“The Martian” by Andy Weir, and its film adaptation directed by Ridley Scott, remain some of my all time favorite science fiction works. Way back in the day I wrote a technical commentary. I last read the book in 2015 (until 2 weeks ago) and watched the film in 2018.
More recently I’ve been exploring in detail how Starship changes the game with Lunar exploration and began to wonder what “The Martian” would look like with a Starship-based architecture, rather than the rather more expensive and complex architecture used in the book.
If you haven’t read the book, do so now. Spoilers. Duh.
The book is not entirely self-consistent in its architecture, but to recap, about 25 launches of an Atlas V-like booster are used to assemble the parts and supplies for a 6 person trip to Mars. Each trip takes 4 years and provides a 30 day stay on the surface. Amortizing the Hermes cost over 5 missions, each mission works out to be about $30b, or $166m per person per day on Mars. This is a conservative estimate – in Chapter 12 Lewis says “Uncle Sam paid a hundred thousand dollars for every second we’ll be here” which works out to be about $260b for the whole program, or $65b/year. Either total is quite ambitious in the context of NASA’s current budget!
In contrast, a Starship-based mission is optimized for high volume cargo delivery to the Martian surface. With cargo costs around $1000/kg, extended crewed missions and even city building become the most natural activity, and personnel costs drop from O($1000/s) to O($1000/day). This makes a big difference!
Unlike the Martian, there is only one new space vehicle, instead of five or six. The marginal unit cost is perhaps $10m, instead of $5b. It’s rapidly reusable, and delivers cargo in 100 T lots to the surface. Unfortunately for “The Martian”, Starship edition, the loss of programmatic brittleness and overwhelming system complexity means that the plot can’t rely on steadily ricocheting between various MacGuffins and science-based exposition. Or at least, not in the same way.
Instead, it has to contend with the somewhat less familiar trope of a lonely human in a post-scarcity landscape. In some ways, this may enable a more thorough examination of the human condition but it also presents challenges for plot motivation.
For completeness, here’s the Mars-Earth and Earth-Mars “porkchop” plot for the 2020s. Broadly speaking, launches are only advisable in the blue regions.
It can no longer be denied. This blog lacks fanfic. Until now.
I’m pretty much fucked.
That’s my considered opinion. Fucked.
Six days into what should be the greatest month of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.
I got loaded up at the departure night celebration. 550 days on Mars, time to head home. Took the rover for a spin around the base to get one last look at the Martian horizon, homed in on the Starship that will take us home, crawled into my bunk, and went to sleep.
Next morning I woke up and realize that I’m not in space. Well, I am in space, in the sense that everything is in space somewhere, but I’m still in a Starship that’s parked on Mars. Did we delay our launch for some reason? No.
No we didn’t. I looked out the window and on the other side of the main drag saw a blackened spot where the other ERV Starship launched, oh, 6 hours before. It didn’t wake me.
It takes a while to make the 1200 T of fuel needed to fuel up one of these bad boys and fly home, so in the meantime I’m apparently stranded here on a planet with nothing but 5000 T of cargo for company and a 300 day wait until the next crew arrives.
But that’s not the funny part. The funny part is that the cargo manifest database has been corrupted. Within 2 miles of my current position there are a few dozen Starships still loaded to the gills with everything a growing Mars base could possibly need. Pallets of light bulbs. Container loads of robots. Several dozen robotic machines capable of basically any action given the right instructions.
I can search the database and verify that I have something like 10,000 days of food supply – surely enough to see me out – but without unloading every last Starship my odds of finding any of it is vanishingly small. Just the thought of all those lonely sandwiches and croissants made my stomach pinch a little.
Here I am, a tiny dragon on an unbelievable hoard, and I don’t know where anything is.
The Hab shook in the roaring wind as the astronauts huddled in the center. All six of them now wore their flight space suits, in case they had to scramble for an emergency takeoff in the MAV. Johanssen watched her laptop while the rest watched her.
“Sustained winds over one hundred kph now,” she said. “Gusting to one twenty-five.”
“Jesus, we’re gonna end up in Oz,” Watney said. “What’s the abort wind speed?”
“Technically one fifty kph,” Martinez said. “Any more than that and the Starship’s in danger of tipping.”
“Martinez!” Lewis spoke. “That’s enough.”
“Sorry, commander,” Martinez conceded. “It’s going to be okay, Watney. This is Mars. The low atmospheric density means that 150 kph wind is barely perceptible. Nothing is going to tip the Starship.”
“I guess I look pretty silly wearing a flight suit 12 months before we’re due to launch?” Watney asked.
“You should have seen your face!” Johannsen crowed. “Classic.”
I’d better run diagnostics on the failed communications system. It sure looks like that latest software update bricked it. Seems unlikely that NASA would ship a patch that broke stuff permanently, but then again, who really understands Linux these days anyway?
Now I’m faced with a dilemma. Hunt through various bins of contraband USB drives looking for an earlier form of the software so I can manually reflash the ROM, or hack literally any of the thousands of radios within easy reach.
Thousands of radios? Well, yes. Bluetooth? Radio. Wifi? Radio. GSM? Radio. 5G? Radio. Zigbee? Radio. Asset trackers? Radio. Radio radio radio. But in this brave new world of ours, all our Internet of Shit devices come with radios built in. It’s a security nightmare. But only the USB drives are forbidden…
Of course, a 2 W cellular transmitter is hardly capable of streaming live video all the way back to Earth, but the Shannon-Hartley theorem shows you can still transmit data over a very noisy channel. I’ll put a sacrificial IoT radio in some kind of cantenna, load up the WSPR error correcting software, and start transmitting a status beacon. Back of the envelope math suggests I can send and receive a few thousand bits a day, which when combined with a submarine code book I have handy will be adequate to keep the lights on until I can locate that pallet of spare Starlink receivers.
Would I write my own coding system using the ASCII alphabet? Why would I inflate a 26 character alphabet that’s already pretty redundant to 256 characters? To reserve 90% of my channel for umlauts so that NASA can write £¢~√°©%}} without any ambiguity? Please!
And of course it’s trivially easy to network all the local radios, so I don’t have to do an EVA to a nearby rover to check my email. What is this, 1982?
Let’s think about this methodically. Today I suited up, picked a cargo Starship at random, drove to its base, activated the external lift, and was gently lifted up into its cavernous cargo hold. Except that it was so full I could barely see in, let alone climb around, and every cargo pallet was wrapped in an opaque white pressure sleeve to prevent vacuum exposure. Naturally, every cargo pallet was also annotated with a giant QR code describing the contents, which I am unable to decode because my eyes are not pixelated. Useful.
I unloaded a pallet onto the tray of my rover, drove it back to the Hab and into the airlock, then broke through the seal to find … bearings. I now have 10,000 bearings of various sizes. And zero nutritional content.
Let’s do the math. I can unload 4 pallets a day, and my Hab can contain perhaps 20 before it is too full to move. Each Starship contains 200 pallets, so… this approach does not scale. My odds of finding a pallet I can metabolize before I die of old age are looking pretty slim.
Time to think bigger. Somewhere in those Starships are the materials to build a large pressurized tent easily big enough to contain all the cargo. Originally, we were meant to do some prospecting and the next crew would deploy the base materials, so that the crew up here was never material constrained.
Well, now I’m material constrained.
I cracked open my laptop and started hacking. First, there’s no reason I have to physically be present at a Starship to unload it. Obviously something needs to collect each pallet of cargo or else they’ll pile up at the base, but I dropped some code on each rover enabling it to coordinate with the Starship cargo crane to synchronize position and procure a pallet.
Because it’s the future, everything is covered in cameras and I can easily oversee and tweak the process as it goes along. My fleet of rovers is already in the process of ransacking every Starship in sight, driving their cargo to a selected location, and dropping it on the ground.
Which means that, in my quasi-isolated state, I’m deciding where the first Mars base is actually going to be built. So I’m picking the spot with a good view.
After a week or so of continuous operations, all 5000 T of cargo is now knolled in neat rows where I can drive back and forth on the open rover.
In my hand as I drive is an X-Ray Fluorescence gun, designed to perform contactless assays of near-surface minerals for prospecting, and, in this case, unmarked cargo bales. After 45 minutes of driving up and down the rows mindlessly irradiating this already irradiated frozen desert hellscape, I finally got what I’d been looking for – a strong fluorine signature.
Fluorine is ordinarily a rather antisocial little atom but substituting for hydrogen in polymers makes a very UV and chemical resistant substance. I cut through the packaging and found …
Teflon cookware. Okay, I’m on the right track, but I’m not opening a shop today. Back to driving.
The sun was setting in the west when I got my second hit. This time, I hit pay dirt. Reinforced PTFE tent material. Acres of the stuff. I forked the package to the center of the cargo midden and turned in for the night.
Before I went to sleep I tasked a rover to fit the entrenching tool and excavate the perimeter of the new enclosure.
Next morning I drove back to the site and found my path blocked by a trench. Duh. I filled in a bit, then XRF gun in hand I found the wall anchor pallets, buried them in the trench, then pulled the tent materials out from the center to the edges where it zipped together.
I’m making it sound easy. It would be impossible, except I’m the sole planetary heir to a boatload of stuff intended to replicate the entire industrial revolution in a year or two. So it was merely a pain in the ass. At times the effort of moving a joystick to drive the enormous and powerful vehicles around caused me to mist up my helmet.
See instruction manual steps 12-20 for a riveting account of what happened next: All my cargo was now under a 20 acre inflatable enclosure. Inside, the greenhouse effect began to warm things up a bit so they were no longer incredibly cold – merely ordinarily cold.
My jury rigged inflation set up provided enough pressure to protect the cargo so I proceeded to open every last pallet. This I did by hand. With a chain saw. I’m not a barbarian, and there are like a thousand pallets to open. But a rover-mounted robot chainsaw is too metal, even for me.
When all was said and done, I basically had the world’s loneliest and most poorly organized open-air bazaar full of stuff that was mostly, though not entirely, recognizable by sight. I unpacked the life support physical plant gear, got it set up, and when the interior was shirt sleeves compatible, rebuilt my cargo manifest by hand.
I worked in a supermarket as a kid. This was like a stock take, except that making it up before the shift ended wasn’t a viable strategy anymore.
I had spent ten weeks getting everything unpacked and when I was done, I got a reply to my beacon. NASA thoughtfully sent me the manifest database decryption passcode in plaintext. It was “cargo_manifest_123”. So now I know where everything was on the now empty Starships. Great.
I was pleasantly surprised that so much could be done so quickly with so few people. Soon they’ll be building new Mars cities without bothering to send any astronauts at all. Even better.
Mindy Park moved on to perusing the rest of the image. The Hab was intact of course, why wouldn’t it be? Aliens? Dr. Kapoor would be happy to see that anyway.
She brought the coffee mug to her lips, then froze.
“Um…,” she mumbled to herself. “Uhhh…”
She composed an email to Venkat.
“Dr Kapoor, not urgent but I noticed that activity at the base has been continuing since the crew left, are the robotics teams proceeding? If so, why are they siting what seem to be cargo pallets in the backup city site location? And in the shape of a giant …”
Teddy looked to Mitch. “Mitch, your e-mail said you had something urgent?”
“Yeah,” Mitch said. “How long are we gonna keep this from the Ares 3 crew? They all think Watney’s dead. It’s a huge drain on morale.”
Teddy looked to Venkat.
“Mitch,” Venkat said. “We discussed this—”
“No, you discussed it,” Mitch interrupted. “They think they lost a crewmate. They’re devastated.”
“And when they find out they abandoned a crewmate?” Venkat asked. “Will they feel better then?”
Mitch poked the table with his finger. “They deserve to know. You think Commander Lewis can’t handle the truth?”
“It’s a matter of morale,” Venkat said. “They can concentrate on getting home—”
“I make that call,” Mitch said. “I’m the one who decides what’s best for the crew. And I say we bring them up to speed.”
After a few moments of silence, all eyes turned to Teddy. Annie coughed slightly.
“What’s that, Annie?” Teddy said.
“You know they have access to social media on the Hermes, right?”
Venkat looked at Mitch. “I thought we controlled all the data flowing to and from the Hermes?”
“They’re elite technical experts,” Mitch replied, “They can set up a VPN. Their browser traffic is encrypted. It’s not hard. My 8 year old does it to stream Netflix shows from Europe.”
“So, what are they saying?” Teddy asked Annie.
“See for yourself.”
Annie swiped her practically incandescent Twitter feed to the main screen.
Mindy Park whispered. “I’ve seen worse…”
Lewis: Someone *cough @AstroJohannsen cough* said she verified Mark was in his bunk before we launched. Looks like we left him behind. Whoops. Sorry @NASA.
Bruce Ng called Venkat from Pasadena.
“Venkat, we may have a problem. I manifested an additional 100 kg of pasta for the early resupply.”
“That’s great, Bruce. Watney loves the stuff.”
“Yes, but I clicked the wrong button and …”
“You sent 100 T?”
“It was an accident. How did you know?”
“Classic error. We’ve all done it. And would you believe, Amazon Prime’s return policy from Mars isn’t much good.”
“Does this cause problems for your team?”
“Hardly! This isn’t the 1900s with their primitive expendable rockets. Logistics is practically below the API nowadays. And NASA never complains about getting the extra miles!”
“I remember those days. We drilled holes in everything to save weight, even the spaghetti!”
“Not the astronauts, though, they always squealed when we tried to remove redundant anatomical systems to save weight.”
“Well 100 T of pasta is a big mistake, but at least you didn’t accidentally miscount your crew before pressing the big red button.”
“Do you think they’ll let Lewis fly again?”
“Do you think they’ll let her land?”
“Good point, why not send her back out with the next crew? I’ll run it by Mitch. He’ll love it.”
“Venkat, thanks for the suggestion re long term crew disposition.”
“No problem Mitch, I thought you’d like it.”
“Yes, I think we can retcon a regulation stipulating that crew members may only re-enter Earth’s atmosphere provided all living members are physically present.”
“One other thing. The Chinese have been offering us their booster again.”
“The Taiyang Shen?”
“Yes. I appreciate the sacrifice but can you imagine NASA would have ever begun a crewed Mars campaign without the ability to lift a million tonnes a year to orbit? Including oddly large orders of pasta?”
“I think they want to participate, but they would have to sacrifice their probe.”
“Why? NASA, Russia, ESA, JAXA, hell, even the Australian Space Agency could launch it for them. When is the next Starship flight in their direction?”
“Current policy is no fewer than one Starship per planet per launch window, so we have half a dozen opportunities in the next year. Can we pencil them in?”
“Do it. And on their booster?”
“I dunno. More pasta?”
I’ve had some time on my hands. Well, that’s one way of putting it. Now that NASA’s communications system is back up, they won’t stop driving every robot they can get their hands on to do stuff. Do you know how annoying it is to find your rover drove off in the middle of the night and insists it can’t return until it’s torqued 13,000 bolts on some obscure production line?
Can you believe how failure prone that rover’s radio turned out to be? Rover antenna in hand, I drove my Mars car around my growing base and allowed my mind to wander.
So here I am. An overproductive fuel plant, a bunch of robotic robot factories, a small decorative lake that is yet to be stocked with fish, and a few dozen empty Starships waiting in a bone yard to be scrapped for parts some day.
Each has 8 little legs that fold out under the skirt and can adjust position to ensure stable landings on uneven ground. I found that the relevant accelerometer was not as well bolted down as it should be, and devised a cunning plan.
Standing on the Starship’s flight deck, I activating landing mode, put the accelerometer in my hand, turned on some sweet beats, and started wiggling that little sensor around.
The Starship computer thought the ground was doing something very funny and moved the legs to compensate. And slowly, slowly, the entire spaceship began to shuffle across the landscape. I was halfway to the launching pad before the beat even dropped.
Once there I dumped the fuel plant tanks into the Starship, climbed aboard, and pressed the big red button. Sitting atop 9.5 km/s of dispatchable delta-V, where was I going to go?
8 minutes later I was in a nice polar Low Mars Orbit. After this it was an exercise in Kerbal Space Program. I boosted out, changed planes, aerobraked back in, orbited Phobos, landed for a couple of days, walked around, flew to Deimos, same deal, then went back to LMO. I still had enough fuel practically to fly back to Earth but the launch window wasn’t quite right. So I dumped a few hundred tons of prop and re-entered, landing back on the launch pad. I unstowed my safely hijacked rover from the skirt cargo bin and drove back into town.
Soon enough the next window opened up and the next lot of cargo began to rain down from above. I drove out to a nearby hill so I could watch them come in in batches of 6 or 7, every morning just before lunch time. Soon the dusty old bone yard was joined by a few dozen more Starships, this time with their manifests intact.
Some of them brought people too. That’s gonna be weird.