For decades many people have been attracted to going to Mars.
However, none of us have gone there. Up till now, 2018, a voyage to Mars would have required an enormous emptying
of the national coffers of the United States, or, perhaps, Russia or China.
In the 1990's Carl Sagan pointed out that the cost of going to Mars was then just too big to justify
to the US taxpayers, given that normal people could not be expected to value the returns of this exploration
so highly as he did.
Since Sagan, what has been the progress with reducing the cost of visiting or settling Mars?
The main avenues for reducing these costs
are either to reduce the cost of transport to Mars per unit mass of things transported (sometimes
called the "specific transport cost") or to reduce the mass of things transported there (or both).
Achieving substantial reductions in specific transport costs is difficult, and there is only one
avenue for doing it that might produce factor 2, 4 or 8 reductions: reuse of rocket parts and whole rocket stages.
Elon Musk's SpaceX has made impressive progress in making rockets reusable, and Blue Origin is also
working on reusability. However, achieving an additional factor of 2 or 4 reduction in specific transport costs
will be very difficult, and further progress hinges on developing reusable rockets that are also
very large. The up-front costs for starting the settlement of Mars will still be enormous if many large mass
payloads are transported to the Red Planet.
Reducing the mass of things transported to Mars is also possible, and probably has greater potential
to reduce overall costs than reducing specific transport costs. It can be done using automated equipment,
and robots to process local resources to make things on Mars.
Robert Zubrin and David Baker (1990 and after) were the first to propose a detailed plan for extended stays on Mars
that took advantage of local Mars resources (i.e., the atmosphere and sunlight) and automated equipment to make rocket
The Mars atmosphere and surface sunlight can be used to produce electricity, fuel and oxygen (together these
are both a form of energy storage and also propellant for rocket and other transport vehicles, while
separately they are, respectively, a chemical reducing agent and an oxidizing agent).
These uses of the atmosphere and sunlight will be good and doing them will reduce the costs
of visiting or settling Mars, but they do not provide solid materials for the fabrication or repair of
useful solid objects or for building needed structures. The most usable and available Mars resource for
making useful solid materials is regolith (sand and dust), which is ubiquitous on the planet's surface.
Regolith first needs to be mined before it can be processed to make solid materials. Martian regolith
and other rock mining is now an active field of research and development that is led by the Granular
Mechanics and Regolith Operations (GMRO) laboratory at NASA's Kennedy Space Center and Honey Bee Robotics
in Pasadena. In this important area progress is being made that will enable the settlement of Mars.
In August 2016 Two Planet Steel produced the first detailed
plan to start the human settlement of Mars,
wherein this settlement start was based on robot operated mining of Martian regolith, steel production,
the fabrication of finished steel-made products, including power generation equipment, in tandem with
oxygen production and water liberation, and wherein this can all be carried out on Mars prior to the
arrival of the first human.
An important point to emphasize is the ability to make power generation plant from locally produced carbon steel
using robots and only regolith, atmospheric carbon dioxide, and sunlight. The power generation plant
would be for both electricity production and also for high-temperature thermal power that can efficiently drive
many useful chemical reactions and a lot of material processing. The important strategic structural point
to realize about the ability to make power generation plant locally on Mars from local resources is that
with this ability comes the ability to set off exponential growth both in the size of a starting Mars settlement
and also in the capabilities of the settlement's technology infrastructure. With just a few humans, robots
and increasing power production the technology infrastructure will grow exponentially in quantity and
rapidly in capabilities to include more power generation plant, agriculture, nitrogen capture and production
of ammonia, ceramics, basalt fiber, glass, then silicon crystals, widescale water collection, then
plastics and rubber production and on and on, with this the first and
subsequent Mars settlements will quickly reach near self-sufficiency from support from Earth.
Since the 2016 "steel seeds" plan was written, Two Planet Steel has worked to develop the actual robotic,
steel-making technology that will be a key to make it happen. The development of this technology has
moved on and passed numerous tests - robotic steel-making will work on Mars.