Elon Musk is building a supply chain to Mars

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SpaceX’s aim to colonize Mars is inspired by the Age of Exploration, but the plans themselves look a lot more like a white board at a global logistics firm.

The Elon Musk-led company, which announced in April that it will send an unmanned Dragon spacecraft to Mars in 2018—following years of research and testing to develop the needed technology—has a goal of repeated Martian missions that are designed to give predictability to researchers. Here’s how Musk described the objective in an interview with the Washington Post:

“Essentially what we’re saying is we’re establishing a cargo route to Mars. It’s a regular cargo route. You can count on it. It’s going happen every 26 months. Like a train leaving the station. And if scientists around the world know that they can count on that, and it’s going to be inexpensive, relatively speaking compared to anything in the past, then they will plan accordingly and come up with a lot of great experiments.”

This is akin to the way that massive container ships ply the oceans to bring components between far-flung factories. Planners don’t rely on a specific ship to make it across the Pacific at a discrete time, but instead imagine the ships as a kind of conveyor belt, constantly in motion, and plan their operations around the idea that goods are constantly in motion between two given sites.

Whether for SpaceX or a major oceanic shipper like the Maersk Group, the challenge is to solve for efficiency over long distances. And in both cases this involves timing (based on the tides, in the case of shipping, or the position of astronomical bodies in space) and conserving fuel (whether diesel sludge or a high-octane mixture of kerosene).

If SpaceX is to make colonization possible on Mars, where nearly everything humans need to live must be brought to them, or the infrastructure to create it must be supplied, then shipping must be cheap. Keeping transit costs down in turn allows for maximum investment in the cargo carried—hence this demonstration phase for SpaceX to move ‘bots and experiments from the green planet to the red one.

Unlike the spacecraft that NASA is contemplating for its Martian missions, the SpaceX Dragon is built with the capability of returning experiments and samples in mind. It may not be too long before we see a chain of Dragons linking two planets in the Solar System.

Musk says that after the 2018 mission, he will launch another group of Dragons in 2020, and by 2022, the infrastructure for the colony, teeing things off for a manned mission in 2024. By that time, hopefully, we’ll have figured out the human software needed to keep Martian society functioning.

It’s important to keep in mind these are just goals, and though SpaceX has a good record of hitting Musk’s targets, the strikes tend to come a year or more later than anticipated. The next real challenge for SpaceX (beyond perfecting the Dragon) is flying the Falcon Heavy, a powerful rocket needed to reach Mars. The company hopes to demonstrate it in flight later this year.

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