The way to Mars, NASA believes, is two-fold: first, we return to the Moon and build a deep-space "pit-stop" station in Lunar orbit. Then, after perfecting the next-gen model of ion propulsion, the agency will launch deep-space exploratory vessels to orbit the Red Planet, where they will build another space station. By contrast, Elon Musk and his Starship project prioritize a SpaceX mission to the surface of the Red Planet itself, instead of a return to the Moon. Meanwhile, NASA — along with a large consortium of international partners — seems determined to bring not just humans, but also our markets and economic infrastructure, into space. Which plan, then, is the better way to go to Mars?
Elon Musk's plan for Mars: Starship fleet
Elon Musk's Starship — a stainless-steel, methane-and-oxygen fueled, two-stage rocket that rivals the Saturn V booster of NASA's Apollo missions — has yet to lift off. However, the Saturn V was expendable, which means with each launch, NASA lost roughly $1.23 billion, adjusted for inflation. In contrast, Musk's Starship is reusable, just like an airliner, which lowers the cost.
In the aerospace industry, prototypes are generally of singular concern to the engineers behind them. But, whether because of the lower cost, or the necessities of interplanetary space travel, Elon Musk is building an entire fleet of Starships at a shipyard, according to Robert Zubrin — an aerospace engineer and author — who visited SpaceX headquarters in Boca Chica, Texas, in February. The following week, he wrote an Op-Ed in the National Review, titled "Elon Musk's Plan to Settle Mars."
In it, Zubrin recounts his twenty-year relationship with Musk, and claims partial responsibility for his commitment to land humans on Mars. And, Zubrin notes, Musk's plan to get us there owes much theoretical credit to Zubrin's earlier work, generally known as the Mars Direct plan.
First published in 1990, and later elaborated in his 1996 book The Case for Mars, Zubrin's Mars Direct plan called for a radical shift in paradigm from NASA's thinking at the time on how humans might make their way to the Red Planet.
Musk is more direct than Zubrin
However, Zubrin considers Musk's plan even more radical. Both Mars Direct and Musk's Starship plan call for direct flights from Earth orbit to the Martian surface, with a return-trip to Earth, fueled with methane-oxygen propellant made on the Red Planet from local materials.
Most importantly, both plans are a drastic departure from NASA's because they don't include the construction of orbital infrastructure, interplanetary motherships, small landing vehicles, or advanced propulsion. Instead, they both propose long-duration stays on the surface of Mars as the primary goal. To do this, Musk needs to build a Mars-based production facility capable of producing roughly 1,000 tons of propellant — for the return trip.
This is why Musk is building a fleet — to send several starships loaded with the equipment needed for a return trip. Zubrin estimates ten football fields' worth of solar panels is necessary to power the base.
Another reason to build a fleet is to lower the cost of producing them. In 12 years, NASA built five space shuttles, each costing several billion dollars. Musk's shipyard is the beginning of a mass-production line of Starships — at a rate that could reach 50 or more per year, according to Zubrin.
Fifty Starships per year might sound insane, but if we think of the spacecraft as vessels instead of rockets, it's less wild. The U.S. produced escort aircraft carriers at a rate of roughly one per week in 1944. At the time, scores of different teams worked at once, each with its own section of the ship for a few days before passing on the job to the next team. Musk could set up a similar assembly line with a workforce of 3,000, argues Zubrin, at a labor cost of roughly $6 million per ship.
This would put the cost of each Starship between $15 and $20 million each, he said.
NASA's theoretical debt to Werner von Braun
Not counting a period of the late 1990s, when NASA — under the leadership of Mike Griffen, associate administrator for exploration — embraced an expanded design for Mars Direct, NASA has remained committed to the paradigm of space expansion put forward by Wernher von Braun, one of the scientists the U.S. government pilfered from Germany during "Operation Paperclip."
Von Braun's paradigm for space exploration calls for the installation of orbital stations before anything else, on which platforms for in-orbit construction of massive interplanetary spaceships with advanced propulsion systems could be built. The space-born spacecraft could then travel from Earth orbit to Mars orbit.
In other words, the late von Braun's plan for Mars took a backseat to his plans for space itself. And his work has seen even more expansion in the last ten years.
NASA's current plan also moves von Braun's even further away from Mars Direct. Called "Moon to Mars," it involves the installation of a lunar base, both in orbit and under the surface of the Moon. Beyond the science, there is some historical precedence to the move. If human expansion into space is successful, it may one day be viewed as a second Renaissance, one where the Moon becomes a central port for travel and commerce between Earth and the rest of the solar system.
The Moon as a second Rennaissance
Like the Ponte Vecchio on the Arno in Florence, Italy — which was a center of flourishing commerce in the early days of the Renaissance, and is considered by many to be the birthplace of modern civilization — a Moon base could one day be the site of something extraordinary in civilization.
With renewed support for NASA space missions from U.S. President Trump à la Space Policy Directive-1, designed to provide "direction for NASA to organize more effectively government, commercial and international efforts to develop a permanent presence off Earth," the agency will prioritize a balance between scientific and economic opportunities, said NASA.
As suggested earlier, the first lunar base will be built under the Moon's surface and will include a biological experiment module, a research module, and a straining center module, according to Bernard H. Foing, executive director of International Lunar Exploration Working Group.
"There will be a round dome inside, from which we could see that the blue Earth is running in the universe with a great view of the midnight Sun," said Foing.
NASA plans to work with several U.S. companies and international partners to build Artemis — a powerful new American rocket, and the first equipped for beyond-Earth-orbit flight since the Saturn V of Apollo missions. With Artemis, the agency hopes to establish a sustainable presence on the Moon by 2028.
However, all of this is still in line with von Braun's initial plan for space exploration, argues Zubrin.
The agency's mission to Mars calls for a gigantic ion-drive Deep Space Transport (DST), to be stationed in lunar orbit. From there, it will fly to another space station, one that NASA plans to build in Mars orbit, said Zubrin. The transit between the Moon and Mars is 300 days, one-way — almost twice the time it took for the rovers Spirit and Opportunity to make the same journey. Unlike either, the DST would attempt no landing on the Red Planet.
Space and the relativism of 'better'
It seems like a truism — to explore or settle Mars, we need to land on it. But it seems that NASA's DST plan — the one to go to Mars — involves no landing, settlement, or surface-based exploration.
While Elon Musk and SpaceX must face many more challenges before taking a shot at the Martian surface, Musk's plan is the obvious choice for Mars alone.
Ultimately, the question of landing humans on the Red Planet is an extremely complex proposition not only because of the physical distances and technological barriers, but also because of deeper, philosophical questions about why and how we should expand into space. For better or worse, humans are largely dependent on society to feel happy, and society uses markets to incentivize the reproduction of interest in capital. Additionally, the nature of four-to-eight-year administrations has caused previous space-bound plans of NASA's to run dry on funds, often without warning. While this means the agency's notably indirect plans for Mars are not intractable, it also could represent an attempt to build market incentives for space exploration into the enterprise itself. Unless national priorities regarding space change from installing a balance between markets and scientific exploration to the latter alone, the ones with the financial means and vision to take us into space will probably prefer to take the familiar market incentives with them, into the unfamiliar and unknown depths of deep space.