Jeff Bezos, when once asked about colonising Mars, offered up his opinion that humanity would eventually do it, but only once Mars has, “whiskey and bacon.” That’s shorthand for a Mars living experience that has some manner of parity with an Earth living experience. This leads to the 1st principle about humanity at Mars:

Large-scale investment in Mars won’t happen until a livable Mars is near.

Whiskey & BaconThis is Investment 101 and it’s mirrored in Elon Musk’s visions, which involve rapid buildup of capabilities on Mars, leading to a parity of livability in the eyes of as many as one million spacefare-paying Earthlings. Musk uses the shorthand, “beer and pizza,” but the meaning is the same.

Bringing Martian humanity near is about importing civilisation. This is why Musk is right to focus on radically decreasing the price of Earth-Mars freight. But what should be the first freight? Where does civilisation at Mars start? This leads to the 2nd principle:

Industry in Mars orbit makes sense.

© L5 Society 1975

Space industrialisation has been a rallying cry of space enthusiasts since the days of Gerard O’Neill, flowing to the L5 Society, then SEDS, and now asteroid mining and Bezos’ vision of transferring industry off world.

Solar Power Satellites were the rationale for space industrialisation in the 1970s, conditions in geosynchronous orbit supposedly making up for the high cost of photovoltaics. Today, photovoltaics are price competitive – on Earth’s surface – with natural gas. Rare minerals? We’ve barely scratched the Earth’s surface. Asteroid mining for use on Earth won’t be price competitive with Earth mining, even Earth mining that’s done ecologically, until the industry fed by asteroid mining is in Earth orbit (and maybe never).


© Wired 2014 (NASA)

Any proposed space-based industry meant to supply civilisation on Earth must compete against a huge and robust system of supply and manufacture already operating on Earth. Mars has none of that.

Initially, everything must be transported to Mars, except for raw materials. Phobos and Deimos are piles of raw materials. The freight price from Earth to Mars orbit is less than that from Earth to Mars’ surface. It follows that the rapid buildup of Martian civilisation begins by transporting industries to Mars orbit that can use raw materials in Mars orbit to manufacture stuff for use at and on Mars.

The 3rd principle is an assault on current Mars dogma:

Use methane to establish a port and then switch to argon to establish civilisation.

Locomotive circa 1893
© Daniel Hagerman 2012

Musk likes to use the railroad analogy as shorthand for the importance of transport infrastructure to decrease the price of Earth-Mars freight. Okay, but once you’ve got a diesel engine, why carry coal and water? For that matter, diesel loses its luster once you can connect to an electricity grid.

Zubrin pointed out that you can make methane and oxygen on the Martian surface. Musk proposes that we rely on these propellants throughout the 21st century to establish civilisation on Mars. Courtesy of the rocket equation and the low efficiency of chemical propulsion, Musk’s proposal involves multiple refueling tankers per transport and a huge Martian Sabatier-process infrastructure. All this is not unlike the watering and coaling infrastructure required by early railroads.


© CIAAW 2007

Advances in higher-thrust electric propulsion (e.g., VASIMR) show that, with a sufficient electricity source, Earth-Mars transit can be accomplished quickly and at efficiencies ten times those of chemical propulsion. Electric propulsion favours the use of noble gases. Argon is the second most abundant component of Mars’ atmosphere and the third most abundant of Earth’s. The extraction of Argon from Mars’ atmosphere is much simpler than the production of methane and oxygen from carbon dioxide and water.


Maglev beats Coal

Imagine a modern railroad: A solar power satellite in Mars orbit feeds a laser array that beams power to an argon-propelled ship so that it can begin deceleration during the last million kilometres of its journey from Earth. A similar scene played out as the ship accelerated from Earth. Hundreds of passenger sloops and automated freighters travel between an orbital port at Earth and one at Mars, each port equipped with an argon tank farm serviced from their respective planets.

Building the port in Mars orbit will require infrastructure on Mars and in orbit, plus people in orbit. That last bit – the people in orbit – brings us to the most important principle about humanity at Mars. It’s not the 4th principle nor the last principle, it’s the 0th principle:

If human physiology is long-term compatible with 0.38g, then civilisation at Mars is possible, else humanity at Mars is limited to temporary stays at research stations.

We know that 0g is very bad for humans. We know that 1g is wonderful for humans. Is the relationship linear? Is some-g, say 0.38g, enough to get past all the nasty complications of too-low-g? We don’t know.

© Lindberg Line 1969

Start at Mars by constructing a rotating space station à la von Braun, Clarke, and many others. Spin this station so that the habitation quarters are at 0.38g – Mars normal. As the occupants build the port facilities, in orbit and on the surface, find out if humans can become Martians. If bone & brain can adapt to Mars, then we build a two-planet civilisation. If not, we build for research alone.

The path outlined by these principles is not prescient, nor even particularly creative. The 0th principle is fundamental, the 1st is basic, and, while the 2nd and 3rd may be fanciful, they serve to illustrate what’s possible if we look beyond the limitations of national space programmes and single companies.