Celebrity Scientists on Predicting Mars Settlement

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In an interview in The Verge,  the world’s most famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson threw some serious shade on SpaceX’s Red Planet ambitions.

” The delusion that relates to private spaceflight isn’t really what you’re describing. They’re big dreams, and I don’t have any problems with people dreaming. Mars One, let them dream. That’s not the delusion. The delusion is thinking that SpaceX is going to lead the space frontier. That’s just not going to happen, and it’s not going to happen for three really good reasons: One, it is very expensive. Two, it is very dangerous to do it first. Three, there is essentially no return on that investment that you’ve put in for having done it first. So if you’re going to bring in investors or venture capitalists and say, “Hey, I have an idea, I want to put the first humans on Mars.” They’ll ask, “How much will it cost?” You say, “A lot.” They’ll ask, “Is it dangerous?” You’ll say, “Yes, people will probably die.” They’ll ask, “What’s the return on investment?” and you’ll say “Probably nothing, initially.” It’s a five-minute meeting. Corporations need business models, and they need to satisfy shareholders, public or private.”

Tyson’s point as he went to say, was that governments can afford to take a long term view, whereas companies and individuals generally cannot.

Meanwhile, in an extensive interview conducted with Russia’s TASS new agency, the world’s most famous theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, while not addressing SpaceX directly, also suggested that Mars is a long term project.

“NASA, and other space agencies around the world, are focused on Mars. It is our closest earth-like planet, with soil and an atmosphere. Although colonizing the Moon would be simpler, it is only 3 days away, Mars represents a more interesting challenge, and would require the colony to be truly self-sufficient. Within 100 years, I have no doubt, there will be humans living on Mars. To do this we need investment, allowing us to advance our knowledge, on how to survive the dangers of cosmic radiation, body deterioration, and how to deal with the lack of vital supplies beyond Earth.

So, can both be wrong?

Notably, Hawking doesn’t preclude the possibility of an Elon Musk beating NASA to Mars, but does point out in general way some of the logistical issues which go beyond the focus on transportation which is SpaceX’s immediate goal. At the same time however, it is worth recalling that through his two other corporate projects, Tesla and Solar City, Musk is indirectly addressing the next most pressing problem in settling the Red Planet; generating, storing and distributing the power necessary to operate all the equipment to support a settlement.

While not everything, it is certainly a start. What’s left, in addition to quite a few non-trivial, but likely very solvable engineering challenges, is making the economic case. That is what Elon Musk believes he can do, and Tyson says he can’t.

Who do you think is right?

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5 Comments on "Celebrity Scientists on Predicting Mars Settlement"

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  1. Hop David says:

    Tyson’s space pronouncements annoy me.

    I believe it will be a business/government partnership that opens up a new frontier. Neither NASA nor private enterprise can do it alone.

    Seems like every other day Tyson is tossing out misinformation. Why do people take him seriously? I’m compiling a list of Tyson flubs: http://hopsblog-hop.blogspot.com/2016/01/fact-checking-neil-degrasse-tyson.html

  2. PK Sink says:

    Agreed. NASA will be happy to oversee and finance SpaceX’s bargain basement developments as they venture merrily into deep space together. Ad Astra.

  3. While it may or may not be a viable business plan, Elon does in fact have one for his Mars ambitions. As he has discussed in many interviews, SpaceX revenue for Mars will come from the transportation payments from the people going to Mars.

    He has repeatedly said that fully reusable space transports can eventually lower the cost per person to the $500k range for a trip to Mars. He believes there are lots of people worldwide who would cash out their worldly possessions to go to Mars and $500k is well within what many could raise. So SpaceX would get a $500k payment from each passenger. That means just $50M for a 100 passenger MCT trip but, as we know, he is very optimistic about space transport costs…

    He must also be optimistic about how quickly a settlement will be able to grow its own food, make clothes, etc so that that by the time the tickets fall to $500k, cargo per passenger can be minimal.

    Seem best to wait till he provides details on his Mars plans in his talk in Mexico in the fall before deciding how realistic or delusional he is about all this.

  4. Wesley Dart says:

    Robert Zubrin had quite an astute response to Tyson’s bombastic rhetoric.

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