I came across this video series from a Vlogger (common sense sceptic) critiquing Elon Musk’s Mars programme and his plans for a Mars colony. I would give it a look, its actually quite informative. They also look at the Gateway foundation, pointing to several serious technical flaws in their proposals as well…plus the fact that the foundation’s mailing address isn’t a engineering firm or a airport hangar, but a PO box in a strip mall!
The series highlights a number of the major problems with the Starship spacecraft. Notably the fact it can’t accommodate anything close to the 100 people Musk proposes, when you work out how much food & water they will need enroute (based on NASA data and the likely volume required per crew, a max of 17 per trip is a more likely figure). There’s also a potential serious design flaw in the fuel tanks and its thin sheet steel construction.
Then there’s the issue of a exit hatch 100ft up off the ground (good luck trying to get everyone in or out during an emergency!), with no lifts inside the spacecraft (so when on earth or Mars the crew have to move between floors via ladders in what is essentially a 7 storey building). Then there’s the rather nasty conditions on board during the transit to Mars (life on a spacecraft ain’t as much fun as it looks in the movies, its more like living in a very messy and smelly science lab).
Further issues include the difficulty in Orbital Refuelling (which won’t work as smoothly as Musk thinks), plus the small matter that trips to Mars can only be undertaken during a set of narrow launch windows, about once every two years. Which means they will need to send out not one starship at a time, but a flotilla of dozens of them. Which means all of those ships will have to be launched, fuelled, stocked and crewed simultaneously over a few months (any longer and those supplies get used up maintaining the ships and crew in orbit). Then there’s the logistics of feeding the Mars colony, cos its not like Musk can just send someone down to the nearest chip shop and order a million fish suppers.
This echoes issues I’ve previously raised about Mars colonisation and space flight in general. I’d further add my two cents that the issue with Starship is that its a bit of a Swiss army knife. It has to act as the assent vehicle, a transit vehicle to Mars, the Martian lander & ascent stage and still be able to land back on earth again after all of that (oh and it has to do all that and be reusable too). It would be far simpler to break this down into three separate vehicles. There is a reason why we don’t have flying cars. Because you are combining all of the engineering requirements of a car with those of a plane, which means you’ll end up with a vehicle that is expensive, slow, guzzles fuel and doesn’t handle as well as either an ordinary plane or a car (in short, its easier to just drive to an airfield, hop in a plane and hire a car at the other end!).
The same is true of Starship. The existing Dragon capsule could be used for crew launch (with the added bonus that it can be detached and send back to earth before departure, so you don’t have to haul it all the way to Mars and back). Something similar could be designed for Mars re-entry (essentially an enlarged dragon capsule with a lighter heat shield, but an engine stage to boost it back off Mars). As for the transit vehicle, a better design would be a couple of accommodation modules (similar to those on the space station) up the front, connected to engines at the back via a truss system, with a array of fuel tanks (which are launched fully fuelled, then jettisoned as the fuel runs out to save weight) mounted between the two.
I’ve pointed out before that by using nuclear engines the fuel mass that is needed to get to Mars would be a lot smaller. And a nuclear powered Mars craft wouldn’t necessarily be constrained to the narrow launch windows of conventionally powered space craft (it would burn more fuel during such trips and carry less cargo, but it would still be able to make the journey). Of course, just because we are in space doesn’t mean all the problems associated with nuclear power will magically go away (in fact some of them get worse). And of course putting dozens of astronauts in close proximity to a nuclear reactor raises all sorts of safety questions, nevermind what would happen if it were to crash back onto earth. But then again, Musk will also need to haul along some nuclear material in the form of RTG’s to keep his spacecraft and Martian colony warm through those cold Martian nights.
Ultimately, supporting the million people on Mars by 2050 Musk proposes just isn’t possible with our current technology. We still aren’t even sure if its possible for humans to live and survive on Mars permanently (e.g. how much gravity is too little for permanent survival?). So it would make a lot more sense to stick to two way return missions and a smaller crew of, say a dozen at a time. These could explore Mars over multiple missions, determine its habitability and ultimately lay the ground work for future colonisation.
So if this is true why is Musk not admitting as much? Well because right now he can dazzle the media, plus his army of supporters, and they will lap it up. Its free advertising. The minute he starts bringing up pesky little facts and admitting to a big long list of engineering problems that need fixing, they’ll lose interest. Consider that any SpaceX video (or those from Mars One or the Gateway foundation) gets tens of millions of views with almost universal praise and plenty of media coverage. Meanwhile the sceptic series I’ve been pointing to has only a few thousand views. People tend to chose comforting lies over unpleasant truths.
And the simp‘s shilling for Musk online are only doing so in the forlorn hope that they might be picked by the chosen one Musk to go. But once it becomes clear that there’s only a few dozen seats available, which will have to be reserved for astronauts and scientists, he might not be so popular. And the minute he mentions nukes (even just a couple of RTG’s), every government on the planet is going to be right up his ass demanding oversight.
And too be fair, Musk ain’t exactly the full shilling. He recently got rebuffed by Egypt for suggesting the Pyramids were built by aliens (which didn’t go down well). He’s previously talked about nuking Mars and he’s gotten told off before by the SEC for making false claims on twitter and very nearly got himself into some serious hot water (as in jail time). Now I have no doubt that SpaceX has plenty of very talented engineers, but I get the impression Starship is a project Musk is personally leading. And it shows. The danger is that at some point he’s either got to deliver. And if he can’t, that’s when he might face something of a backlash.
As I’ve said before, there’s nothing wrong with space exploration, but only so long as you are setting goals that are achievable, with a realistic timetable and where such efforts will have a worthwhile outcome. Long term planning towards sending a small team of scientists to Mars, to follow up on the probes we’ve already sent, sounds like a reasonable goal to me. Sending a million bloggers, bitcoin bugs and gamers to Mars, hundreds at a time, sounds like a recipe for disaster…. unless Musk’s real plan is the same as the Golgafrincham from the Hitch Hikers Guide that is!