable rocket. Once in orbit, the spacecraft needs ten rocket rides to refuel. For Musk’s sums to work, to transport 1 million tons of material to Mars, the rocket would have to launch 100,000 times at an average cost of no more than $ 10 million per ride.
And while a $ 1tn sounds like a lot, it’s not much more than the annual budget for the US military. “Musk has enough money to send a few ships and a few people, enough to make a start,” says Handmer.
But what about a truly self-sustaining settlement, which Musk often says is his ultimate goal? To begin with, it would be impossible to live in conditions of magnitude more inhospitable than on the summit of Mount Everest – the average temperature on Mars, according to Nasa, is minus 81 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to minus 32 on top of Everest in the winter – in anything but an “advanced industrial state” involving “nuclear submarine surface technology,” says Handmer.
“In principle, you can run a space station or a Mars base with an arbitrary number of people for a given fixed budget per year and keep sending them snacks.” Doing so, however, will be risky and expensive, while stockpiling the goods they need to survive will take up valuable space. “The goal is that the period you can survive as [the supply chain between the two planets] is interrupted, increases as the colony grows, to a point where if the rockets stop completely there is a good chance [the colonisers] make it. “Handmer estimates 1 million people, all of them hard workers, will be needed.
Handmer devised the graph below, which composes the fraction of goods by mass produced locally against the number of people needed. His best guess is that it will take 100,000 Mars colonizers to even reach a level where they can produce relatively uncomplicated industrial goods.
Sinead O’Sullivan, another Nasa graduate who is currently at Harvard Business School and teaching Business and Space Economics, is more skeptical, arguing that it is impossible to know the real cost of building would be a colony on Mars.
Musk may be a jerk for complicated, finite manufacturing and engineering problems, but he’s less good at “complex problems affected by unknown unknowns.” She notes: “Anything that has to do with people is typically complex because we do not act in rational ways.”
“People think ‘oh, if we can find the right price, we will live on Mars’. But that’s the wrong question to answer, ”says O’Sullivan – and there are not many useful tasks one can do up there that a robot cannot do.
“To know whether it is economically viable to send goods to Mars, regardless of the cost, you have to know the other side of the equation. . what is the financial and economic return? There is currently no one. “Prices” then become whatever Musk can afford. ”
The real question is how to proceed to “create a whole new market where there is currently no supply, no demand and inject some kind of utility into it,” she says. Even under the dream scenario that this market does emerge, independence would be difficult if even relative outarchies on Earth like North Korea still import large quantities of basic goods.
Reducing the cost per tonne to take goods to Mars poses a major engineering challenge. But to consider interplanetary freight rates before we determine why we should live on the red planet in the first place, let’s live ideologically only in the world of Elon Musk.