Mars and Beyond

Falcon Heavy’s test flight last week wasn’t perfect. But I’ll call it a success. That’s good news for SpaceX. My opinion isn’t the good news, I’m nowhere near that influential. It’s the largely-successful flight.

The test flight’s dummy payload included an actual dummy. “Starman” is the mannequin wearing a spacesuit at the wheel of a red Tesla roadster.

I’ll be talking about that, also how I see the news, technology, and humanity’s new horizon.

Tickets to Other Worlds

(From Falcon Heavy Demo Mission, SpaceX; via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Falcon Heavy Lift side boosters landing: February 6, 2018.)

We still don’t have spaceliners or daily low Earth orbit commuter runs. But we’re another step closer to those science fiction staples.

I’ll probably talk about energy costs, efficiency, and the economics of spaceflight in more detail. Eventually. Not this week.

Briefly, going from Earth’s surface into orbit is more expensive than taking a flight from Houston to Dallas.

Partly, I think, because there’s not much traffic between the surface and orbit.

It’ll always be a bit more pricey, probably. Lifting something into Earth orbit takes a fair amount of energy.

But that’s not, I think, the main reason we don’t have passenger service to Lunar cities. Lunar cities? That’s another topic. Several, actually.

We’ve had ocean liners for generations. Cruise ships are still a vacation option. Airlines make global travel possible for many folks. Including transpacific flights.

None of that would be possible if airlines had to buy a new Airbus for each trip. Or Royal Caribbean International needed a new Harmony of the Seas for each cruise.

Which gets me to why we don’t have spaceliners. Yet.

Harmony of the Seas cost about $1,350,000,000. It carries 5,479 passengers at “double occupancy.”

How they get an odd number out of “double,” I don’t know. There’s also a crew of 2,300 or so.

A new cruise shop would cost — only $246,395 per passenger. That’s not ridiculously expensive. Beyond my household’s budget, though.

Getting a vehicle isn’t the only expense, of course. Figuring out wages, fuel, maintenance and the rest — would take time. More than I’m willing to spend this week.

I’ll be optimistically vague instead.

Let’s say that ticket cost per passenger with a new Harmony each time would be around a million dollars. Probably more, since folks with that sort of money might want roomier quarters and more staff.

If each of the world’s 2,000 or so billionaires took a million-dollar Caribbean cruise each year? My guess is that most would prefer their own yacht to a cruise ship. Assuming they didn’t have other plans, or put vacations off until retirement.

Developing Tech

(From NASA, used w/o permission.)

I might be around when the first humans set out for Mars. Or not.

I’m about as sure as I can be that we’ll get there. Whether it takes decades, centuries or millennia depends more on economics and preference than technology. My opinion.

We don’t have the tech now. Not quite.

Outfits like SpaceX are very close to launching commercial vehicles capable of getting to Mars. Keeping folks in good shape on the way? That’s in development. Making it reliable and ready will take time.

Whether or not the first human arrivals are explorers or colonists, they’ll almost certainly set up a habitat. One that’ll support them for months.

That’d suit scientists with a new planet to study. But they’d be stuck there anyway, regardless of their druthers. Physics makes the stopover necessary.

Round Trip to Mars

Getting to Mars and back takes roughly 21 months with something like today’s tech.

Walther Hohmann‘s 1925 book described the orbital mechanics.

Hohmann transfer orbits aren’t spot-on accurate, since they don’t take the Solar System’s gravity fields into account. Other than our sun’s, that is.

But they’re close enough for ballpark estimates.

Using minimum fuel, it takes nine months to reach Mars from Earth. Heading back to Earth’s orbit can be done any time after that.

Folks who want Earth to be there when they arrive must wait three months. Then it’s another nine month coast to Earth. Roughly.

That’s something like 21 months, living on whatever we bring along. For six people, that’d be about 3,000,000 pounds of supplies. That’s around 1,500 tons. U.S. measurements.

If I’m reading the numbers right, that’s very roughly how much cargo many container ships carry.

Building a life support module that big should be possible. Expensive, but possible.

Adding enough fuel to get the thing to Mars and back? Even leaving used parts behind for the return trip?

I doubt anyone would see the proposal as affordable.

Knowing how something can be done, the science involved, is one thing. Working bugs out of prototype tech is another. Next comes putting the pieces together and making it all mildly reliable. That’s assuming that resources and interest kept up.

It took us nearly two millennia to go from aeolipiles to steam engines and robotic spaceships. We managed the last step in a few centuries. (February 5, 2017)

We’ve got much more effective data storage, retrieval, and analysis tech now, which should speed things up. Yet more topics. (January 26, 2018; December 1, 2017)


(From NASA/Clouds AO/SEArch, used w/o permission.)

The first Martian habitats may not look quite like the Langley/Clouds Architecture Mars Ice Dome. But they won’t be much different either.

Most plans include intensive agriculture, high tech gardening, and pressure vessels to keep the plants and people alive.

Since Mars has a thin atmosphere and no magnetic field to speak of, plants and people both need radiation shielding.

That makes getting light to the plants and providing folks with a view outside a bit challenging. We don’t need to see out the way plants need light. But looking outside is arguably important psychologically.

Something like the Mars Ice Dome would work for explorers. As a combination home and workshop/lab, it’s not overly roomy.

Clouds AO and SEArch’s plans seem to show enough elbow room, though. It’s more like today’s Antarctic research stations than the huts built by early expeditions.

Settlers could make do with habitats like that at first. Folks planning to live on Mars will almost certainly want more room, though.


Why go to Mars at all? Or anywhere besides where we live today? And why waste valuable time and resources learning about anything new, when we’ve got so many problems here in Earth?

If it was an either/or situation, I’d probably opt for solving current issues first.

I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works, though: any more than I think it’s caring about either people or the environment. (August 11, 2017)

That “probably” needs explanation. Maybe. I couldn’t support a ‘people first’ proposal I thought would make matters worse. I shouldn’t, at any rate.

Some folks think sending robot probes to other worlds makes sense, but not humans. They have a point. We’re learning quite a bit about Mars from flybys, orbital missions, and surface rovers: without ever leaving Earth.

Automated probes can be smaller, lighter and less expensive than something carrying us. Safer, too, since ground controllers don’t have to endure anything except rush hour traffic.

Reducing risks and expenses makes sense.

So, I think, does seeing what other worlds look like with our own eyes: not through a probe’s cameras. Video from Apollo 17 showed that plainly enough, I think.

Harrison Hagan “Jack” Schmitt, a geologist, was one of the two astronauts on the surface.

Astronauts on earlier missions had done geological — selenological? — survey work. They followed procedures with professional skill, bringing back samples we’re still analyzing.

Schmitt did the planned survey work, too. But he was a geologist, the first one on a new world.

I’ve seen puppies less excited than he was.

He did something in one spot I hadn’t seen before. He lifted his suit’s outer gold-coated sun visor.

My guess is that lifting the visor wasn’t part of official procedures. The visor is there to block light and heat. It’s useful, even necessary, on the lunar surface.

There was no immediate reason for Schmitt to lift his visor. But doing so almost certainly gave him a better view of the rock he was holding. Can’t say that I blame him.

The risk would have been minimal. Plus, he had three days to see what he could between the South Massif and Sculptured Hills in Taurus-Littrow. Observing as much as he could, as well as he could, made sense.

I share Schmitt’s excitement over the airless world circling ours.

The Apollo missions probably weren’t the most important thing happening in the 20th century. But I think there’s wisdom in remembering the excitement they inspired around the world. I’ll be talking more about that, and what I see ahead.

After talking about the Falcon Heavy launch and red roadster.

Falcon Heavy Test Flight

(From Falcon Heavy Demo Mission, SpaceX; via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster on the Falcon Heavy upper stage.)

Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy rocket launches successfully
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (February 7, 2018)

US entrepreneur Elon Musk has launched his new rocket, the Falcon Heavy, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“The mammoth vehicle – the most powerful since the shuttle system – lifted clear of its pad without incident to soar high over the Atlantic Ocean.

“It was billed as a risky test flight in advance of the lift-off.

“The SpaceX CEO said the challenges of developing the new rocket meant the chances of a successful first outing might be only 50-50.

“‘I had this image of just a giant explosion on the pad, a wheel bouncing down the road. But fortunately that’s not what happened,’ he told reporters after the event….”

The Falcon Heavy test mission wasn’t flawless. Only two of the three boosters landed. But I’m going to look at this as a ‘glass half full’ situation. More that half, actually.

Even so, I see it as a successful test flight. Apart from the center booster’s crash landing. It hit the water at about 300 miles an hour, 500 kph, a hundred yards off target. One of its engines fired on the way down. The others didn’t.

We’ve come a long way since the 1950s.

Just getting a vehicle off the pad and clear of the umbilical tower was something of an accomplishment in those ‘good old days.’

The first Vanguard launch got four feet up before heading back down.

The satellite survived the explosion and kept transmitting. It was in no shape for use, though, and ended up in the National Air and Space Museum.

Journalists came up with imaginative nicknames. Like kaputnik, flopnik, puffnik and stayputnik.

The latter two were misnomers, I think. It didn’t actually go “puff,” and traveled several yards from the launch site. The launch was far from a success, though.

In sharp contrast, the Falcon Heavy’s test flight went pretty much as planned.

Including sending a sports car toward the stars. Toward the stars. The roadster won’t be leaving the inner Solar System. I’ll get back to that.

Technicians at SpaceX will almost certainly be going over telemetry with the proverbial fine tooth comb. Still, landing two of the three boosters is good. Landing all three would have been better. They’ll want to learn what went wrong with the third booster.

Those things are expensive, which is why so many folks have been developing practical designs for reusable spacecraft.

And a Red Roadster

(From Falcon Heavy Demo Mission, SpaceX; via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

I’m happy to see systems like India’s GSLV in operation. But it’s nice to see folks in my country keeping up, too. (June 9, 2017)

The Falcon Heavy is impressive, the first American vehicle its size since the Saturn V and Shuttle. It’s currently the world’s most powerful rocket. I’m pretty sure that’ll change soon.

I didn’t know what to think of that red sports car in space.

Given Elon Musk’s theatrical flair, it wasn’t a surprise. My view is that it’s his company and his car. If he wanted to have its virtual driver take selfies, that’s his decision.

Aside from ruffling a few feathers in excessively serious circles, I don’t see the harm. And launching a red sports car into space gave me topnotch images for this post. There’s more to it than a publicity stunt, though.

Having Fun

(From Falcon Heavy Demo Mission, SpaceX; via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

SpaceX designed the Falcon Heavy to lift satellites into geosynchronous orbit. Or low Earth orbit. Or both. Or toward Mars. The Falcon Heavy’s upper stage can restart in space, delivering packages to different orbits.

Since this isn’t one of those ‘Earth’s fate hangs in the balance’ movies, testing the vehicle with something less valuable than a high-tech satellite made sense.

The dummy payload would normally have been something like steel or concrete blocks. But a red roadster was more fun.1

“…SpaceX decided it would be more worthwhile to launch something fun and without irreplaceable sentimental value: a red Roadster for the red planet. Following launch, Falcon Heavy’s second stage will attempt to place the Roadster into a precessing Earth-Mars elliptical orbit around the sun.

“It’s important to remember that this mission is a test flight….”
Falcon Heavy Demonstration Mission,” SpaceX (February 2018)

Concrete blocks would have been a less expensive dummy payload. I gather that a Tesla Roadster sells for between $200,000 and $250,000 or thereabouts.

On the one hand, that’s a pricey bit of “fun.” On the other, pictures from the Falcon’s outward-bound upper stage gave SpaceX and Tesla the sort of publicity you can’t buy.


(From nagualdesign, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(The Tesla sports car’s orbit (red) takes it a little farther out than Mars.)

I don’t know how many folks think the Tesla is headed for Mars. It’s not.

It could have been, if Earth and Mars had been elsewhere in their orbits at launch. Even then, the roadster wouldn’t have done much. The Falcon Heavy upper stage wasn’t rigged for deep space course corrections, for starters.

As it is, the rocket and roadster will be orbiting our star for a long time. We’ll be tracking them, at least for a while. About that — Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s HORIZONS web interface lists the Falcon’s upper stage and Tesla roadster as 2018-017A, or Starman.

It’s a good thing that nobody’s in that SpaceX spacesuit. Folks in the company’s Dragon 2 will wear it, or something like it, on the way up and back down. It’s designed for short-term safety and comfort inside a spaceship. Not working a shift outside.

Zeal and Amos

(From SpaceX/Shutterstock, via The Guardian, used w/o permission.)

The SpaceX roadster’s publicity hasn’t been all positive.

I appreciate Mr. McKenna’s zeal in protecting Earth’s ozone layer, class-struggle causes, and all that.

I might not have picked a sports car running on lithium-ion batteries as my target. But environmental and social justice concerns can be reasonable. Or not.

Some folks with wealth and influence don’t use their power well. That was a problem when Hammurabi’s law code was new. It’s a problem today. I figure it’ll be a problem when Hammurabi, Spartacus and Karl Marx seem roughly contemporary.

The problem isn’t wealth. It’s misused wealth and misplaced priorities. It’s the sort of problem we’ve had almost from the start. (Amos 8:46; Proverbs 23:3; 1 Timothy 6:1; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 396406, 19281942)

And that’s yet again another topic.

Space Junk

The ‘space junk’ criticism is somewhat reasonable. It’s stuff, mostly in Earth orbit, that we’ve left there.

Some is small, like dust from solid rocket motors. Some is about as big as that roadster.

Most of the debris is in geosynchoronous orbit, along with a great many working satellites. It’s pretty much everywhere we’ve been. Either in person, or through our robotic proxies.

It’s not “permanent” on a cosmic scale. Some will drop back into Earth’s atmosphere in a matter of years or decades. If left alone, some will orbit for millennia.

We can track the larger pieces, spotting collisions before they happen. The ISS has gotten out of the way a few times, giving reporters something to do.

We’re developing national and international standards for debris control. That should help slow down how fast it’s accumulating. Clearing what’s already there is an issue I’ll leave for another day.

“Depressing” News?

‘Glass half empty’ viewpoints are always an option.

Even when the glass is completely, full, a dedicated doomsayer could remember that it might be empty someday.

Or broken. Or maybe the water is polluted. I don’t see the allure in that attitude.

Back to technology and crepe hanging.

The Falcon Heavy test launch hasn’t inspired a lasting peace in Congo, ended poverty, or proven the Reimann hypotheses. Not that I know of, anyway. But it’ll help folks reach space with less expense and waste.

Now, a ‘glass half empty’ viewpoint.

Quite a few folks were killed in Syria on the day of the launch. A Mr. Robinson found that “depressing:”

He’s got a point. English-language news media focused on the launch and the sports car that day. Not the sad business-as-usual in Syria. Or Congo, Mexico, Darfur, or dozens of other places.

What I found surprising, looking back, is the SpaceX launch’s headline treatment. And generally upbeat treatment, at that.

I enjoyed the break from sturm und drang over who’s in the White House. When the press seemingly has nothing but praise and adulation for our beloved leader? It’s rare, but has happened. It’s also downright troubling. To me.

I haven’t felt unqualified loyalty to or antagonism against any president since I started paying attention, about a half-century back.

I’m “political” only in the sense that I’ve got opinions galore. But not unyielding support for some party or politico. (February 4, 2018; September 17, 2017; January 22, 2017)

And that’s still another topic.


One of my opinions is that if folks from America, India, China, or somewhere else don’t visit Mars: someone else will.

That’s not Manifest Destiny with a global perspective. Not the way you probably heard about it in school, anyway.

I think we’ll return to Earth’s moon, visit Mars, and keep going because we’re human.

We’ve improved our tech, and look a bit different than we did when we first left home.

But we haven’t stopped being the sort of creature we are. For something like two million years, some of us have wondered what’s over the next hill. And headed for the horizon.

Politics drove the Apollo program — in part. Getting to the moon by lifting the whole works off in one launch worked. Spectacular as that was, I don’t think it was the optimal strategy. But it got the job done fast.

I think we’ve been on a more reasonable track recently. Skylab and Salyut 1 were a good tests-of-concept. The ISS is, I think, a good step too. I’m quite sure it won’t be humanity’s last orbital workshop/lab/observatory.

Low Earth orbit isn’t quite ‘over the next hill’ today. But it’s a good place to camp on our way out.

If I thought we shouldn’t ever leave Earth, I might be worried. I’m not.

I’ve enjoyed Lovecraft’s tales. But I’m not concerned that we’ll learn ‘too much.’ I do not think ignorance is our only defense against cosmic horrors. Or a good idea. (November 24, 2017; June 16, 2017)

We can learn about God by noticing order and beauty in the universe. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 3132, 3536, 301, 303306, 311, 319, 1704, 22932296)

Curiosity is part of being human, or should be. We’ve also got free will, so ignoring the wonders around us is also an option. But not, I think, a reasonable one. (March 26, 2017)


My guess is that Elon Musk’s roadster will stay in orbit for quite a while.

Most of it, anyway.

The roadster’s paint, plastic, leather and tires won’t last more than maybe a year.

It’s not the vacuum. Radiation’s an issue beyond Earth’s atmosphere and Van Allen belt. So are micrometeoroids: nature’s own “space junk.”

In time, anything with carbon-carbon bonds will break down; leaving the aluminum frame, inert metal parts and the roadster’s glass.

The roadster is “space junk” in the sense that it’s not doing much. Apart from orbiting and shedding bits and pieces.

At the moment, it’s a point of potential philosophical angst, not a practical problem. I’m pretty sure that’ll the case for decades, probably longer.

But I don’t think it’ll orbit for a billion years. My guess is that it’s got no more than a few more centuries, tops.

Somebody’s going to notice something that size in orbit between Earth and the asteroid belt. What folks make of the rocket-riding roadster will depend partly on how many records of this era get preserved.

If its origins are completely forgotten, it could be quite a puzzle.

In that case, some scholars may say it’s a hoax or forgery. That’s been done with the Phaistos Disc.

Hoaxes happen. But dealing with unsolved puzzles by saying ‘I don’t understand it, therefore it must be a fake’ doesn’t seem reasonable.

Let’s see. I’ve talked about technology, being human, more technology, dealing with puzzles. There’s one more item I wanted to at least mention: life on Mars.

I don’t know if there’s life on Mars now. But I’m quite sure there will be. It’s one of our obvious ‘next steps.’

Looking Ahead

(Detail of “city night,” by molybdenumgp03, used w/o permission.)

I’ve seen opinions shift from near-certainty that we’ll find life on Mars to near-certainty that we won’t.

Few scientists took Lowell’s canal-builders seriously. But quite a few thought we’d find something like lichens or maybe moss.

Then the first flyby showed nothing but craters. ‘Pop’ went hopes for life on the Red planet. Orbiters changed that. We saw other features. Including what looked like rivers. Dry, but the sort of sinuous channels we see on Earth.

We don’t know details of the Martian hydrologic cycle. But we’re reasonably confident that there’s water there. Probably in copious supply. Frozen, for the most part.

Martian life is still an unknown. If it’s there, it’s defied detection so far. I think one of the smartest ‘life experiments’ would have been a good microscope. But nobody asked me, and we did get interesting data from chemical tests.

If there is Martian life — that’s a very big “if.”

If we do find Martian life, at least some scientists will most likely insist that nothing but scrupulously-sterilized probes be sent anywhere near Mars.

They’ll have a point. Studying Martian critters would be harder if we first had to decide whether they’re originally from Mars, or hitched a ride from Earth.

Even if the civilization that first reaches Mars makes it a ‘no visitors’ nature preserve, I’m pretty sure that we’ll land there. Eventually. Our civilizations come and go. We keep going.

We might decide to hold off Martian settlement until after sprucing the place up. Maybe.

Terraforming an entire planet is beyond today’s tech, almost.

We’re a bit sketchy about exactly what would happen as we warm the place up and adjust the air.

And we certainly have no economic or political need to terraform Mars.

It’d be an enormously expensive job. One that’d almost certainly take millennia to show usable results.

Besides, by the time we’ve got outfits with resources on that scale, I think much of Mars will already be ‘terraformed.’

That little Mars Ice Dome is a good start. But like I said, folks will want more room. I don’t think it’ll be long before folks visiting Mars will decide to stay. ‘Not long’ by my standards, anyway. Maybe a century or so.

The first ‘settlement’ habitats probably wouldn’t be much larger than the Mars Ice Dome. Connecting several domes could work for quite a while to accommodate newcomers.

At some point folks would, I think, decide it makes more sense to build larger domes, cylinders, or other readily-pressurized shapes.

Eventually their settlements could grow into towns, cities. Some might not attract many tourists. But ‘compact’ needn’t be cramped and unpleasant. Think Positano or Ravello on the Italian coast.

I can easily imagine someone like me living in a small community not far Athabasca,2 talking with a more conventional chap. He’d be countering my interest in newfangled ideas with his version of common sense.

We’d be discussing proposed settlement plans for a nearby planetary system. He’d see that as a bad idea. Folks, in his view, should live where God intended: in places like Winnipeg, Athabasca, or Gusev City.

Looking back, around, and ahead:

1 Technology, mostly:

2 Athabasca Valles is an outflow channel on Mars, near the equator and generally south of Eleysium Mons. Gusev is a crater in the same general area.

Winnipeg is a city in North America. I live south of there, northwest of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Mars and Beyond

  1. irishbrigid says:

    Wrong word: “that’s a pricey it of “fun.” On”

    Extra comma: “Even when the glass is completely, full, a dedicated”

    Wrong word form: “if folks from American, India, China, or somewhere else”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Thanks for taking time to comment!