“[People and robots] wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”
Part of my series on common misconceptions in space journalism.
In both science fiction and fact-based journalism there are a bewildering variety of future visions for human existence in space. Indeed, a primary function of science fiction is to examine the human condition by juxtaposing our evolutionary legacy with hypothetical future technology. For example, Kim Stanley Robinson used Mars as a fertile landscape to explore alternative sociopolitical structures in his epic Mars trilogy.
My purpose here isn’t to knit pick or grade authors, but to add some perspective to contemporary media narratives. Because no-one, including me, has ever lived on Mars, no-one really knows what it might be like. Some narratives hold that humans on Mars will be challenged only by the magnitude of their riches and entertainment as they partake in fully automated luxury space communism. Others hold that humans will have to lurk in underground caverns, tending to potato plants and trying to remember what warmth feels like. Still others foresee a future of indentured servitude, 50 years of hard labor under the lash of Elon’s socialist workers’ paradise…
While my previous sentence was facetious, there are solid arguments both for and against space cities being inherently prone to human freedom. On one hand, a hostile environment and dependence on external supplies seems to vest incredible power in the centralized authority that controls the life support system. On the other, the available labor pool is likely to be overwhelmingly highly motivated, highly educated technical people upon whose continuing good will the success of the enterprise will rest.
I personally believe that the level of productivity required could not be obtained under duress, as ideology is a much more effective motivator than fear of punishment. Nevertheless, it is clear that to serve SpaceX’s vision of a self-sustaining civilization on Mars, there will have to be an extraordinary amount of labor both human and robotic. This blog is my attempt to understand how this system will form, allocate work, scale, and mature.
While I have previously explored aspects of this question in speeches, blogs, and books, here I will bring the reader up to date with my latest thoughts while remaining focused on the human experience.
One common misconception to clear up first are the dangers of reasoning by analogy. The most accessible metaphor for self-sufficiency is the rugged individual pioneer pushing the frontier with marginal agriculture, 40 acres, and a donkey. Numerous popular works on Mars settlement, including by Robert Zubrin, Buzz Aldrin, and Andy Weir, play to this metaphor with varying levels of seriousness. They appeal to our resourceful instincts and feel very concrete.
Unfortunately, living on Mars will be nothing like camping or building an old fashioned ranch, as Andy Weir ultimately makes clear in his novel “The Martian”. The character Mark Watney is every bit a rugged resourceful type, and yet just surviving an extra year on the surface is a difficult and realistic challenge. If one takes this situation to its logical conclusion – an attempt at indefinite survival – the result is inescapable. Death by systems failure.
So if pioneering agriculture is a bad analogy, are there better ones? I think there are. The key distinction is that growing plants somewhere that plants already grow is not that difficult. Mars’ surface is a frozen poisonous irradiated cratered hellscape. It is as hostile to human life as any of the places on Earth not yet overrun by humans.
What are those places? Mountains about 5500 m (18,000 feet). Deeper than 10 m in the ocean. The open ocean. Antarctica. The atmosphere above 40,000 feet. Volcanic areas. Very steep cliffs. What do all these places have in common? They are places that humans rapidly die without both advanced technology and technical skills, usually embodied by the following of checklists. Like the astronaut, the SCUBA diver and mountain climber both share an appreciation for procedural risk reduction and reliance on specialist gear to keep them alive. Importantly, this specialist gear is highly non-trivial to make from scratch.
Let us develop these analogies further. Let’s buy a retired aircraft carrier and cruise to Antarctica, where we will tie it to the ice a respectful distance from any penguin rookeries. Putting on our logistics hats, the challenge is to select a crew and any relevant machinery, strand them on this carrier, and keep them alive for as long as possible.
Let’s employ some physics-based reasoning to understand how this may play out. Assuming we work out how to keep the living areas heated, to grow crops on the deck during summer under greenhouses, and to keep all the mechanisms running with copious spare parts and a nice machine shop, what will limit the duration of this experiment? How can the system break down in a way that no carrier crew, no matter how motivated and skilled, can prevent? Ultimately the hull will rust and deteriorate and the carrier will sink. The hull can’t be repaired without a supply chain for steel, and there is no source of iron on the Antarctic ice.
This is a bit of a downer, but ultimately any Mars city will either need total ongoing replacement of its constituent parts, or the ability to make them locally, and in abundance. Abundance is the key point. It’s not difficult to imagine a small Mars base with a few hundred skilled engineers and technicians and a bunch of machines, essentially able to make anything given enough time. While impressive, that’s not so different to the aircraft carrier example. What is needed is not only a prototyping ability, but a full manufacturing capacity. The ability to build new things much faster than the old ones break down and wear out.
When we think of people doing jobs on Mars, it is less the careful, time consuming repair of some fancy widget, than the incremental improvement in manufacturing rate for hundreds of new widgets. It is simply an inefficient waste of labor to perform meticulous bespoke surgery on machinery. There is too much to do, and human time is too valuable.
How valuable? It is important to remember that while transport increases the cost of having things on Mars, this increase is different for humans and robots. Let’s say that SpaceX can launch cargo to Mars for $5000/kg. A human and their stuff could get a ride for a million dollars. A 200 kg robot would cost the same to deliver, and in almost all cases, the transport cost would exceed the sticker cost of the device. If the robot in question is a generic industrial CNC machine, then the cost of delivering it to Mars increases its cost by about a factor of ten. But the cost of keeping a human alive on Mars also includes all the cargo they need to be delivered over time, the life support and living space that needs to be provided, and the cost of the supporting operations team on Earth. To pick a round number, let’s say the cost of labor on Mars is 100 times higher than on Earth, or 10 times higher relatively than a robotic CNC machine. A highly qualified engineer’s salary + overhead in Los Angeles, 2020 might cost $250,000/year. On Mars, relocation and logistics costs would inflate that to $25m/year, per person.
This is why, I think, concerns over indentured servitude are overwrought. Salary is a tiny fraction of this cost, so immediately we can see that, to the extent that salary is motivating, it’s unlikely to cost the managers of the project much in the grand scheme of things. More generally, the overhead cost is a way of accounting how many other salaries are needed to support the labor of the person on the (Martian) ground.
How does this change the work environment? Consider the work environment of humans with similar levels of overhead. This could range from oil rig specialists to heads of state. The aim is to extract the maximum value of labor over a long period of time. This means optimizing efficiency, ergonomics, and scheduling. For technicians, it means having the right tools and parts where they’re needed, as well as LEGO-style parts that integrate with a minimum of fuss. For software engineers, it means working remotely back on Earth, where the air is free. Overall, it means responsive management and emphasized productivity incentives. It also means the ability to switch between different tasks as skill demand and interest shifts.
A perfectly executed workers paradise is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for self-sufficiency. Even if the Mars city was full of healthy, well-trained technicians all swinging wrenches at optimal efficiency, the city would still be unable to avoid systems failure. Mars is simply too hostile an environment for a city of any size to survive while relying only on human labor. There is way too much to do.
The industrial revolution is a big deal because, for the first time, the mechanical output of a civilization was no longer limited by how much food the human and domestic animal population could digest and convert, rather inefficiently, to motion. Instead, machines powered by burning coal, oil, and more recently solar electricity, can perform mechanical labor. This is a big deal – just compare the process of agriculture before and after tractors were invented. The total mechanical output of developed nations has grown by about a factor of 50 since the industrial revolution. That is, of the total mechanical power produced, only 2% of it is derived from human muscles, so our industry performs 50 times more work than humans could alone.
We may have to improve this force multiplier by another factor of 50 to achieve self sufficiency on Mars with fewer than a million people. What could this look like? Humans operating tractors and bulldozers than are 50 times bigger? To an extent, yes, but not all production requires a really big digger. Instead, it needs additional layers of abstraction between human labor and production.
The best historical example of this that I’m aware of occurs in software engineering. Since the invention of computers, programming languages have become more powerful through the use of abstraction. Coders using Python don’t (usually) need to worry about hardware-specific CPU instructions, memory management, or specifics of matrix inversion. Instead, they have compilers and interpreters that, combined with hundreds of thousands of user-generated libraries containing condensed human thought ready to be recycled to solve the next problem, allow the coder to quickly get to the point. This is what the robot revolution looks like. A single programmer can solve a problem in exponentially less time than ever before.
Hundreds of skilled technicians pushing parts on lathes and mills is the assembly code of manufacturing. It’s better than filing chunks of rock by hand, just as assembly was better than buildings full of human computers with slide rules. And to some extent, the first humans on Mars will be performing construction and assembly by hand. To stay on the trajectory of population vs self-sufficiency, however, human hands will need to rapidly retreat up the process chain. What does the C of manufacturing look like? The C++? The Python? What do factories look like when labor is really expensive? To some extent we can answer that by comparing factories making identical competing products in low wage and high wage countries. Higher labor cost means fewer humans, higher productivity, newer machinery, and a lot of industrial automation. When we build factories on Mars, we are building factories of the future.
Let’s jump back to Mars. There’s a big city, SpaceX Starships are landing thousands of tons of cargo and new people every two years. The city is expanding rapidly using the latest technology and is climbing the ladder of self sufficiency. How does this work on a day to day basis? More people doesn’t automatically lead to better specialization and process efficiency.
Let’s say that every two years, a new arrival of cargo and people doubles the population of the city. In order to scale productivity at the same rate, essentially all the new arrivals need to be employed building a new industrial capability, while the existing Martians need to double, during the preceding two years, the productivity of their industries to meet demand from the new arrivals. Achieving this scaling in lockstep over three or four orders of magnitude is a preposterously understated challenge.
At first, workers might directly assemble machinery. Then build an automated assembly line. Then double the production rate on that line. Then automate production of lines. Then automate procurement of parts and disposition of products. By the end state, a handful of old-timers will be perched atop a pyramid of abstracted labor, having automated their own labor all the way up from the ground level. Robot-constructed robots will autonomously mine ore, produce billets of thousands of grades of industrial metals, and oversee their use to produce the millions of different products that fill out the McMaster-Carr and Amazon catalogs.
At first, a small Mars city will be preoccupied with production of living spaces and mass-heavy bulk materials, such as fuel, oxygen, water, concrete, steel. As the city grows, the make/buy trade will favor the local production (vs import) of steadily more complex, relatively low weight products, including plastics, food, textiles, electrical machinery, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and eventually integrated circuits and baby humans, both of which are extremely labor intensive and relatively easy to import in a usable state.
By the time the city has reached its winning condition, so much time and technology will have passed that it is even more difficult for anyone to predict what human labor conditions might be like by then. Extrapolation suggests that transport costs to Mars will fall, even as local production improves. Economic forcing will also cause travel times to fall. Where once high costs might justify only specialist migration and one-way trips, automated production of Starships and carbon-neutral fuel production may open the solar system to anyone who can spare a week’s salary.
As for Mars, a century of terraforming efforts combined with exponentially increasing industrial capacity will bring forth the initial promise of the industrial revolution, a post-scarcity cornucopia on a greening world with limitless frontiers.