Time and time again, people try to solve Mars. They suggest a radical solution, or some neat operating trick, that they claim makes the whole problem of exploration and settlement wildly easier. Many of these people are very smart and many of their ideas are genuinely insightful and unexpected. Unfortunately, in an overwhelming majority of cases, they aren’t helpful. If we could crack Mars open with a clever solution, or design the perfect settlement on paper, we would have done it by now. No – the reason we haven’t solved the problem of Mars yet is that Mars isn’t the kind of problem that has a solution. Yet.
“The solution to the problem of Mars” is an almost nonsensical statement when you write it out. It almost rivals the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. As soon as you hear it, it starts to spawn new questions. What problem? Who’s decided what is the most important part of the challenge? Has anyone done that? How are we defining a solution? What criteria have we met to declare the problem solved? Does the problem include some end state, which we can achieve and be finished? Is that a sensible way to go about defining problems in the first place?
Of course, I’m being deliberately a little oblique here. Most people don’t claim to have solved the entirety of Martian settlement in perpetuity with their new habitat construction system. In the same way, most political theorists on Earth don’t claim to have solved the entire mess with their new way of thinking about things. They claim to have tackled – as they see it – an outstanding inefficiency in the current plan. They see a scheme for exploration and settlement, see an addressable flaw, fix the flaw. I spend a good deal of my time thinking about Mars at this level – because frankly, solving technical problems is fun! But a few people step back and ask harder – is this a sensible plan in the first place? And even fewer step all the way back and ask, what are we using to design this plan? Not what is the plan, but why is the plan?
That is the real problem of Mars. We have plans, but we very very rarely ask why those plans are the way they are. Until we can answer why the plan, we’re going to be stumbling around what the plan is. And you can throw out any hope of tweaking the fine details of any particular plan. At best it’s balanced on a pile of assumptions, at worst it’s a vague mess.
There is one highly notable exception. In 1990 Robert Zubrin and David Baker looked at the hulking SEI proposal to send people to Mars with a $450 billion price tag, and asked why. With their Mars Direct proposal they inverted the entire establishment’s thinking about the point of Mars exploration. The purpose should be boots on Mars, as cheaply and as quickly as possible, they said. The purpose should not be technology stack maximisation. This way of thinking has been beyond successful – it forms the basis of NASA’s Reference Design Missions, it is the plot of dozens of science fiction stories, it is the starting point of SpaceX’s Mars mission.
Let’s make this less philosophical and take an example. Elon Musk says he wants a city on Mars in his lifetime – probably by 2075 or thereabouts. It’s easy to say “that’s a silly idea” and even easier to say “that’s a poorly defined idea” – because the latter is probably true. But – why a city? What does city mean? What’s the end goal – is the city a means to an end, or an end unto itself? What are you trying to achieve here, in the broadest possible sense? “Making life multiplanetary” is an awesome mission statement but in this case it cries out for clarification. Maximising human population in space ASAP, in the event of global catastrophe? Building the most capable industrial system as fast as possible to allow for expansion into the solar system? A utopian society with a fresh start? Elon, what do you want?
That is why, if you ask me, SpaceX doesn’t have a coherent vision for Mars. They haven’t yet decided – because it’s a damn hard problem! – what they want. This is an underlying issue that goes beyond any kind of mission parameter. Maybe the city will be equatorial or at a high-latitude glacier, maybe it will be entirely underground or sprawling on the surface. None of that matters. For now, the city has no purpose.
That presents a very real problem for SpaceX. The Starship program is too big for doing anything but large-scale exploration and settlement. The initial boots-and-flags architecture requires “just” 2-3 ships across 5 years with a Mars semi-Direct architecture – far below the planned cadence of the construction yards at Boca Chica and the Cape. There is currently a gap between the payload capacity to Mars and the availability of payload (something we’re trying our best to solve at Nexus Aurora!). Unlike hardware for those very first exploration missions, this isn’t a problem that can be easily solved with focused application of regular engineering and design. SpaceX don’t know what they want from a Mars city; they can’t tell the good folks at Pioneer Astronautics what they want in the payload bay; no payload is designed; the ships don’t fly. Until this is cleared up we either have no city at all, or a hodge-podge of competing and conflicting designs on the Martian surface. Both bad outcomes.
The problem that needs solving
We don’t need another habitat design, or another way to drill for water ice. We need someone to devise a really compelling “why” for Mars settlement. We need a bold target, a vision, a guiding beacon. Once we know why we’re doing it, we can determine what we’re doing – first in broad strokes, then in detail, then with hardware, then with people. Are we trying to get people on Mars as fast as possible? As cheaply? Do we want to build the most capable industrial stack? A wide one (capable of crude production in huge volume) or a tall one (capable of highly sophisticated manufacture but not at scale)? How does Mars fit into broader plans for the solar system? Is Mars merely a means to an end of wholesale expansionism? What role do scientists and preservationists play? Do we come here to build, to grow, to learn?
Don’t start with a design. Designs change, circumstances change, geotechnical reality will mess with any fast ones you try to pull. Start with the vision. Ask why, then what, then how, then when.