Musk on Mars
Don’t expect to see dome cities adorn the Red Planet like they did the covers of 1940s science fiction magazines.
I think Elon will find that space travel is easier than content moderation.
– Tyler Crowley
Just days before the enigmatic founder of PayPal, Tesla and Space X acquired control of Twitter for $44 billion, stock trading news wires lit up with the story of how Elon Musk had secured a $675 million funding round that valued his Boring Company at about $5.7 billion. The company plans to bore tunnels under many cities to alleviate traffic and to complete the TBC Loop, an all-electric, zero-emissions, high-speed underground public transportation system taking EVs long distances through low-pressure tubes via pods traveling up to 760 miles per hour. Las Vegas, a city known for its scorching heat and flash floods, also contracted with TBC for transportation tunnels along its famous casino strip and to the airport. Boring claims its latest tunnel machine is going to build about 600 miles of tunnels, or 30 times more tunnels worldwide than in the last 20 years combined, every year.
Prufrock is a next generation Tunnel Boring Machine designed to construct mega-infrastructure projects in a matter of weeks instead of years, and at a fraction of the cost. The current iteration of Prufrock, called Prufrock-2, is designed to mine at up to 1 mile/week, meaning a tunnel the length of the Las Vegas strip (approximately 4 miles) can be completed in a month. Prufrock-3 is designed to be even faster, with the medium term goal of 1/10 human walking speed, or 7 miles/day. In the short term, if each Prufrock-2 mines at 1 mile/week, and TBC produces 1 new Prufrock machine per month, then TBC will be introducing 600 miles/year of capacity. As a point of reference, less than 20 miles of underground subway tunnel has been constructed in the United States in the last 20 years.
- TBC Press Release
Musk is known to place his various enterprises into a matrix that interconnects and synergizes their seemingly different products and services. Tesla developed the battery technology that allowed Solar City to build large off-grid projects that formed their own solar microgrids and then became the grid. Space-X became the launch platform that enabled StarLink to leapfrog existing cabled internet and deliver broadband straight to consumers from space. Now The Boring Company could make possible, at least in Musk’s unfathomable imagination, his mission to Mars, the outer planets and their moons.
What is seldom discussed by Star Trek aficionados is a poorly kept secret known since at least the Apollo 11 mission, when NASA affixed a film badge to Neil Armstrong. Here is what that badge showed when developed back on Earth:
Those tracks and pinholes represent ionizing radiation — cosmic rays — blasting through “First Man” Armstrong’s body at near-light speeds. Some may have come from the original Big Bang. Others from a galaxy like our own, or from our own star, the Sun. The big black line diagonally running across the strip is labeled as a heavy nucleus, which is to say an alpha particle. Ordinary atoms of high atomic number, such as radium, thorium, uranium or americium, may have had their electrons stripped away in stellar collisions that created a very heavy, highly charged proton-neutron pair, or “heavy nuclei.” What is recorded on Armstrong’s badge are the ionization events produced by glancing collisions of the film substrate with the particle along the core of its track. Had the particle passed into Armstrong’s body, as similar particles undoubtedly did, the ion track would have left broken strands of RNA and DNA caught exposed during cell mitosis — the most actively cell dividing organ being bone marrow, the source of white blood cells-leading to any of hundreds of lethal diseases attributed to radiation mutagenesis, including all types of cancer. Armstrong was lucky. He logged a total of eight days and 14 hours in space (two of those hours walking on the moon), sustained no serious or lasting injury, and lived to the ripe old age of 82.
Musk knows that to get to Mars using existing rocket technology, astronaut colonists would need not 8 days but 9 months. According to NASA, if you wanted to make it a round-trip, it would take no less than 21 months as you will need to wait at least three months on Mars until Earth and Mars are in alignment to make the trip back home.
Because of what was observed on Armstrong’s film badge, NASA embarked on many years of experiments and calculations about what radiation may mean for space travel. One such study involved twins in the astronaut program, one of whom, Scott Kelly, spent 11 months on the International Space Station while his identical twin got jabbed and poked regularly in Houston. The medical results demonstrated several long-lasting changes, including lasting alterations in DNA and cognition. Scott also returned to Earth slightly younger than his twin.
Consistent with chronic exposure to the space radiation environment, signatures of persistent DNA damage responses were also detected, including mitochondrial and oxidative stress, inflammation, and telomeric and chromosomal aberrations, which together provide potential mechanistic insight into spaceflight-specific telomere elongation.
- NASA Twin study
The study showed that better countermeasures against the risks associated with radiation would be needed if any human being was going to make it to Mars and back. Musk might be thinking he can shorten flight time with on-orbit staging, booster acceleration and ballistic capture at the terminus of each flight, but that still will not avoid weeks of radiation exposure with each trip.
The Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) onboard the Curiosity Rover collected data during travel from Earth to Mars, followed by years of the same on the surface of Mars itself. The Martian Radiation Experiment (MARIE) on board the Mars Odyssey satellite is collecting similar data.
Absorbed radiation dose rate during the transfer between Earth and Mars range from 1.75 to 3.0 mSv/day (300 mrem). The standard for nuclear power plant exposures to the public is, by way of comparison, 2 mrem/hr but no more than 100 mrem in a calendar year. For workers the limit is no more than 5000 mrem in a calendar year, although it should be noted that nuclear workers on average die younger than in other occupations and suffer many radiation-related ailments. In any space travel, the annual non-occupational nuclear plant limit would be exceeded in the first 8 hours of flight and the occupational dose reached in the first 17 days. At 342–547 uSv/day (34–55 mrem/d) on the surface of Mars, colonists would exceed the average natural radiation they were annually exposed to on Earth every 5 or 6 days. Levels on Earth typically range from about 1.5 to 3.5 mSv/yr (150–350 mrem/y) unless you live near Fukushima, Chernobyl or Rocky Flats. Natural background exposure for everyone has approximately doubled since the atom was first split in 1942.
Natural background radiation is ubiquitous and, for most people, the main source of radiation exposure (UNSCEAR 2000). About a third of this is attributable to cosmic rays and terrestrial gamma radiation whereas the rest is due to inhalation (mainly indoor radon) and ingestion of radionuclides (UNSCEAR 2000). Whereas the effective dose from radon is delivered primarily to the respiratory system, terrestrial gamma and cosmic rays dominate doses to the red bone marrow (Kendall et al. 2009), the primary site of leukemia initiation.
-Spycher, et al (2015)
The usual go-to’s for shielding from radiation are water, concrete, lead, and carbon-steel. Weight considerations take those off the table for space flight. A search for kevlar-like shields is underway. Hydrogenated Boron Nitride Nanotubes (HBNNT) — microtubules that can be woven into composites, fabric, yarn, and film forms — could be integrated into the spacecraft structure as well as the astronauts’ spacesuits. Fabricating a heavy polymer on Mars with an army of construction robots might be possible, but apparently Musk has a different plan: The Boring Company.
While NASA has conjectured it might be possible to find lava tubes below the surface of Mars and radiation in the interior of those lava tubes would be 82% lower than on the surface, wouldn’t it just be cheaper to drill your own tubular habitats to a depth where you’d be 99% protected?
Don’t expect to see dome cities adorn the Red Planet like they did the covers of 1940s science fiction magazines. Any colonial cities of the 21st century, if they are to happen, will be deep underground.
Given the speed and ferocity of climate change on Earth, we might all be living in something like that here well before then, so it won’t be a big change of scenery for colonists to get used to. The man with his finger on the pulse of where disruptive markets will be going in the future is the same guy who just bought Twitter. Don’t ask me why.
Bloshenko, Alexandra D., Jasmin M. Robinson, Rafael A. Colon, and Luis A. Anchordoqui. “Health threat from cosmic radiation during a manned mission to Mars.” arXiv preprint arXiv:2012.09604 (2020).
Demoury C, Marquant F, Ielsch G, Goujon S, Debayle C, Faure L, Coste A, Laurent O, Guillevic J, Laurier D, Hémon D and Clavel J (2016) Residential Exposure to Natural Background Radiation and Risk of Childhood Acute Leukemia in France, 1990–2009, Environmental Health Perspectives, 125:4, (714–720), Online publication date: 1-Apr-2017.
Luxton, Jared J., and Susan M. Bailey. “Twins, Telomeres, and Aging-in Space!.” Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery 147, no. 1S-2 (2021): 7S-14S.
Garrett-Bakelman, Francine E., Manjula Darshi, Stefan J. Green, Ruben C. Gur, Ling Lin, Brandon R. Macias, Miles J. McKenna et al. “The NASA Twins Study: A multidimensional analysis of a year-long human spaceflight.” Science 364, no. 6436 (2019): eaau8650.
Scott, Ryan T., Kirill Grigorev, Graham Mackintosh, Samrawit G. Gebre, Christopher E. Mason, Martha E. Del Alto, and Sylvain V. Costes. “Advancing the integration of Biosciences data sharing to further enable space exploration.” Cell Reports 33, no. 10 (2020): 108441.
Schmitz-Feuerhake, I., Dannheim, B., Heimers, A., Oberheitmann, B., Schröder, H. and Ziggel, H., 1997. Leukemia in the proximity of a German boiling-water nuclear reactor: evidence of population exposure by chromosome studies and environmental radioactivity. Environmental Health Perspectives 105 (suppl 6), pp.1499–1504.
Spycher, Ben D., Judith E. Lupatsch, Marcel Zwahlen, Martin Röösli, Felix Niggli, Michael A. Grotzer, Johannes Rischewski et al. “Background ionizing radiation and the risk of childhood cancer: a census-based nationwide cohort study.” Environmental Health Perspectives 123, no. 6 (2015): 622–628.
The Green Road
Towns, villages and cities in the Ukraine are being bombed every day. As refugees pour out into the countryside, they must rest by day so they can travel by night. Ecovillages and permaculture farms have organized something like an underground railroad to shelter families fleeing the cities, either on a long-term basis or temporarily, as people wait for the best moments to cross the border to a safer place, or to return to their homes if that becomes possible. So far there are 62 sites in Ukraine and 265 around the region. They are calling their project “The Green Road.”
The Green Road also wants to address the ongoing food crisis at the local level by helping people grow their own food, and they are raising money to acquire farm machinery, seed, and to erect greenhouses.
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There is more info on the Global Village Institute website at https://www.gvix.org/greenroad
The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.
As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.
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Originally published at https://cooldesign.substack.com on April 27, 2022.