Plan D for space settlement

Plan D
There are three companies I take seriously for making true spacefaring (ie including Mars because I’m a Mars Firster) truly accessible: SpaceX, Blue Origin, And Masten Space Systems. I would have taken XCOR seriously, but unfortunately they went bankrupt.
The other three:
1. SpaceX. By far the top of my list. Fast execution, well-capitalized when they need to be, sustainable, good business plan to scale up to $100 billion level, and great architecture. Actually hard to improve on this one. But SpaceX got where it is on the shoulders of Elon Musk and by taking a lot of risks. The flip side of that is one of their bets could go far south, or something happens to Elon. Don’t want to rely on one, particularly risk-taking, company.
2. Blue Origin. Somewhat a mystery, but ridiculously well capitalized. Sustained by brute force money injections, not (much) actual business yet. Similar near-term architecture to SpaceX, but slower & not quite as aggressively low cost. Not easily extendable to other planetary bodies without separate development (which apparently they’re doing with Blue Moon). Moon and free space focused, so I wonder if they’ll even get around to Mars before I’m elderly.
3. Masten Space Systems. Very small, poorly capitalized, but actually pioneered a lot of the reusable tech SpaceX uses. More experience with reusable rocket vehicles than anyone. Was looking like a real possibility for highly reusable launch before Boeing sadly won the XS-1 DARPA bid. Now has pulled back and seems focused on small commercial lunar landers. But unlike XCOR, they’re still in the game.

Plan D? Still thinking about it. But I think a rapid return to launch pad thing like BFR and Masten is a good plan, although ambitious. Fast integration of upper stage is key as well. I like Jon’s idea of an oxygen-rich hydrolox architecture.

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11 Responses to Plan D for space settlement

  1. Brock says:

    Both ULA and Arianespace have the capital and engineering to be Plan D if they get over their corporate culture issues. Arianespace also has the political capital to demand government assistance while they make the switch (since they’re sole native provider to Europe; ULA won’t be able to make the same sort of claims). Otherwise they’re probably out of business within 10 years.

    Plans E through G+ will probably come out of China.

  2. DougSpace says:

    A partnership with government (i.e. NASA) could mean more money then either Bezos or Musk could put towards developing spacefaring capabilities but that would take a minor miracle to change from their conventional path. Also, good ISRU starting with water for propellant, drinking, sanitation, & food means that vehicles smaller than BFR could sustain a decent number of people going.

  3. Jardinero1 says:

    I do not understand the appeal of Mars. Living on Mars is of similar complexity to living in the Antarctic minus a real atmosphere and orders of magnitude more logistical hassles. There was a series on this blog about colonizing Venus using airships. This strikes me as more doable or sustainable over any time series vis a vis Mars.

  4. Chris Stelter says:

    Brock: but ULA and Ariane are not going to seriously push us in the direction needed for ultra-cheap launch. And China is really a follower, here. Doubtless they’ll develop reuse, but I doubt they’ll be the first to pioneer truly rapid reuse. (Although this is only a near-term observation… in 40 years, it may be a totally different situation as far as innovation culture in Chinese aerospace… We are starting to see more dynamism there.)

    DougSpace: I actually think you’re underestimating the amount of cash Bezos and Musk (or their respective companies) can muster, especially when combined with a high-revenue business like LEO Megaconstellations or point-to-point transport (as crazy as the latter seems right now). Still, it IS possible that some more optimal path is developed using primarily government investment, but huge cultural shifts would be needed and thus I feel this is unlikely. But I agree BFR is not the minimum needed for a decent sized Mars settlement (thousands).

    Jardinero1: The appeal of Mars is vast resources (in variety and abundance) compared to the Moon or Venus. And the atmosphere is still significant for many purposes (shields all significant effects of micrometeorites and solar flares at the lower altitudes that a landing site is likely, provides CO2–from which both fuel and oxygen can be made–and even nitrogen and a little H2O all over the planet, and allows wingborne flight for efficient long distance travel) and can be feasibly beefed up. Besides the lack of breathable atmosphere, Mars is actually better suited for settlement than the South Pole. The South Pole is on a glacier, so the ground gradually moves and structures are soon buried if not cleared regularly. There aren’t any minerals or metals to speak of, and the winter is super dark so solar is not feasible then (although hydrogen storage is doable down there). And the logistics costs are pretty high, about $10-15/kg to send stuff to the South Pole. It’s actually possible to get cargo to Mars for that price (with extreme difficulty, but possible!).

    Mars is the easiest terraforming target. I think Venus settlement is pretty over-sold here. Not having a ground is pretty tough. Still fun to think about.

  5. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    ULA becoming Plan D is only likely if they get a change of ownership structure. A JV between two publicly traded companies, neither of which have strong synergies with Vulcan/ACES is always going to be an uphill battle. Finding a buyer who could make a deal work for Boeing and LM isn’t going to be trivial, but I can think of a few intriguing options that might both have the money, and would actually have some significant synergies with Vulcan/ACES…

    Agreed though that with the amount of money sloshing around places like China, I could see someone like LinkSpace ( — a Chinese startup that’s pursuing Masten-style VTVL technology) becoming a serious contender if they can ever secure the money to proceed.


  6. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Yeah, I’d love to pursue the variable mixture ratio hydrolox TAN SSTOs concept, but it’ll be a while before Altius would be able to open the aperture that far from our current satellite servicing focus.


  7. gbaikie says:

    –I do not understand the appeal of Mars. Living on Mars is of similar complexity to living in the Antarctic minus a real atmosphere and orders of magnitude more logistical hassles. —

    Mars could have cheaper water than Antarctica.
    Mars has colder air than Antarctica but it’s much lower density air, and less ability to convect heat, so human in spacesuit is warmer on Mars than human in spacesuit in Antarctica.
    The biggest advantage of Mars vs Antarctica is it easier to get to orbit from Mars.
    Mars also a slight advantage of being easier to land on the surface of Mars from orbit as compared to Antarctica or anywhere on Earth. But it is only a slight advantage because it fairly easy [or quite cheap] to land on Earth from space.
    The cheapness of landing stuff on Mars becomes more important if you want to land millions, billions, or trillions of tonnes of stuff on Mars.
    Mars thin air increases the speed limit, as compared to Earth, though global suborbital travel is slower. So from anywhere on Earth to anywhere on Earth is about 1 hour, and with Mars it’s about 2 hours or less. Though suborbital travel on Mars is much easier than suborbital travel on Earth.

    One problem with Mars are dust storms, Mars is currently in a global dust storm. But it seems one could probably prevent Mars from having dust storms, or global dust storms. With or without global dust storms, Mars has more solar energy than Antarctica. Without global dust storms, Mars has “better” solar energy than anywhere on Earth. One could say better, due to more options. Or you have to understand the limitation of solar energy on the Earth surface. Mars is not better than the Moon in terms of solar energy, solar energy on the Moon is a lot better than on Earth, and solar energy on the Moon is best in the lunar polar regions. Mars has certainly better solar energy in it’s polar regions than compared to Earth’s polar regions. And in some respects Mars polar region could be regarded as better location of harvesting solar energy as compared to other locations on Mars. And with Earth, the better locations are somewhat near to tropics and regions with least much of cloudy weather- so generally, desert regions below about say, 35 degree latitude south and north, which is about 1/2 of Earth’s entire surface [which does have a lot desert region [and of course, mostly ocean]. And not lot of people live in deserts- and none on oceans].

    Anyhow, if Mars has lots water which is easily available [cheap] Mars could be a cheap place to grow food [and beverages] and might be able to export to Earth orbit or other places cheaper than from Earth.
    One could say the reason US [or any other countries any time in history] is superpower is because it grows food cheaply. So I would not underestimate Mars if all it could do is grow food [and it would be difficult to grow food in Antarctica].

    But mainly Mars needs to be explored before getting too excited about it, and it’s possible that addition to having lots water, there could be other aspect of Mars which makes it good place to live.

    But NASA should first explore the lunar poles to see if there is water which could be mined for about $500 per kg, for purpose of making rocket fuel. If could by rocket fuel for about $2000 per kg, then going to Moon makes sense [not in terms of settlements but in terms earthling remaining on Earth and working on Moon and small number of people living on the Moon for periods of time on the Moon [sort of like Antarctica] but doing much more important work].

  8. gbaikie says:

    I would not focus much on settlements. What important about settlements is largely about increasing the market is space.
    So our global space market is about 250 billion dollars, a trillion dollar space market would great, and trillion dollar space market probably “goes with” Mars settlements, but focus should getting to 1/2 trillion market, rather than Mars settlement making it a + trillion market.
    So if had 10 to 20 billion dollar lunar water mining and rocket fuel market, that will make 200 billion dollar lunar market. And 200 billion lunar market will make Mars settlement market [assuming Mars has some exploration done].
    If one has no exploration of Space, it likely the global market will continue to grow, regardless of the lack of exploration. But a faster way to get to +500 billion market is to explore the Moon, and then Mars.
    Though if continue to wait, whenever we get to 500 billion market, there will passively require exploration of space [Moon and Mars]. And that laziness, seems to be the plan of NASA [or utter incompetence].

  9. johnhare john hare says:

    Plan D could also be a wild card from a nation that we don’t even think about at this time. US GNP was about a trillion dollars at the time of Apollo 11. There are about 15 nations now that have a GNP higher than that. Add in the historical knowledge of what others have done, and the much higher technology now to blow the theoretical possibilities wide open.

    Even Mexico has a higher GNP than the US did during Apollo. While unlikely, it is possible that a combination of native talent and expats from several countries, combined with some political will and backing could do things not considered possible at the moment. Think Von Braun in the midst of unlikely circumstances only south of the border and not getting bombed. Think Elon with the full backing of 60s NASA. Complacency is the route to spectator.

  10. johnhare john hare says:

    Meant to add, how many talented people have you met that might consider going south for an exciting project that was going places? Moon in 5, asteroids in 7, Mars in 10 with believable tech and financial/political backing. Especially if high salaries and pretty senoritas were involved.

  11. James Walker says:

    Following up on John Hare’s thought on Plan D coming from other nations:

    1) a meteor is created by a meteoroid ranging in size from a grain of sand to a pebble.
    2) a fireworks display cost start at two grand per minute.
    3) Many states and nations have stars/constellations incorporated in their flags.

    So it may end up being cost effective for nations to incorporate meteor displays into major celebrations. As an American example, Alaska has the Pole Star and the Big Dipper on her flag: having meteors appear ‘from’ those stars would be an impressive patriotic display for Alaska Day.

    Of course, getting the angles and timing correct would be tricky, but you’d still be tripling your audience area.

    Australia, Brazil, NZ, PNG and Samoa all have the Southern Cross on our flags, Croatia and West Papua have Venus; other countries have the sun; so there’s no shortage of countries who might be interested in this sort of display. It’s also ideal for isolated, hard to supply locations that you want to keep loyal – thus Canada could be tempted to keep Nunavut happy by a display linked to Polaris (again, on Nunavut’s flag), since the extra transport costs of getting things to within spitting distance of the North Pole are avoided.

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