A Book of Business Opportunities: A Look at “A City on Mars”

A Book of Business Opportunities: A Look at “A City on Mars”

Two announcements: First, if you didn’t know, SpaceX conducted its third Starship test launch this morning, successfully getting the Starship upper stage in space. Some work still needs to be done as the first stage seems to have hit the water at over 1,000 km/h. The test was still going on as I made this edit, so you can watch it on SpaceX’s site: https://www.spacex.com/launches/mission/?missionId=starship-flight-3.

Second, beginning next week, the weekly newsletter will be sent out Friday at 10:30 AM Eastern instead of Thursday. For those wondering why, that time works with our family schedule.

My analyses for Ill-Defined Space tend to ask questions about space industry activities, guided by the foundational “Why?” accompanied with “Does that even make any sense?” In this cursory description of “A City on Mars: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through?” the authors attempt to answer those questions. And they had a blast doing so.

The Truth Shall be Inconvenient and Lovingly Furnished

TLDR: “A City on Mars” is an excellent book for understanding the significant challenges of settling the Red Planet, the Moon, and space stations. It’s worth reading. 

The book’s authors, Kelly and Zach Weinersmith, admit that they aren’t the space experts frequently quoted by journalists and aspiring entrepreneurs about space settlements. However, they are nerds who love the idea of humanity expanding to space. Based on their introduction, the Weinersmiths would love for the dream of space settlement to become a reality. However, the authors unhesitatingly push readers past standard settlement marketing masquerading as space settlement plans to the more relevant discussions of how to stay alive and live. 

Their take is that many of the narratives surrounding those primary goals for space settlements are, at best, naively optimistic (my words). The authors indicate throughout the book that the processes and technology for surviving in these various environments are far from maturity. Both takes run against the industry dream and promotion of large rocket fleets sending more people than ever before on months-long voyages to a location with no settlement support structure whatsoever within this decade.

The authors don’t shy away from the challenges people create and deal with daily here on Earth: war, peace, policy, love, law, and ethics. They discuss policy and law and whether concerns about future lunar and Mars company towns are legitimate. They believe legal and ethical guardrails are needed if only because humanity’s best and brightest won’t be the ones chosen to go off-world. Having those guidelines and behavioral boundaries in place before the great space migration to the Moon or Mars will probably be best for everyone.

The book is immensely readable, an achievement in science communications considering the varying topics they researched and tied together to make sense. They use humor and illustrations (something Zach is known for) to make their points. Even better, acronyms are rare, and I don’t recall any use of bullet points (a common tool for spoon-feeding executives). They don’t insult their readers’ intelligence. 

The Weinersmiths discuss possible answers that are unacceptable to those who regularly market various plans for off-world settlements. Nor will they appeal to those followers and investors who automatically buy into the marketing for off-world settlements. Because a particular type of analyst can’t quantify the topics the authors cover, their work will be uninteresting to those wishing to forecast (however inaccurately) the global space economy.

The Weinersmiths love the idea of space settlement so much that they did something rare in the industry: they provided brutally honest analysis and answers. They did this after researching each topic, thinking about what it meant, and then publishing it. Their answers prod readers into asking, “Why?” and “Does that even make any sense?”. That lean toward thoughtful and honest discussion about space settlements is “A City on Mars.”  

“A City on Mars” will appeal to those who care about the true nature of this industry rather than those who seek to exploit it.

Two Worlds, One Moon, and a Universe Full of Opportunity

While I’m pretty sure the Weinersmiths didn’t intend for the book to be taken this way, it points to the parts of the space industry that need work—a lot of work--and, therefore, the parts ripe for opportunity. If as many startups focused on this critical work as they do with small satellite launch vehicles, there would still be plenty of work to go around. Perhaps creating a more pleasant experience for peeing in low/no gravity isn’t as sexy as building a small rocket. But I would argue it’s more important.

The book highlights the many, many business and learning opportunities in the space industry. I won’t cover each one, but I perceived the following opportunities while reading “A City on Mars.”

First, and it took Kelly and Zach to remind me of this, there are meaningful differences between living on the Moon, living on Mars, and living in a space station. Those differences mean that even though the goal is the same–surviving and thriving in environments that aren’t the Earth–each environment requires a different approach to achieve that goal. That is why some opportunities on my list are potentially massive despite a single description.

The Weinersmiths mentioned gravity as a challenge. It’s different in all environments–the Earth, Moon, Mars, and space station. Each will require a different way to do the same thing, such as plumbing (opportunities all around). 

Modern plumbing on Earth just won’t work on a space station–even one with artificial gravity (imagine what would happen if the gravity were turned off). Plumbing, as regular people know it, MIGHT work on Mars and the Moon because each has a little gravity. But will it work well enough? Is Mars’ gravity enough for plumbing to work as modern humans are used to? The varying gravities represent multiple challenges and will benefit from being answered by companies other than the typical government-contract aerospace kind. More imagination will be required.

The other opportunities the Weinersmiths mention in the book are: communications, transportation, shipping, building supplies, power generation, etc. Successfully answering each opportunity in each environment will require technologies that don’t exist today. They must be robust because marketers tell us thousands of humans will soon live off-world. Those thousands of off-worlders can’t have the equivalent of a failing Texas power grid or crops wiped out by space spores. There is no FEMA in space.

The Weinersmiths mentioned human physiology in space as a rather big question mark regarding humanity’s space future. Most of what humans know about human physiology involves experiments on space stations in close orbit to the Earth, sheltered by the planet’s magnetosphere against all sorts of particles. And thankfully, no one has had to do surgery on a human in a space station. So, there is much to learn, and I identified a few human physiology opportunities a couple of years ago. At the time, I focused on opportunities catering to human physiology on space stations. “A City on Mars” expands those opportunities.

The most significant business opportunities for off-world settlements involve helping the human body survive in different environments. So far, astronauts and cosmonauts undergo all sorts of health screening before working in space. The overall health of those thousands of people fleeing Earth will likely be lower than that of the astronauts. The best part of solving human physiology challenges from that more representative sample is that much of the science used to develop those solutions can be adapted to solve people’s Earthbound problems. Providing solutions for potentially billions of people will probably be profitable.

There are more opportunities in “A City on Mars,” but instead of listing them here, I suggest reading the book. While the Weinersmith’s take might disappoint those who want a “Space: 1999” future today or soon, the good news is that based on some of their observations, the business opportunities in space settlement appear greater than people realize. 

Not only that, the authors seem to think more time is necessary for everything to fall into place for settlers to have a good chance at surviving Mars (my guess: longer than 30 years from now). That’s plenty of time for businesses to look hard at what it would take and develop solutions to increase space settlers’ survival chances. No one wants to be known for selling humanity’s first space settlers a product instigating a colony catastrophe.

Again, “A City on Mars” is a good book. It’s enjoyable, full of good information and fun discussions. Even better, it encourages readers to seriously consider humanity’s future in the Solar System (and that maybe Earth is a pretty nice planet to live on).

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