Friday, February 11, 2022

Elon Musk Is a Genius... and an Idiot

Elon Musk, the guy who started Tesla and SpaceX, is a genius. He built the world's most reliable and cheapest system of getting cargo and people into space. He built a company that produces electric cars that have fantastic range and acceleration, and look cool too. He's on the leading of edge of battery technology.

Elon Musk is also an idiot. When some kids got stuck in a cave underwater and he proposed a hare-brained scheme to rescue them, he had a tantrum and a Twitter meltdown that landed him in court.

Musk doesn't think he should pay any taxes, despite the fact that both his businesses would never have existed without massive, MASSIVE government subsidies. Tesla would never have gotten off the ground without the $7,500 federal tax credit per vehicle sold. SpaceX would never have gained any traction without critical funding from NASA.

Tesla is full of idiots. His factories are full of dickheads who constantly spout racist insults. The people who write the software that runs the cars commit serial idiocies: they thought it was just fine to let drivers play games while driving down the highway and to run stop signs. There have been a dozen more Tesla recalls in the last year alone.

Perhaps the most idiotic idea that Musk is pushing is that he can build a city on Mars sometime in the near future. Ars Technica has a good video by Dr. Paul Sutter about the problems with going to Mars. Because that publication is aimed at tech nerds like me, it doesn't come right out and say that it is a flat-out pipe dream. But if you actually watch the whole thing, it becomes blazingly obvious that it will take centuries, and more likely millennia, for humanity to colonize Mars.

There are huge problems with colonizing Mars. 

A round trip to Mars with Musk's Starship will entail a year in weightlessness, and a year on Mars, which has only a third of Earth's gravity. Microgravity causes a multitude of physical problems: bone density loss, decreased vision, cardiovascular problems, decreased blood plasma volume, fluid shifts to the brain, muscle atrophy, etc. It's not clear that the low gravity on Mars would have the same effects, but bed rest studies indicate that the human body inexorably deteriorates without the full force of Earth's gravity.

Air pressure on Mars is less than 1% of Earth's, and it's all carbon dioxide. Oxygen would have to be made in situ. The Sabatier reaction can be used to convert CO2 into methane and water, but it requires a source of hydrogen and lots of energy. There is also oxygen locked in the soil, which is silicon dioxide (sand) and ferric oxide (rust). Every breath of air you take will have to be manufactured from scratch.

Sunlight is half the intensity as it is at Earth, which means the efficiency of photosynthesis and solar cell power generation is halved.

There is no liquid water. There's water ice at the poles and buried underground, which means it'll have to be mined. There are no canals on Mars for us to swim in.

The Martian soil is a fine dust. There are regularly global dust storms, which will play hell with power generation from solar panels.

Oh, and that Martian soil is toxic. It contains calcium perchlorate, which kills both humans and plants. And, of course, that fine dust will get into everything and cause diseases like silicosis and black lung.

The average temperature on Mar is -81 degrees Fahrenheit, and it can get as low as -220 in the winter. The atmosphere literally freezes out at the poles -- the polar ice caps are made of dry ice.

Then there's the radiation. Mars has no significant atmosphere and no magnetic field. Earth has both, and it's what protects life from cosmic rays and solar radiation. On Mars, as in space, you can close your eyes and watch cosmic rays go right through your brain. Radiation of this intensity will cause birth defects, cancer and destruction of DNA. 

That means that Martian settlers will have to live underground, shielded from radiation, and limit excursions on the surface to avoid radiation exposure and to avoid tracking all that toxic soil into the habitat. How many people who listen to Elon's siren song realize that they and their Martian children would live out their lives in dark caves for centuries, if not millennia?

Finally, Mars is a long way from Earth, and it will be necessary to ship millions of tons of food, oxygen, hydrogen, water, fuel, equipment and people. That means, literally, millions of launches from Earth's surface. That will cost hundreds of trillions of dollars. Who's paying for that?

Now, in the long term, can we terraform Mars? The Martian soil has oxygen locked in it, as well as the ice below the surface. But even if all that was released, it would only increase the air pressure two or three times, still less than 1% of Earth's air pressure, a small fraction of what's required for humans and plants to survive.

Mars used to have a lot of water -- we can see ancient riverbeds on the surface. But because it has no magnetic field, the solar wind blew it all away. And the same thing will happen again if we try to terraform it.

Novelists like Greg Benford have proposed terraforming Mars by landing icy comets on it. It's easy -- just go to the Oort cloud, wrangle up a few hundred or thousand comets and crash them into the surface of Mars. Now, I doubt anyone would want to be living on Mars during this period. I mean, debris from the impacts would be raining down constantly. 

Now, comets in the Oort cloud have orbital periods in the range of 200+ years. Which means it would take on the order of 100 to 200 years for each comet to reach Mars after it was nudged out of its orbit. Clearly, the process of terraforming would take centuries, and Mars would be uninhabitable for the entire process.

And how do we nudge a comet that masses trillions of tons? Elon's little Starship won't even begin to cut it. Halley's Comet masses 220 trillion tons. Clearly, we would need to mount fusion engines on the comet, and use the water ice of the comet itself to fuel the engines. That technology will not be here for a very long time. And... who would pay for it?

Do I think people should go to Mars? Of course. But let's be realistic. We will not have any significant presence on Mars any time soon; probably not in Elon Musk's lifetime. We may be able to get a scientific mission there, or an Elon stunt landing. But a permanent presence is not in the cards for centuries. And if Musk did get some suckers to go there in the near future, they'll all be dead from cancer, COPD or black lung within 10 years. 

If his Tesla employees are an example of the quality of the people that will go, they'll kill themselves in a hundred different idiotic ways on Mars, because there is zero room for error in that environment. Martian colonists cannot be disruptive, chaotic innovators -- they have to toe every line there is, otherwise they're all dead.

So it's utterly preposterous when Musk talks about about building a city on Mars, as if it would happen in his lifetime. This isn't a visionary talking, this is an idiot and a con man.

We should go to Mars. But it ain't a replacement for Earth. As I've said before, there is no Planet B. There's only Earth.