Imagining Elon Musk’s Million-Person Mars Colony – The greatest thought experiment of all time
How will we make chips on Mars? Pharmaceuticals? Medical devices? “Stuff”? Will Mars be an actual backup plan for humanity?
Going to Mars is going to be expensive. And Elon Musk’s plan will be incredibly expensive, because he is talking about having a million people living on Mars. Why might humanity spend a trillion dollars or more to send a million human beings to live on Mars? Yes, it would be adventurous, and cool, and a great challenge. But a trillion dollars is a lot of money, and spending a trillion dollars because it “sounds cool” may be hard to justify.
The real reason for going to Mars, in the minds of many, is to create a backup plan for humanity. If a huge comet or asteroid were to slam into Earth and erase all life on the planet [ref], or if a nuclear holocaust were to destroy all human beings [ref], a colony on Mars could keep the human species alive. An independent Mars colony is a way to prevent human extinction in case of some catastrophe on Earth.
If this is the idea, then it sets a high bar for the Mars colony: The colony on Mars needs to be completely self-contained and self-sufficient. The colony needs to have everything necessary to survive even if Earth were to disappear.
This sort of independence is an interesting challenge. First, Mars is not a very hospitable place for human beings, so a lot of technology will be required from the start just to live on Mars. Second, there are many, many, many things on Earth that we would need to export to Mars and recreate on Mars if the colony is to be completely self-sufficient.
How will the Mars Colony make its own Semiconductor chips?
Let’s take an incredibly simple example: Will the Mars colonists have smart phones and laptop computers on Mars? The answer is obvious – of course they will. It would be silly to create a new colony on Mars, but then to take the colony back to the stone age by leaving smart phones and laptops out of the picture.
Where will these laptops and smart phones on Mars come from? One way to get them is to manufacture laptops and smart phones on Earth and ship them to Mars. Presumably we need a million smart phones on Mars, and they will need to be replaced every two years or so. Same thing with laptops. Will we manufacture these devices on Earth and ship a million of them every two years (plus backups to cover breakage, failures, etc.)? This seems unlikely – it will be extremely expensive to ship things to Mars and it will take six months. And if we do it this way, we have violated our backup plan. The Mars colony would be dependent on Earth for technology.
That only leaves one alternative: we need to manufacture laptops and smart phones on Mars. But this is not a trivial problem. Have you ever looked inside a modern laptop? Try watching these two videos for an introduction to the complexity:
Just think about all of the technology packed into these devices:
- The screens are amazing
- The touch panels over the screens are amazing
- The batteries are amazing
- The microprocessors and memory systems are amazing
- The flash drives are amazing
- The radios and antennas are amazing (every phone contains radios for voice communications and control, WiFi radios, BlueTooth radios, GPS radios, NFC radios, etc.)
- The sound systems and speakers are amazing
- The cameras are amazing
- The biometric sensors are amazing
- The operating systems and software are amazing
- The cases, glass, adhesives, screws and hinges seem pretty simple, but they too are amazing
- And so on…
It is mind-boggling that all of these features can be packed into something that fits in your pocket, and that works reliably for years. Yet we all use these devices every day and take them completely for granted.
We will need to be able to imagine, design, prototype and manufacture these devices in mass quantities on Mars, just like we do on Earth.
And then there are the semiconductor chips and other components that we find inside the devices. They look like little plastic rectangles, but they are the most complex devices humans create. A chip can have billions of transistors, and the manufacturing processes are stunningly precise. The tiniest spec of dust, the tiniest imperfection in the silicon wafer renders a chip inoperable.
The amount of technology that goes into making all of the chips a modern society needs is nearly impossible to imagine. The Mars colony will need:
- the thousands of engineers who know how to architect chips
- the thousands of engineers who know how to design and layout the transistors for the chips
- the thousands of engineers who know how to manufacture the chips
- the thousands of engineers and specialists who actually do manufacture the chips
- the thousands of engineers who know how to design the factories that manufacture the chips
- the thousands of engineers who know how to design and manufacture the machines that make the chips that go in the factories
- and so on…
These videos can help you to get some tiny sense of the complexity involved:
Watching these videos, you start to get a sense of the challenge. Just to make chips – including all aspects of chip manufacturing – the Mars colony will need tens of thousands of scientists, engineers, technicians and specialists to recreate the industry.
And keep in mind that chips advance constantly. The chips we have today are a thousand times better than the chips we had a decade or two ago. These articles can help you get a sense of the pace of advancement, and the challenges ahead:
- Moore’s law really is dead this time – The chip industry is no longer going to treat Gordon Moore’s law as the target to aim for
- The status of Moore’s Law
- Intel: Keeping up with Moore’s Law is becoming a challenge
- AFTER MOORE’S LAW – After a glorious 50 years, Moore’s law—which states that computer power doubles every two years at the same cost—is running out of steam. Tim Cross asks what might replace it
- The Status of Moore’s Law: It’s Complicated – Node names—the milestones of the chip industry—no longer mean what they used to
- Open source chips
- Open-source chip mimics Linux’s path to take on closed x86, ARM CPUs
- China’s Loongson chips
- International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors
In order to be self-sufficient, the Mars colony will need to keep pace. Chips and chip manufacturing are not static targets like, say, making nuts and bolts. Everything in the industry is always advanacing, always getting better on a thousand different fronts.
And don’t forget cloud computing. Every major technology corporation in America – Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Amazon, Dell, etc. – has millions of servers “in the cloud” storing petabytes of data and supplying petaFLOPS of computation. Here’s a look inside several massive data centers as an example:
We are going to have to recreate these companies and these data centers on Mars, first because Mars needs to be self-sufficient, and second because the transmission time from Earth to Mars is up to 21 minutes [ref]. No one on Mars is going to want to type in a Google search and wait up to 42 minutes to get the answer back (21 minutes for the query to travel to Earth and then 21 minutes for the results to travel back). The best case scenario for roundtrip transmission time from Mars to Earth is 6 minutes, which occurs when the planets are briefly “right next to each other” in their orbits.
How many trained engineers, scientists, technicians, specialists, researchers, etc. will we have to send to Mars to replicate all of this technology on Mars? We will need to be able to manufacture semiconductor chips, smart phones, laptops, servers and data centers on Mars, plus all of the software, along with all of the specialized machines, technologies, robots, clean rooms, buildings, etc. underpinning the factories. Will it take 10,000 people? Certainly more than that. Does it take 50,000? That might be a reasonable first approximation (but it would take many months of analysis to truly understand the needed number, because so many specialties are involved).
Keep in mind that we need a certain amount of redundancy. If “the guy” who understands CPU branch prediction architectures (just to pick one of the thousands of esoteric but necessary skill sets needed to design a modern CPU chip) happens to die in a freak meteor strike, we will need someone to replace him. There needs to be more than one person on Mars who understands branch prediction, and all of the other arcane techologies that none of the rest of us ever encounter in our daily lives.
So we educate and train these 50,000 people on Earth in their prime – say 30 years old – and we ship them to Mars to live in the Mars colony. Their educations will require several years of apprenticeship and experience in existing Earth factories so they completely understand and know the ropes. Their goal is to recreate Earth’s technology industry on Mars, so that Mars can start manufacturing its own chips, smart phones, laptops, data centers, etc. Then these specialists will additionally start advancing all of these technologies forward through research and development, just like we do on Earth.
Then what happens? In 50 years, these 50,000 trained professionals will all be dead or nearing death. Therefore we have no choice – The Mars colony will need to be raising 50,000 children, and educating/training them in all of these technologies on Mars in order to act as the replacements for these 50,000 people. This is an education activity, going back to Chapter 9. It will take thousands of trained, knowledgeable people to educate these children, and these educators will then need to be training their replacements as well.
The whole thing is mind-boggling if you think it through, and this is just the technology part of the Mars economy. We are going to have to do all of this so that the people living in the colony on Mars can search the Mars equivalent of Google on their Mars-made smart phones using the Mars cell phone network connected to the Mars Internet connected to Martian data centers electrified by Mars power plants connected to the Mars electrical grid.
We will need the same kind of complete-replication effort for pharmaceuticals, doctors, hospitals, medical devices, medical imaging, etc.
So now let’s think about the health care sector of the Mars economy. As described in Chapter 9, 1 out of every 25 Mars colonists will be directly or indirectly involved in the actual provision of health care on Mars (e.g. doctors, surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, dentists, hygienists, psychiatrists, orderlies, etc.). That is 40,000 trained professionals all by itself to handle one million colonists (probably more, given that Mars has a shorter work week (see Chapter 10)). And we are also going to need to replicate all of the scientists, engineers, researchers, specialists and technicians needed to make therapeutic drugs, medical devices, medical imaging equipment, etc. And then we will need educators to train their replacements over time.
What level of technology are we talking about in the medical sphere? Here are some examples:
The medical-industrial complex on Earth is immense and intricate, and it is also advancing rapidly. The medical climate on Mars will need to be at least as vibrant, creative and effective as that found on Earth.
What about all of the other “Stuff” that the Mars colonists will need?
If you walk into a Target or a Walmart and you think through what really lies in front of you, you realize that you are looking at a huge variety of products coming from a huge number of factories all over the world. According to Walmart, “Supercenters average 187,000 square feet, employ 350 or more associates on average and offer 142,000 different items” [ref]. The Mars colony is going to need to be able to recreate that kind of manufacturing capacity, and that kind of manufacturing variety, within the colony.
It really can be difficult to get a full sense of the scale and scope of the manufacturing capabilities on Earth, but here is one way: Take a look at the TV show called “How It’s Made”. This show sends crews in to film and explain how different factories work. If you go to a page like this one, you can get a full list of all of the episodes to date. Here are the episodes and the products they cover from just the first two seasons of the show:
- 1-01, 01, Aluminum Foil, Snowboards, Contact Lenses, Bread
- 1-02, 02, Compact Discs, Mozzarella Cheese, Pantyhose, Fluorescent Tubes
- 1-03, 03, Toothpicks, Acrylic Bathtubs, Helicopters, Beer
- 1-04, 04, Hearing Aids, 3D Puzzles, Rubber Mats, Toilets
- 1-05, 05, Copy Paper, Jeans, Computers, Plate Glass
- 1-06, 06, Nails and Staples, Safety Glasses, Fabrics, Bicycles
- 1-07, 07, Kayaks, Safety Boots, Electronic Signs, Cereals
- 1-08, 08, Trucks, Adhesive Bandages, Computer Circuit Boards, Liquors
- 1-09, 09, Steel, Apple Juice, Aircraft Landing Gear, Cosmetics
- 1-10, 10, Holograms, Package Printing, Skin Culture, Canned Corn
- 1-11, 11, Plastic Bags, Solar Panels, Plastic Gasoline Containers, Hockey Sticks
- 1-12, 12, Aluminum Screw Caps, Chocolate, Pills, Pasta
- 1-13, 13, Bicycle Helmets, Aluminum, Car Brakes, Lithium Batteries
- 2-01, 14, Eyeglass Lenses, Granite, Potato Chips, Computer Microprocessors
- 2-02, 15, Honey, Fibre Optics, Bricks, Pipe Organs
- 2-03, 16, Personal Watercraft, Wine, Particleboard Office Furniture, Ice Skates
- 2-04, 17, Winter Jackets, Animation, Mushrooms, Gold Rings
- 2-05, 18, Hydroponic Lettuce, Construction Wood, Recycling, Fishing Flies
- 2-06, 19, Diamond Cutting, Wood Doors, Paintballs, Newspapers
- 2-07, 20, Carpets, Drinking Water, Laser Eye Surgery, Acoustic Guitars
- 2-08, 21, Fiberglass Boats, Clothes Dryers, Bubble Gum, Fireworks
- 2-09, 22, Steel Safes, False Teeth, Airplanes, Maple Syrup
- 2-10, 23, Gummies, Aluminum Cans, Fish Farming, Bronze Sculptures
- 2-11, 24, Aluminum Pots and Pans, Artificial Limbs, Peanut Butter, High Intensity Light Bulbs
- 2-12, 25, Cars, Grocery Carts, Rapid Tooling and Prototyping, Collectible Coins
- 2-13, 26, Ball Bearings, Electrical Wires, Lost Wax Casting, Automated Machines
There are a total of 28 seasons so far. They have visited 1,450 factories to date (2017).
The very first thing they cover in the very first episode is something incredibly simple: aluminum foil. Aluminum foil has just one part – a very thin sheet of aluminum. That’s it! It is not like a laptop or an MRI machine, with thousands of parts.
Yet, aluminum foil, simple as it is, still takes a large, complicated factory to make it, as you can see here. And to make aluminum foil, there needs to be another factory to make aluminum, as you can see here. The aluminum factory assumes the existence of an aluminum mine. And all three of these operations assume the existence of factories that can make cement and steel (to construct the factory buildings), trucks, trains (and tracks), tires and engines (to transport the ore and aluminum), and all of the other huge and specialized machines seen in these videos. Manufacturing in the modern world is like an immense, incredibly deep rabbit hole. These videos show you different manufacturing capabilities that we take completely for granted on planet Earth, and which would all need to be replicated on Mars:
This is a tiny sampling. Multiply this by thousands of times to get a full sense of the manufacturing capabilities that the Mars colony will need to recreate in order to have a self-sufficient industrial capability on the surface of Mars.
How many engineers, scientists, researchers, technicians, specialists, etc. will we need to train on Earth and send to Mars to recreate all of this manufacturing capability? Tens of thousands. And, like the people described for the technology sector and the medical sector, these initial colonists will all die, so we need to have an education system to train and certify their replacements.
Why this is all important for the Mars Colony
Why is all of this so important when thinking about the Mars colony? Because, when Elon Musk got on stage in September 2016 to announce the idea of sending a million people to Mars (see Chapter 1), what he talked about was the easy part of the project. Building some rockets and some space capsules to ferry people to Mars really is pretty straightforward. All the rockets are the same – copies of a single design. All of the capsules are the same too.
Now we are left to work out the hard problems, which include the kinds of things described in this chapter, and previous chapters. What we are talking about is booting up a new and completely self-sufficient copy of modern human civilization on another planet. What this means is that:
- We are talking about transporting perhaps 200,000 (?) highly trained, highly experienced, highly professional and highly competent engineers, scientists, specialists, researchers, technicians, etc. to Mars to build a complete, self-contained technology sector, health sector, manufacturing sector, etc. on Mars.
- Then we need an educational system and educational capability on Mars so we can train the replacements for these 200,000 people, with all of their specialties, as the original 200,000 people die off. And we also need to train the replacement trainers.
- Then we need some amount of seed technology transported to Mars. For example, to build just about any kind of machine, we need a CNC machine. Even to make another CNC machine, we need a CNC machine, along with other machines. And so we need to take seed CNC machines to Mars, along with all of the other machines to make new CNC machines and other machines. To make new CNC machines, we need steel, aluminum, copper, etc. So we need to import enough equipment to mine, refine and create these metals, so that we can make the materials that will make the new equipment to make more materials on Mars. And so on. There is some amount of “seed equipment” that must go from Earth to Mars in order to create a platform on which to start manufacturing on Mars.
- Then we need brigades of additional people who can grow the food, build the buildings, create clothing, etc. that the 200,000 people will need. And the brigades of people will all need these core products and services themselves. See Chapters 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 amd 9 for some of the details.
- Then we need a society and an economy that works for all of these people, so we can prevent all of the slums, hunger, poverty, inequality, greed, wars, suffering, etc., etc. that we find as a result of economic breakdowns on Earth today. See Chapters 1, 2 and 3 for details.
This is an amazing and inspiring set of things to think about, because here are our stated goals for everyone living on the Mars colony:
- Everyone has high quality, healthy food
- Everyone has clean water and sanitation services
- Everyone has high quality, safe, secure housing
- Everyone has high quality health care
- Everyone has high quality clothing
- Everyone has high quality education
- Everyone has high quality transportation
- Everyone has 24×7 electricity and Internet access
- Everyone has a computer and a smart phone to access the Internet
- And so on…
- And everyone has these things in a way that is sustainable, so that we do not destroy the planet we live on.
This is so obvious… Obviously we want the new Mars colony to work this way. Yet it is also obvious, from direct experience on planet Earth, that we must create a new Socio-Economic-Political System for Mars if we hope to accomplish anything close to this reality for the Mars colony.
And then we can turn the crank and take this one amazing step further. If we can develop such a society for Mars, why don’t we create idyllic places like this on Earth today, using the same principles that we would use on Mars? For example, countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have been bombed and ruined to the point where millions of people are fleeing. 65 million people around the world are in motion as refugees – the highest number ever seen on this planet [ref]. Why can’t we create idyllic societies here on Earth for these refugees, mirroring the perfected society we would like to see on Mars? Why not do it right now? Why not create a new Syria that emulates what we envision for Mars, and is so wonderful that people want to move back to Syria instead of migrating to Europe? Why not create new Mars-like places on Earth that are so wonderful that people are migrating to them in droves? Why not completely eliminate all of the slums, hunger, poverty, inequality, greed, wars, suffering, etc., etc. that we find on Earth today, using the same techniques and approaches that we plan to use on Mars? It should be so much easier on Earth, right? We are already here on Earth, and the planet already supports humans (as opposed to the inhospitably poor conditions on the Martian surface).
Why not? If we cannot do it on Earth, there is no way we can do it on Mars. The purpose of this book is to create a blueprint for these new societies on both planets.
Mars Colony Table of Contents
- Chapter 1 – Elon Musk Makes His Big Announcement about the Mars Colony
- Chapter 2 – The Many Thought Experiments that Mars Inspires
- Chapter 3 – Why Do We Need a New Socio-Economic-Political System on Mars?
- Chapter 4 – Imagining a New and Much Better Socio-Economic-Political System for the Mars Colony
- Chapter 5 – What Happens When We Add a Massive Amount of Farm Automation to the Mars Colony?
- Chapter 6 – How Will the Mars Colony Produce its Clothing?
- Chapter 7 – How Will Housing Work for the Mars Colony?
- Chapter 8 – How Will the Mars Colonists Construct Their Housing?
- Chapter 9 – How do we provide other services like water, sanitation, police force, fire department, health care, etc. for the Mars Colony?
- Chapter 10 – What might a typical “work week” look like on Mars? Who gets a free ride on Mars? Who will do the undesirable jobs on Mars?
- Chapter 11 – What do we do with lazy people on Mars? What do we do with the assholes?
- Chapter 12 – How would insurance work on Mars? Yes, insurance…
- Chapter 13 – How will we make chips on Mars? Pharmaceuticals? Medical devices? “Stuff”? Will Mars be an actual backup plan for humanity?
- Chapter 14 – What Will the Transportation System on Mars Look Like for Mars Colonists?
- Chapter 15 – What will the political system look like? How will it be organized?
- Chapter 16 – Building Experimental Cities on Earth Today to Find the Optimal Configuration for the Mars Colony
- Chapter 17 – How can we apply the Mars colony’s principles to the billions of refugees and impoverished people on planet Earth today?
- Chapter 18 – How will entertainment work on Mars? What types of entertainment will be available for Mars colonists?
- Chapter 19 – How will children work on Mars? Who gets to have children? What is the colony’s stance toward children?
- Chapter 20 – Starting the process of building experimental Mars colonies on Earth – Mars Colony Simulation 1000A
- Chapter 21 – Can the economic system proposed for the Mars colony significantly improve the Welfare situation in the United States?
- Chapter 22 – How much land will the Mars colony need?
- Chapter 23 – Thought Experiment: What If Everyone Makes the Same Wage?
- Chapter 24 – How Will Innovation Work on Mars?
- Chapter 25 – Will there be advertising on Mars?
- Chapter 26 – What should be the ultimate goal of the Mars colony?
- Appendix A – Restaurants
- Interviews with Marshall Brain on the Mars Colony:
- Inside the Rift, The Second Intelligent Species: Marshall Brain on Jobs, Mars, and Technology
- “Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know” Podcast, Moving to Mars with Marshall Brain
- “The State of Entrepreneurship” Podcast, Entrepreneurship and Mars
- Institute for Emerging Issues, First in Future Podcast, Parts 1 and 2
- See also:
[Feedback and suggestions on any part of this book are greatly appreciated. Contact information is here.]