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Elon Musk has a lot to prove at today’s Mars colonization announcement

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Talk is cheap; rockets are expensive

Asa Mathat for Recode

Elon Musk will present the world with SpaceX’s plans for Mars colonization today in Guadalajara, Mexico — what should be the victorious presentation of a dream project. But he doesn’t have the money to get to Mars alone. So today he must either announce a substantial financial partner or woo one, in the face of a very recent SpaceX rocket explosion.

There's one agency Musk needs to win over, and it already has its own Mars plans Ambitious space projects are glamorous, but this event isn’t really for you and me. (We are useful only insofar as we provide politicians with evidence of public enthusiasm.) This isn’t a phone, or a new app, or new headphones — it’s not a consumer product at all. Rockets are far too expensive; space colonies are more expensive still. If Musk doesn’t announce financial backing, it means the presentation is meant to convince someone — probably NASA — to fund him. But this is an extraordinarily awkward time to try to win over money, since one of his rockets blew up earlier this month.

Musk’s SpaceX has relied on being a low-cost, reliable alternative to other aerospace companies, like the United Launch Alliance. SpaceX’s biggest customer is NASA, and the company is set to shuttle astronauts to the ISS in late 2017 or early 2018. But here’s the rub: Musk is announcing his Mars plans well before he’s successfully launched a single human being to space, and immediately in the wake of a launch-pad accident. He has an unnervingly ambitious schedule for the first human mission to Mars, he’s said nothing about how much it will cost or who’s paying, and there’s been no mention of any partnerships with space agencies or suppliers for material.

The goal of Musk’s speech today, then, is to show current and future customers — especially NASA — that he’s for real. It may also be to woo potential partners for a Mars mission. Neither ESA nor Roscosmos have hinted at any Mars interest, though it’s theoretically possible one or both agencies might decide on a collaborative mission. But their budgets are a fraction the size of NASA’s. So absent any funding announcement today, there’s one agency that Musk needs to win over, and it already has its own Mars plans. Musk has already announced an ambitious schedule that he almost certainly won’t stick to, in order to create the political pressure needed to force NASA’s funding. Without NASA or some other deep-pocketed benefactor, he’s sunk.

There are three things he must show in his presentation: that he can meet deadlines; that his rockets are reliable; and that Mars, not the Moon, should be our goal.

mars-globe-valles-marineris-enhanced-nasa NASA/JPL-Caltech

Deadline dysfunction

Musk has relied heavily on NASA’s goodwill in building his business. So he needs to prove, today, that he can follow through on his big promises. The problem is his mouth writes checks his company can’t cash — like promising in 2011 he’ll get people into space in just three years.

NASA has almost certainly been influenced by what SpaceX has promised to do. When US President Barack Obama canceled the proposed replacement to the Space Shuttle — NASA’s project to return to the Moon — Musk praised the development. Maybe SpaceX wasn’t the deciding factor in killing the program, but Musk’s feelings were unequivocal.

Musk is not very good at deadlinesThe US has been hitching rides from Russia, and despite the Commercial Crew program, which contracted with SpaceX (as well as Boeing) in 2014, no Americans have gone to space on an American vehicle since the Space Shuttle was retired. NASA bet on the SpaceX at least in part because of Musk’s extravagant promises. As part of the program, SpaceX was meant to begin ferrying astronauts to the ISS by 2017; now that will likely slip to late 2018.

NASA gambled heavily on SpaceX and is, presumably, now feeling the effects of that wager: the delays. So when Musk shoots off his mouth, it has real consequences for the space industry. The government frequently cites Musk’s big talk when it talks about what NASA should do. But even Musk can’t live up to his own promises — and there are significant effects on our space programs because of it.

In fact, longtime SpaceX watchers know that Musk is not very good with deadlines. We’ll start with his 2011 promise: he told Marketplace that he’d put humans in space in three years. It is now five years later, and — it bears repeating — not a single person has flown aboard a SpaceX rocket. That same year, Musk told The Wall Street Journal that his best-case scenario was to put people on Mars by 2021 (his worst case scenario was between 2026 and 2031). Earlier this year, he said he was planning to put people on Mars by 2025.

Not one person has flown aboard a SpaceX rocketIt’s not just SpaceX, either. Musk has this whole other company, Tesla, which sells cars. Tesla’s Model S was announced in June 2008, and production was planned for 2010. Model S production actually began two years later, in 2012. Then there’s the Model X — introduced in February 2012, it was initially scheduled for production in early 2014; deliveries started in September 2015.

These blown deadlines matter because Musk and SpaceX — in all likelihood — aren’t rich enough to finance these Mars trips alone. SpaceX convinced NASA to throw millions of dollars in contracts at it, and has used that money to develop some of the technology we expect to see Musk present today. So Musk must win over someone, probably the US government, in order to pay for his colonization fantasies. And NASA’s the best candidate for getting Mars money: there’s zero business reason to go to Mars, and no known profit incentive. But NASA has already experienced what working with SpaceX is like — it knows Musk can’t hit his target dates. It’s not like NASA doesn’t blow deadlines too, but it’s something else for a very vocal contractor to be unreliable.

Reliable rockets

There have been two major explosions of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets with their payloads attached. On September 1st, a Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, while it was being fueled. The fireball was caused by a "breached helium system," the company said. It’s not the first Falcon 9 mishap, and not the first problem with the helium system. In June 2015, another Falcon 9 experienced an unplanned disintegration while it was ferrying cargo to the International Space Station, due to the failure of a strut holding down the helium tanks.

spacex explosion

By way of comparison, the United Launch Alliance’s Altas V has a much better launch record — only one flight out of more than four dozen has malfunctioned. ULA is more expensive than SpaceX, though, so Musk has been able to win bids. Now ULA is essentially arguing that buying rockets on the cheap is more expensive in the long run. Since two of SpaceX’s rockets have disintegrated with their payloads attached, that should "serve as a reminder of the complexity and hazards intrinsic to space launch services," ULA’s CEO Tony Bruno argued in a letter to Pentagon officials that was leaked to The Washington Post. ULA has complained before that the Pentagon is thinking too much about doing business on the cheap.

"This strategy defies both law and logic and puts hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars and Warfighter mission needs unnecessarily at risk," he wrote in the letter leaked to the Post.

Mars, not the Moon

Musk’s Mars dream is not likely to be cheap, which is why he needs NASA. The realest of the real talk is that no one knows how much a humans-on-Mars mission costs. NASA’s robotic programs, which are decidedly cheaper, began around 2000, and have cost about $700 million a year for the last 15 years. Old estimates — from 1989  — suggested humans on Mars might cost $450 billion. Last year, The Houston Chronicle said the cost would be between $200 billion and $400 billion; Space News pegged that price much higher, at $1.5 trillion. Musk isn’t short on money, but his money isn’t long enough to get him to Mars.

NASA's Mars program has been called a "time-wasting distraction"Right now, NASA will be acting as a consultant on initial SpaceX missions, but it plans to scale down its role as the program continues, Spaceflight Now reports. That’s because NASA has its own Mars ambitions, and on a far more reasonable timeframe. The space agency plans to send people to the vicinity of Mars sometime in the 2030s. It’s even building its own rocket, the Space Launch System. It’s not impossible the SLS will be canceled, as other NASA projects have been — at a hearing in February, the space agency was chastised by a Congressional committee for not having defined-enough goals. The Mars program was also called a "time-wasting distraction." A few witnesses suggested that NASA rethink its approach or focus on the Moon.

If NASA’s Mars plans are canceled, that’s another opportunity for Musk — unless the agency is instructed by a new sitting president to focus on the Moon. So if Musk doesn’t announce funding today, he’s betting big on NASA’s future moves, and hoping that going back to the Moon won’t get much traction. And while SpaceX has dropped a cool $1.5 million (as of 2014) on lobbying Washington, his recent Falcon 9 woes, along with his deadline dysfunction, may dampen enthusiasm for his plans.

So don’t get swept up in the simulations of our technofuture on Mars; to make this work, Musk needs money. Either he needs to announce a source of financing, or impress one with the presentation. Because if there’s no money, there’s no Mars — no matter how fabulous SpaceX’s rocket design is.

SpaceX trip to Mars simulation