The man who sold Mars

Wikimedia Commons/Heisenberg Media

The most interesting man in the world isn’t the guy selling beer for Dos Equis. It’s Elon Musk.

A couple months ago Musk, the founder of SpaceX, Tesla and SolarCity, inventor of the Hyperloop high-speed tube transit system, and builder of the Gigafactory battery manufacturing plant, announced he is going to found yet another company — this one to dig tunnels under Los Angeles to alleviate the city’s hopelessly congested traffic.

“Traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging,” he tweeted at 4:05 a.m. “It shall be called The Boring Company.”

The announcement prompted some financial analysts to wonder whether Musk lacks focus, or even an adult attention span.

OK. It’s easy to see why money guys, who have a hard time focusing on anything beyond a company’s next quarterly report (talk about lacking an adult attention span), get edgy around Musk.

His companies burn through capital at a voracious rate, and while the potential payoff from any one of them is riches beyond belief, everything depends on successful execution of business plans that verge on science fiction. (Keep that last thought in mind.)

The truth is Musk may be the most focused man on the planet. He has a laser-like focus, and it’s on a single, four letter word — Mars.

Musk has declared he wants to build permanent human settlements on Mars that will eventually be home to millions of colonists. Developing the rockets that will make that happen is the explicit goal of SpaceX. That much is easy enough to understand.

But what may be getting overlooked is that the core work of all of Musk’s other companies will also make critical contributions to the success of the Mars venture. Chances are that isn’t accidental.

Take Tesla. The car company’s mission is to produce electric, self-driving cars that out-perform internal combustion cars and eventually replace them. On Earth, electric, self-driving vehicles will be a disruptive technology. But on Mars they will be an essential one.

There isn’t enough oxygen in Mars’ atmosphere to operate an internal combustion engine. If you want to get around Mars, you’ll need electric-powered vehicles. When the time comes, Tesla will have the ability to supply them. With batteries included, thanks to the gigafactory.

What’s more, just about every other human activity on Mars will have to be electrified. If you want to produce Martian steel or any other metallic material you’ll need an electric furnace. And you’ll need electric mining machinery. And electric-powered robots to build everything from roads to habitats. And electric-powered systems to recover water from Martian soils and carbon and oxygen from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and so on.

Speaking of electricity, it has to come from somewhere, and it’s not going to be from fossil fuel power plants. Solar power, using locally produced solar cells, is an obvious solution — especially if the guy who owns the rocket company and the car company also owns a photovoltaics company.

Settling Mars will be a non-starter unless it becomes possible to make most of the things the settlers need on the planet, including the things that will have to be made before they arrive. That means robots and additive manufacturing systems capable of running themselves and making things, including copies of themselves, out of local materials will be required.

Both Tesla and SpaceX are developing robotic manufacturing technologies that Musk thinks can make his Earth-bound factories 100 times more efficient. These technologies will be critical to any serious attempt to do manufacturing on Mars and will be just as important to success of colonization as the cars, batteries and the rockets.

Speaking of getting around, hyperloop, which will move people and freight at several hundred miles per hour in a tube, might provide a better option than aircraft for high-speed travel. On Earth, hyperloop is supposed to be in an above-ground tube. On Mars it might make more sense to put it in an underground tunnel — to be excavated by the automated tunneling machines of The Boring Company. They could also be put to work creating underground factories and residences, which might be easier to create than above-ground structures in the early going.

And so on.

If this sounds like a business plan straight out of science fiction, it may be because it is.

In 1951 Robert Heinlein published a novella called The Man Who Sold the Moon. It told the story of a hard-driving, visionary entrepreneur, D.D. Harriman, who had started several tremendously successful leading-edge companies on Earth, but who was obsessed with settling the moon. All of Harriman’s investments and business decisions come to be focused on the success of the Moon mission.

Change the name D.D. Harriman to Elon Musk and the Moon to Mars, and Heinlein’s yarn becomes eerily prescient. I re-read The Man Who Sold the Moon recently. The technology is long in the tooth, but it is still a gripping yarn. And it left me wondering if Musk had read it under the covers with a flashlight when he was growing up and if he’s living the dream.

Speaking of living the dream, Musk’s companies also may be producing something even more critical to the Mars project than their technology.

Watching a NASA rocket launch is like watching an aerospace engineering class take a midterm. Watching a SpaceX launch is like watching show and tell in elementary school. The SpaceX geeks are bursting with excitement and enthusiasm and joy; they have vision and a sense of mission and they want to share the dream and the adventure with you.

Its hard to believe that some of folks cheering themselves hoarse at these launches won’t be on the first settler ships.

At the end of another great science fiction classic, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, a family from Earth that has fled a nuclear war is standing on the banks of a Martian canal, when a boy reminds his father that he promised to show them the Martians. The father has the family look down in the water and see their reflections.

Musk isn’t just creating the technologies required to build a new civilization on Mars. He may also be creating the Martians. Is that focused enough?

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.