There are 4 plans so far for colonizing Mars.   NASA’s, Elon Musk’s, Robert Zubrin’s well publicized book and mine.

Elon Musk’s Colonial Transporter Plan

I believe we can summarize Elon Musk’s plan to be the creation of a giant ship called the Colonial Transporter capable of holding at least 100 passengers.

The colonial transporter is sent repeatedly to Mars to stock it up before finally delivering 100 people for the first colony.  Elon plans 9 supply missions for each transport of people.

Elon expects to generate fuel on Mars to resupply the transporter for return missions. The plan is still light on specifics but he calls for a colony of 10,000 people rapidly and talks about millions of people on Mars.  In my view this is crazy optimistic even for people like me who are optimistic.

It could be that Elon is similarly skeptical but says things like this to spark the imagination.   We all know that delays are inevitable and he may be simply trying to rev the excitement about Mars not really believing what he is saying.  My major criticism is that putting humans too soon is a huge risk and greatly increases costs.

It’s better to delay sending people till everything is in place.   I explain what needs to be in place below.

NASA plans

The movie “Mars” recently released was based on extensive work with NASA and represents pretty much their current thinking.   NASA’s plan is simply exploration.

NASA has no colonization plans as far as I know their plan is simply to go to Mars like they did to the Moon and return with everything.

In my opinion the NASA plan is brain-dead and a complete waste of money.

Zubrin’s plan

Zubrin is far closer to my plan and talks a lot about robots.  Lately, Zubrin has been looking at Elon’s plans and making some critical comments different to my critiques.

He believes for instance the Colonial Transporters should stay on Mars and act as habitat instead of wasting them and forcing the colonists to build accommodations.

LogicLogicLogic plan

My plan calls for developing a robust reusable set of components and to perfect this system along with robots and supplies on Mars in multiple locations to prepare Mars before any human colonization begins.

The biggest criticism of robot missions is that people do not relate.  I think this can be changed.   I believe we can keep human interest in this endeavor while we build the infrastructure on Mars by utilizing virtual reality and high speed communications with the red planet.

Imagine that you could put on a headset here on Earth and be immersed in a 4K virtual reality experience of being on Mars.  For all intents and purposes you could see with the detail and experience Mars.  This is way better than some astronaut telling you it’s awesome.  We could use robots and still create a huge interest with this kind of technology.

My plan is the most conservative and I believe the most likely to actually succeed.  We don’t send humans until we already have all the materials and systems in place for human colonists to live for years without having to do anything and much of the machinery for sustained living in place.

Let’s compare these plans.  However, first let me overview my 10 blogs on colonizing Mars.


Here is my complete series on exploring and colonizing mars so far:

1) What is the US Goal for Space Exploration? Why Mars?

2) Bootstrapping the human race on Mars – the first 100 missions overview

3) What is needed to have a colony on Mars

4) 10 Steps to Living on Mars

5) The First 2 missions to Mars. Fourth in a series to colonize Mars

6) Elon Musk has said we can land a man on Mars by 2025 
7) Mars Missions 3-6 Start Farming, Mining and Looking at Habitat Construction

8) Some Interesting Pictures of Mars
9) Habitats on Mars – Practical and Aesthetic Architecture

10) SpaceX was valued recently near $11B.  That’s way low.  How about $200 billion?

11) Mining and Construction on Mars

12) Four Altenatives for Colonizing Mars (this blog entry)

These are unpublished yet

13) Building Techniques on Mars, Materials and Strategies for Warehouses, living structures, Greenhouses and labs.

14) Missions 7-12 Expanding our Industrial Base on Mars

15) Missions 13-49 The final missions before colonization begins

16) The first Colonization Mission

17) The Characteristics of Colonization – Growth of the Colony and growing needs

18) The end of Earth lifeline – practical considerations

19) Beyond Mars – Asteroids and Other planets

20) Colonization beyond the solar system


Comparing the 4 plans to Mars

Feature Elon Musk Zubrin NASA Mathon
Life On Mars?  Some believe we need to answer this BEFORE we send humans. No Independent Effort – Whatever NASA does NASA has no =plans beyond the Mars 2020 mission however, presumably they will continue to send probes regularly to follow up over time. 2020 Rovers doubled times 10. I would plan an extensive automated life discovery phase with 10 rovers each 2 times as powerful as the 2020 rover NASA plans to launch. These rovers would not only do life discovery but also do extensive mapping and geological discovery over the entire surface of Mars
Transport to Mars – How do we ferry materials and people to Mars Colonial Transporter is a large version of Falcon Technology with new engines and much larger crew capabilities. The new Falcon engine is capable of using ethanol that can be supplied from Mars. It produces about 10 times the thrust theoretically as current Falcon engines. The transporter is a reusable craft built to be able to hold 100 passengers. NASA is developing the SLS which is a large rocket larger than a falcon heavy and is in design and testing now. They also plan a capsule capable of holding around a dozen people for transport to and from Mars. A large part of the craft will land on Mars and take off to return to Earth. I call for the creation of a reusable ferry that is a seperate craft from the crew and supply module. This reusable ferry would be continuously going to and from the red planet even when the planets are not ideally placed meaning some missions would take much longer than the normal 8 months. The reusable craft would use ion propulstion as it is more cost effective and lighter.
How much and what supplies on Mars before Colonization begins and humans arrive Elon is not clear on all the supplies needed but has talked about the need for an Ethanol production capability and the use of special locations for habitats. At most there may be some pre-planted or available fuel made on the planet robotically to enable the SLS to launch back to Earth. 10 million pounds of supplies would be on Mars prior to the arrival of humans. Most of this would be in the form of robots, other highly finished materials and equipment needed by the colonists that is not readily available on Mars. It includes medical equipment such as scanners and DNA machines, processing equipment for mars material processing, extensive 3D printers and supplies.
Principal Energy Sources on Mars So far Elon has mainly talked about Ethanol although his deep involvement with solar power and batteries implies he would leverage these technologies. Solar and Ethanol I principally focus on solar and batteries with a self-managing robotic system to resupply automatically all equipment with capacitative batteries. I suspect a nuclear source would be included for backup and we may use fuel cells.
Site Locations Elon has talked of special holes on Mars that may be ideal to provide radiation shielding. It is critical to identify and find suitable holes soon. Due to the need to find them it is assumed that there would be only 1 or 2 larger colonies and their location would depend on the location of holes of appropriate features. 5 or 6 preselected sites. There would be limited ability to explore outside of the site area. There would be 5 and eventually 10 sites with separate colonies. During the 10 years before humans arrive we would attempt to build colonies in different locations sometimes using geologically advantaged sites possibly as Elon has suggested or digging. It is assumed that a good part of the colony will have to spend its time underground in dug facilities. THe 3 initial sites and evetual 10 sites would be equidistantly spaced over Mars so that we could cover the entire planet and traverse it easily.
Habitats on Mars Elon believes the colonists should build habitats themselves. Since they would be protected from radiation by the geology they pick for the location they can make the habitats out of lighter and cheaper materials. Temporary habitation in SLS The habitats would be underground and bubbles, sometimes built into canyon walls or in holes. They would be built for very high safety tolerances so that no single failure would imperil even a fraction of the colony.
Size of Colony Musk plans initial colony of 100 and growing rapidly into the thousands. 10 My initial colony is 12 people and then 12 with each mission. The colony would reach 1-2 thousand people within the 21st century including births and children enroute growing up
Resupply Until the colony can build their own supply infrastructure the colony would depend entirely on Earth supply. The only exceptions would be energy, water, fuel. The SLS itself would house astronauts and go with them on return Virtually every day to day supply would be produced locally before any colonists arrive. Only highly processed technical equipment such as DNA processing machines or specialized electronic hardware would be needed to be resupplied.
Initial Mission 2018 2025 2025
Initial Colony MIssion 2030 Later than Elon No date set but 2030s is goal 2035
Mission Duration Transit 8 months 16 Months 8 months 8-32 months depending on the shuttle and earth and mars relative position. Effort to make maximum reuse of ships rather than to build large numbers.
Mission Intervals 2 years between missions 2 years between missions 2 years between missions 10 missions / year eventually getting to regular schedule as tugs recirculate.
Mission Duration On Mars Forever Forever 2 years Forever
Safety Factor 2 4 2 20
Food Production Unclear – assume heavily human involved probably heavily subsidized from Earth. More automated food production prior to arrival All Earth Supplied Full support for self-sufficiency day one and even animals and livestock included. Completely automated and proven before humans arrive.
Mining and Materials Processing Unspecified Generally None Extensive mining and materials processing as well as warehouse capabilities to store materials and produced products in place before arrival of humans all done by robots. Specialized vehicles for robotic and automated mining and materials processing
Energy Systems All automated local All automated local No Local systems All automated local. With robots to automatically resupply.
Transport kg per mission 200,000 400,000 250,000 150,000-300,000
Ancillary Non-Mars Equipment Needed None discussed but assume space station Possible Moon Base New Construction Modules for Space Station