**disclaimer: this is my attempt to sum up something super complicated (but fascinating) just so I can use the analogy to make a few points at the end. Tim Urban at Wait But Why has done a masterful job of writing about this subject (he crushes it honestly) and was the main inspiration. Please go read his article and then tell him how much of a better writer he is.
Elon Musk is just a normal guy with goals like the rest of us. Does it really make him that different that one of his life goals is to colonize Mars?
He believes that the human species is at risk for a major extinction event in the next few hundred years. Whether it’s an asteroid from outer space that collides with Earth, a mass nuclear event, global warming, a biological plague or artificial intelligence (AI), the probability rises higher year after year. He thinks the smartest thing humans should be doing right now is creating an alternate, sustainable environment.
I follow the logic, but currently there are two major problems with colonizing Mars (actually, there are millions of problems, but let’s not get side tracked):
(1) it’s too expensive and (2) we don’t have enough power.
Musk thinks he can solve both.
1. It’s Too Expensive
NASA said they could put five astronauts on Mars for a conservative budget of $50 billion. That alone makes colonization impossible.
Musk says we can get the cost down to $500,000 per passenger and finance the entire mission with private funds. It puts the expense within reach and makes the trip “affordable” to regular citizens willing to set off in exploration.
So how will he get the cost down to $500,000 a ticket?
One of the main cost of the current space program is rockets. Up until 2015, booster or fuel rockets were good for one use. They’d launch their payload into space and fall back into the Earth’s atmosphere where they’d burn up (think of how expensive air travel would be if the airplane was good for one use).
The genius of the Space Shuttle program was that it was supposed to be reusable and therefore cut costs. The space craft itself (Space Shuttle) was “reusable” (after nine months of refurbishment), but the fuel rockets rarely were. So out of four parts, only one could be repurposed. Every Space Shuttle mission still cost $1.6 billion. Not nearly good enough to make space travel viable.
SpaceX knew one of the main keys to controlling expense was reusable rockets. Rockets they could fly back to Earth, land in the ocean on a tiny platform and then relaunch within a matter of hours. This cuts the cost significantly and creates dozens of options for fueling longer distance missions.
SpaceX attempted their first landing test in January, 2015. It crashed.
They performed multiple tests throughout 2015 and all failed. In December, 2015, they finally nailed it.
NASA has traditionally launched a handful of astronauts with extensive training into space. The Space Shuttle worked great for that. It seats eight people comfortably for trips up to the International Space Station (ISS) which was built for six people to live on at once.
Models like this don’t even come close to space colonization.
If Musk wants to open up the opportunity to ordinary citizens and make space travel affordable, the Space Shuttle will not work. The ISS will not work. He had to rethink it.
SpaceX plans to build a “Mars Transporter” (official name not yet decided) that can transport 100 passengers at a time.
It will be the largest rocket in history at over 350 ft. high (think small sky scraper) and carry over four times the payload.
Eventually, the plan is to launch multiple Transporters at a time taking hundreds to Mars.
2. Not Enough Power
The second problem is power and there are multiple problems when it comes to generating enough power to make Mars transport possible. For starters, SpaceX would have to design new engines. There is currently nothing in existence that can lift that payload. Next, they’d have to create some type of in-orbit refueling option and finally, figure out a way to manufacture propellant on Mars.
Sounds straightforward enough.
SpaceX is actively working on a new engine model called the Raptor. This new design will create 310 tons of thrust or is able to lift 310 tons of payload — think 172 cars. Check out a recent test:
The Mars Transporter will have 42 Raptors. If you do the math, that equals 13,033 tons of thrust (payload). In other words, it can lift over 7,000 cars.
Refuel in Orbit
Since all of the fuel will be used just getting the Mars Transporter out of the Earth’s atmosphere, an orbital refueling system is a necessity. SpaceX envisions another booster rocket meeting the Shuttle in orbit following the launch. After a short refuel and series of tests, the crew will initiate their three-month journey to Mars.
Once the crew touches down on Mars, most of the fuel will have been used. They’ll have to find a way to make more if they ever hope to return home. Musk thinks this might be the easiest of all the challenges since Mars is rich in carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) which makes methane (CH4) production possible.
Watch this conceptualization of the entire trip:
Because of the orbital systems of the two planets, the ideal launch window happens every 26 months. Here’s a rough timeline from SpaceX on what we can expect:
- July, 2018 — the first payload cargo goes to Mars
- October, 2020 — multiple payload cargos launch for Mars
- December 2022 — the first Mars Transporter flight launches with cargo only
- January, 2025 — the first Mars Transporter flight launches carrying passengers
This begins a 26 month, interplanetary migration.
- 2050 — over 100,000 people living on Mars.
Just to make it clear, most of us will live to see the “Neil Armstrong” of Mars.
Launching a Practice
I think launching a mission to Mars is a great analogy for starting a dental practice (or business) from scratch. I know that statement takes an immediate right turn and is at best a “stretch,” but follow me:
1. It takes a visionary to look ahead and see something different.
Like Elon Musk, it takes someone who sees something different; a different standard of care, a different business model, a different solution for a problem we’ve never questioned before.
2. It takes years of planning.
So much planning goes into starting a practice or business. Often, it’s years before it actually happens. Sometimes, it’s waiting for the right moment. Sometimes, it’s scratching everything and building the systems that you need from the ground up. Often there are moments when you don’t know if it will ever happen.
One thing is true, there is nothing about it that’s quick.
3. It takes lots of energy to launch.
I think most people underestimate this. “Launching” a new practice or business can take anywhere from one to three years. During that time, you’ll be using a disproportionate amount of energy, resources, money, emotion… sleep.
Take lots of deep breaths. It’s normal.
4. You must refuel in orbit.
It’s not possible to just blast your way to Mars and it’s not possible to blast your way to your dreams. At multiple points you must refuel.
I see many practice owners confuse the “launch” and the “dream.” They’re not the same thing and they don’t happen at the same time. The “launch” allows you to achieve the “dream.” The “launch” happens first, but the “dream” is far off. It will probably take you years (most likely decades) and will require some very serious resource management along the way if you’re going to make it to your destination.
Those that try to blast (adrenaline) their way almost always run out of fuel (adrenal fatigue? just sayin.) and never realize the fullest version of their dream.
5. The mission is SERVICE.
SpaceX’s mission is to SERVE humanity and provide an opportunity for a better future existence. Don’t lose site of this. The reason you started a dental practice was to SERVE humanity and provide a better patient experience. To deliver care and dignity to those you have the opportunity to SERVE.
It’s easy to let the stress of the practice interfere with the SERVICE. Especially during the launch. Be disciplined to always keep patient care first. That’s why you launched to begin with. That’s the point of the mission.