Elon Musk’s presentation at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Adelaide has attracted criticism for what it didn’t address, such as

  1. The many components of Mars settlement that SpaceX is not developing (e.g. bio-regenerative life support)
  2. Numerous legal-regulatory issues that SpaceX cannot resolve (e.g. planetary protection)
  3. A detailed plan of how SpaceX will finance Mars.

The first two classes of criticism are misplaced. SpaceX is a transportation company – as Musk stated in 2016 at the IAC in Guadalajara. Lowering the cost of freight to Mars is the most important part of opening up Mars to humanity so long as regulatory regimes don’t prevent Mars. A weakness of traditional space exploration is that it is monolithic, thus constrained by internal tensions and discouraging of creativity. Lowering the cost of freight could foster an environment where many creative entities make Mars happen.

© Woot, Inc.

The third class of criticism places Musk’s current plan in the balance between aspirational and illusionary.

Adelaide Musk was about addressing the problem, “What can SpaceX finance from its business?” The presented answer is a large booster and upper-stage-spacecraft that will be able to: (i) perform earth-orbital commercial space business, (ii) fulfill SpaceX’s ISS contracts, (iii) be fully reusable, (iv) refuel in earth orbit so as to travel to, and land on Mars (or the Moon), and (v) travel point-to-point on Earth.

© United States Air Force

Musk isn’t just proposing a do-everything-system, he’s proposing a do-everything-for-less-than-everybody-else-system. That is how the Space Shuttle was justified in the 1970s. SpaceX isn’t hamstrung by NASA’s inefficiencies, but there also won’t be a U.S. Government that values those inefficiencies and thus tosses good money after bad to keep Musk’s system operating.

There may be a sizable market for 30-minute Earth point-to-point travel, but civil aviation certification of the proposed approach could take over a decade. The most significant moneymaker for the 2020s is earth-orbital commercial. A fully reusable, commercial launch service optimised for earth orbit should be able to beat a system optimised for placing 50 tonnes on Mars. Blue Origin is developing such a launch service and Mr. Bezos is no less business focused than is Mr. Musk.

© SpaceX, 2017

The Adelaide plan envisions two of the upper-stage-spacecraft landing on Mars (unmanned) in 2022 and four more (manned) landing in 2024. Ignore whether those dates hold, and just keep the two-year difference – this means that six of these mammoth and complex spacecraft are dedicated to Earth-Mars transport for at least … six years … and probably for their entire service lives so as to support Mars settlement. Profits (current and discounted future) from SpaceX’s business must be able to support this expenditure.

One or more of the following are required to make Adelaide Musk aspirational rather than imaginary:

  1. The scale of earth-orbit commercial demand in the 2020s is so large as to favour SpaceX’s new system over Blue Origin’s and any other competitor’s.
  2. SpaceX’s satellite Internet system outcompetes all other orbital or terrestrial systems, allowing SpaceX to fund the greatest act of corporate largesse since AT&T funded Bell Labs.
  3. Musk has, in truth, given up on Mars in the 2020s and thus SpaceX will optimise the first version of its new system for earth-orbital business, and plan a second version for the 2030s.
  4. Musk expects government support to be forthcoming, perhaps through a post-Trump NASA.
  5. Musk expects non-government Mars demand (e.g., colonist down payments).

Of those, (3) is the least likely – Elon wants Mars yesterday. Items (1), (2), and (4) are beyond Musk’s control. Item (5) refers back to SpaceX as a transportation company opening up Mars to human creativity by dramatically lowering the cost of Earth-Mars freight. Adelaide Musk is imaginary if entities other than SpaceX don’t pursue Mars opportunities they perceive due to reduced freight costs. And that opens a path that Elon Musk can affect, though it would require him to share Mars.