Elon Musk wants to go to Mars. More precisely, he wants you or me to go. It’s a bad idea.
Apart from provisioning and energy problems that are potentially solvable, there are three big problems with a Mars mission: Getting there, getting back and being there. All three problems center around an insolvable radiation problem.
On Earth, molten material under the mantle slowly circles a solid iron core. This produces a dynamo effect generating an electrical current and a corresponding magnetic field. This magnetic field is well known, and is the basis for the simple magnetic compass that has been used for centuries.
This magnetic field also serves to divert away from the earth 99.9% of the radiation and cosmic rays that bathe the universe. The remaining tiny amount that is not diverted is largely blocked by the earth’s atmosphere. Our atmosphere blocks radiation as effectively as a slab of steel three feet thick.
In sufficient doses, radiation is injurious or even lethal. Acute radiation sickness caused by large doses over a short time, as in Hiroshima or Chernobyl, produces nausea, hemorrhage, inflammation and, in severe cases, death in weeks, days or even hours.
The radiation in space is not likely to produce acute radiation sickness, but something more like chronic radiation sickness which damages DNA molecules, leading to cancer.
Radiation exposure is measured in a unit called “sieverts” which accounts for the combination of intensity of the radiation along with the duration of the exposure. A person on earth at sea level gets maybe 0.003 sieverts a year. A single CT scan exposes him to another 0.010 sieverts or about triple the natural yearly dose.
A 250-day trip to Mars would incur about 0.66 sieverts of radiation – which comes out to about 66 CT scans. The trip back would subject him to another dose equivalent to 66 CT scans.
It’s not like he’s in the clear while on Mars, either. Unlike Earth, Mars has no magnetic field to divert radiation (presumably because it has no molten insides circulating around a solid metallic core). And while Mars evidently once had an atmosphere, solar radiation that was un-diverted by the non-existent magnetic field stripped away nearly all of that atmosphere billions of years ago. So our hapless astronaut will continue being subjected to full strength radiation for his time there.
Altogether, if he went to Mars, stayed there nine months and came back to earth, he’d get about 2.0 sieverts or the radiation equivalent of about 200 CT scans.
Experts believe that a cumulative sievert dose of half that – about 1.0 sieverts – produces lethal cancer in a significant number of patients. There are probably several reasons there’s no life on Mars, but this radiation problem is one of them. Any life would be short-lived. A mission to Mars is a suicide mission.
Elon Musk is not famous for wanting to send you and me to Mars, of course, but for founding the electric car company called Tesla. In that, he’s been very successful. The market value of Tesla is now over $800 billion, compared to $77 billion for GM and $44 billion for Ford.
Tesla has corned the automobile stock market, but not exactly the automobile market itself. Tesla’s share of the U.S. automobile market is stuck at around a few percent. In Europe, it trails VW in even the electric car market.
Like the mission to Mars, electric cars face some difficult technical problems. On the one hand, an electric car is an elegantly simple machine. Electric motors have been perfected over the course of the last century to be efficient and reliable. An electric vehicle can do away with a transmission because low-rpm torque is very strong in an electric motor. Because nothing is combusted in a Tesla, there’s no need for emission controls.
But then there’s the battery. A Tesla battery weighs over a thousand pounds. For that, you get a range of a couple hundred miles, after which you have to recharge it for hours (you get maybe 15-25 miles per hour of charge) or even overnight.
Moore’s law in semiconductors said for decades that technological improvements in design and manufacturing doubled the performance of microchips every two years. Do the math. That meant that every ten years the performance of microchips increased 32-fold. Over a period of twenty years, they increased nearly 1,000-fold.
There’s no Moore’s Law for batteries. Battery technology is stubbornly static. Since they were invented in the 1980’s, the price of lithium batteries has dropped as manufacturing has improved. But they’re still heavy, expensive and time-consuming to recharge. There’s no battery breakthrough just around the corner.
As with Musk’s idea to send you and me to Mars, however, his electric car company is creative and capturing. He recognized from the outset that electric cars need to be cool, not some eco-box. Tesla’s first car was a roadster. And a pretty hot one to boot. Now his cars are on the large side, with luxury top to bottom and acceleration and handling rivaling a BMW sports coupe.
Musk reminds me of another creative marketer, Steve Jobs. Apple is a one-hit wonder with the iPhone. It changed the way we use computers and phones. But that was well over a decade ago. Since then, Apple products are solid but not ground-breaking. A high-end Android phone is superior to the current iPhones, and at a lower price.
But Jobs was never about technical innovation as much as marketing genius. He knew that the key to success was to make computers cool, not to make them better. He succeeded.
Similarly, Musk has made electric cars cool. Someday maybe someone will make them better.
Musk does have some steak to sell along with all the sizzle. In a minor (for him) venture, he’s backing a company working on implanting computer chips into the brains of physically disabled patients for the purpose of intercepting brain waves that try to control their non-responsive muscles. The chips would then communicate with machines outside the patient’s body to perform those functions. In other words, it’s a robot controllable by brainwaves.
This sounds like snake oil, but I think it will be a reality within a decade or two. The results will be miraculous. The wheelchair bound will walk again – and run.
When not promoting his electric car company or saving disabled persons, Musk tweets. He recently descended into day trader cryptocurrency tweeting. Other tweets have gotten him in hot water with the Securities and Exchange Commission. He recently designed a whacky “yoke” style steering wheel for Tesla cars.
He’s publicly feuded with California politicians over their stupid wokeness. He recently relocated to Texas where, naturally, he plans to drill for gas.
It may have been Einstein who once said “I have so many good ideas because I have so many ideas.” Elon Musk might be that way. Maybe by thinking so far outside the box that he occasionally loses sight of the box – maybe by giving free rein to his creative mind and sorting through lots of bad ideas – he comes up with some great ones. Einstein himself had only one or two great ideas, but they changed physics forever.
When Musk comes up with a zinger, he’s got the marketing savvy and now the celebrity status and wealth to run with them. I’m skeptical about Tesla’s long-term future, but don’t count out Elon Musk.