Richard Branson, the chairman of Virgin Group, recently told CBS News, “In my lifetime, I’m determined to being a part of starting a population on Mars. I think it is absolutely realistic. It will happen.”
As it happens, the goal of establishing a human settlement outside of Earth is an excellent idea, one that deserves our full attention: The expansion of the human race is the key to our growth as a civilization; in terms of economic growth, space will open up new resources that in turn will open new markets.
Jonathan Card, executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation, said, “Branson is leading the way to a great future. This is a perfect example of how an industry magnate can use their position on the shoulders of giants to point humanity to a better life for all of us instead of merely benefiting themselves.”
There is little doubt that Branson, the founder of multiple companies, including a suborbital spaceflight company, Virgin Galactic, is a visionary. But contemplating any kind of human settlement on Mars, to use a cliché, is putting the cart before the horse.
Card said, “A colony will have to establish much of the infrastructure that a we have not yet built. It will take the kind of spacecraft we don’t have yet to take constant trips, namely interplanetary craft that lives in space permanently. It’s a whole classification of spacecraft we don’t have that we know we need. That’s going to entail shipyards, regular trips between the surface of the Earth and LEO shipyards, [and] more reliable landers…”
Before humans reach out as far as Mars (140 million miles away, on average), we need to establish a foothold closer to home. That foothold is known as “low earth orbit” (LEO), less than 1200 miles above the Earth.
LEO, not Earth, is the perfect place to develop the industry we need in order to make orbital spacecraft a viable business. It takes energy to achieve escape velocity, the speed at which an object can break away from Earth’s gravity. If the spacecraft originates in space, it doesn’t have to dedicate so much of its launch weight toward the fuel it needs to boost it out of the atmosphere. (For example, the Shuttle used over 3.5 million pounds of propellant, counting both the boosters and the main tank. By contrast, the cargo-bay payload was rated for a maximum of 65,000 pounds.)
There are engineering reasons too: Building spacecraft in orbit also avoids the dual problem of designing a vehicle that can both get out of Earth’s gravity well and then also travel to another astronomical body. The best way to start is to use heavy lifters—vehicles dedicated to shifting freight into orbit, such as the Falcon Heavy—to put materials in LEO, then assemble the interplanetary craft in place. (As a precedent, the International Space Station was built this way.)
Once there are shipyards in LEO, Branson is one step closer to his goal.
Then there’s the potential of building a homestead, not on Mars but the Moon. The Moon is only 238,000 miles away, and a trip takes a mere three days, compared to Mars’ more extended flight time (The Mars rover Curiosity’s journey took 254 days). Even if the Moon didn’t have other possibilities for establishing a permanent presence, it’s good practice for establishing an extraterrestrial outpost: tricky enough to require most of the same technologies, but close enough for help if anything goes wrong.
However, the Mars Society, a group of people dedicated to the colonization of Mars, points out on their website that Mars has a similar day-night cycle to Earth, more water than the moon, and a gravity that’s closer to ours than the Moon has.