Stairway to Heaven

This was this week’s hype in the aerospace industry: Elon Musk presented his vision for reaching Mars and beyond. There are countless analyses and reviews of his presentation (here for instance for a technical one) weighting either in favor or against Musk.


The ITS on Europe. Credit: SpaceX

I got several times the question by friends, colleagues about what I , as an ex space propulsion engineer, was thinking about the feasibility of this vision. The bare answer is: I don’t know. I mean, there is not enough information in this presentation to evaluate the feasibility of the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). I wonder how pundits can get an opinion on that. There has been countless Mars mission design proposals in the past. This one is not really different. It is both credible and far-fetched because written on the same model: you assess the requirements (in terms of costs, mission duration, target), you take the existing technology (to be credible) and you extrapolate it to meet the requirements (and it may look far-fetched or not, whether you are part of the proposal team or not). So basically, here, SpaceX develops the cost model to have almost routine trips to Mars (very cheap but it is a target – it makes sense to have something cheap if you want to “democratize” space); it takes the existing technology, a bit improved (the Raptor), the reusable launcher (complete reusability instead of only first stage) and it extrapolates the system (increase the number of engines, huge composite tanks,…) to be able to have a cheap transport. This is what was presented. There is no new concept, no really new technology.

So, how can you assess the feasibility of the mission? You cannot because there are missing data on the critical part: the execution. And in the space industry, the execution is the key from failure to success. What methods do they want to apply? How do they want to adapt their organization, their team, to meet the challenges? What new tools will they use to transfer this concept in reality?

If you think of it, SpaceX has not invented new technologies or radically new concepts of missions. They have taken existing ideas that other private companies have also taken (vertical landing – McDonnell and Blue Origin, space capsule with Orbital). I assume that NASA played an important role for the transfer of technology towards private company and that they didn’t need a huge effort of research and development. But what Musk did and this is a huge change, was to set up a modern organization managing both the system and the underlying technologies (propulsion, GNC, actuators), something that the Big Players like Boeing or EADS didn’t bother to do because technology is low-level. Adding to that modern IT tools to automate the manufacturing and production, it was possible for a relatively small team to develop and optimize in a very efficient way the construction of a new, partly reusable launcher and the associated space capsule. In the case of the Mars mission, there is no indication of what they will do in terms of organization, of how they will scale their methods to accomplish this challenge. For instance, they showed this big composite tank. Nice but how did they build it? The difficulty is to create an industrial robot which is able to loom that for big series while respecting the tolerances required. No word about that. Yet, this is where the feasibility of the project can be assessed. But this is also the heart of SpaceX. I understand that Musk does not want to reveals his trumps.

So, what about this presentation? What is the purpose of it if it is not to present the technical details of the project? In my opinion, there are two goals, one external, one internal.

Externally, you have to create the proper spirit for this kind of expensive endeavor. So this is a classical strategy when you want to sell a project where you know in advance that people are not convinced or concerned: you show far in advanced the most  advanced and incredible version of your project; the first time, people will say he is crazy; the second time, they will say no, the third time: “mmmm”, the fourth time: “why not…” and so on until they completely change their mind and say: “let’s go” and sign the check. People need time to get used to a crazy idea. Very probably, you will not get what you asked for at the beginning, but a limited version which will correspond to what you actually wanted. This is a very effective long-term strategy to fund new experiments. I can completely imagine that it is what Musk wanted to do. People will start to think and rethink and rethink. When the negotiations for the funding will arrive, the ground will be ready and people will be used to the idea. Probably, creating a new civilization on Mars is not really his ultimate dream (on Mars really? why not in Siberia? Or in North Dakota – I am kidding I love North Dakota). If he manages to get a first crew there under the flag of SpaceX, he will have written his mark in the sand of history.  Anyway, his rhetoric must revolve around the idea of colonization and not of exploration to avoid the major counter-argument of manned spaceflights: the robots! If he wants to send people to explore, his opponents will want to send probes which are probably more efficient for this work. But if he wants to create an interplanetary species, there is nothing to oppose: you touch the heart of mankind as a group of settlers.

Internally, the goal is easier to understand: to create the right spirit at work. You do not work on a rocket that sends communication satellites for whichever investment fund. You are working on an interplanetary crewed spaceship. This makes a huge difference. You are part of the conquest of space. In these conditions you can work 24/24 8 days a week.

To conclude, the presentation makes sense in terms of communication strategy, less in terms of feasibility of the concept. If you are not an insider, you have to believe or not. As an outsider, I believe my instincts and my centers of interest: I find chemical propulsion a bit boring 🙂 I admire these massive and loud engines like these old steam locomotives; they are jewels of engineering. But I am more attracted by electric system and other more exotic phenomena. I believe (! I have no way to demonstrate it yet) that there is a huge amount of energy to tap in and that the proper way to engineer them still has to be found. In addition, with cheaper and cheaper earth to orbit transports, it becomes to test riskier technologies. This will be a funny time!



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