One hundred fifty tons of cargo per mission, one thousand five hundred tons by the time we complete ten missions. The biggest thing about Musk’s idea is just that…it’s big. With refilling in orbit and reusable ships, all the previous calculations about how much mass we can take to Mars simply go out the window.
In the early days of space exploration, there was a rule: don’t do anything on the satellite you can do on the ground. Mass and computing power were too precious to waste. In the late 80’s, that began to change. Now, the rule is: don’t do anything on the ground you can do on the satellite. Ground operations are costly; the satellite on orbit is a sunk cost. Anything it can do, you don’t need someone else to manage.
Much of Mars preparation today is focused on low-mass operations, trying to figure out how to squeeze every ounce out of a given capability, and every second out of astronauts’ time. In the process, though we stay trapped in a paradigm that looks very much like ISS science operations. Ironic, considering how much many Mars evangelists dislike the ISS and NASA’s approach to it.
We now have a capability that lets us stop worrying about every ounce, and start thinking about big ideas. It also opens the door for more people to think about big ideas. I no longer need to spend ten years getting my brass board prototype down to a perfectly-optimized flight weight. Instead, I can spend two years getting to a flight-safe configuration, and launch it. I’ll learn in a real Mars environment what works and what doesn’t, and I’ll have a robust system with a significant toolkit that will let me make adjustments on site. I wasn’t being rhetorical earlier with the front end loaders, dump trucks, and drill rigs. We can afford to try things, and have redundancy in what we try.
It’s a bit like the difference between aircraft development in the 50’s and 60’s versus aircraft development today. Today, we have 787 Dreamliners, F-35 Lightning II’s, and MV-22 Ospreys. Amazing capabilities, but expensive, and they take decades to develop. In the 50’s, we turned out new aircraft models like cord wood. None of them had the efficiency of a Dreamliner; none of them had 1% of an F-35’s capability, none of them approached what an Osprey can do. But, we learned at an incredible rate, because there was so much to learn. Today, we would call it, “Build fast; fail fast; learn fast.” We’ve never had that option in space exploration before.
This brings up another item…there are plenty of critiques that can be made for SpaceX’s overall plan. Those are all fine, but irrelevant for our purpose. The focus here assumes the SpaceX plan works out (more or less) the way Musk envisions. That’s not fandom; to make progress in planning, you have to accept certain assumptions as valid, or you just spin your wheels. Big, reusable ships are the whole point of this architecture.
In fact, the single most important difference between this and other projects (such as Mars Direct) is that this effort assumes all reusable ships. So, the effort we’re undertaking assumes SpaceX solves the obvious problems (zero gee cryogenic propellant transfer, storing deep cryogenic methalox, building and launching a large spacecraft, etc.), because the whole point is that SpaceX is saying, “We’re going to do X, and we’re leaving it to others to solve Y.” We’re the others. We’re solving Y.
We’re talking about X, but that’s just to set the stage.
On September 17, we’ll see whether SpaceX tells us anything more about X.