91. SpaceX & Elon Musk’s Mission to Mars, Part 2 (Tim Urban)

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Today we cover Part 2 of SpaceX & Elon Musk’s Mission to Mars with Tim Urban of Wait but Why. In this segment we address:

  • Tim Urban SpaceX and Elon Musk's Mission to MarsWhen does Elon project that the first crew of people will land on Mars?
  • The surface of Mars is not livable. How does Elon plan on addressing the atmosphere issue?
  • After finishing the series on SpaceX and Elon’s mission to colonize Mars; what were some of the takeaways that impacted you most?
  • What are the key, defining things that make Elon such a unique figure in human history?
  • What is it about Elon that makes him a visionary creator?

Guest Links:

Key Takeaways:

1- Backing up the HardDrive
If you care about the survival of the human species, then the importance of space travel is critical. There may be many of you that don’t care about our specie’s survival and, for you, “backing up the humanity hard drive” probably seems ridiculous. But for the rest of us, there are few things more important. As Tim articulated and laid out in his article, extinction events have been numerous and catostrophic on earth. Events including a supernova, a gamma-ray burst, a solar super flare, a black hole, a global epidemic and an asteroid could all result in another extinction event. Thus far, since animals began existince on the earth, there have been five major extinction events; each wiping out between 60-96% of all species. And there will be more extinction events, potentially even brought about by humans. The question is not if an extinction event will happen, it’s when. And while it hopefully will not occur within our lifetimes, it will likely take many lifetimes to effectively back up the human species hard drive. There’s no better time than the present to start the process and that’s what Elon is doing.
Extinction timeline
2- The Mars Trip Venn Diagram

Tim did an excellent job of breaking down the problem with space travel to Mars. And it’s not that we can’t do it. The issue is that it’s incredibly expensive. Tim outlined that there must be both a will and way to go to Mars ie. people must want to go and they must have the means to go. But, contrary to the popular phrase, “if there’s a will, there’s a way,” Elon thinks the reverse, that “If there’s a way, there’s a will.”

As Tim explained, the demand-side will take care of itself. Just like immigrants that traveled to the new world and colonized foreign lands, there will be plenty of adventurous-types that have a desire to visit Mars. The real issues lies not in the will but in the way. If millions of people want to go to Mars but do not have the financial means to do it, it will never happen. This is where Tim talked about the Venn Diagram… one circle representing those that want to go, the other representing those that can afford to go. And it’s Elon’s objective to expand the overlap of these two circles. Which leads to our third takeaway:

3- Revolutionizing the Cost of Space Travel

Currently it is possible to put a human on Mars. The technology may be old, but it exists. However, the estimated cost per seat is around $100B. This is an industry that only governments and billionairs have access to. But, as Tim described, Elon set out to revolutionize the cost of space travel in three ways.

1) Building new Technology

2) Bringing more people per flight

3) Making rockets reusable

On the first point… Current rocket technology is based on innovation from the 1960’s. What we’re using is actually really old rocket technology. So Elon endeavored to rebuild the rocket from the ground up. And by building a new, fresh rocket they’ve reduced the cost to take payloads into orbit by 1/6… and Elon believes this can be reduced to about 1/10 of the cost of old rocket technology.

The second point was to bring more people per flight. Simply, if the cost of one mission is $500B, and you take five people, it will cost $100B per seat. Whereas, if you can build a much bigger, more efficient rocket to take a 100 people, the cost base can be spread across many more tickets.

And finally, the third point and most significant cost reduction opportunity is: making rockets reusable. As Tim explained, about 99% of space flight cost is the rocket. And each time a mission is flown, the rockets are discarded or need to be rebuilt. So if these now become reusable, cost could be reduced by a factor of 100.

Elon aimed to do this by landing a rocket vertically; where the rocket lands the same way it launched, on its two feet. This was a tremendously difficult challenge that SpaceX has now done successfully three times.

The initial goal was to get the price for a trip to Mars down to $500k/seat and Elon now thinks SpaceX may get it down to $100k. That overlap on the Venn Diagram starts to get much larger at this point.


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