A Guide to Colonization of the Solar System: Part I
Our physics is already good enough. What’s left is the engineering and the infrastructure.
Scientists and engineers often have opinions about each other — here’s a short list. Simply put, scientists discover what can be done, and engineers invent ways to do it. The symbiosis is absolute; the advancement of civilization requires both.
Science tells us that we can colonize the rest of the Solar System, from the ice-cube-in-hell dark side of Mercury to that faraway dustbin we call the Oort Cloud, and everything in between. Physicists and astronomers (and especially the science fiction authors who often hail from their ranks) are more than happy to tell us how to do it. “All we need are the spaceships powered by [insert imaginary power source here], and we’re there! Easy!”
Um, not so much. Sure, there’s a whole passel of drives we can use in space — chemical rocketry, ion drives, nuclear propulsion, light sails, you name it — but first, we’ve gotta climb our way out of our gravity well, and right now, there’s only one way to do so: expensive, environmentally villainous, and hideously inefficient chemical rockets.
Sure, we can dream about other ways to do so, but none of them are really viable in the long term, including that holy grail of hard science fiction: the space elevator. Forgeddaboutit. Ain’t gonna happen. Why? Sure, carbon nanotubes and/or graphene might be strong enough, but making it long enough while maintaining enough tensile strength for the entire distance is a whole ‘nother can of worms. Then we have to worry about how to get enough of it up to geosynchronous orbit to unwind several hundred miles of it to Earth’s surface, all the while maintaining enough of a counterweight on the high end to keep the whole ball of carbon-60 whatever from plummeting dirtside. And then there’s the human factor, the politicians who would want to defund the project, or the generals of other nations who see it as an intolerable military advantage to let stand, or the terrorists or religious nutcases who would like nothing more than to crash a plane into it to cause the whole thing to literally come crashing down.
Okay? We simply can’t hang our hopes on a space elevator. Someday, maybe, but probably not in our lifetimes.
So it’s back to chemical rockets. Like it or not, that’s pretty much our only practical way off this rock.
Enter Elon Musk, stage way-the-heck-out-in-left-field. Ya gotta give the man props, because given the range and success of his inventions and ventures to date, except for not being an artist, he’s a modern-day Leonardo Da Vinci (and no, I don’t say that lightly). If you’re reading this, chances are that you’ve already read about his plan to build a city on Mars in twenty years using one thousand Starships (his name for the rockets), each of which would be capable of launching, reaching low-earth orbit, and landing three times per day. Oh, and he says he may be able to do it for a measly $2M per launch (which would likely be cheaper in the aggregate than a space elevator anyway). If anyone else were making such a claim, I’d have a certain one-word reply:
But it’s Elon Musk, and he’s made a habit of doing what others said couldn’t be done. If successful, such a project would stand with the greatest of engineering feats of human history alongside the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Great Wall of China. That is if he can fund construction for all the Starships (and their operation), and if he can build what’s necessary for orbit to transport enough people and food and building materials and assorted infrastructure to Mars, and if all of that can make it to Mars safely, and if all that can be landed safely, and if all that can not just survive, but thrive on a planet that has precious little accessible water ice and only one percent Earth’s atmospheric pressure. And all the while, every engineer involved would be having recurring nightmares about how this greatest of all human ventures could go irretrievably south for want of a nail.
That’s a lot of “ifs”. Don’t get me wrong — I sincerely hope he can successfully do it. Thing is, what then? What are they going to do from there? To grow, Mars would need industrial, economic, and societal infrastructure. After all, how can one build a planetary civilization without a comprehensive infrastructure?
So successfully building a city on Mars is simply not enough. Humanity will need to invest in building an interplanetary infrastructure, one that enables (relatively) easy travel at least within the confines of the heliosphere. This series of articles is going to explore what that infrastructure would require, and how we’re already working on precisely that.
Next: Part II — Mining and construction in space. With robots. Lots of robots.