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Nerds in Space: Establishing a Budget and Timeline

Image: NASA

Us earthlings have a nasty way of devolving everything into a zero sum game. Despite being an obvious villain, I’d have to take off my shoes in order to count the number of folks who have tried to hot take me with something like, “I’m just saying, maybe Thanos was on to something.

Indeed, the prevalent thinking among us drones is that Earth is all there is and that resources are limited. Robert Zubrin writes this in The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must:

Unless people can see broad vistas of unused resources in front of them, the belief in limited resources tends to follow as a matter of course. And if the idea is accepted that the world’s resources are fixed, then each person is ultimately the enemy of every other person, and each race or nation is the enemy of every other race or nation. The extreme result is tyranny, war and even genocide. Only in a universe of unlimited resources can all men be brothers.

Well, tyranny, war, and genocide are horrible, so it sounds to me like the solution necessity is for humans to become a space-faring civilization and multi-planet species.

 So, we have our mission. But what is our timeline and what kind of budget do we need?

A Starting Budget for Space Colonization

A variety of detailed model-based estimates for establishing the human colonization of Mars exist and, as you might expect, estimates vary wildly. The only place of agreement is that the number begins at a lot and rises from there.

But even budgets are created by the the cold, hard realities of physics. When sending something into space, the mass of the payload determines how much money you are burning. Working back from the mass, no one ship would be large enough to launch it all, so we’re dividing the payload into multiple rocket launches.

For human missions, mass can be calculated from the number of crew and duration of the mission. It costs money to keep the crew alive but unless you are Thanos, I think you’ll agree that is money well spent.

Equipping a galley, accounting for waste collection, air and water revitalization systems, etc. costs money, and that’s before we even get into fabrication. The researchers who contributed to Human Spaceflight: Mission Analysis and Design calculated it would take 75 launches of the NASA Space Launch System or 184 launches of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy to get the necessary payloads into space to support a permanent self-sustaining settlement on Mars.

So, transportation cost alone is $67 billion and development and materials cost raises the figure to a cool $162 billion.

NASA’s annual budget is currently $22.6 billion, which represents 0.48% of the $4.7 trillion the United States spent in 2020. Of that, $4.2 billion goes to science here on Earth to monitor stuff we’ve already screwed up from burning our fossil fuels, like monitoring global temps and CO2 levels. Another $5 billion is operations support, like maintenance of the International Space Station (ISS).

What I’m getting at is about $7 billion is left to invest in the establishment of a colony on Mars, which is obviously much lower than the what we’d need. But we’re on the clock, which is we should talk about now.

A Timeline for Space Colonization

How much time do us earthlings have to become a multi-planet species? Is it an urgent matter? On one hand, no.

The 4 Billion Year Window

Scientists have estimated that the sun has been stable for over four billion years and will be stable for another four billion. After that the sun will turn into a Red Giant and expand beyond the orbit of earth, engulfing us all in a fiery death. That doesn’t sound so bad after 2020.

The 100,000 Year Window

It’s been heavily hypothesized that an asteroid hit the earth around Chicxulub, Mexico, 65 million years ago and caused an Extinction-Level Event (ELE) that wiped out the dinosaurs.

While the Chicxulub asteroid event is controversial, the fact that asteroids and meteors regularly pass nearby and even impact the earth with surprising regularity is well known. An estimated 500 meteorites ranging in size from marbles to basketballs or larger reach the earth’s surface each year.

Listen, we’ve seen the Bruce Willis movie. Serious attention has been given to possible impacts since the 5km across Comet P/Shoemaker-Levy 9 (SL9) struck Jupiter on July 1994. It produced an explosion estimated to be equivalent to 600 times the world’s nuclear arsenal. In July 2009 a scar approximately the size of Earth was observed on Jupiter, hinting that another major impact had happened.

In summary, a Near Earth Object (NEO) will strike us earthlings dead, it’s only a matter of time and Space Force can’t save us. All simulations say that Extinction-Level Event will certainly happen within 100,000 years and it’s likely much, much sooner.

Arizona Meteor Crater. Image: “Circling Meteor Crater” by jurvetson is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The 100 Year Window

Meanwhile, here on Earth earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunami, volcanoes, wildfires, hurricanes, mudslides and droughts ravage us. We’re constructing stronger buildings, developing storm watch systems, and erecting higher sea walls, but, you know.

And what of solar flares? In September 1859 a plasma cloud hit Earth directly and caused telegraph systems to catch on fire. The 1859 event became known as the Carrington Event, but is not well known because the economies of the time were not so dependent on electrical equipment.

But in July 2013 two massive clouds of plasma exploded out from the sun and barely missed us. Those solar flares were powerful enough to destroy every electrical device in their path, including motors, computers, automobile electronics, appliances, communication networks, and power grids – a disruption that would shut down the world economy for years. Scientists have computed that there is a 12% chance that one of those Carrington-class storm will get us within a short-term window.

The 50 Year Window

Physicist Stephen Hawking said, “I don’t think the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet.” But forget a 1,000 years. Many astrophysicists think we have 50.

Just about all experts agree that oil is running out and what remains will ultimately get more and more expensive to extract. Replacing fossil fuels to feed the world’s present energy needs will be difficult, never mind that completing major engineering projects such as space colonization will require a nation or private entity to have a robust, high density, storable energy that isn’t fully viable with renewable energy.

That in mind, scientists from Cal Tech suggest that if we’re running out of energy, we might as well burn it getting into space to see what might be out there.

Under current budgetary restrictions that timeline is roughly 22 to 26 years to put a minimal colony on Mars. But if we burn up, flare out, mine ourselves to death, or get hit by the big one between now and then, we might miss our window entirely, leaving us Nerds stranded here on Earth.

Read More of our “Nerds in Space” Series

  1. Intro
  2. Establishing a Budget and Timeline
  3. The Stepping Stones that Will Take Us to Mars
  4. Traveling far.
  5. Establishing an outpost.
  6. Terraforming a home.