Building the Mars Industrial Coalition

Part of my series on countering common misconceptions in space journalism.

In popular representations of space exploration, space ship models often get a decal logo slapped on as a finishing touch. It could be the NASA worm or meatball, or product placement, or a fictional megacorporation. What these depictions miss is the harsh reality of developing new systems and actually putting them into production.

Manufacturing is really really hard. JPL is quite good at Mars rovers now, and it still takes thousands of people years to build a single one!

File:Schaufelradbagger bei Gut Geisendorf 0001.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

In this series I’ve talked at some length about Moon and Mars exploration architectures, with a particular focus on the merits of the SpaceX Starship for achieving logistic supremacy on the road to self-sufficiency.

Indeed, my first book on Mars stuff focused on the transportation problem, because cheap transport of large quantities of humans and cargo to and from Mars is a necessary part of the big picture.

Necessary, but not sufficient. SpaceX has demonstrated a willingness to develop tech and hardware with or without government support. It is a necessary task, it simply must be done. Yet there will come a day when the rockets will need cargo to fill them. Where does this cargo come from?

It is not impossible that SpaceX could, with sufficient time and money, build everything for the Mars city as well as the rockets. The factories, vehicles, power systems, mining operations, life support, server farms, habs, tents, and everything else needed to replicate the industrial capacity of a large country with just a few people on a frigid, desolate, airless planet.

Building such a company town would overtax the organization and engineering capacities of a single company. There’s a better way. Our modern world, and the US in particular, overflows with the specialist engineering knowledge needed to build autonomous factories, pack them into rockets, and deploy them at the other end. Why should SpaceX spool up a division to build rugged utility vehicles when companies like Caterpillar, Komatsu, Hitachi, Belaz, and dozens of others already exist?

I believe that the most expeditious path to a Mars city is to obtain enthusiastic cooperation from the best engineering talent and companies the world over.

So how would this work? Would the boards of these companies be enticed by the lure of new markets and prosperous mines? I don’t think so. As I’ve written in this series, there are no business models for Mars cities that can pay for themselves in a classical investment sense. Profitable businesses operating on Mars for Martians, yes, but something that justifies billions in investment from Earth-centric firms, no.

So where does the money come from? In 2017 I wrote a blog on various ideas, missing only the Starlink money machine, by far the most lucrative option. Can contributing industries get a piece of that action? Maybe, but there’s a much better reason to get involved.

Let’s consider Caterpillar as an example. Caterpillar has about $55b in annual revenue. They invest 3%, or $1.7b/year, on research and development. Their R&D division employs something like 4000 people.

For companies like Caterpillar, building a series of Mars-friendly robot tele-handlers and earth movers would barely stress their R&D petty cash budget. In return, the companies that form the Mars Industrial Coalition would have branding rights on their gear and, more importantly, their engineers would get access to the most exciting research program in the history of sentient life. Even if they had to provide the equipment for free and pay for the shipping cost, it would be worthwhile.

This is a pretty big claim, but it’s easy to justify. Five years ago I could have made an argument that the halo effect and PR would be worth it, but in 2020 there’s concrete evidence in favor of the proposition that the best companies are the ones that have the best vision.

Where do the best engineering graduates all want to work? SpaceX and Tesla. Why? It sure isn’t for the high pay or lax hours. The top engineering companies must compete for the best engineers to make their products work better than everyone else. I have been privileged to work with many people who make up this elite class of “matter wizards”, who can bend the harsh laws of reality to their will. They have the skills and portfolio to work anywhere they want. They can name their price and recruiters will bend over backwards to sign them. But by and large they are idealistic and want to make the world a better place. Given a choice between working on oil rigs, guided bombs, or the electrification of the economy, nearly all choose Tesla. Given a choice between surveillance software, banking software, or rocket landing software, nearly all choose SpaceX. The same goes for other kinds of workers, too!

Of course, the reader has no way of knowing for sure that my perceptions are accurate. But in defense of my claim, let’s look at the scoreboard. Tesla’s 2012 Model S had performance specs that have yet to be beaten by any competitor, despite dozens of cringeworthily lackluster attempts. When the Model 3 was delivered in 2018, its performance was conservatively six years ahead of the competition, based on historical 5% annual improvement in battery tech. The Model Y, delivered in 2020, is at least four more years ahead, and the competition is still behind the oldest Model S. None of the competitors have rolled out a fast charging network, grid scale batteries, autopilot software, or over-the-air updates. Elon Musk is a smart guy but he couldn’t have crushed basically all the century-old incumbents in a few years on his own. No, the vision he articulated attracted the best of the best of the best, and they built what no-one else could.

To readers of this blog, the SpaceX story will be more familiar. A different market, a different space, a different technology. Numerous well-funded and well-motivated competitors. And yet none of them have demonstrated booster reflight, or full-flow staged combustion engines, or any of dozens of other crucial innovations. Again, the best rocket scientists, engineers, and techs the world over went there to build the future. They went to the place that articulated a compelling and convincing vision for putting lots of regular humans on another planet.

I understand it’s a tough sell to convince a corporate board that shunting 5% of the R&D budget towards a philanthropic venture will pay dividends, especially if you can’t write all of it off against tax. Finance and MBA types are trained to regard engineering talent as fungible. “Buy it when you need it, then layoffs to make the quarter.” This view is incomplete.

The $8.4 billion Tesla short sellers have lost tells another story. Elon Musk understands that money won’t buy the best of the best. Many of my friends have taken pay cuts to work at SpaceX or Tesla, and then never seen their families again. Because Musk understands this, his companies have arbitraged this market irrationality to instantiate his vision for the future.

The best way for other major companies to regain a slice of the elite talent recruiting pie and retain relevance is to join the Mars Industrial Coalition and to be part of building the next step for humanity.

13 thoughts on “Building the Mars Industrial Coalition

  1. “But by and large they are ideological and want to make the world a better place.”

    The word is “idealistic”, not “ideological”. When I started my 32-year career as an aerospace engineer in 1965 (Gemini, MOL, Skylab, Space Shuttle), I was an idealist, and still am as I approach 80 years of age. Evidence: I read your blog.

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  2. As I’ve said before on these comment sections, dreams are what pays the bills, and the only thing a Martian city can profitably sell on Earth is tickets. The question is how best to monetize those principles.

    I imagine a Mars non-profit corporation to take the economic loss. A core part of the process, at least as I imagine it, is a university. Functionally, it trains prospective Martians in everything the city needs. Would-be Martians pay a large premium to attend a highly selective university, and those who succeed in becoming Martians get an endowment from the Mars Non-Profit, with strings attached. They can use it to buy goods on Earth for shipment to Mars. They can use it to hire people on Earth to operate tele-robotic equipment on Mars. They can use it to hire people on Earth to do the office work for businesses that sell goods and services on Mars. They can use it to buy goods and services on Mars (produced in part by people on Earth). And they can use it to hire people on Mars (who will spend part of it on Earth).

    I said that a city on Mars can profitably sell tickets on Earth. I meant tickets to Mars, but now I also mean lottery tickets, sort of. That’s part of what would-be Martians would be buying, when they enroll in Mars University. If a student’s ideology is pro-Mars, they can act on it by enrolling, and over-paying for a chance at going. If a business owner’s ideology is pro-Mars, they can act on it by paying top dollar for non-Mars-bound graduates of Mars University, essentially subsidizing the purchase of lottery tickets to Mars.

    I don’t think Martians will import enough finished products to justify Caterpillar or Land Rover having a Mars division, even with the advantage in hiring idealistic engineers. I think they’ll mostly buy high-cost low-mass components, and use them to make finished products on Mars with high-mass low-cost components derived from ISRU. So the suppliers who sell specialized high-end parts and equipment to Caterpillar will be the ones to benefit from the prestige of being in the Mars Consortium.

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      1. Starfleet Academy or Mars University, depending on whether it’s founded by fans of Star Trek or Futurama.

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  3. As for the relative amounts of components vs finished products, it depends on how far launch costs fall. People are still using expendable rockets now, so SpaceX can drastically undercut the competition without aggressively cutting costs on the stuff that’s down in the noise. By the time the Martian city is founded, Blue Origin will be offering commercial flights, or selling hardware and licensing tech to people who do. So the major costs then will be stuff that’s lost in the round-off now. We can be pretty sure that Amazon Prime won’t be offering free shipping to Mars. But if it’s close to that, then hey, may as well buy finished products.

    Usually, what I implicitly imagine is that launch will still be very expensive, so that it will never be worth shipping a standard bumper or quarter-panel: Martians will always buy the hard-to-make components from suppliers on Earth and produce the high-mass parts locally.

    But launch systems are fun to imagine too. When we have space elevators on the moon, it will be relatively cheap to put basalt fiber in orbit. So maybe two-stage orbital rockets will be as obsolete as expendable rockets are already becoming. I should try to find the right names for the various kinds of space tether systems. What I’m imagining now is a tidally locked tether with a platform at the bottom. The effective gravity at the platform would be maybe half a g. So it would be low enough that the tether could support its own weight with only a reasonable amount of taper, while still being far enough from full LEO speed that a single-stage rocket could reach the platform efficiently. It still wouldn’t be cheap enough to have sellers include Mars in their free-shipping offers, but it would be cheap enough that Martians would buy whole machines instead of low-mass components.

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      1. I just looked up a Bridgeport mill. 1.5 tons, $17,500. So shipping costs would be close to $1M, or 57X purchase price.

        Here’s an approach – cast the mill body fairly crudely, cut back 1/8″ from the precision surfaces. Then 3D scan the surfaces and 3D print a 1/8″ thick steel part that’s flat (cylindrical, etc.) on one side and a near-perfect mate for the cast surface on the other. Braze it on, polish the precision surface (it’ll be within a few dozen microns already), and you’re good to go!

        Import the spindle bearings, maybe the motor, definitely the CNC controller… but don’t import the mill body!

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      2. Good question – but the answer is probably “yes” because

        1) They build rocket engines this way, and the tolerance for error is low
        2) The newly formed metal is embedded in metal powder, and the top must stay extremely flat and well-registered during the print; if the part warped or shrank the technology wouldn’t work.

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    1. I set up a spreadsheet to approximate the mass of that suborbital platform tether. If I use the specs I want, it’s completely unfeasible. The one that makes the big difference is the working strength. If I assume that I can use essentially the full tensile strength of basalt fiber, then I can almost have the specs I wanted. I got those by googling “stage separation”, and assuming that the single-stage-to-platform rocket would reach the same speed and altitude as an existing first stage. I can’t, quite. But I don’t wind up with a “tether” whose mass exceeds that of Earth. The other parameter that matters is the speed of the platform. I can cut a couple km/s off of orbital speed, but if I try to get it down to 5km/s platform speed, it’s a no-go unless I make the tether material stronger/lighter than basalt fiber.

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      1. Hopefully a platform would make the rockets easier, per kg to Mars or to deep space, at high enough volume. LEO is too much delta v for single stage to work well, but a platform would shave off enough that you wouldn’t have to lift an extra set of engines and the rest of the overhead.

        But yeah, the main selling point is that it’s fun to imagine. I’ll just have to have it be mostly made from organic materials after there are some carbonaceous chondrite asteroids in cis-lunar space. Or from an imaginary variety of basalt fiber that swaps out some of the iron in the rock for magnesium, and improves the strength-to-mass by enough to cover the safety margin. I’m sure someone can come up with a use for the few million tons of steel on the moon, that would be the byproduct.

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  4. A power train seems like a good thing to import. It’s light compared to the whole vehicle, and it embodies enough work that the difference in labor cost should cover the shipping cost.

    Then there are the economies of scale. All those steps can be done efficiently by mass production on Earth, where firms are making vehicles by the millions. On Mars they would have to be done in low volume with more-versatile but less-efficient machinery.

    The range of materials available on Earth is another form of economy of scale. Here there are thousands of different materials being produced in large enough amounts to do it efficiently. On Mars, there will be dozens. If a part benefits from being made of the right alloy, it’s a good candidate for import. The shipping cost of the finished part is lower than that of the raw material, given that some material is lost in the production process.

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