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Do the sums behind Musk’s space colony mission add up?

How much might a freight forwarder charge to blast your order from Earth to Mars?

Elon Musk told US podcaster Lex Fridman in December that establishing a “self-sustaining civilisation” on Mars will remain science fiction until the cost of flying goods there falls by a factor of 1,000 from its current level of $1bn to around $1m per ton, or “ideally much less”. A cool million is still pretty expensive, even when the recent surge in the cost of boring old earthbound trade is taken into account. Musk thinks 1m tons of materials would be needed to build the necessary infrastructure on what he admits is “a doer-upper” of a planet. So that adds up to $1tn; a pretty hefty price tag.

According to Musk, though, it’s vital that humanity makes life on Mars a reality by cutting transportation costs. Minimising cost per ton “may seem like a mercantile objective, but it’s actually the thing that needs to be optimised,” said Musk. One way or the other, humans are doomed unless we “go multi-planet”, the billionaire cheerily explained: if we’re not wiped out by an asteroid or a virus we’ll be fried alive by the sun in around 500m years. It would be illogical not to prepare for a self sustaining colony on Mars when doing so is, as Musk put it in the podcast, “life insurance for life”.

Musk isn’t the first to try to put a price on the cost of transporting goods too and from Mars and beyond.

Voyaging between solar systems would throw up “wholly novel considerations”, wrote economist Paul Krugman in a tongue-in-cheek paper on interstellar trade from 1978. Given the theory of time dilation, for example, how does one calculate interest rates on goods being traded travelling at close to the speed of light?

Krugman acknowledges his theories amount to a “serious analysis of a ridiculous subject . . . the opposite of what is usual in economics.” Musk on the other hand admits only that he might not live long enough to see his dream realised.

However, Musk deserves to be taken seriously even if his plan needs “a series of small miracles” to come off, says Casey Handmer, author of How To Industrialize Mars: A Strategy For Self-Sufficiency and a former software engineer at Nasa.

Starship, designed by Musk’s SpaceX to one day carry 100 tons of cargo, consists of a spacecraft fixed atop a reusable rocket. Once in orbit, the spacecraft needs ten rocket trips to refuel. In order for Musk’s sums to work, to carry 1m tons of material to Mars, the rocket would need to launch 100,000 times at an average cost of no more than $10m each trip.

And while a $1tn sounds a lot, it’s not too much more than the annual budget for the US military. “Musk has enough money to send a couple of ships and a few people, enough to make a start,” says Handmer.

What of a truly self-sustaining settlement though, which Musk often says is his ultimate aim? To begin with, living in conditions orders of magnitude more inhospitable than at the summit of Mount Everest — the average temperature on Mars, according to Nasa, is minus 81 degrees Fahrenheit, compared with minus 32 atop Everest in the winter — would be impossible in anything but an “advanced industrial state” involving “nuclear submarine level technology”, says Handmer.

“In principle you could run a space station or a Mars base with an arbitrary number of people for some given fixed budget per year and keep sending them snacks.” Doing so, however, would be risky and expensive, while stockpiling the goods they need to survive would take up valuable space. “The aim is that the period of time you can survive if [the supply chain between the two planets] is interrupted increases as the colony grows, to a point where if the rockets stop coming altogether there’s a good chance [the colonisers] make it.” Handmer estimates 1m people, all of them hard workers, would be required.

Handmer devised the chart below, which plots the fraction of goods by mass that are locally manufactured against the number of people necessary. His best guess is that it would take 100,000 Martian colonisers, to even get to a level where they could manufacture relatively uncomplicated industrial goods.

It would take 100,000 Martian colonisers, for example, to begin manufacturing everything from plastics to metals, according to Handmer. The Y-axis plots the fraction of goods by mass that are locally manufactured. © Dr Casey Handmer

Sinead O’Sullivan, another graduate of Nasa, who is now at Harvard Business School teaching the Business and Economics of Space, is more sceptical, arguing that it’s impossible to know what the true cost of building a colony on Mars would be.

Musk may be a whizz at complicated, finite manufacturing and engineering problems, but he’s less good at “complex problems influenced by unknown unknowns.” She notes: “Anything to do with humans is typically complex because we don’t act in rational ways.”

“People think ‘oh, if we can figure out the right price we’ll live on Mars’. But that’s the wrong question to be answering,” says O’Sullivan — and there aren’t many useful jobs a human could do up there that a robot could not.

“To know whether it’s economically viable to send stuff to Mars, irrespective of the cost, you have to know the other side of the equation . . what is the financial-economic return? There currently isn’t one. ‘Pricing’ then becomes whatever Musk can afford.”

The real question is how to go about creating “an entirely new market where there’s currently no supply, no demand and inject some kind of utility into there,” she says. Even under the dream scenario that this market does emerge, self-reliance would be tricky considering even relative autarkies on Earth like North Korea still import large quantities of basic goods.

Lowering the cost per ton to take goods to Mars makes for a great engineering challenge. But overthinking interplanetary freight rates before establishing why we need to live on the red planet in the first place leaves us “ideologically, just living in the world of Elon Musk.”

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