1 Million people on Mars and building a Martian Industrial Base

In light of SpaceX recent successes, it got me thinking about Elons overall aim, establishing a self sustaining Martian settlement with its own industrial base, now, for me, the term industrial base is pretty abstract, so what would we see in respect to that? Also, how would Martian colonisation influence Human development overall in terms of innovation and creativity? Lastly, has the impact of less gravity been severely overlooked? Or can this be negated by wearing weighted clothing or having rotating habitats on Mars which simulate 1g?

It will just mean more pizza, cheeseburgers and beer to get heavier. Where can I sign up? :hamburger: :bacon: :hotdog: :pizza: :beer:

I think what you’d have to see is factories to make virtually everything you can imagine. Like how in the past few months, there have been COVID-related shortages of various goods, like disinfectant wipes or N-95 masks. Imagine if the factories were a year or more away back on Earth. Either you send enormous warehouses filled with everything or you figure out how to produce stuff locally.

We won’t really know this until we try. That’s part of the point of going there, as well as exploration. The engineering to do this, as well as what the real physical effects will be is something we’d have to learn for longer duration missions…just like we did in our orbital missions.

Well, innovation wise it will be a huge step in colonizing the solar system. Frankly, I don’t think we’ll ever colonize Mars this way, nor should we, but it would be a huge achievement to have a permanent colony, even if it’s a research base, on Mars and the Moon.

Any creativity effects or other, secondary or tertiary effects are just unknown. Who knows how human civilization could or would change if we had a large colony on Mars, or the Moon, or all around in orbital habitats? It would be kind of like in the old sailing ship days, where it takes weeks or months to travel between the old world and the new, or to Asia from Europe. The only difference is that we’d have fairly quick communications, though not instantaneous. But close enough that continuous contact would be probable.

No, there are many differences. The most obvious is that explorers could live off the land for everything they needed, as long as they got across the ocean. But the major hidden difference is that successful explorers brought back riches. Traders made profits of 10,000% at times. A few successful voyages made investors set for life.

We know of nothing today that would return a single penny on a trillion dollar investment. Small scale scientific expeditions may produce fascinating science. The Earth is extremely rich: it can afford to literally fling some cash into space. (Real scientists of course want the 50 unmanned missions possible for the same cost as one manned mission.)

But 1,000,000 people and a industrial base? Is no one paying attention to the climate change crisis which will soon be sucking up every penny the world can spend just so some of us can survive? By the time a Mars mission would be possible, there won’t be enough money left over for a microscope and a walkie-talkie.

To answer these questions, I think there needs to be a great deal more research in how to arrange an industrial base to minimize dependency on mass. This is not something that’s been a factor in existing industrial technology.

For example, the production of semiconductors requires an exceptionally advanced and “long” base (that is, starting with sand and metal ore, there are a huge number of steps involved before you get to semiconductors). However, semiconductors are tiny and weigh almost nothing. A single transport could supply enough semiconductors for a million-person colony for years. It amounts to a few grams per person.

On the other hand, building materials like bricks are massive and needed in large quantities. But they can also be produced locally with relative ease.

In the middle we have things like plastic. They are a few steps above something like a brick. However, hydrocarbons can be made from water, CO2, and energy, so there’s nothing stopping local production in principle. I’d expect a million-person colony to produce plastic but not a 10-person research settlement.

Technology like 3D printing will be crucial here. Instead of shipping final products, you ship production equipment and get the raw materials locally. The 3D printers themselves can be partially built locally, but they still need things like semiconductors and precision bearings.

So there will be a spectrum of possibility here, with pieces of the industrial base becoming more viable as time goes on and tech increases. It is likely to be centuries before a Martian colony is truly self-sufficient, but reaching near self-sufficiency may happen much sooner and be good enough. There are degrees of viability here.

I’ve heard of these tiny but crucial supplies called “vitamins” due to the analogy with vitamins for organisms. The vitamins are essential but only needed in small quantities. The more technology we can push into this range, the more self-sufficient a colony will be.

A Mars mission won’t happen if it costs a trillion dollars. There are really only two possibilities here:

  • It just doesn’t happen at all
  • SpaceX and others succeed in bringing the cost of space access down by >100x and we can get started for billions, not trillions.

Since possibility 1 is boring, we have to assume 2 for the purposes of conversation. SpaceX looks to have a viable plan for transport, but we’ll see how it develops. They will need much more money to build the infrastructure for a colony, but then Elon is one of the top 10 richest people on Earth and that’s likely to continue (particularly since Tesla is at the forefront of climate change tech).

At a certain level of development, Mars just becomes a place with a high cost of living. But beyond that it can support engineers, scientists, and so on as effectively as anywhere else. There are millions that could live there if the normalized CoL falls below, say $20k/mo. That’s not possible (even with cheap transport) if every single thing has to be imported, but it should be possible if it’s just semiconductors and pharmaceuticals. In between, it’s harder to say where the cutoff is.

The trillions referred to the OP’s title, not the scientific expedition. I should have been clearer.

If they figure out how to mine one of those asteroids, it actually would be worth the investment.

Fair enough. Musk’s proposed plan is to bring the cost down to an “upper middle class” level: $500k is the number cited. The idea is that someone with a reasonably nice house could sell it to afford the trip there. That is $500B for a million people, which is getting to the right ballpark. It does seem to assume that said individual isn’t bringing their family along.

Probably even Musk would say that’s optimistic, but if you raise the price to $1M or $2M, you may still have a million volunteers. Especially if there’s some partial funding from large organizations.

What can these million people do on Mars that they can’t do on Earth? Aside from planetary research, it’s hard to say. But necessity is the mother of invention, and Martians will have to create a great many technologies to support their life there, ones that are driven by their particular needs. Some of these may have applications back on Earth, in particular for climate and environmental problems.

In the very long run, the low gravity of Mars may make further space exploration and colonization easier due to the low gravity. Asteroid mining and zero-G production may be easier yet but it remains to be seen how well humans can live like that. Mars has enough gravity to at least make basic functions like walking or shitting fairly straightforward.

If you want a low-gravity off-world colony, the moon is much closer and, I think, even lower gravity. Seriously, the distance to Mars and the necessity of importing absolutely everything makes a million-person colony there infeasible.

The whole point to self-sustaining is not needing to import absolutely everything.

Mars has water, CO2, and a reasonable day/night cycle. This means that drinking water, oxygen, energy, and fuel can be produced locally with relative ease (must be produced, in fact). Food will also have to be produced locally, which may require importing a source of nitrogen–but this is recyclable and reduce imports to a small amount.

Beyond that is a tricky question. A million people can produce a pretty good variety of stuff, but it’s probably not enough for arbitrary pharmaceuticals or semiconductors. But those are small and easily imported.

The moon has some significant disadvantages. The gravity is low enough that it may be a significant hazard. It has essentially no carbon. It has oxygen, but only locked up tightly in minerals instead of the relatively easy CO2. Water is less prevalent. The day/night cycle sucks. And getting to the surface is in some ways harder than Mars, because there is zero atmosphere to use for aerobraking.

I’ve asked the question before and never gotten a good answer. What can they possibly mine on an asteroid that wouldn’t be far cheaper to mine on earth? If gold were worth a million dollars a ounce it would still be cheaper to find it on earth than to send spaceships to an asteroid made of gold

You might. But you should consider that the early expeditions will cost about $1B per person. Cutting that by a thousand will take a century.

I’ll agree on the initial costs and that there won’t be a million people inside of a century. However, I think the costs will drop more rapidly than that.

The cost of methane/LOX propellant to orbit costs around $10/kg delivered payload. To Mars, around $100/kg. That’s basically the floor to the cost, and since both are basically equivalent to energy, it’s likely to be fairly consistent in constant dollars over a long period of time (inflation and energy track pretty closely).

So it all depends on the reusability of Starship and its successors. Can it be reused 10x, 100x, 1000x times? For the higher numbers, it becomes like an airline: a small multiple of fuel costs. That would make trips more like $1M instead of $1B. If not, then SpaceX will have failed. We will find out in a few years if they are on the right track or not.

If they are on the right track, then larger versions of Starship will only make things cheaper. This may take decades, but probably not a century. Hopefully, Bezos and others will also have strong efforts.

But doesn’t staying in an environment with a lower gravity than Earth’s cause some kind of damage to the bones? How long would one realistically be able to stay on Mars if all the other issues are no longer a problem?

We don’t know. We do know that microgravity, like on the ISS, causes problems for bone density and other things. What we don’t know is if things get gradually worse as you scale down gravity, or if there’s some threshold over which you’re totally fine, or some other function. I.e., we don’t know what the dose-response curve looks like.

My suspicion is that 38% gravity would be very nearly as good as Earth. It’s high enough that you can walk fairly normally, and the body shouldn’t have any confusion about the down vector. You can apply the same peak stresses to your bone (possibly necessary for proper bone growth) just by jumping higher. And of course mass is the same on Mars so the effort needed to accelerate/decelerate is the same.

For older people it might actually be healthier. No breaking a hip just falling over, lower stresses on the circulatory system, etc.

It’s possible the Moon is more borderline. Apollo astronauts had a hard time walking, though the bulky and stiff spacesuits may have been a bigger factor. You would need larger rooms if you want to jump with maximum force.

Anyway, all of this is currently unknown. There is a mouse centrifuge on the ISS for experimenting here, but as best I can tell they’ve only tested 1 g and compared to mice on the ground (good news at least is that centrifugal artifical gravity seems to be as good as real gravity). They’ve yet to test 38% Martian gravity or 16% lunar gravity.

A human-sized centrifuge on the ISS would fantastic, but probably impractical. Mouse results will be interesting, though.

The problem, as I understand it, is that you simply don’t have $100 trillion chunks of gold, silver, platinum, iron, or whatever else asteroids are made out of lying around in the Earth’s crust waiting to be mined. Most of it sank to the Earth’s core when the planet was a hot blob of magma. The deposits we can mine are scattered about from meteor strikes that occurred after the planet cooled.

It’s not like “dig deeper” is much easier. So far the deepest hole we have ever dug is only about 7-8 miles. Digging any further down and keeping work crews alive to actually mine whatever is down there just becomes a different expensive and dangerous engineering project. Just in the opposite direction.

Imagine these Martian colonists manage to corral an iron-nickel asteroid (and doing so is far from simple). They need to somehow bring it down to the planet surface and then what? How much industry is required to go from iron ore to finished goods? You need a smelter, blast furnace and more machinery for further processing. And all of that, and all of the people employed, are doing nothing but processing iron or making steel goods. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to bring finished goods or at least raw steel from Earth?

As an experiment to model the idea; can a population on Earth of a million people be entirely self-sufficient? If not, what is the least amount of goods that would need to be traded with the outside world? You could assign a large tariff on any imports, to model the cost of transport from Earth.

Well, I was talking about time there, but I don’t think your objections hold up in any case. Explorers then ‘lived off the land’ in vastly different ways than we would. To us, exploring in the near future, the resources we’d need to ‘live off the land’ would be water and energy, along with raw materials. We wouldn’t need to find fish or plants we could try and eat to see what happened, it’s other things we’d have to worry about. As for bringing back riches, you do understand that there is vastly…as in many orders of magnitude…or resources out there than on earth, yes? One asteroid of the right type could and would be more valuable than all the mines on earth are, assuming you could exploit them…which, if we are positing being able to colonize I’m pretty confident we could do at that stage.

That’s simply not true, and I’m unsure why you make such a ridiculous statement. There are many things that are valuable in space and worth more than a penny on a trillion, and we’ve found plenty of them. It’s the cost to benefit that isn’t there, not whether there are resources that could create a return. Hell, off the top of my head I can think of a huge one…water. If you could access water on, say, the moon, and figure out how to process it, there are already companies who are standing there, check book in hand to buy the processed fuel from you right now…today. The trouble is, the cost to benefit isn’t there. And that’s just one thing. You do yourself no favors in making such easily rebutted statements. I get that some of you are just knee jerk opposed to human exploration, and there are good arguments against it, but these are them.

We have samples of hundreds, thousands, of meteorites on Earth. To my knowledge, not a single one has any appreciate amount of any valuable element. Where are you (any of you) finding them? Can you cite an actual asteroid that we’re analyzed in space and shown to be full of gold or whatever?