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I’m With Stupid – October 14, 2016

by Todd Hartley

Todd Hartley-smallI don’t know if you noticed, but Mars is hot. I mean, Mars is still cold, obviously, but for some reason, the red planet is very much in vogue right now here on Earth. People are talking. Why, earlier this week, I was reading the so-called news on CNN.com and there, hidden among 8,000 articles on Donald Trump, there was a Mars-themed essay penned by none other than President Barack Obama himself.

In the essay, which was titled “America Will Take the Giant Leap to Mars,” Obama stated in no uncertain terms that he believes our space-exploration goal as a nation is “sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.”

Now, why would a man with the most important job on the planet take time out of his busy schedule to write a story about Mars when he could have just as easily written yet another op-ed about Donald Trump grabbing women by their private parts?

Well, maybe it’s because last month, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk reiterated his plan to send humans to Mars in SpaceX rockets by 2024. Seeking to ride a bit of that momentum, Obama acknowledged the need for NASA to work with “private innovators,” which to me sounded a bit like a plea for money.

I’m not blaming him for begging, mind you. I’m just pointing it out. We’re definitely going to need a lot more money than NASA will ever have if we think we’re going to make it to Mars.

According to the story I read, Musk wants to send about 100 people per launch, with a goal of one day establishing a “self-sustaining Mars civilization of a million people,” something that would require a minimum of 10,000 launches.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? But let’s take a look at the reality of the situation.

Launching one of SpaceX’s Falcon rockets reportedly cost an average of about $57 million in 2012, a figure that worked out to about $2,500 per pound to launch stuff into orbit. We’ll go with that number, even though by 2024 it’ll probably be a lot higher.

Let’s say the 100 people average 150 pounds each. That works out to 15,000 pounds (or $37,500,000) right there. Presumably, you’ll have to feed those people. I read somewhere that people eat about 3 or 4 pounds of food per day. It’ll take a minimum of 150 days to reach Mars and an equal amount of time to come back. So each person will require at least 900 pounds of food. That’s another 90,000 pounds ($225,000,000).

We’ll say they can recycle their urine just so I don’t have to calculate the weight of the water they’ll need, but suffice it to say, they’ll need a lot of water at 8.3 pounds per gallon.

Then there’s the rocket itself, which will have to be huge. The space shuttles, with their boosters and fuel, weighed about 4.4 million pounds, but they only carried as many as eight people with food for a few days, so I imagine a SpaceX Mars rocket is going have to weigh at least 10 million pounds and probably a whole lot more than that.

So, let’s see: 10 million plus 90,000, plus 15,000, times $2,500 equals $25,262,500,000 per launch. That’s $252,625,000 per passenger, and I’d say that’s a very conservative estimate.

Now, I have no doubt that there are lots of people out there to whom $250 million is walking-around money. But how many of them really want to spend most of the next year riding a spaceship to and from Mars? A hundred, maybe, but does Musk really think a million people can foot the bill and are eager to go live on a planet where they’ll never be able to go outside without a spacesuit and the very real possibility of death?

Sending people to Mars in the next decade or two is a great dream and an admirable goal, and clearly NASA will have to work with the private sector to make it happen, but I’m not sure Musk is the right guy. He thinks big, which is nice, but I think he’s thinking way too big in this case, and any potential Mars-bound billionaires might want to note that during the last attempted SpaceX mission, the rocket blew up on the launch pad in a spectacular explosion.

It still cost $57 million, of course. It just didn’t go anywhere.

Todd Hartley references classical music to make himself seem smart. Don’t be fooled.

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