The amount of mass determines everything

Now that I’ve had a chance to figure out what the first missions are and to think about the whole plan again I would like to lay out the overall mission plan for bootstrapping humanity to Mars.

One of the things I’ve started to nail down is the mass needed to be delivered to Mars.   I believe we are talking about 22 million pounds.  That is more than 15 but less than the 50 million I originally thought.  Nonetheless these weren’t bad guesses.  My guess is the 22 million must be within a close approximation to what will be needed.

This assumes that for instance we don’t find immediately some workarounds for some simple things.  For instance, I take along about 1 million pounds of soil.  I am assuming that this is lightweight soil but still if we can either fabricate or use Mars soil more than expected then maybe we don’t need to bring along so much soil.

However, my thinking is that we may figure out some things we can save weight on but then discover other things we need more weight.  So, ultimately I think I am in the right ballpark.

In order to make this 22 million pounds in 100 missions I will raise the payload of the dragon landers and the tugs to Mars to 300,000 after 10 years.

What is in the 22 million pounds?

If I told you this then the excitement of the plan might diminish because you might figure out what everything is without my prose and laying out the details.  So, I will give you a teaser on the materials as I see it.   The materials are categorized as follows:

Total 21,262,000
Generic 3,000,000
Communications, Computation, Storage 411,000
Power 2,910,000
Vehicles 339,000
Robots and 3D Printers 550,000
Farming 4,620,000
Construction 1,317,500
Mining 355,000
Manufacturing 1,517,500
Warehouse 1,360,000
Human Habitats 579,000
Medical 579,000
Life Support 1,553,000
Mobile Provisions 50,000
Safety Provisions 2,121,000


The manifest includes enough power generation equivalent to generate power for 800 homes in the US.  The food supply is enough to transport humans to and from mars as well as sustain them for years on Mars.  The initial colony is expected to have 15 people but grow to 100 in 20 years or less.   The colony should be self-sufficient in everything except for some medical supplies and some exotic materials that may be necessary.  The colony will come equipped with enough processing power to be a small Amazon cloud hub and 5 Exabytes of online high speed storage.

Overall Features of my plan over NASA’s plan or Elon Musk’s plan

Let’s not do “Martian: the movie” for real.

Both NASA and Elon Musk at this time are shooting for a very aggressive date for humans to get to Mars.   I believe this is a huge mistake.

  1. I put man on Mars later
  2. I have reusable landers and tug.  I have not seen that in their plans
  3. I emphasize exploration for materials and life and testing things on Mars for a long time autonomously before man arrives
  4. My plan has the option to stop and never send humans to Mars or to wait in case we have serious issues

One of the tenets of my plan is that we don’t know how to do this yet.  In other words before we send people to Mars we should already know that it will work, that they will have things to do and we know what those are primarily.

My biggest worry for the NASA plans and Elon’s plan so far as I know it is that we send humans there and discover that to actually build safe habitats we need to have this equipment or that.  That in order to do this kind of manufacturing we need this or that.

In the case that something is needed that we didn’t think about or test before, the people on Earth will have to design the replacement or whatever, test it and put it on a mission to Mars.   Because ideal times to Mars only occur every 22 months it means that the best case is the colonists might be waiting 2 years and possibly much longer to be able to work again.  I doubt many people would sign up for a situation where they might have to spend years twiddling their thumbs on a remote dangerous planet.

I don’t believe that we should send humans until we know how we can manufacture and have tested most of the tools we plan to use with humans.  We need to test if habitats seem safe and if the food supply is safe and many other things.  This is years of testing.  This is why I cannot tolerate a stupid mission that puts “boots on the ground” as a recent NASA administrator said only to find that the situation is close to Apollo 13 or “Martian: the movie”

Some might say you can’t do this “remotely” “autonomously.”   I don’t expect it will be 100% autonomous but I expect that we can have robots who can be programmed to do mundane things regularly like deliver batteries to the equipment that needs it figuring out how to traverse the terrain to get there.  I expect we will learn iteratively by having equipment on Earth and experimenting on Mars with figuring out how to have more and more of the equipment do things autonomously.    This means all the equipment must have vision systems and enough intelligence to process and execute plans.  Remember this is 10 to 20 years from now.  We are already able to do a lot of this.  It is not “rocket science” as they say.  This is comparable to figuring out autonomous driving on Earth.

The most important point about this is that humans won’t be able to do it on Mars either.  The environment is so nasty that humans will have to wear the kind of bulky suits which making turning a screw into an hour long affair in space.  Learning to do this autonomously is absolutely in the interest of us on Earth as we can use the technology directly in our homes and factories.

In the martian movie which NASA had a huge part in helping design the astronaut is left without food and to wait years for rescue.  Spending his entire time trying to survive rather than doing anything useful.   At one point he gets out and collects some rocks and says:  I feel like an astronaut collecting rocks.  This is a disaster.  We don’t need Mars rocks to be collected by humans.  Please do not spend $200 billion to send people to Mars to pick up rocks.

Another huge feature of my plan – It’s hugely beneficial for Earth and for future missions even if we never complete it

My plan has the option to stop before man gets there at any point and still have tremendous amount of gained science as well as useful perpetual infrastructure.    We will have Mars forever through the extensive VR/4K and communcation systems meaning that this endeavor no matter what we decide ultimately about colonization will bring Mars very tangibly to every human.

If we go with the NASA or Elon plans we will build a huge amount to design for humans.  If we don’t send humans that is all wasted at least for now.  With my plan everything is autonomous and built to last for a century.  We will have a working colony of autonomous machines.  A fuel manufacturing capability and transport to and from Mars orbit.  We will have loads of equipment that future manned or unmanned missions can use.

In the future Mars may be a resupply post for missions to other places.  The power generation, communication and almost all the systems and devices are directly usable on Earth as well as going farther into space.  We can leverage the Mars bases for equipment and supplies.  When we ultimately figure out how or why to send humans to Mars we can engage in that part of the plan later presumably with even more advanced technology and cheaper.

The technology we develop over the next 20 years for autonomous operation, construction and processing as well as the communications and VR(Virtual Reality) and things we learn about life on Mars, how to make life survivable will be useful here on Earth and for any later programs.

I am very excited by the fact this plan is extremely cheap compared to others because it focuses on robotics and autonomous technology first.   I believe we can make that exciting to people.   By the time the 6th mission has happened there will be hundreds of devices on Mars communication stunning visuals all the time in 3D VR.  People will be able to traverse the planet Mars and to observe work being done by robots 24×7 in spectacular manner.  This is infinitely better than hearing some human say:  “It is one step for (a) man, one leap for mankind.”   While thrilling, having this much technology working and being visible in such quality should make up for the lack of presence of some random human by putting us all there to the extent we want to go at least virtually.

Waiting a few extra years to get the logistics and the equipment, processes right will pay off enormously in safety, happiness and success with our bootstrapping effort.   If we fail to bootstrap and the colonists have to come home too soon then the whole thing will be a failure and man may never go down this path again.  Let’s do it right and get the goals for what we are doing straight, coming up with a plan that is cost effective and safe and eventually leads to a successful bootstrap with much higher probability of success.


Overall Timeline for Mars Missions

Development phase (2016-2025)

For the first years up until 2025 the plan calls for extensive preparation.   As described in my first blog on the first 2 missions there are a number of things needed to be working to start the program.   We would be building and testing those pieces during this time period before we make any further missions to Mars manned or unmanned.  These include development of the solar arrays, battery systems, GPS satellites, drilling robot and other equipment that will be deployed on the first 3 missions.  Each of these pieces will need to be tested to have the following characteristics:

  1. Long Lasting – More rugged – Constructed to be robust and reliable even in harsh environments for long periods of time.  We are not constrained by mass as much as in previous missions so we will use that well to use stronger materials, add backup systems and to test under more strenuous conditions.  Some of these materials will have to last 20 years or longer not 6 months.
  2. Componentized – Everything has to be constructed so that it can be repaired fairly easily by replacing individual subunits.   Modular construction will be key to success.
  3. IoT – Every device has to be extensively designed to operate with a high speed long distance IoT mesh fabric that will allow interoperation and message passing, control and telemetry to be routed and acted on by any device nearby.
  4. Autonomous operation – everything has to be intelligent enough to operate as much as possible autonomously.  Extensive testing of this should be made in deserts or similar environments to simulate laying out the solar panels autonomously and wiring them up.  Traversing the terrain will be easier once it has been done the first time.  The robots will pass on route information where they discover obstructions so that subsequent robots or rovers can avoid them easier.  A very detailed map will be created of the terrain.
  5. Battery power – to avoid having weak power supplies and figuring out solar power for every device we will rely on Lithium Ion type batteries.  I am hoping by 2025 we will have both longer lasting, faster charging but more important much more recharaging times than current generations.   With autonomous robots running around supplying batteries when needed for devices everything should be able to operate nearly continuously.
  6. GPS – since we will deploy GPS right away every device can have GPS capability to know where it is and where it is going.
  7. Tested in radiation environments, harsh soil, lack of air, low temperatures and other conditions of Mars.
  8. Programmable and upgradeable so we can improve these things as we learn more
  9. VR everywhere – I believe a huge selling point of this plan is that we will capture vast amounts of video at super high quality and VR combined with GPS positioning to enable us to virtually be on Mars.  Ultimately bringing the experience of being on Mars this way will bring he value and the awe of Mars to more people and be more of a boost to the program than sending a couple humans who say how great it is and what great things they are doing.   Every device we can should have high resolution photography, GPS and VR 4K technology so that we can see where every instrument is and what is happening.
  10. Aware.  Most things will need to have vision and senses so they can be programmed to recognize situations and correct, feedback and correct.

In some ways the ruggedness and less concern for weight should simplify things dramatically.  Light weight implies using exotic materials that might not last as long.  Having a lot of power available will also simplify things greatly.  However, having to test for durability and to design everything from scratch for low gravity, low atmosphere, cold temperatures and caustic environments will increase the problems.  In addition the need for autonomous capability is huge and will require the latest in vision systems and AI to be on many devices that normally are run by humans.

I believe we need to nail down reusability of the Falcon and Falcon Heavy as well as a reusable ion propelled trans-mars tug and a reusable very large mars landing and takeoff vehicle similar to Dragon but much larger.    We need to be able to assemble missions and have many missions operating simultaneously.

The first 10 years – Before human occupation (2025-2035)

These 10 years deploy the hardware we think of in the first 9 years and test it.  We learn where materials are on Mars and we actually mine the material and test processing it, in some cases producing significant quantities of mined materials prior to human arrival.

We will test the farming systems and determine how to grow on Mars and what will grow there.  We will learn if we can keep animals on Mars.   We will learn the reliability of all these systems for life sustainence.

We will test and build habitats learning if we can dig into the soil and use soil for radiation.  Can we trust transparent structures and bubbles?  Can we make then safe?   Can we build into the sides of canyons or underground?  What materials can we use to construct habitats from Mars itself.

This is a crucial phase and these 10 years will be intense to learn all this and do this autonomously.   Presumably the thought is astronauts will do this in Elon’s plan.  I am not convinced NASA has any plans for long term occupation of Mars.  Therefore, NASA’s plan is stupid on the face of it.   It’s a complete waste of money and time.

Elon’s plan if it launches people sooner will put them in charge of many of these things.  However, we simply don’t know if we can make the planet livable and by when.  The colonists may spend the entire 9 years on the precipice of dying or facing the consequence of coming home empty handed.    If we find the equipment has failures or that we need new things the colonists may face years of wasted time.

A huge problem with sending humans too fast is we may not test the basics well.  This means the humans will have far less to work with.  So much of our effort will have been spent in the early years transporting stuff for humans survival and convenience that we won’t be able to build the infrastructure to make their lives useful.

My assumption is that in the first couple years of this program we will send V1 of everything.  My plan assumes we are learning massively these first 4 years or so learning what works and designing V2 of everything.  If we are lucky and had some brilliant designers V1 may hold up really well over time but more than likely things will fail, systems won’t work as designed, things will break and we will be unable to fix it.

The first several years of Telsa cars didn’t have the vision or compute capability to do self-driving.   If you have one of those cars no amount of software will enable you to have self-driving.  We will learn an incredible amount by doing this and V2 will be the version hopefully that really works.  If not we have time to ship a V3 if we need it for some things before we send humans.

I am preparing for a colony to grow

We also are sending enough material that even if things break alarmingly often that there are enough spare parts people won’t die.  There will be enough food that even if food supplies fail people will have years of food available stored.  The “Martian: The movie” scenario will never unfold.  There will be robust communications and things will be built to last 100 years or a long time.

We need enough stuff to bootstrap manufacturing, to mine, to plan big things like building a lake or terraforming without necessarily thinking everything has to come from the Earth.   Earth will not continue to bankroll the colony.  Like when Spain sent Colombus she invested a fantastic of money at the time but she wouldn’t do this again and again.  Spain expected a payoff in gold or something.

We don’t know what the benefit of the Mars colony will be.  We may find the equivalent of gold or some new markets or materials.  Life is surprising.  However, depending on humanity to keep up pumping billions into a colony that is constantly needy will not be good for the colony or for Earth.   We need to do this cheaply but put enough stuff that we can have a decent chance of bootstrapping working.

One of the things I put a big emphasis on is finding materials on Mars and experimenting with mining it as well as using it in processes.  We need to figure out how to scale back drastically the needed supplies from Earth and possibly reverse the materials.

Earth is downwind from Mars.   Mars is farther from the Sun.  What this means it is energetically cheap to go from Mars to Earth but much more expensive to go from Earth to Mars.   It may be cheaper to send stuff back to Earth than mining it on Earth.  If we have asteroids we wish to utilize they will be much easier to reach and mine from Mars than from the Earth.  Delivery to Earth would be much easier after it is processed on Mars.

We don’t know what all the advantages to having a Martian colony will be but to develop one that can ultimately be useful it must have enough to bootstrap itself.   This comes down literally to pounds.  This is why I emphasize the poundage.  I suggest 22 million pounds.  That is roughly 10 million kilograms.  The ISS space station is 1 million pounds.   This is a lot more mass but it is very useful mass directly able to mine, construct habitats and do medical operations on people in situ.   It is a real colony I am talking about not some fantasy that people will be able to do things like they did when they landed on the American shore and just be inventive and figure out.   We are talking about an incredibly dangerous environment, an environment that it is difficult for humans to work without being in a highly restraining suit.  An environment that every minute you are outside impacts you with 10-15 times the radiation you get on Earth.  It is hard and it needs a serious commitment if we are going to keep people there for more than a week.


Priorities by Year

The overall plan has the following milestones or project objectives.  I have listed the year the milestone will start to be achieved.  All milestones have to be achieved prior to Human colony arriving.

 Objective Year to Start
Communications 1
Power 1
Exploration For Life 1
Exploration for Resources 1
Start Construction 2
Start Mining 2
Start Processing 2
Start Farming 2
Expand Construction 3
Refueling Mars Shuttles 3
Life Support Materials Air/Water/Food 3
Expand Mining (v2) 4
Expand Processing (V2) 4
Expand Farming (V2) 4
Materials for processing 4
Start Human Habitat Construction (V2) 5
Terraforming Initiatives 5
Animals 5
Presence Across the Planet 6
Increasing Reliability (V2) 6
Life Support Facilities (V3) 6
Computation and Complete Automation 6
Spare Parts / Expanded Spare Parts 6
Prove Life Support 7
Expand Construction and Processing with Proven Materials 7
Increasing Scale 8
Medical Facilities 8
Replacements 8
Alternative Habitat Construction 9
Open Spaces Construction / Lake / River 10
Human Transportation 10
Starting Colony 10


Some of the missions in the later years could be delayed but point to the priorities for the colonists.


I don’t start habitat construction at all until the 5th year of the missions or mission 24.  Part of the reason is that we need to explore to find suitable locations and get enough stuff to build the colony habitats.  I also want us to iterate on things a little and learn before we commit to systems and designs.  I believe we should try several types of habitats.  A clear and important priority is to make the habitats spacious enough and safe enough that life will be attractive.  We need to be bold here because it will be so much more difficult if the environment is very constricted.


I feel we have to have our furry compatriots with us on this journey.  While a vegan diet is good for most of us there is a holistic reason why nature is so diverse.  I believe we need to have animals as part of the pact with life.  I don’t know if any other plan even contemplates bringing animals to the red planet.   If we can keep animals alive then we are more sure that humans can survive as well.

Open Space Construction 

Mining and Construction on Mars One of the most exciting aspects of the bootstrapping process on Mars will be acquiring the resources from the indigenous environment for the colony. As I keep iterating I put a priority on making Mars livable.  To me we need to find a way to make larger areas safe for humans.  For instance, creation of a lake.  Either using an existing caldera that is smaller and covering it with some bubble like tarp and having a continuous injection of water will provide for the ability to bring fish to Mars and to create plant life.  It will also allow swimming, going to the beach.  Obviously we will have to supplement the existing lighting conditions and provide a massive air pocket to support all this.  The scale of these things will give the colonists a feeling of security and beauty and positive quality to life.  This colony must not turn into a research facility with limited plans.  We should think big.

Starting of Terraforming

After we have determined if life exists on Mars and what we are going to do about it if it exists we need to then start to think about terraforming projects.  The first may be trying to raise the atmospheric pressure by releasing gases from chemical processes or just melting the poles.  Elon has suggested nuclear bombs.  I have not really thought about this deeply even though it is a subject of much debate.  If we can get the atmospheric pressure up even a little it will make life much easier.  It is believed that even raising the pressure to 1/20th Earths might enable a much higher safety factor in the case of failure and longer survival in open environment.  A much higher temperature would be possible with such an increase in atmosphere.  Mars is now less than 1/100th the Earth’s atmospheric pressure so even getting to 1/20th the Earth’s is a factor of 5 increase in the current Martian atmosphere.  Nonetheless it is doable.  If we can get the pressure up to a 10 or 20% of the Earth’s we could walkabout with much lighter clothing and equipment similar to walking around on Everest.  Safety and ability to explore and do things on Mars would be expanded enormously.

If we melt vast quantities of the CO2 in the polar caps and a lot of water we could easily create large water surfaces.  We want to avoid having this blow off the planet.  We also need to maximize heat.

Overall we may not be able to make Mars in the next 100 years livable like Earth but if we could raise the atmospheric pressure and heat we could imagine life forms taking hold on the surface.  Life can survive in many hostile environments.  It is not inconceivable that we can find life that would thrive in far less atmosphere.

There is also an idea (although I am not big on this) of using a large structure in space near Mars to create a magnetic canopy for the planet which would enable a radiation environment not much different than the Earth enjoys.  This might also be relatively easy to do one way or another and doing this would relax the constraints on the colonists dramatically and for life generally.  Habitats would be more viable above ground and more work could be done on the surface.