I put forward a plan to get to Mars in a previous blog here.   This is the next in what I hope is a series of blogs on “next steps” and more detail about this plan.  I know that Elon Musk has said he will reveal his plan in 2016 (this year).  I am dying to read that.  It will be interesting to see if he is consistent with my view or has a different plan.

I have started to imagine the things needed to get to Mars and to live on Mars.  The idea is that to understand the cost and scope of this effort we have to understand roughly as a starting point how much material are we talking about, how many missions will be required, what is stuff we have, what is stuff we need to improve and what is stuff that is really hard versus what is easier.  All of this can be used to construct the outline of a more robust and defensible plan in terms of cost and time.

My going in presumption as I describe in my blog on living on Mars is that before we send humans we have to do a lot of preliminary work and develop certain infrastructure and skills that are missing right now.   Humans are incredibly hard to send into space and do anything useful.  They require so much additional stuff to sustain life and to make them productive that it multiplies the cost of doing anything by a factor of 10 (at least) so that it would be infinitely less costly to first do virtually everything without humans.  We should send humans only in the last leg of the process.

This is contrary to NASA’s plan which believes that it is crucial to send humans as soon as possible to keep national interest and funding in the project.  So, NASA proposes sending stand-alone rockets more or less that take everything with them like the Apollo missions.  This approach is necessarily temporary.  I believe strongly that temporary occupation of Mars by humans is stupid and a complete waste of money.

Going to Mars just to go to Mars and say we went there like we did the moon is stupid.  Gathering some rocks and planting flags is cool but as enthusiastic as I am about space I would say its not worth $150 billion or whatever they want to spend on it.  I would cancel and not do anything rather than do something stupid like that again.

So what do we need to get to and live on Mars?  I think this can be approached fairly logically and systematically.

I classify things into categories as follows:

  1. Technical Improvements needed
  2. Physical systems that need to be built and put into use
  3. What needs to be delivered and available on Mars before humans can go
  4. What kinds of people do we need to go
  5. What things need to be resupplied and what can be obtained from Mars
  6. What does this translate into mass that needs to be delivered to Mars when
  7. How many missions does that represent
  8. How much will it cost

This all rolls up ultimately to the bottom line.  How long will it take and how much will it cost?

I realize I haven’t thought of everything and don’t have sufficient expertise to think of everything needed or how to do some things or even if some things may already be known and I don’t know about it.  Many times I will assume that if we have the equivalent of something working on Earth that we can figure out an equivalent “hardened” system that can work in space and Mars easily enough.  I realize that since human lives will ultimately be dependent on these systems that we must ultimately test these things in real missions before we allow humans to assume they will work.

We know we can make steel on Earth through certain processes of mining, refining and processing.  Will those processes work on Mars?   Probably not.  The entire process of finding, removing the material, processing and eventually using the material in other processes will be different on Mars.  Much of it will have to be automated.  We might not use steel on Mars.  We have what we need there to make steel if we wanted but maybe we don’t want to.   The point is not that we need to build steel mills on Mars it is that we need to think how are we going to do processing of materials on Mars, what materials, how do we get them and use them?  That’s among the biggest challenges because to bootstrap on Mars a society that is completely independent will take significant more than the Sorghum or other barley like grains that sustained the first human civilizations 5,000 years ago.


First Missions

  1. Reusable launch vehicles
  2. Reusable shuttle to mars
  3. Reusable landing vehicle on mars
  4. Energy hub and batteries
  5. Initial transport systems
  6. Communications network
  7. Life detection and return
  8. Discovery of resources

We must develop reusable launch vehicles to make this thing economic at all.

NASA should be focusing on the next step of the program needed NOT building giant rockets or manned capsules.  The most important thing other than reusable launch vehicles is the transportation network to Mars.  We need to make this economic and regular so we can send lots of stuff to Mars.  We anticipate at least 10 million lbs of material will be needed before arrival of the first human.   If each transport mission is 100,000 lbs of materials that’s 100 missions.

Since the time to Mars is 9 months at the minimum and 18 months may be more reasonable average time if we have 6 reusable shuttles running back and forth over a 3 year period we would have 18 missions.  Over 15 years 100 missions.   This is a schedule of 6 missions a year and 10 launches of a Falcon Heavy or equivalent craft a year.  The rough estimates here could be varied a lot to facilitate failures or more material or less material needed but the basic need for a lot of missions makes some reusable craft a necessity.  Let’s get cracking.  This is the next thing we need.

The next thing we need is hopefully straightforward.  The vehicle that is being towed to Mars with cargo should be a separate vehicle able to land on Mars safely and return to shuttle to be towed to the origin.  This vehicle needs to be reusable as well and my suggestion is that the system to disgorge the contents doesn’t need to be in the lander because one of the first landings will be to deliver rovers and transport vehicles able to move things around Mars and pick up and deploy supplies.

The first missions would be focused on first the energy required for anything we do on Mars.   After that or in conjunction would be the transport systems to deliver the batteries and other stuff to start to autonomously build our facilities.    We would need to have networking available so the IoT and other systems could communicate well as well as back to Earth relay system for a lot of telemetry.  A minor requirement but another needed piece I haven’t mentioned.  A high bandwidth  to Mars communication system.

One of the first things we need to do is to discover if there is single cellular life on Mars or not and end this question.   If there is and we cannot live with coexisting with this life on Mars then we may need to terminate the program.  In any case we must determine the origin of this life and what to do about it, how to protect it, if it is dangerous to humans or we are dangerous to it.  It is assumed we will need to look at several possible environments where life could be resident on Mars.

Discovery of resources is critical and involves digging and moving around Mars adeptly.  This requires a distribution, energy systems and communication described above.

We should assume that everything we do on mars has to be replicated 5 to 10 times.   This means 5 discovery robots.   5 -10 energy hubs.  These don’t have to arrive all in this initial set of deployments but should eventually.


I anticipate delivery and operation of 1-3 would take 5 years followed by 30 years of prep resulting in a 35 year initial program and then continuing for another 30 years after that at least.

I believe because of the cost saving approach used in this whole plan by using modular and reusable components everywhere the cost of this program does not exceed NASAs current budget in terms of national GDP allocation during this entire 60 year time frame and with much diminishing costs after 40 years.

A Falcon Heavy list price is $80M today.  At today’s prices 150 launches would be $12 billion which is less than 1/10th the cost of the ISS space station.   Of course this doesn’t include the other components which will at least triple the cost.  Nonetheless the total cost of this program could be less than the cost of the ISS.  I am sure that once we got going that many of the components from the energy systems to the habitat and other pieces would be donated by other countries who want to participate.   Even if you assume a huge government waste on top and typical costs for testing and such the program costs could not be more than the space station.   When you think of it in those terms the program is quite affordable.   A big problem with the ISS was the cost of the shuttle.  At $2 Billion / launch the many launches ended up costing a fortune.  At $40M if reusable and cost efficiencies are achieved you could launch 50 Falcon Heavies for the price of one shuttle launch.


Here is a list of some of the things we need to do

  1. Reusable Launch vehicles
  2. A shuttle to Mars (likely Ion Propulsion)
    1. Since there will be hundreds of missions to Mars and we want to reduce cost the same “reusability” we espouse for getting into space must make sense for getting to Mars.  We would want to have a series of ships in constant rotation to Mars or coming back from Mars.    Every 2 years we get a “shortest” path to Mars but this is too long to wait between missions and we could never afford the number of ships to simultaneously send a lot of stuff when the minimal travel times come about so we need to realize that we will have different travel times and paths to mars.  We will need flexible craft with long fuel times.  Sometimes a journey will take years as opposed to months.  There are two candidate propulsion systems for this.  Ion propulsion has been used a lot lately and provides for lots of propulsion over long periods of time to achieve large delta V’s.  We could also look at nuclear propulsion with higher specific acceleration that would get us to Mars much faster (2 months in the shortest case compared to 9 with liquid fuel and years with ion).  However, nuclear propulsion may be more damaging to craft and contents meaning less re-usability.   However, nuclear propulsion would give the possibility of many more missions in a time frame.
    2. The Mars shuttles should be able to carry several types of payloads from smaller to larger.  Possibly this would mean different sized shuttles to carry different cargo loads and we would space the different cargo loads according to the type of shuttle available.  This would take a lot more advance planning.  I suspect we will have one type of shuttle and make 10 or 20 of them.
    3. The shuttle FROM point should be either a higher Earth orbit or one of the 5  Lagrangian points or some have suggested the Moon.   The moon may have the capability to offer a much cheaper way to get to Mars.  The Moon may have materials to make fuel.  The Moons gravity well is minimal making it easy to get in or out.  Refueling at the Moon would save dramatically on fuel and energy because we would only have to have enough fuel on the shuttle from Earth orbit to the moon.  NASA calculated refueling on the Moon would save more than 50% of the energy requirements to get to Mars.
    4. The shuttle would need to be able to be reused potentially a hundred times and have the ability to land on the Moon repeatedly if that is where we decide to take off and land from.
  3. Landing vehicle (like the SpaceX Dragon) for Mars
    1. Delivering supplies and equipment to Mars will become very common.  We may have hundreds of missions to do this.  Therefore we need to perfect and ideally make the vehicles that hold the cargo able to land and potentially take off from Mars repeatedly.  This could be considered part of (or even the same as the shuttle above but I think logically it is useful to separate the two functions.  In essence we would have 2 or more vehicles tethered together on the path to Mars or back.  These would be loaded with any range of cargo described below and would be able when arriving at Mars to disengage and land on Mars disgorge their contents somehow and then take off again.  They would then link up with the shuttle and make the trip back to the origin to be reloaded.
    2. Since the landings cannot be known in advance and locations may be all over the planet the landing vehicles need a general way to disgorge materials and transporting the materials to their destination.  We likely don’t want to send a rover or robot with every supply vehicle so the transport equipment on the surface would be used.  One of the first missions would deliver these vehicles to be reused to disgorge or load anything to be brought back to Earth.
  4. A high speed communications network to Mars
  5. A general warehouse facility on Mars
    1. We will need to store large amounts of material on Mars for the living creatures use eventually.  This includes foodstuffs, spare parts, key chemicals or many many things.  As a result we need a large structure that can be built that is somewhat protected from radiation and is completely robotized.   As each delivery is made the lander would land close to the warehouse (in most cases) and its delivery vehicle would deliver to the front door of the warehouse where the warehouse itself would take over.   It would automatically be able to take in the containers of different supplies, inventory the contents automatically, possibly perform some tests for quality, then decide where to store the supplies.
    2. The warehouse(s) may have several environments in each.  Some environments may simply be exposed to Mars environment more or less, others to human breathable air, low radiation and higher temperatures and others to somewhere in between.   This may be accomplished by having different warehouses or if possible having warehouses with different zones.
    3. Eventually the warehouse would be given a command to disgorge a specific container and would have the ability to grab that container and deliver it to something outside that would grab it and bring it where it was needed.  Sometimes the supplies in the warehouse would be needed for the warehouse itself.
    4. Potentially the warehouses should be expandable so that new units can be added dynamically over time as we grow the need for storage.
    5. We will be in a constant state of mining materials and needing to store the materials in a more refined state.  The warehouses can store these more refined materials
    6. The warehouses would also have both spare parts as well as fully assembled spares of some things.  It may be more efficient to have assembly of more complex items done in the warehouse itself meaning that robotic capabilities beyond simple movement of boxes and containers may be necessary.   3D printers may be co-located in warehouses allowing as materials come in to process into more complicated pieces and stored in situ.
    7. Warehouses themselves would be modular as a result and consist of expandable set of these modules with interconnecting systems so materials can easily traverse through to their destination.  Some interconnecting pathways should be designed into all the modules so that as modules are added they automatically connect, get discovered by the warehouse OS and added to the network of capabilities and resources of the warehouse
  6. Energy storage and batteries, energy production and distribution
    1. It is assumed a modular system for power will be needed.  Virtually every device on Mars will need power.  Having solar panels on everything is problematic.  It makes more sense to have a replaceable battery system (ala Teslas car batteries) that would be kept in great numbers fully charged.  Locations would have large solar farms which would collect and store energy in various capacities.  We may wire Mars like Earth for power to close-by fixed facilities but most likely a lot of Mars will be powered by these batteries.   As a result it is necessary to have rovers that can use these batteries and transport these batteries to designated locations on schedule.  They would have to be autonomous vehicles.  Batteries would be delivered and installed on various devices throughout our martian installations more or less automatically as usage dictated.
    2. We need solar farms to collect energy in various locations all over mars fairly close to where we expect colonies or installations will be built.  They would charge the batteries and have the ability to store large amounts of power to operate at night and supply batteries at all times.
    3. We need transport robots capable of picking these batteries up and delivering them constantly to needed facilities.
    4. I am guessing warehouses and energy farms would be close to each other so the warehouse could be powered by the energy farm directly without batteries but the option of batteries for the warehouses would be a needed option if we put warehouses in locations without an energy farm nearby.
    5. Energy should be plentiful on Mars.  However, solar will have to be perfected more on mars as the sandstorms obscure the panels frequently.  We have learned in previous missions the wind itself will clean the panels off sometimes but we need to have a more reliable way of keeping the solar panels at full capacity for decades reliably.
    6. We may consider collocation of network and computer cloud hubs at the area of the energy farms as well.  Other energy intensive fixed location activities which might be related to production and processing would also be close to energy farms.
  7. Other hubs we would need for certain generic activities
    1. Cloud hubs – we would want vast computation along the lines of cloud farms available so general computational tasks could be easily performed on Mars locally.  Such farms would benefit from the fact that Mars is extremely cold.  We could even have quantum computers much cheaper and potentially much more powerful on Mars since the entire environment is conducive to superconducting.
    2. Network hubs – these wouldn’t be huge but we need to have the ability to distribute networking across most of the surface of Mars so as we traverse or devices are in transit across mars there is an independent network that is ubiquitous.
    3. Air manufacturing and storage
    4. Water storage and purifying.  One advantage of living on Mars is the natural resources.  Mars appears rich in numerous chemicals including one essential ingredient: Water.  This means our requirements for 100% reuse of water wouldn’t be as steep as in space.
    5. Other raw materials processing hubs.  A key requirement will be the possibility of generic processing ovens that could be used for many different chemical processes.   This is unknown how to do exactly.   For many reasons it won’t be that economic at least initially to have very specific reaction chambers except for critical supplies.  So figuring out how to make these more generic would be important.  This would also allow for more agility as we discover new things about manufacturing and materials.
    6. Semiconductor manufacturing hub – not the highest technology available but the ability to construct electronics on the fly using programmable devices and reliable technology would be a big help to pioneers.
  8. Robots
    1. We will need various types of robots on mars.  If one considers the various transportation devices those would be robots but I am excluding things like the whorehouse transport systems and the transport systems in general from the list of robots.  I am also excluding 3d printers which are a different but essential technology
    2. Robots will need autonomous operation.   Besides the complexity of general robots we need robots we can train remotely and then have them adapt the motions to the environment they are in using some intelligence to avoid obstacles or damage anything in process.
    3. We will need robots that can perform small detailed operations as well as robots which can move large objects and do things that will be difficult for a human to do.   Since Mars gravity is 1/3 the Earth there is an inherent advantage.
    4. We need robots for drilling and robots that can handle extremely hot or caustic materials.
    5. We need robots that can repair
  9. Transportation on Mars
    1. This will be among the easiest possibly of things to do.  These could be simple vehicles without a habitat
    2. Most SciFi novels have included the notion of mobile habitats.  This would be a luxury and not needed until much later in the planning.
    3. obviously these would be  ubiquitous as there is a great need to move things around on Mars from site to site.  It is assumed many different sites will be needed for redundancy as well as because different resources will be available in different places as well as our desire for exploration of the planet will require these.
    4. A strategy of deploying these vehicles and associated energy systems, batteries and habitats would be designed to expand out from an initial deposit.  This would be an underlying initial capability to build the rest of the infrastructure since the need to supply and transport things around on mars will be a critical need
  10. IoT standards – Everything is IoT
    1. It is assumed that practically everything on Mars will be an IoT device.
    2. This will make it possible to assess the state of everything at any time and the location
    3. ubiquitous redundant network connectivity will make this very reliable
    4. automation of battery renewal and other maintenance will be possible with everything IoT
    5. Every container, device and system should be IoT
    6. Mesh network will be crucial technology
  11. construction site in space to assemble missions
    1. It is assumed that we cannot launch complete items for use on mars and that some intermediary construction site is needed somewhere before the final voyage to Mars.  This is likely to be at the point for meeting the shuttles to Mars and the landing craft for Mars meet.
    2. We need to be able to assemble shuttles, mars lander, larger robots or other larger products to be delivered to the Mars surface whole.   When our manufacturing on Mars is good enough the need for this may be less.
  12. Life Detection and protection / transport
    1. We need a robotic craft and instruments that can see, analyze, test for lifeforms in multiple places on the Martian surface.
    2. These should also be able to deliver samples to a containment vessel to be delivered back to Earth in a Mars shuttle craft.
    3. a 2020 mission to mars authorized by NASA will do numerous experiments to attempt to answer this question but I believe ultimately we will have to do more before we are sure.  Thus we need additional effort.
  13. Radiation protection materials and zones
    1. Recent data from probes to mars show that during interstellar travel there is an average if 1.8 milli-Sieverts per day.   On the surface of mars there is an average of 0.6 milli-Sieverts per day.   1 Sievert is equal to the dose of a person on Earth from an entire life.   It is thought that multiple Sieverts are needed to induce much higher rates of cancer death but a good approximation would be that if people were dosed with less than 3 Sieverts/lifetime their cancer rates would be within a tolerable range.  The average person has a 21% chance of dying from cancer.   Exposure to 3 Sieverts would increase the risk of cancer by 50% or a little more so that this person would have a 33% chance of dying of cancer.  With improved cancer treatment it may be possible to dramatically change the risk of radiation in space.
    2. A single journey to or from Mars would result in 0.33 Sieverts.  A year of life on Mars would result in 0.22 Sieverts without protection.  Thus traveling to Mars and living 50 years on Mars would result in 11.33 Sieverts far above the radiation dose we would like to absorb.   While shielding would be needed it doesn’t have to be as good as Earth level protection.  Being able to cut radiation by a factor of 3 or 4 is not that difficult. Total radiation on Earth is about 10 milli-Sieverts/year.  So 220 milli-Sieverts per year means without protection a Mars resident will get 20 times the radiation of an Earthbound person.
    3. 5 meters or 15 feet of Mars soil should provide about 95% protection from radiation.  Less would produce proportionately less.   Assuming astronauts spend X% of their time outside the protection of a habitat and that a life on Mars would be average 90 years to achieve total radiation exposure less than 3 Sieverts would require an average of less than 33 milli-Sieverts/year.   So, with 0% of their time outside explorers would need 5 feet of shielding and even if they had 100 feet of shielding they could not spend more than 30% of their time outside the protected habitats.   Thus having shielding on vehicles or from their suits or with induced magnetic fields would be desirable.  It may not be required immediately but soon after habitation sufficient shielding would be necessary.
    4. It should be noted that radiation spikes during solar storms called SPE’s.   It is hoped that travelers will be forewarned of such events since we may be able to predict such events.   It would be desirable to have places on Mars where enhanced shielding is available during such events.  Some have suggested using a water storage system around the residents would be helpful.
    5. There are several ways to protect people from damaging radiation.   Russians have shown the ability to build reasonable energy consumption magnetic fields of sufficient strength to repel or deflect ionizing radiation.
    6. Underground habitats on Mars are likely to be common as a way to protect residents from long term exposure.  Habitats would have to have 5 to 15 feet of soil above them.
    7. New Materials are showing promise as lightweight alternatives to Lead that provide similar or better protection from radiation.   We need to make lots of this material in different forms and all over.  Ideally space suits would incorporate this material as well as the walls of space ships, every structure we build on mars and devices such as mobile habitats.  We might want to use it around electronics even to prevent damage to sensitive equipment and allow us to use cheaper and faster electronics.
    8. A 0.1Tesla magnetic field will produce enough deflection to reduce radiation to Earth levels.  This would require about 500W – 5KW of continuous power to sustain.
  14. Greenhouse and food harvesting
    1. The ISS recently demonstrated an astronaut growing food on the space station.  Unfortunately this is less than impressive.  Growing food using Earth soil is hardly something worth printing.   We need to figure out and test growing stuff on Mars using Mars soil and with combinations of microbes and nutrients we supply.    If it is required that we use Earth soil we will have to transport a lot of additional weight at high expense and it will leave our colony very much more dependent on Earth.  We are not striving for perfect autonomy but to the extent possible basic materials should be available on Mars for most stuff.  To the extent possible we should strive to utilize what we can.  So, we need to make some effort to show if we can use Martian soil.
    2. Since plants may be subject to damaging radiation we may need to erect magnetic fields around the food banks or to grow underground to protect the plants.   Some plants may be less affected by radiation and be grown in facilities unprotected.   CO2 is the main material consumed by plants and fortunately this is in abundance on Mars.  The plants producing Oxygen as a result could be siphoned off as one of the supplies of oxygen.    The technology for doing this is not a problem.
    3. We will need the greenhouses to be largely autonomous.  It is likely that the greenhouses will be exposed to more radiation than we want and to air that is not ideal for humans.  So, we can’t expect people to be working the fields on Mars all day.   Irrigation, nutrient supply and harvesting should be largely automated.  This can be accomplished using technologies already available on Earth adapted to Mars and to selecting crops more amenable to this type of farming.  We also need to use robots for harvesting and some of the initial setup and maintenance of the autonomous greenhouses.
  15. autonomous exploration vehicle with deep drilling capability and spectrographic and other analysis
    1. This is an early requirement for exploration of Mars for materials to use in replenishment
    2. Since this is an ongoing and hard requirement these machines must be extremely industrial, reliable, heavy.
  16. air maintenance module
  17. waste module
  18. entertainment systems
  19. 3d printers
  20. habitat manufacturing
  21. Mars soil movement and digging vehicle
    1. We are going to need to do significant digging, mining and underground construction on mars
    2. We need soil excavation, grading machines, drilling machines
    3. These need to be extremely strong, reliable durable machines
    4. They need to be autonomous and robotic able to be programmed to dig a hole or excavate land but stop when they discover something we shouldn’t dig into or unexpected.
    5. We will need to excavate large structures underground either by digging
  22. construction robot
  23. autonomous operating 2 legged worker robot