Month: September 2016

SpaceX’s Big Fucking Rocket – The Full Story

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Yesterday, Elon Musk got on stage at the 2016 International Astronautical Congress and unveiled the first real details about the big fucking rocket they’re making.

A couple months ago, when SpaceX first announced that this would be happening in late September, it hit me that I might still have special privileges with them, kind of grandfathered in from my time working with Elon and his companies in 2015 (which resulted in an in-depth four-part blog series). So I reached out and asked if I could learn about the big fucking rocket ahead of time and write a post about it.

They said yes.

A little while later, I got on a call with Elon to discuss the rocket, the timeline, and the big plan this was all a part of. We started off how we always do.

(on the phone) Tim: You're Elon Musk. Elon: I'm Elon Musk.

Stick Tim and Stick Elon on the phone in silence

Then I brought up the rocket.

Tim: The Mars rocket is big. Elon: Yes, it's quite big.

Tim: It's gonna take people to Mars. Elon: That's the plan.

Tim: I'm gonna get to go because I'm a special boy. Elon: (silence)

Stick Tim and Stick Elon on the phone in silence

Eventually, we were able to settle in to a fascinating conversation about this insane machine SpaceX is building and what’s going to happen with it.

Now, before we get into things—

This post is only a piece of The SpaceX Story—one of the most amazing stories of our time—and a story I spent three months and 40,000 words telling last year. If you really want to understand this and you haven’t read that post yet, I recommend you start there. The post has three parts, divided into five pages:

Part 1: The Story of Humans and Space

Part 2: Musk’s Mission

Part 3: How to Colonize Mars
Phase 1: Figure out how to put things into space

Phase 2: Revolutionize the cost of space travel
Phase 3: Colonize Mars

For those who have read the post and want a refresher or those who just want to hear about the big fucking rocket and move on with their day, here’s a quick overview of the background:

The Context

To understand why the big fucking rocket matters, you have to understand this sentence:

SpaceX is trying to make human life multi-planetary by building a self-sustaining, one-million-person civilization on Mars.

Let’s go part by part.

Why make human life multi-planetary?

Two reasons:

1) It’s fun and exciting. (Here’s a clip from one of the interviews I did with Elon last year where he articulates this point.)

2) It’s not a great idea to have all of our eggs in one basket. Right now we’re all on Earth, which means that if something terrible happens on Earth—caused by nature or by our own technology—we’re done. That’s like having a precious digital photo album saved only on one not-necessarily-reliable hard drive. If you were in that situation, you’d be smart to back the album up on a second hard drive. That’s the idea here. Elon calls it “life insurance for the species.”

Why Mars?

Venus is a dick, with its lead-melting temperatures, its crushing atmospheric pressure, and its unbearable winds.

The moon has few natural resources, a 29-day day, and with no atmosphere to either provide protection against the sun during the day or warm things up at night, both day and night become murderous. Same deal on Mercury.

Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are just huge balls of gas pretending to be planets.

Certain moons of Jupiter and Saturn are possibly habitable, but they’re farther away and colder and darker than Mars, so why would we do that.

Pluto is even farther and colder and darker. Stop asking me about Pluto.

That leaves Mars. Mars isn’t a good time. If Mars were a place on Earth, it’s somewhere no one would want to go. But compared to all of those other options, it’s a dream. It’s cold but not that cold. It’s kind of dark but not that much darker than Earth. It’s far but not that far. Its day is almost the same length as ours, which is nice for us and hugely helpful for growing Earthly vegetation. Its surface gravity isn’t crazy low or crazy high (it’s around a third of Earth’s). It has a ton of (frozen) water and a decent amount of CO2, which are critical for early attempts at living there and hugely helpful for future attempts to “terraform” the planet into a place more livable for humans. All things considered, we’re very lucky to have an option as good as Mars—in most other solar systems, we probably wouldn’t.

Why 1,000,000 people?

Because Elon thinks that’s a rough estimate for the number of people you’d need to have on Mars in order for the Mars civilization to be “self-sustaining”—with self-sustaining defined by Elon as: “Even if the spaceships from Earth permanently stop coming, the colony doesn’t eventually die out—which requires a huge industrial base, and a much harder industrial base to create than being on Earth.”

In other words, if hard drive #2 relies on hard drive #1 in order to stay working, then your photo album isn’t really backed up, is it? The whole point of hard drive #2 is to save the day if hard drive #1 permanently crashes.

And while the Earth hard drive could “crash” for many exciting reasons—an asteroid hits us, AI kills us, Trump kills us, ISIS creates some upsetting biological weapon, etc.—Elon also warns about the less dramatic possibility that the Earth ships stop coming simply because Earth civilization stops having the capability to send them:

The spaceships from Earth could stop coming for other reasons—it could be WWIII, it could be that Earth becomes a religious state, it could be some gradual decline where Earth civilization just sinks under its own weight. At one point the Egyptians were able to build pyramids, and then they forgot how to do that. And then they forgot how to read hieroglyphics, until the Rosetta Stone. Rome as well—they had indoor plumbing, they had advanced aqueducts, and then that fell apart. China at one point had the world’s biggest fleet of sailing ships and they were sailing as far as Africa, then some crazy emperor came along and decided that was bad and had them all burnt. So you just don’t know what’s gonna happen. The key threshold to pass is the number of people and tons of cargo required to make things self-sustaining. And that’s probably something like a million people and probably something like 10-100 million tons of cargo.

In other words, let’s not wait on this.

Great, but how the hell do you bring 1,000,000 people to Mars?

You make this green part exist:

Blue circle: People who can afford to go to Mars. Yellow circle: People who want to go to Mars. Green intersection: At least a million people

It’s kind of simple. If we get to a point where there are a million people on Earth who both want to go to Mars and can afford to go to Mars, there will be a million people on Mars.

Unfortunately, right now the yellow circle is tiny and the blue circle doesn’t exist.

Elon thinks—and I kind of do too—that if the blue circle can get big enough, the yellow circle will take care of itself. If Mars is affordable and safe and you know you’ll be able to come back, a lot of people will want to go.

The hard part is the blue circle. Here’s the issue:

Last time the US Congress checked with NASA, the cost to send a five-person crew to Mars was $50 billion. $10 billion a person. Elon thinks that to make the blue circle sufficiently large, it needs to cost $500,000 a person. 1/20,000 of the current cost.

1/20,000.

That’s like looking at the car industry and saying, “Right now a new Honda costs around $20,000. To make this a viable industry, we need to get the cost of a new car down to $1.”

So what the hell?

Here’s the hell:

Imagine if the way planes worked was that they took off, flew to their destination, but then instead of landing, all the passengers parachuted down to the ground and then the plane landed by smashing into the ocean and blowing up. So every plane flew exactly once, and to have a new flight happen, you’d have to build another plane.

A plane ticket would cost $1.5 million.

Space travel is currently so expensive mostly because we land rockets by crashing them into the ocean (or incinerating them in the atmosphere).

When Elon started SpaceX, he was determined to fix this problem. It was a tall order, given that no one had ever done it before—including nations like the US and Russia who had spent billions trying. But SpaceX puzzled away at the problem year after year, and after trying and failing a bunch of times, in late 2015, they nailed it:

Then they nailed it again. And again. And again. Now they nail it more often than not. Here’s a daytime view of a recent landing:

Soon, for the first time, a previously used-and-landed, flight-tested Falcon 9 will carry out a new mission for SpaceX, officially making SpaceX rockets “reusable.”

To fly a mission on a used rocket, you only need to pay for propellant (fuel and liquid oxygen) and a bit of routine maintenance. This cuts the price of space travel down by 100 or even 1,000 times.

That leaves us with somewhere between 19/20 and 199/200 of the cost left to cut. Part of that will happen when SpaceX takes 100 or more people to Mars at a time, instead of five (the number Congress asked NASA about). The rest of it is taken care of by a few simple innovations, like refueling the spaceships in orbit (which lowers the cost by 5-10x) and manufacturing propellant on Mars so you don’t have to carry your return propellant with you (which lowers the cost by another 5-10x). More on those things later.

Suddenly, not only can the price get down to $500,000/ticket, it can probably go even lower (Elon thinks it could eventually cost under $100,000/person). You may not have noticed it yet, but SpaceX’s innovations are in the process of creating a total revolution in the cost of space travel—a change that will open doors we can’t imagine being open today. And when that revolution goes far enough, SpaceX’s vision of putting 1,000,000 people on Mars really—actually—seriously—may happen.

We’re going to Mars. And this week, SpaceX showed us the thing that’s gonna take us there.

The Rocket

“It’s so mind-blowing. It blows my mind, and I see it every week.”

Elon’s pumped. And when you learn about the big fucking rocket he’s building, you’ll understand why.

First, let’s absorb the challenge at hand. It’s often said that space is hard. To this day, only a few hundred people have been in space, only a few countries have the ability to launch something into space, and the history of human space travel is littered with tragic launch failures. Firing something super heavy and delicate and full of explosive liquid up through the atmosphere without anything going wrong is incredibly hard.

But when we talk about humans going into space, we’re talking mostly about humans going into Low Earth Orbit, a layer of space between 100 and 1,200 miles above the ground—and normally, they’re headed only 250 miles up to the International Space Station. The only time humans have gone farther were the small handful of Americans who made it out to the moon in the 1960s, traveling about 250,000 miles away.

When Earth and Mars are at their closest, Mars is somewhere between 34 and 60 million miles away—about 200 times farther away than the moon and about 200,000 times farther away than the ISS.

The moon is just over one light second away.

distance diagram of Earth and the moon with a bar representing 1 light second that nearly reaches the moon

Mars is more than three light minutes away.

Mars is far.

Elon likes to compare the Earth-to-Mars trip to crossing the Atlantic Ocean, noting that using that scale, going to the moon would only be crossing the English Channel (and going to the ISS would be going to a dock 117 feet off the shore). Continuing with that comparison, he says, “A rocket made to go to Low Earth Orbit or even the moon is basically like a coastal fishing vessel, compared to a colonial transport system that is trying to go 1,000 times further.”

On top of that, it might be worth it to take only a few humans or a single satellite up into Low Earth Orbit—but if you’re going all the way to Mars, you want to take a lot more than that. So you have to take much more mass, much further. Multiplying the distance factor by the payload factor, Elon explains that a Mars transport system “is like literally a million times more capable than what the current world launch system can do. It has to be.”

It also has to be incredibly advanced. Elon says, “It’s not just bigger, it needs to be more efficient. There’s a false dichotomy when it comes to rockets of ‘small and complex’ or ‘big and dumb.’ People talk about the ‘big dumb booster’—that won’t work. You need a big smart booster. If you want to build a Mars colony, you have no choice— you have to make it big and efficient.”

So that’s all you have to do—build a rocket that’s a million times more capable than today’s best rockets but who’s also efficient and smart and great in bed.

SpaceX is building it. Meet the Big Fucking Rocket.1

spacex mars rocket

Hard to quite understand the bigness from that picture. So let’s add in some scale:

spacex mars rocket with house and person drawn to scale

Or how about this?

spacex mars rocket shown over a football field for scale

It would barely fit diagonally across a football field without going into the stands.

There’s also this:

spacex mars rocket in skyline for scale

It’s a skyscraper. Or as Elon puts it, “by far the biggest flying object ever.”

In yesterday’s presentation, Elon explained that this isn’t a first crack at how it might look, or an artist’s impression of how it might look—it’s how it’s going to look. This is the thing they’re building.

Unfortunately, SpaceX seems to be going through an existential crisis when it comes to naming this thing—first it was the Mars Colonial Transporter, then (because it can go way past Mars) it was renamed the Interplanetary Transport System, then yesterday in the presentation, Elon said they haven’t actually settled on a name yet but that the specific spaceship that makes the maiden voyage to Mars might be called Heart of Gold1—so no one knows what to call it.

Which is why—until I hear otherwise—I’ll be calling it something I once heard Elon describe it as in an interview: the Big Fucking Rocket (BFR).

The Big Fucking Rocket is fucking big. At 400 feet tall, it’s the height of a 40-story skyscraper. At 40 feet in diameter, a school bus could fit entirely underneath its footprint. It’s more than three times the mass and generates over three times the thrust of the gargantuan Saturn V—the rocket used in the Apollo mission—which currently stands as by far the biggest rocket humanity has made.

Here’s how it stacks up next to a bunch of other rockets in size:

rocket-lineup

The difference is even more extreme when you compare the rockets by how many kilograms of payload (i.e. cargo and/or people) they can each take to orbit:

rocket-lineup-2

For comparison, SpaceX’s badass Falcon 9 rocket will be able to take about 4 tons of payload to Mars, and the Falcon Heavy—which is about to be today’s most powerful rocket—will be able to take about 13 tons to Mars. Elon believes the BFR will be able to take a few hundred tons of payload to Mars at first and eventually be able to take 1,000 tons. The absurdity of that statistic—that the behemoth Falcon Heavy can only manage a little over 1% of the BFR’s ultimate Mars payload—is pretty hard to absorb.

Now, to be clear—what I’ve been calling the Big Fucking Rocket this whole time is actually two things: a Big Fucking Spaceship sitting on top of a Big Fucking Booster.

diagram of spacex mars rocket. spaceship: crew cabin, cargo cabin, liquid oxygen tank, methane fuel tank, 9 Raptor engines. booster: liquid oxygen tank, methane fuel tank, 42 Raptor engines

The Big Fucking Booster

Let’s start by talking about the booster. The 25-story-high booster—AKA the actual rocket of the BFR—is what Elon calls “quite a beast.” It’s the biggest booster of all time—by far. By physical size, definitely, but even more so by thrust.

In the SpaceX post, I talked about the Falcon 9’s nine Merlin engines, and how each one was powerful enough to lift a stack of 40 cars up into the sky—in total, that meant the Falcon 9 set of engines could lift 360 cars. The Falcon Heavy, with its 27 Merlin engines, could lift a stack of over 1,000 cars up past the clouds.2

The Big Fucking Booster sits atop a different kind of engine: the Raptor.

spacex raptor engine

The Raptor engine looks a lot like a Merlin, with one key difference—by significantly increasing the pressure, SpaceX has made the Raptor over three times more powerful than a Merlin.

A single Raptor engine produces 310 tons of thrust—enough to lift 310 tons, or a stack of 172 cars, or an entire Boeing 747 airplane, into the sky. That’s what one Raptor can do.3

And the BFB has 42 of them.4

view of 42 Raptor engines

All together, that’s an unheard of 13,033 tons of thrust, enough to push more than 7,000 cars—or 50 large airplanes—up to space.

The Big Fucking Spaceship

So then there’s the spacecraft—which SpaceX calls the Interplanetary Spaceship, and which I’m going to keep calling the Big Fucking Spaceship because it’s more fun. The BFS is the big cool-looking thing on top of the BFB (in case you’re getting Big Fucking Confused—the Big Fucking Spaceship (BFS) on top of the Big Fucking Booster (BFB) together make what I’ve been calling the Big Fucking Rocket (BFR)). The BFS is what will take the people and cargo to Mars. It’s also what will launch, on its own, off Mars and return to Earth with people who want to come back.

The BFS is itself the size of a tall, 16-story building, and is 55 feet wide at its thickest point. In addition to hundreds, and eventually a thousand tons of cargo, the BFS will be able to carry as many as 100 people at the beginning, and Elon believes that number could grow to 200 and even above 300 people over time—like a cruise ship.

With nine Raptor engines, it’ll have more liftoff thrust on its own than any of today’s rockets—including next year’s Falcon Heavy. For a second-stage, cargo-carrying spacecraft to pack more thrust than even the most powerful first-stage rockets is outrageous.

Here’s a cross-section up close:

cross section of spacex mars spacecraft

I asked Elon what it’ll be like to ride in it. He said, “Well, you’d be in a giant spaceship in microgravity.5 I mean, it would be pretty fun. You’d be floating around.”

Good point.

In the presentation Q&A, he added: “It has to be really fun and exciting, it can’t feel cramped or boring. The crew compartment is set up so that you can do zero-g games, you can float around, there will be movies, lecture halls, cabins, a restaurant—it’ll be really fun to go.”

Um, yeah, get me on that shit now. A zero gravity cruise ship. With this view:

observatory_f_hd_3-1

And if you were to go, here’s how the whole thing would work:

1) Get on the ship. The BFR will be taking off from pad 39A at Cape Canaveral, Florida—the same pad that the Apollo astronauts left from. This is because that pad was built to be absurdly large since they didn’t know yet how big a rocket they’d be using. When you get there, you head up the tower and across the bridge into the Big Fucking Spaceship.

air-bridge

2) Take off. You strap in, and the BFR lifts off. After a few minutes, the first-stage BFB separates and heads back down to Earth. The BFS that you’re in continues onward and settles into Earth’s orbit.

29937258946_8345b8ae6e_o

3) Refuel in orbit. After landing back on Earth, the BFB is capped with a new BFS—this one full of propellant (liquid oxygen and methane).6 It lifts off again and pings the propellant-filled spaceship into orbit, where it rendezvouses7 with your spaceship. The two connect like two orcas holding hands as the propellant is transferred.

29343821794_9e05bfd6d7_h

This happens a few more times until your spaceship is entirely refueled.8 This process is critical A) for lowering the cost of the trip, and B) for making the trip much faster. People have always thought a journey to Mars would take six or nine months, but the BFS will get there in three.

4) Head to Mars. Three months of fun times in microgravity and getting really sick of the other people on the ship.9 During the journey, the spaceship steers using cold gas thrusters, powered by huge solar arrays:

29343822854_ec6f4ffad1_h

5) Enter the Mars atmosphere. Time for the heat shield to be in the shit:

29343824424_87236132a0_h

6) Land on Mars. Upright, the same way the first stage lands on Earth.

7) Live on Mars for a while doing god knows what. If it’s early on in the colonization process, you’re probably there to work and help build up the initial industries. Later on, it could be anything—research, entrepreneurship, or just simply adventure.

8) Make propellant on Mars. This will be one of the key early industries to set up on Mars. Propellant consists of liquid oxygen (O2) and methane (CH4), which are both conveniently easy to make from the massive quantities of H2O (ice) and CO2 (the main gas in the Martian atmosphere) already sitting on Mars. They’ll use this propellant to load up the spaceship you came there on in preparation for its voyage back to Earth. Doing this spares the massive expense of having to carry propellant all the way from Earth for the return trip.

9) Either stay forever or come back. If you come back, you’ll do so by boarding one of the BFS’s that came over in the last batch.

10) Land vertically on Earth. Just like you did on Mars. The spaceship will go through routine maintenance in preparation to head back to Mars two years later.

11) Be that insufferable person who can’t be part of any conversation without figuring out some way to bring up your time on Mars.

Mission complete.

This kind-of-confusing diagram sums it up:

diagram

And this video sums it up very deliciously:

So that’s the deal with the Big Fucking Rocket and how it’ll all work.10

Now let’s talk about how this all might play out.

The Plan

Back to reality. So how do we get from, “there’s this rad potential rocket that might be ready to launch in five years” to “we’re a thriving multi-planetary civilization with a million people on Mars”?

10,000 flights. That’s how many BFS trips to Mars Elon thinks it’ll take to bring the Mars population to a million.

Why 10,000? Because there will be at least 100 people on most trips, and that number will go up over time—but there will also be some people coming back from Mars each time other people go. In the lower part of each BFS will be a huge cargo compartment. Elon thinks we’ll need to get at least 10 million tons of cargo to Mars for the million-person colony to become self-sustaining, which will happen in a little over 10,000 flights if SpaceX can get the cargo payload capacity up to 1,000 tons relatively quickly, as they hope to.

And when will these 10,000 trips start?

Well let’s take a look at the Mars-Earth Synodic calendar—which deals with the dates when Earth and Mars are closest to each other (called a “Mars opposition”). Earth’s orbit is smaller than Mars’s, so Earth goes around the sun quicker—so much so that every 26 months, Earth laps Mars and they’re briefly next to each other. That’s the one time when Earth-Mars transfers can happen.

We’re currently pretty close to Mars, since the last Mars opposition happened on May 22, 2016. That’s why, if you happen to be an “oh shit there’s a way-too-bright star let me take out my Sky Guide app and figure out which planet that is and then tell everyone I’m with and find that, yet again, no one cares, because everyone is a horrible person” nerd like me, you know that all summer, Mars has been super prominent and bright in our night sky.11 A year from now, Mars will be on the other side of the sun from us, and we won’t see it in our night sky at all.

The 2016 Earth-Mars opposition is also a special one, because it’s the last time it’ll happen without anybody talking about it.

Why? Because starting with the next one in July of 2018, SpaceX will start sending stuff to Mars each time there’s an opposition, and this will become increasingly big news each time. Here’s the tentative schedule, if everything goes perfectly to plan:

Upcoming Mars Oppositions – and what SpaceX is planning for each

July, 2018: Send a Dragon spacecraft (the Falcon 9’s SUV-size spacecraft) to Mars with cargo

October, 2020: Send multiple Dragons with more cargo

December, 2022: Maiden BFS voyage to Mars. Carrying only cargo. This is the spaceship Elon wants to call Heart of Gold.

January, 2025: First people-carrying BFS voyage to Mars.

Let’s all go back and read that last line again.

January, 2025: First people-carrying BFS voyage to Mars.

Did you catch that?

If things go to plan, the Neil Armstrong of Mars will touch down about eight years from now.

And zero people are talking about it.

But they will be. The hype will start a couple years from now when the Dragons make their Mars trips, and it’ll kick into high gear in 2022 when the Big Fucking Spaceship finally launches and heads to Mars and lands there. Everyone will be talking about this.

And the buzz will just accelerate from there as the first group of BFS astronauts are announced and become household names, admired for their bravery, because everyone will know there’s a reasonable chance something goes wrong and they don’t make it back alive. Then, in 2024 they’ll take off on a three-month trip that’ll be front-page news every day. When they land, everyone on Earth will be watching. It’ll be 1969 all over again.

This is a thing that’s happening.

Elon doesn’t like when people ask him about this first voyage and the Neil Armstrong of Mars. He says that it’s not about humanity putting a new multi-planetary feather in its cap, and he’s quick to point out, “putting people on the moon was super exciting—but where’s our moon base?” In other words, having humanity give Mars a high five for bragging rights is not what matters—what matters is carrying out the full vision of actually creating a full, self-sustaining civilization on Mars.

And yeah, sure, fine. But I’m excited for 2025. It’s gonna be so fun.

Anyway, so then the next Mars opposition will roll around in 2027. This time, if everything stays on track, multiple BFS’s will make the trek to Mars, carrying more people than were in the original group in 2025. And the spaceship that went over in 2025—the space Mayflowerwill make its return trip to Earth, carrying some of the first group of Mars pioneers back home. They’ll return to massive celebration as international heroes, and the legendary spaceship will head off to enjoy its life in the Air and Space Museum.

Meanwhile, we’ll all be glued to the TV12 as the group of BFS’s arrive on Mars, where the people in them will continue the grueling work started by the 2025 group. The early colonists will have a hard job like early colonists always do—and this will be extra hard. Not only will they have to truly start from scratch—digging mines and quarries and refineries, constructing the first underground village habitat with the first Martian hospitals and schools and greenhouse farms, laying down a giant plumbing system to pump water into the village, building that first rocket propellant plant—but they’ll have to do all of this in a place where they can’t go outside without a spacesuit on, and where everyone and everything they’ve ever known is on a pale blue dot in the night sky.

It’ll be hard, but for the explorers of our world the payoff may be worth it. Elon says: “You can go anywhere on Earth in 24 hours. There’s no physical frontier on Earth anymore. Now, space is that frontier, so it’ll appeal to anyone with that exploratory spirit.”

In April of 2029, SpaceX will send an even larger group of spacecraft, people, and cargo to Mars. This time, it’ll probably get less attention. By 2029, we’ll probably be getting used to the idea that there are people on Mars and that every 26 months, a great two-way migration occurs.

The growing Mars colony will continue to entice the adventurers—those who read about the great sailing exhibitions of the 15th and 16th centuries and yearn to be there. When I asked Elon about how the small colony will grow and evolve, he said: “Think of the Mars colony as an organism that starts off as a zygote, and then becomes multi-cellular, and then gets organ differentiation—so it doesn’t look exactly the same all the way along, any more than the first settlement in Jamestown wasn’t representative of the United States today. It’ll be the same with Mars—Mars will be the new New World.”

The 2031 and 2033 and 2035 oppositions will bring substantially more people to the new New World. By this point, the budding Martian city will be a part of our lives. We’ll follow the Twitter feeds of some of our favorite journalists on Mars to keep up with what’s happening there. We’ll all get hooked on Mars’s first hit reality shows. And some of us will start thinking, “Should I sign up to go to Mars one of these years before I get too old?”

By 2050, there will be over a hundred thousand people on Mars. The company your son works for might have a branch there, and he’ll be saying goodbye to a couple co-workers who are about to head to the planet for a 52-month stint. He tells you that he doesn’t want to go because he doesn’t want to take his ninth-grade daughter away from her life and her friends. But he says she’s applying to a program that would bring her to Mars from the ages of 17 to 23 for an urban planning degree. You worry, even though you know it’s irrational. It’s just that you remember the days when going to Mars was risky and dangerous, and some part of you is still uncomfortable with it. And what if she decides not to come back?

By 2065, the early days of Mars seem primitive. During the first few Mars migrations, only a few spaceships made the trip with only 100 people in each, it was prohibitively expensive to go, it took three months to get there, and there were only a few very grueling industries on Mars to work in.

In 2065, every Mars opposition sees over 1,000 ships make the trip, each carrying over 500 people and a couple thousand tons of cargo. Half a million people make the journey every two years, and about 50,000 less than that come back, because Earth-to-Mars migration capacity grows a little bit each time as more ships are built. The trip, which now takes only 30 days, costs only $60,000 (in 2016 dollars)—and most people just pay off the ticket price with their well-paying job on Mars (labor is in high demand as the early Mars cities continue to expand and new cities are built).

Many people remember those early days of the Mars colony when it was all about SpaceX—funded by SpaceX or their cargo clients and driven by their ambition and their ingenuity and their guts. But now, dozens of companies specialize in Earth-Mars transit and hundreds of companies focus on development and entrepreneurship on Mars. And transit is paid for like planes and trains and buses are paid for today—by passengers buying tickets.

A decade later, the 2074 migration brings the Mars population above a million people. Small celebrations break out around both worlds, as a long-awaited landmark is achieved. Most people though, don’t even notice.

___________

Everything I just said was based on things Elon said on my phone call with him. Some of it was numbers he said directly—like the last paragraph, which came from him saying, “I’m hopeful that we can get to a million roughly 50 years after the start.” Other times it was me extrapolating a possible future, given the predictions I heard from him. It’s all based in reality. At least, it’s based in Elon Musk’s best crack at reality. He was very careful to qualify everything that sounded like a prediction or a projection with, “This is what might happen if things go well—but there’s no way to know, and many things could go wrong along the way.” He emphasized that “it’s not that SpaceX has all the answers and we’ve got it covered or anything like that—it’s that we want to show that it’s possible. But it’s far from a given.” As for things that could go wrong, he listed off a few (like World War III), and one of his biggest concerns is that if he somehow dies young, SpaceX could be taken over by someone who wants to milk the company for profit instead of staying single-mindedly focused on the Mars civilization mission.

But if SpaceX can manage to get this thing started, Elon thinks it could be not just a big deal in itself, it could jumpstart a slew of new possibilities for humanity. He explains:

The big picture isn’t just to back up the hard drive but to really change humanity into a multi-planetary species. Essentially what we’re saying is we’re establishing a regular cargo route to Mars. With the economic forcing function of interplanetary commerce, there will be the resources and the incentive to massively improve space transport technology, and I think then things really go to a whole new level.

What I’m describing may sound really crazy, but it actually will be a small fraction of what is ultimately done, as long as we become a two-planet civilization. Look at shipping technology in Europe. When all you had to do was cross the Mediterranean, the ships were pretty lame—they couldn’t cross the Atlantic. So commerce basically had short-range vessels. Without the forcing function, shipping technology didn’t improve that much—you could do the same things with ships, pretty much, around the time of Julius Caesar as you could around the time of Columbus. 1,500 years later, you could still just cross the Mediterranean. But as soon as there was a reason to cross the Atlantic, shipping technology improved dramatically. There needed to be the American colonies in order for that to happen.

The people at SpaceX believe that once we’re on Mars, the rest of the Solar System becomes accessible as well. That’s why they didn’t just create images of their Big Fucking Rocket standing proudly on Mars. They showed it flying by Jupiter.

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And Saturn.

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And bringing human explorers to faraway moons.

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They’re planning for a time when any person can go anywhere they want in our vast Solar System—a new golden age for exploration, with uncharted physical frontiers in every direction.

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Here’s the whole WBW Elon Musk series:

Part 1, on Elon: Elon Musk: The World’s Raddest Man
Part 2, on Tesla: How Tesla Will Change the World

Part 3, on SpaceX: How (and Why) SpaceX Will Colonize Mars
Part 4, on the thing that makes Elon so effective: The Chef and the Cook: Musk’s Secret Sauce

Extra Post #1: The Deal With Solar City
Extra Post #2: The Deal With the Hyperloop


Six other Wait But Why explainers:

The American Presidents—Washington to Lincoln

From Muhammad to ISIS: Iraq’s Full Story

The AI Revolution: Road to Superintelligence

The Fermi Paradox: Where are all the aliens?

How Cryonics Works (and Why it Makes Sense)

How to Name a Baby

SpaceX’s Big Freaking Rocket – The Full Story (G-Rated Version)

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Note: This is a G-rated version of the original post, and totally appropriate reading for people of all ages, but links may lead to not-G-rated places.

PDF: We made a fancy PDF of this post for printing and offline viewing. Buy it here (make sure you choose “G-Rated Version”).

Yesterday, Elon Musk got on stage at the 2016 International Astronautical Congress and unveiled the first real details about the big freaking rocket they’re making.

A couple months ago, when SpaceX first announced that this would be happening in late September, it hit me that I might still have special privileges with them, kind of grandfathered in from my time working with Elon and his companies in 2015 (which resulted in an in-depth four-part blog series). So I reached out and asked if I could learn about the big freaking rocket ahead of time and write a post about it.

They said yes.

A little while later, I got on a call with Elon to discuss the rocket, the timeline, and the big plan this was all a part of. We started off how we always do.

(on the phone) Tim: You're Elon Musk. Elon: I'm Elon Musk.

Stick Tim and Stick Elon on the phone in silence

Then I brought up the rocket.

Tim: The Mars rocket is big. Elon: Yes, it's quite big.

Tim: It's gonna take people to Mars. Elon: That's the plan.

Tim: I'm gonna get to go because I'm a special boy. Elon: (silence)

Stick Tim and Stick Elon on the phone in silence

Eventually, we were able to settle in to a fascinating conversation about this insane machine SpaceX is building and what’s going to happen with it.

Now, before we get into things—

This post is only a piece of The SpaceX Story—one of the most amazing stories of our time—and a story I spent three months and 40,000 words telling last year. If you really want to understand this and you haven’t read that post yet, I recommend you start there. The post has three parts, divided into five pages:

Part 1: The Story of Humans and Space

Part 2: Musk’s Mission

Part 3: How to Colonize Mars
Phase 1: Figure out how to put things into space

Phase 2: Revolutionize the cost of space travel
Phase 3: Colonize Mars

For those who have read the post and want a refresher or those who just want to hear about the big freaking rocket and move on with their day, here’s a quick overview of the background:

The Context

To understand why the big freaking rocket matters, you have to understand this sentence:

SpaceX is trying to make human life multi-planetary by building a self-sustaining, one-million-person civilization on Mars.

Let’s go part by part.

Why make human life multi-planetary?

Two reasons:

1) It’s fun and exciting. (Here’s a clip from one of the interviews I did with Elon last year where he articulates this point.)

2) It’s not a great idea to have all of our eggs in one basket. Right now we’re all on Earth, which means that if something terrible happens on Earth—caused by nature or by our own technology—we’re done. That’s like having a precious digital photo album saved only on one not-necessarily-reliable hard drive. If you were in that situation, you’d be smart to back the album up on a second hard drive. That’s the idea here. Elon calls it “life insurance for the species.”

Why Mars?

Venus is a jerk, with its lead-melting temperatures, its crushing atmospheric pressure, and its unbearable winds.

The moon has few natural resources, a 28-day day, and with no atmosphere to either provide protection against the sun during the day or warm things up at night, both day and night become murderous. Same deal on Mercury.

Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are just huge balls of gas pretending to be planets.

Certain moons of Jupiter and Saturn are possibly habitable, but they’re farther away and colder and darker than Mars, so why would we do that.

Pluto is even farther and colder and darker. Stop asking me about Pluto.

That leaves Mars. Mars isn’t a good time. If Mars were a place on Earth, it’s somewhere no one would want to go. But compared to all of those other options, it’s a dream. It’s cold but not that cold. It’s kind of dark but not that much darker than Earth. It’s far but not that far. Its day is almost the same length as ours, which is nice for us and hugely helpful for growing Earthly vegetation. Its surface gravity isn’t crazy low or crazy high (it’s around a third of Earth’s). It has a ton of (frozen) water and a decent amount of CO2, which are critical for early attempts at living there and hugely helpful for future attempts to “terraform” the planet into a place more livable for humans. All things considered, we’re very lucky to have an option as good as Mars—in most other solar systems, we probably wouldn’t.

Why 1,000,000 people?

Because Elon thinks that’s a rough estimate for the number of people you’d need to have on Mars in order for the Mars civilization to be “self-sustaining”—with self-sustaining defined by Elon as: “Even if the spaceships from Earth permanently stop coming, the colony doesn’t eventually die out—which requires a huge industrial base, and a much harder industrial base to create than being on Earth.”

In other words, if hard drive #2 relies on hard drive #1 in order to stay working, then your photo album isn’t really backed up, is it? The whole point of hard drive #2 is to save the day if hard drive #1 permanently crashes.

And while the Earth hard drive could “crash” for many exciting reasons—an asteroid hits us, AI kills us, Trump kills us, ISIS creates some upsetting biological weapon, etc.—Elon also warns about the less dramatic possibility that the Earth ships stop coming simply because Earth civilization stops having the capability to send them:

The spaceships from Earth could stop coming for other reasons—it could be WWIII, it could be that Earth becomes a religious state, it could be some gradual decline where Earth civilization just sinks under its own weight. At one point the Egyptians were able to build pyramids, and then they forgot how to do that. And then they forgot how to read hieroglyphics, until the Rosetta Stone. Rome as well—they had indoor plumbing, they had advanced aqueducts, and then that fell apart. China at one point had the world’s biggest fleet of sailing ships and they were sailing as far as Africa, then some crazy emperor came along and decided that was bad and had them all burnt. So you just don’t know what’s gonna happen. The key threshold to pass is the number of people and tons of cargo required to make things self-sustaining. And that’s probably something like a million people and probably something like 10-100 million tons of cargo.

In other words, let’s not wait on this.

Great, but how the heck do you bring 1,000,000 people to Mars?

You make this green part exist:

Blue circle: People who can afford to go to Mars. Yellow circle: People who want to go to Mars. Green intersection: At least a million people

It’s kind of simple. If we get to a point where there are a million people on Earth who both want to go to Mars and can afford to go to Mars, there will be a million people on Mars.

Unfortunately, right now the yellow circle is tiny and the blue circle doesn’t exist.

Elon thinks—and I kind of do too—that if the blue circle can get big enough, the yellow circle will take care of itself. If Mars is affordable and safe and you know you’ll be able to come back, a lot of people will want to go.

The hard part is the blue circle. Here’s the issue:

Last time the US Congress checked with NASA, the cost to send a five-person crew to Mars was $50 billion. $10 billion a person. Elon thinks that to make the blue circle sufficiently large, it needs to cost $500,000 a person. 1/20,000 of the current cost.

1/20,000.

That’s like looking at the car industry and saying, “Right now a new Honda costs around $20,000. To make this a viable industry, we need to get the cost of a new car down to $1.”

So what the heck?

Here’s the heck:

Imagine if the way planes worked was that they took off, flew to their destination, but then instead of landing, all the passengers parachuted down to the ground and then the plane landed by smashing into the ocean and blowing up. So every plane flew exactly once, and to have a new flight happen, you’d have to build another plane.

A plane ticket would cost $1.5 million.

Space travel is currently so expensive mostly because we land rockets by crashing them into the ocean (or incinerating them in the atmosphere).

When Elon started SpaceX, he was determined to fix this problem. It was a tall order, given that no one had ever done it before—including nations like the US and Russia who had spent billions trying. But SpaceX puzzled away at the problem year after year, and after trying and failing a bunch of times, in late 2015, they nailed it:

Then they nailed it again. And again. And again. Now they nail it more often than not. Here’s a daytime view of a recent landing:

Soon, for the first time, a previously used-and-landed, flight-tested Falcon 9 will carry out a new mission for SpaceX, officially making SpaceX rockets “reusable.”

To fly a mission on a used rocket, you only need to pay for propellant (fuel and liquid oxygen) and a bit of routine maintenance. This cuts the price of space travel down by 100 or even 1,000 times.

That leaves us with somewhere between 19/20 and 199/200 of the cost left to cut. Part of that will happen when SpaceX takes 100 or more people to Mars at a time, instead of five (the number Congress asked NASA about). The rest of it is taken care of by a few simple innovations, like refueling the spaceships in orbit (which lowers the cost by 5-10x) and manufacturing propellant on Mars so you don’t have to carry your return propellant with you (which lowers the cost by another 5-10x). More on those things later.

Suddenly, not only can the price get down to $500,000/ticket, it can probably go even lower (Elon thinks it could eventually cost under $100,000/person). You may not have noticed it yet, but SpaceX’s innovations are in the process of creating a total revolution in the cost of space travel—a change that will open doors we can’t imagine being open today. And when that revolution goes far enough, SpaceX’s vision of putting 1,000,000 people on Mars really—actually—seriously—may happen.

We’re going to Mars. And this week, SpaceX showed us the thing that’s gonna take us there.

The Rocket

“It’s so mind-blowing. It blows my mind, and I see it every week.”

Elon’s pumped. And when you learn about the big freaking rocket he’s building, you’ll understand why.

First, let’s absorb the challenge at hand. It’s often said that space is hard. To this day, only a few hundred people have been in space, only a few countries have the ability to launch something into space, and the history of human space travel is littered with tragic launch failures. Firing something super heavy and delicate and full of explosive liquid up through the atmosphere without anything going wrong is incredibly hard.

But when we talk about humans going into space, we’re talking mostly about humans going into Low Earth Orbit, a layer of space between 100 and 1,200 miles above the ground—and normally, they’re headed only 250 miles up to the International Space Station. The only time humans have gone farther were the small handful of Americans who made it out to the moon in the 1960s, traveling about 250,000 miles away.

When Earth and Mars are at their closest, Mars is somewhere between 34 and 60 million miles away—about 200 times farther away than the moon and about 200,000 times farther away than the ISS.

The moon is just over one light second away.

distance diagram of Earth and the moon with a bar representing 1 light second that nearly reaches the moon

Mars is more than three light minutes away.

Mars is far.

Elon likes to compare the Earth-to-Mars trip to crossing the Atlantic Ocean, noting that using that scale, going to the moon would only be crossing the English Channel (and going to the ISS would be going to a dock 117 feet off the shore). Continuing with that comparison, he says, “A rocket made to go to Low Earth Orbit or even the moon is basically like a coastal fishing vessel, compared to a colonial transport system that is trying to go 1,000 times further.”

On top of that, it might be worth it to take only a few humans or a single satellite up into Low Earth Orbit—but if you’re going all the way to Mars, you want to take a lot more than that. So you have to take much more mass, much further. Multiplying the distance factor by the payload factor, Elon explains that a Mars transport system “is like literally a million times more capable than what the current world launch system can do. It has to be.”

It also has to be incredibly advanced. Elon says, “It’s not just bigger, it needs to be more efficient. There’s a false dichotomy when it comes to rockets of ‘small and complex’ or ‘big and dumb.’ People talk about the ‘big dumb booster’—that won’t work. You need a big smart booster. If you want to build a Mars colony, you have no choice— you have to make it big and efficient.”

So that’s all you have to do—build a rocket that’s a million times more capable than today’s best rockets but who’s also efficient and smart and a good listener.

SpaceX is building it. Meet the Big Freaking Rocket.1

spacex mars rocket

Hard to quite understand the bigness from that picture. So let’s add in some scale:

spacex mars rocket with house and person drawn to scale

Or how about this?

spacex mars rocket shown over a football field for scale

It would barely fit diagonally across a football field without going into the stands.

There’s also this:

spacex mars rocket in skyline for scale

It’s a skyscraper. Or as Elon puts it, “by far the biggest flying object ever.”

In yesterday’s presentation, Elon explained that this isn’t a first crack at how it might look, or an artist’s impression of how it might look—it’s how it’s going to look. This is the thing they’re building.

Unfortunately, SpaceX seems to be going through an existential crisis when it comes to naming this thing—first it was the Mars Colonial Transporter, then (because it can go way past Mars) it was renamed the Interplanetary Transport System, then yesterday in the presentation, Elon said they haven’t actually settled on a name yet but that the specific spaceship that makes the maiden voyage to Mars might be called Heart of Gold1—so no one knows what to call it.

Which is why—until I hear otherwise—I’ll be calling it something Elon once referred to it as: the Big Freaking Rocket (BFR).

The Big Freaking Rocket is freaking big. At 400 feet tall, it’s the height of a 40-story skyscraper. At 40 feet in diameter, a school bus could fit entirely underneath its footprint. It’s more than three times the mass and generates over three times the thrust of the gargantuan Saturn V—the rocket used in the Apollo mission—which currently stands as by far the biggest rocket humanity has made.

Here’s how it stacks up next to a bunch of other rockets in size:

rocket-lineup

The difference is even more extreme when you compare the rockets by how many kilograms of payload (i.e. cargo and/or people) they can each take to orbit:

rocket-lineup-2

For comparison, SpaceX’s awesome Falcon 9 rocket will be able to take about 4 tons of payload to Mars, and the Falcon Heavy—which is about to be today’s most powerful rocket—will be able to take about 13 tons to Mars. Elon believes the BFR will be able to take a few hundred tons of payload to Mars at first and eventually be able to take 1,000 tons. The absurdity of that statistic—that the behemoth Falcon Heavy can only manage a little over 1% of the BFR’s ultimate Mars payload—is pretty hard to absorb.

Now, to be clear—what I’ve been calling the Big Freaking Rocket this whole time is actually two things: a Big Freaking Spaceship sitting on top of a Big Freaking Booster.

diagram of spacex mars rocket. spaceship: crew cabin, cargo cabin, liquid oxygen tank, methane fuel tank, 9 Raptor engines. booster: liquid oxygen tank, methane fuel tank, 42 Raptor engines

The Big Freaking Booster

Let’s start by talking about the booster. The 25-story-high booster—AKA the actual rocket of the BFR—is what Elon calls “quite a beast.” It’s the biggest booster of all time—by far. By physical size, definitely, but even more so by thrust.

In the SpaceX post, I talked about the Falcon 9’s nine Merlin engines, and how each one was powerful enough to lift a stack of 40 cars up into the sky—in total, that meant the Falcon 9 set of engines could lift 360 cars. The Falcon Heavy, with its 27 Merlin engines, could lift a stack of over 1,000 cars up past the clouds.2

The Big Freaking Booster sits atop a different kind of engine: the Raptor.

spacex raptor engine

The Raptor engine looks a lot like a Merlin, with one key difference—by significantly increasing the pressure, SpaceX has made the Raptor over three times more powerful than a Merlin.

A single Raptor engine produces 310 tons of thrust—enough to lift 310 tons, or a stack of 172 cars, or an entire Boeing 747 airplane, into the sky. That’s what one Raptor can do.3

And the BFB has 42 of them.4

view of 42 Raptor engines

All together, that’s an unheard of 13,033 tons of thrust, enough to push more than 7,000 cars—or 50 large airplanes—up to space.

The Big Freaking Spaceship

So then there’s the spacecraft—which SpaceX calls the Interplanetary Spaceship, and which I’m going to keep calling the Big Freaking Spaceship because it’s more fun. The BFS is the big cool-looking thing on top of the BFB (in case you’re getting Big Freaking Confused—the Big Freaking Spaceship (BFS) on top of the Big Freaking Booster (BFB) together make what I’ve been calling the Big Freaking Rocket (BFR)). The BFS is what will take the people and cargo to Mars. It’s also what will launch, on its own, off Mars and return to Earth with people who want to come back.

The BFS is itself the size of a tall, 16-story building, and is 55 feet wide at its thickest point. In addition to hundreds, and eventually a thousand tons of cargo, the BFS will be able to carry as many as 100 people at the beginning, and Elon believes that number could grow to 200 and even above 300 people over time—like a cruise ship.

With nine Raptor engines, it’ll have more liftoff thrust on its own than any of today’s rockets—including next year’s Falcon Heavy. For a second-stage, cargo-carrying spacecraft to pack more thrust than even the most powerful first-stage rockets is outrageous.

Here’s a cross-section up close:

cross section of spacex mars spacecraft

I asked Elon what it’ll be like to ride in it. He said, “Well, you’d be in a giant spaceship in microgravity.5 I mean, it would be pretty fun. You’d be floating around.”

Good point.

In the presentation Q&A, he added: “It has to be really fun and exciting, it can’t feel cramped or boring. The crew compartment is set up so that you can do zero-g games, you can float around, there will be movies, lecture halls, cabins, a restaurant—it’ll be really fun to go.”

Um, yeah, get me on that thing now. A zero gravity cruise ship. With this view:

observatory_f_hd_3-1

And if you were to go, here’s how the whole thing would work:

1) Get on the ship. The BFR will be taking off from pad 39A at Cape Canaveral, Florida—the same pad that the Apollo astronauts left from. This is because that pad was built to be absurdly large since they didn’t know yet how big a rocket they’d be using. When you get there, you head up the tower and across the bridge into the Big Freaking Spaceship.

air-bridge

2) Take off. You strap in, and the BFR lifts off. After a few minutes, the first-stage BFB separates and heads back down to Earth. The BFS that you’re in continues onward and settles into Earth’s orbit.

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3) Refuel in orbit. After landing back on Earth, the BFB is capped with a new BFS—this one full of propellant (liquid oxygen and methane).6 It lifts off again and pings the propellant-filled spaceship into orbit, where it rendezvouses7 with your spaceship. The two connect like two orcas holding hands as the propellant is transferred.

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This happens a few more times until your spaceship is entirely refueled.8 This process is critical A) for lowering the cost of the trip, and B) for making the trip much faster. People have always thought a journey to Mars would take six or nine months, but the BFS will get there in three.

4) Head to Mars. Three months of fun times in microgravity and getting really sick of the other people on the ship.9 During the journey, the spaceship steers using cold gas thrusters, powered by huge solar arrays:

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5) Enter the Mars atmosphere. Time for the heat shield to be miserable:

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6) Land on Mars. Upright, the same way the first stage lands on Earth.

7) Live on Mars for a while doing god knows what. If it’s early on in the colonization process, you’re probably there to work and help build up the initial industries. Later on, it could be anything—research, entrepreneurship, or just simply adventure.

8) Make propellant on Mars. This will be one of the key early industries to set up on Mars. Propellant consists of liquid oxygen (O2) and methane (CH4), which are both conveniently easy to make from the massive quantities of H2O (ice) and CO2 (the main gas in the Martian atmosphere) already sitting on Mars. They’ll use this propellant to load up the spaceship you came there on in preparation for its voyage back to Earth. Doing this spares the massive expense of having to carry propellant all the way from Earth for the return trip.

9) Either stay forever or come back. If you come back, you’ll do so by boarding one of the BFS’s that came over in the last batch.

10) Land vertically on Earth. Just like you did on Mars. The spaceship will go through routine maintenance in preparation to head back to Mars two years later.

11) Be that insufferable person who can’t be part of any conversation without figuring out some way to bring up your time on Mars.

Mission complete.

This kind-of-confusing diagram sums it up:

diagram

And this video sums it up very deliciously:

So that’s the deal with the Big Freaking Rocket and how it’ll all work.10

Now let’s talk about how this all might play out.

The Plan

Back to reality. So how do we get from, “there’s this rad potential rocket that might be ready to launch in five years” to “we’re a thriving multi-planetary civilization with a million people on Mars”?

10,000 flights. That’s how many BFS trips to Mars Elon thinks it’ll take to bring the Mars population to a million.

Why 10,000? Because there will be at least 100 people on most trips, and that number will go up over time—but there will also be some people coming back from Mars each time other people go. In the lower part of each BFS will be a huge cargo compartment. Elon thinks we’ll need to get at least 10 million tons of cargo to Mars for the million-person colony to become self-sustaining, which will happen in a little over 10,000 flights if SpaceX can get the cargo payload capacity up to 1,000 tons relatively quickly, as they hope to.

And when will these 10,000 trips start?

Well let’s take a look at the Mars-Earth Synodic calendar—which deals with the dates when Earth and Mars are closest to each other (called a “Mars opposition”). Earth’s orbit is smaller than Mars’s, so Earth goes around the sun quicker—so much so that every 26 months, Earth laps Mars and they’re briefly next to each other. That’s the one time when Earth-Mars transfers can happen.

We’re currently pretty close to Mars, since the last Mars opposition happened on May 22, 2016. That’s why, if you happen to be an “oh look there’s a way-too-bright star let me take out my Sky Guide app and figure out which planet that is and then tell everyone I’m with and find that, yet again, no one cares, because everyone is a horrible person” nerd like me, you know that all summer, Mars has been super prominent and bright in our night sky.11 A year from now, Mars will be on the other side of the sun from us, and we won’t see it in our night sky at all.

The 2016 Earth-Mars opposition is also a special one, because it’s the last time it’ll happen without anybody talking about it.

Why? Because starting with the next one in July of 2018, SpaceX will start sending stuff to Mars each time there’s an opposition, and this will become increasingly big news each time. Here’s the tentative schedule, if everything goes perfectly to plan:

Upcoming Mars Oppositions – and what SpaceX is planning for each

July, 2018: Send a Dragon spacecraft (the Falcon 9’s SUV-size spacecraft) to Mars with cargo

October, 2020: Send multiple Dragons with more cargo

December, 2022: Maiden BFS voyage to Mars. Carrying only cargo. This is the spaceship Elon wants to call Heart of Gold.

January, 2025: First people-carrying BFS voyage to Mars.

Let’s all go back and read that last line again.

January, 2025: First people-carrying BFS voyage to Mars.

Did you catch that?

If things go to plan, the Neil Armstrong of Mars will touch down about eight years from now.

And zero people are talking about it.

But they will be. The hype will start a couple years from now when the Dragons make their Mars trips, and it’ll kick into high gear in 2022 when the Big Freaking Spaceship finally launches and heads to Mars and lands there. Everyone will be talking about this.

And the buzz will just accelerate from there as the first group of BFS astronauts are announced and become household names, admired for their bravery, because everyone will know there’s a reasonable chance something goes wrong and they don’t make it back alive. Then, in 2024 they’ll take off on a three-month trip that’ll be front-page news every day. When they land, everyone on Earth will be watching. It’ll be 1969 all over again.

This is a thing that’s happening.

Elon doesn’t like when people ask him about this first voyage and the Neil Armstrong of Mars. He says that it’s not about humanity putting a new multi-planetary feather in its cap, and he’s quick to point out, “putting people on the moon was super exciting—but where’s our moon base?” In other words, having humanity give Mars a high five for bragging rights is not what matters—what matters is carrying out the full vision of actually creating a full, self-sustaining civilization on Mars.

And yeah, sure, fine. But I’m excited for 2025. It’s gonna be so fun.

Anyway, so then the next Mars opposition will roll around in 2027. This time, if everything stays on track, multiple BFS’s will make the trek to Mars, carrying more people than were in the original group in 2025. And the spaceship that went over in 2025—the space Mayflowerwill make its return trip to Earth, carrying some of the first group of Mars pioneers back home. They’ll return to massive celebration as international heroes, and the legendary spaceship will head off to enjoy its life in the Air and Space Museum.

Meanwhile, we’ll all be glued to the TV12 as the group of BFS’s arrive on Mars, where the people in them will continue the grueling work started by the 2025 group. The early colonists will have a hard job like early colonists always do—and this will be extra hard. Not only will they have to truly start from scratch—digging mines and quarries and refineries, constructing the first underground village habitat with the first Martian hospitals and schools and greenhouse farms, laying down a giant plumbing system to pump water into the village, building that first rocket propellant plant—but they’ll have to do all of this in a place where they can’t go outside without a spacesuit on, and where everyone and everything they’ve ever known is on a pale blue dot in the sky.

It’ll be hard, but for the explorers of our world the payoff may be worth it. Elon says: “You can go anywhere on Earth in 24 hours. There’s no physical frontier on Earth anymore. Now, space is that frontier, so it’ll appeal to anyone with that exploratory spirit.”

In April of 2029, SpaceX will send an even larger group of spacecraft, people, and cargo to Mars. This time, it’ll probably get less attention. By 2029, we’ll probably be getting used to the idea that there are people on Mars and that every 26 months, a great two-way migration occurs.

The growing Mars colony will continue to entice the adventurers—those who read about the great sailing exhibitions of the 15th and 16th centuries and yearn to be there. When I asked Elon about how the small colony will grow and evolve, he said: “Think of the Mars colony as an organism that starts off as a zygote, and then becomes multi-cellular, and then gets organ differentiation—so it doesn’t look exactly the same all the way along, any more than the first settlement in Jamestown wasn’t representative of the United States today. It’ll be the same with Mars—Mars will be the new New World.”

The 2031 and 2033 and 2035 oppositions will bring substantially more people to the new New World. By this point, the budding Martian city will be a part of our lives. We’ll follow the Twitter feeds of some of our favorite journalists on Mars to keep up with what’s happening there. We’ll all get hooked on Mars’s first hit reality shows. And some of us will start thinking, “Should I sign up to go to Mars one of these years before I get too old?”

By 2050, there will be over a hundred thousand people on Mars. The company your son works for might have a branch there, and he’ll be saying goodbye to a couple co-workers who are about to head to the planet for a 52-month stint. He tells you that he doesn’t want to go because he doesn’t want to take his ninth-grade daughter away from her life and her friends. But he says she’s applying to a program that would bring her to Mars from the ages of 17 to 23 for an urban planning degree. You worry, even though you know it’s irrational. It’s just that you remember the days when going to Mars was risky and dangerous, and some part of you is still uncomfortable with it. And what if she decides not to come back?

By 2065, the early days of Mars seem primitive. During the first few Mars migrations, only a few spaceships made the trip with only 100 people in each, it was prohibitively expensive to go, it took three months to get there, and there were only a few very grueling industries on Mars to work in.

In 2065, every Mars opposition sees over 1,000 ships make the trip, each carrying over 500 people and a couple thousand tons of cargo. Half a million people make the journey every two years, and about 50,000 less than that come back, because Earth-to-Mars migration capacity grows a little bit each time as more ships are built. The trip, which now takes only 30 days, costs only $60,000 (in 2016 dollars)—and most people just pay off the ticket price with their well-paying job on Mars (labor is in high demand as the early Mars cities continue to expand and new cities are built).

Many people remember those early days of the Mars colony when it was all about SpaceX—funded by SpaceX or their cargo clients and driven by their ambition and their ingenuity and their guts. But now, dozens of companies specialize in Earth-Mars transit and hundreds of companies focus on development and entrepreneurship on Mars. And transit is paid for like planes and trains and buses are paid for today—by passengers buying tickets.

A decade later, the 2074 migration brings the Mars population above a million people. Small celebrations break out around both worlds, as a long-awaited landmark is achieved. Most people though, don’t even notice.

___________

Everything I just said was based on things Elon said on my phone call with him. Some of it was numbers he said directly—like the last paragraph, which came from him saying, “I’m hopeful that we can get to a million roughly 50 years after the start.” Other times it was me extrapolating a possible future, given the predictions I heard from him. It’s all based in reality. At least, it’s based in Elon Musk’s best crack at reality. He was very careful to qualify everything that sounded like a prediction or a projection with, “This is what might happen if things go well—but there’s no way to know, and many things could go wrong along the way.” He emphasized that “it’s not that SpaceX has all the answers and we’ve got it covered or anything like that—it’s that we want to show that it’s possible. But it’s far from a given.” As for things that could go wrong, he listed off a few (like World War III), and one of his biggest concerns is that if he somehow dies young, SpaceX could be taken over by someone who wants to milk the company for profit instead of staying single-mindedly focused on the Mars civilization mission.

But if SpaceX can manage to get this thing started, Elon thinks it could be not just a big deal in itself, it could jumpstart a slew of new possibilities for humanity. He explains:

The big picture isn’t just to back up the hard drive but to really change humanity into a multi-planetary species. Essentially what we’re saying is we’re establishing a regular cargo route to Mars. With the economic forcing function of interplanetary commerce, there will be the resources and the incentive to massively improve space transport technology, and I think then things really go to a whole new level.

What I’m describing may sound really crazy, but it actually will be a small fraction of what is ultimately done, as long as we become a two-planet civilization. Look at shipping technology in Europe. When all you had to do was cross the Mediterranean, the ships were pretty lame—they couldn’t cross the Atlantic. So commerce basically had short-range vessels. Without the forcing function, shipping technology didn’t improve that much—you could do the same things with ships, pretty much, around the time of Julius Caesar as you could around the time of Columbus. 1,500 years later, you could still just cross the Mediterranean. But as soon as there was a reason to cross the Atlantic, shipping technology improved dramatically. There needed to be the American colonies in order for that to happen.

The people at SpaceX believe that once we’re on Mars, the rest of the Solar System becomes accessible as well. That’s why they didn’t just create images of their Big Freaking Rocket standing proudly on Mars. They showed it flying by Jupiter.

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And Saturn.

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And bringing human explorers to faraway moons.

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They’re planning for a time when any person can go anywhere they want in our vast Solar System—a new golden age for exploration, with uncharted physical frontiers in every direction.

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If you’d like to support Wait But Why, here’s our Patreon.

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More G-rated posts from the original Elon Musk series:

Part 3, on SpaceX: How (and Why) SpaceX Will Colonize Mars [$3 PDF]
Part 4, on the thing that makes Elon so effective: The Cook and the Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce

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The Marriage Decision: Everything Forever or Nothing Ever Again

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There’s not really any normal way to start a relationship. Some people go on a date, and then another date, and then another, and one day it’s just clear to both of them that they’re in a relationship. Some people start seeing each other, but they keep things black and white until a “So are we doing this?” conversation makes it official. Sometimes a platonic friendship forms first and tension builds under the surface until an unexpected kiss lights the friendship on fire.

But there’s usually some first time that this happens:

(holding hands) stick 1: so does this mean... that you're my girlfriend? / stick 2: yeah... I think that's what it means...

And suddenly, you’re here:

couple floating on a cloud

Your new relationship is with you all the time, even when you’re not together.

smiling on a subway car

You’ve left the rest of shitty humanity behind, and it feels great. Then this happens:

stick figure couple on park bench. "I love you"

stick figure couple riding unicorns

And all the song lyrics make sense.

It goes on like this for a while, but as the months pass, you notice things changing. The unicorns turn into horses and then bikes and then one day, you’re not riding anything at all. The perfect person you found starts to say and do imperfect things. Some of those funny quirks you adored early on seem to be striking you as more annoying than funny. And it starts to dawn on you that you might be dating a fucking dick.

stick figure couple sitting on opposite ends of a couch, angry

Sometimes things go further south, as butterflies and rainbows turn into frustration and disillusionment, and the relationship that used to lift you up seems to now be boxing you in.

stick figure in a cage

All of the negative qualities you couldn’t see in the fog of love are suddenly right in your face, like a weight that’s dragging you down.

stick figure ball and chain

A lot of relationships end right about here.

But maybe, having seen the dark side of your partner, you step back and take a long look at both the good and bad together. You put away both the rose-colored glasses and the shit-colored glasses and see who you’re really dating: a three-dimensional, one-of-a-kind, beautiful, piece-of-shit human being.

Who’s the best.

stick figure couple laughing together

And the worst.

stick figure couple arguing with each other

And your teammate.

stick figures holding hands in a crowd

And your rock.

stick figure consoling another stick figure

And you decide you like what you’ve got.

And your lives go on together.

couple walking down blue road

But just when things get simple, something else starts to happen:

edges of blue road start to crack; concerned stick figure

blue road gets narrower

stick figure couple huddled on a thin blue beam (their relationship) between "soul-crushing breakup" and "permanent marriage till you die"

Society, in most parts of the world, doesn’t like when a relationship lasts too long. To society, a relationship is simply a testing ground—an incubator that prepares you for The Decision. And if too many years go by in a relationship without The Decision being made, society decides that something must be wrong. To help right the wrong, society will begin to apply pressure on the couple, from all angles.

Some people are bigger than society. Most of us are not. For most of us, society’s rules are our rules, and as you and your person walk down your blue balance beam, you can feel the walking space melt away around you. It’s time to make The Decision.

Your relationship needs to be converted into Everything Forever or Nothing Ever Again. Soon.

The typical human isn’t really equipped to make The Decision. We evolved to live short lives, during which life-altering 60-year commitments weren’t a thing. We evolved in small communities without nearly as many available options. And most of us, when presented with The Decision, have relatively little relationship experience and an incomplete understanding of our own adult selves—selves that in many cases only recently started existing.

But society doesn’t care. So you decide.

Humans have come up with four main methods to make The Decision:

Method 1) Let the other person decide

The easiest way to handle The Decision is to just not really handle it. You take a passive approach, as if you’re on a raft, going down a river, and you have no control over where the current leads you—you’re in the hands of momentum and inertia. Once you hit your mid-20s, you just wait until you get into your next relationship and then marry whoever that person happens to be, whenever/if-ever that person decides it’s time, regardless of how right or wrong the relationship is for you.

Method 2) Let your primal forces battle it out

For people determined to more actively make The Decision, the next easiest way to go is to let your emotions and primal forces figure it out. Making The Decision provides a reminder that “you” is actually a collection of voices, each weighing in from different parts of evolutionary history. Each voice has its role in the homeostasis of our normal lives, but when it’s time for something as rare and important as The Decision, there’s suddenly a brawl in your head for influence—and no one brawls harder than your primal forces. Some of the major players:

Love

Deep down, most people are sympathetic characters. And when you’re in a relationship for enough time, you’ll usually end up loving the person—even if you don’t like them. You know their whole story, which makes you care about them and the fact that they rely on you makes you feel a tremendous loyalty to them. This is the kind of love you feel for your family and closest friends, and it can exist in full force even after the feeling of being “in love” has faded. And for many people, this deep emotional connection makes it basically inconceivable to ever break up with their partner. This is a beautiful way to make The Decision when you’re in a strong, healthy relationship, and a tragedy when you’re not.

Fear

Humans specialize in making critical life decisions based on fear, and when it comes to The Decision, there’s a lot to be afraid of.

When a fearful person takes a look to the left side of the balance beam, they might see all kinds of things:

fear monsters on the "soul-crushing breakup" side

The right side of the beam isn’t much better.

fear monsters on the "permanent marriage till you die" side

Different people feel these fears at different levels of intensity, and for someone whose fear tends to run their life, it’s usually pretty simple: the particular fear that grabs them hardest by the collar ends up making The Decision.

Ego

Your ego, meanwhile, is busy staring down at a clipboard. Depending on what your ego values, that clipboard might display a checklist describing your ideal partner—their appearance, age, family background, intelligence, job, wealth, general personality type, etc. Or maybe the clipboard has a story written on it, one that was written long ago about how your life should go. Your ego will examine your current situation and see how it measures up to what’s written on the clipboard, and it’ll base The Decision on its findings.

While all of this analysis is going on, your ego sometimes also finds itself getting very hungry—for admiration, attention, and conquest. If this hunger gets too intense, it can overwhelm an ego to the point where it may sway its vote, no matter what the clipboard says.

Sex Drive

Your sex drive is not a complicated character. If it has a grilled cheese sandwich every day for lunch and then one day, you ask it if it would like to try the buffet, it’s going to say yes. Unless, of course, the grilled cheese is super fucking incredible.

So these four primal forces, along with a few others, all voice their opinion at the same time. In some people, all of the voices are in agreement about the verdict. In others, the voices disagree, but one of the voices is so loud that it drowns out the others. In both of those cases, The Decision is pretty easy.

But what happens when your primal forces provide no clear answer?

Method 3) Turn to your gut

For some reason, we have wise stomachs, and when The Decision isn’t obvious, sometimes asking your gut can do the trick.

Your gut relies on your intuition and asks one simple question:

gut - "does this feel right?"

And what makes your gut your gut is that when it answers that question, it doesn’t deliberate—it just knows the answer: a simple yes or a simple no. The gut doesn’t deal with nuance, which makes it a good match for something big and binary, like The Decision.

And for a lot of people, this works.

But there are some people who won’t end up being passive Deciders, or emotional Deciders, or gut Deciders—who won’t turn to any primal or instinctual voice when it comes to this particular decision. They’ll get to the bottom of this in spite of those voices—based on experience and evidence and data and facts. They won’t be instinct-driven or fear-driven or ego-driven or sex-driven—they’ll be guided by rationality.

The brain Deciders.

And when it comes time for them to make The Decision, they’re in big trouble.

Method 4) Figure it out in your brain

The prefrontal cortex is kind of like the brain’s brain. It’s the part of you that sorts through information and makes plans and predictions and weighs evidence. It’s great at using what it learns to draw conclusions about how to act or what to do—as long as it knows the rules of the game and has access to the right information. And when it’s time for The Decision, your brain will do what it always does when confronted by a fork in the road—it’ll attempt to think and assess and analyze its way to the optimal rational answer.

Something as important and permanent as The Decision requires conviction, and conviction requires a source. No source of conviction, no Decision.

The source of the heart’s conviction is its love and care for the other person. The source of the ego’s conviction is its belief in its clipboard. Fear and sex drive derive their conviction from the obvious—fear and sex. The source of the gut’s conviction is an instinctive feeling that emerges from experience. And an inertia-y person gets their conviction from the conviction of someone else. Those sources are what allow people to make The Decision with relative ease.

The brain hears these voices, but it discredits their conviction in each case because the certainty emerges from what the brain sees as an irrational place. For the brain, the only respectable source of conviction is sound evidence.

And good luck with that.

If you’re typically a brain person, when it comes to The Decision, you want to try to not be you. Because the brain, for all its merits, does not do well in this situation, where the outcome is critical and evidence is hard to come by. Let’s look at how it might go:

Maybe you start by looking over to the marriage side of the balance beam—where you see a house.

house

That’s the house of the life you’re about to sign up for. You really enjoy your relationship, so you’re excited about what might be inside that house. But the house is also mysterious, because you don’t really know what either you or your partner will be like as a spouse or how either of you will grow or change in the future. Not much concrete evidence there.

So you turn and look over at the breakup side of the beam. You see a path, and a couple walking down it.

stick figure couple walking down a road

That road is whatever life you’d end up living if you were to move on from your relationship, and that’s the marriage you’d end up in. The marriage that might have been.

What kind of marriage would that be, and what adventures lie down that road? Maybe your life on that road would be much happier than whatever’s in that house on the other side, and maybe your current partner would end up happier somewhere else too. Or maybe you’d look back and realize that you made the biggest mistake of your life. Without knowing anything about that other path, there’s no way to compare it to the house on the other side. Again, no real evidence.

So you take a closer look at the one thing you have actual information about: your current relationship.

You decide to make a big chart where you list all the things you like and don’t like about your relationship—a relationship-assessment chart. You end up here:

Venn: Things I Want to Have in a Relationship and Things I Don't Want to Deal With in a Relationship. (from left to right) blue: Things I Wish I Had, green: Things I'm Happy I Have, yellow: Things I Wish I Didn't Have to Deal With, red: Things I'm Happy I Don't Have to Deal With

Fucking great—now what? All relationships—the good ones and the bad ones—have a chart that looks like that, with things in all four of those zones: blue, green, yellow, and red. And without much relationship experience or marriage expertise, you have no good way to evaluate whether your particular diagram looks as promising as you hope it does or whether there are red flags in it that you’re not seeing that will lead to major issues later. You try comparing your relationship to those that your friends are in—but it’s hard to know what really goes on in other relationships, and each one is so complicated and unique anyway that it’s mostly apples and oranges.

Without any way to construct an airtight argument in either direction, you’re left feeling very little conviction about the situation. Because the stakes are so high, you become paranoid about making the wrong choice, and every time you think you might have an answer, you second-guess yourself.

The whole thing quickly becomes a mindfuck. You try talking yourself into feeling good about marriage by reminding yourself that every relationship has flaws and that marriage is all about acceptance—but then you realize that that’s also exactly how someone sounds when they’re talking themselves into settling for the wrong person. In both of those cases, the green and red zones of the diagram provide more than enough material to construct a full “why this is a great decision” argument. Likewise, if you wanted to play devil’s advocate and look at the reasons this might not be the right marriage for you, the blue and yellow sections of the diagram would make it easy—whether breaking up is a wise move or a foolish one.

And because the diagram and its four zones allow you to so effortlessly construct whatever convincing narrative you want to about your relationship and The Decision, you worry that anything that feels like conviction is just you falling for a narrative created by fear or ego or some other deep-down motivation.

Unable to come to a trustworthy conclusion, the brain person becomes a Paralyzed Pre-Marriage Relationship Person. A PPMRP has three options:

1) Procrastinate. Until you die, until your partner dies, or until your partner breaks up with you.

2) Turn back around and succumb to one of the primal forces. Maybe if you wait for a while, your fear of being single at 36 will overpower your dedication to rationality?

3) Come up with a decision-making litmus test that actually works.

Assuming you don’t find the first two options ideal, let’s talk about litmus tests.

The “actually works” part of option 3 is important, because people often come up with decision-making litmus tests that don’t actually tell you anything. For example:

An overly-broad, one-size-fits-all litmus test is a bad litmus test.

Like, “If I’m still toiling over this three years in, that’s probably a sign this isn’t the right thing for me.” Or, “I’m sure if we’ve been together this long, there’s a good reason for that.” Or, “If I still have the desire to sleep with other people, it must mean my heart’s not in this.”

Litmus tests like those suggest that everyone who toils over the marriage decision should break up or that every couple who’s together for a long time should get married or that no one in a great relationship still wants to sleep with other people. Different people do things like toil or stay together or feel promiscuous—or 100 other things—for totally different reasons, so broad statements like those don’t help with anything.

A litmus test that always yields the answer “We should get married” is a bad litmus test.

Like, “When I picture them standing on the altar with someone else, it’s a horrible thought—that must mean it’s the right move to marry them.” Or, “When we broke up for three days last month, I missed them unbearably—and it told me all I need to know.” Or, “I care about them more than anything and really want the best for them—that’s how I know I want to be with them.”

All these litmus tests tell you is that you A) feel possessive, B) feel attached, and C) love the person. In most long relationships—good and bad—the people in them feel all three of these things. The only real information you learn with tests like these is that you are, in fact, in a relationship.

A litmus test that always yields the answer “We should break up” is a bad litmus test.

Any version of the question, “Is this person a great match for me in every important way?” or “Is this person the best person for me?”

No, the person isn’t a great match for you in every important way. That has never happened before in our species. Likewise, there are at least a few hundred million people in the world that match your sexual preference. Only one of them is the best possible person for you. The chances that you were ever in the same square mile as that person are tiny, and the chances that you’re currently dating them are you’re not currently dating them. Litmus tests like these either require you to have a delusional view of your partner or the world, or they’re pretty much guaranteed to yield the conclusion that you need to break up and continue your quest for The One.

People struggling with The Decision crave guidance, and while statements like all of these can feel like a rescue line out of the PPMRP quagmire in the form of some larger wisdom, they don’t actually tell you anything about what you should do.

A good system for tortured brain people

I’m not an expert on this, nor am I married—but I’ve read a lot about it, and I’ve had a front row seat for a large handful of case studies, watching friends go through The Decision and talking to them about it while it was happening. And I think if we just use common sense, we can probably figure out what a hopeless brain person can do in this situation—so let’s give it a try.

To me, a good system might be as simple as these two steps:

Step 1) Find out where your gut is leaning, using thought experiments.

The gut is a real thing. And for our purposes here, your gut is the little kid in you who just wants one outcome more than the other.

The problem for brain people is that they’re by definition not gut people. The gut draws its wisdom from a mysterious place the prefrontal cortex does not understand, which makes brain people suspicious of the gut’s conclusions.

And suspicion is fine here, since your gut’s wisdom is limited by your experience and guts are often proven wrong with time—but the gut’s opinion is still important information.

Gut people have good practice at communicating with their gut about important decisions. Brain people do not—and the usual gut question—”does this feel right?”—won’t work. So we need to use thought experiments to isolate the gut’s voice amongst the cacophony in your head. Exercises like these are best designed by you, for you, since only you know you. But here are some ideas:

One kind of thought experiment creates a simulation in your head, which acts like a fishing fly, and our goal is to try to get the gut to be fooled by the simulation for a moment and jump at the bait, revealing what it really wants.

Something like: “Imagine you were being arranged married by the town matchmaker and she handed you an envelope with your to-be spouse’s name written inside. You open the envelope and it’s the name of your current partner.” This image might just make your gut jump up for a second and say, “Phew!” Or maybe instead, it would deflate just a little, just for a moment. If either happens, that’s good information.

Another type of thought experiment tries to get at the general yes or no feeling the question “does this feel right?” is supposed to reveal, but with some real on-the-nose imagery.

Like: “Picture two gravestones next to each other—yours and your partners. Does that feel right?”

Some of the most telling thought experiments help hear what the gut’s saying by trying to remove the often deafening voice of fear from the question and seeing if that changes anything.

For example, to test whether a resistance to breaking up is just a dread of the actual breakup itself, you could ask: “If there were a big green button in front of me that, if pressed, would make me fully single, where everything has been worked out with getting our things from each other’s apartments, where everyone in my life already knows, and where I’m totally emotionally recovered and moving on—in fact, I have a date tonight—would I press the button?”

Or if the real fear is of being single for years and years and never finding a new relationship, the button could do all of those things but also include “and I’m immersed in a new relationship.”

A fear of eternal commitment could be sussed out with a question like, “What if The Decision weren’t between breaking up and marriage, but only between breaking up and committing to the relationship for the next five years?”

If thought exercises like these leave you with the feeling that your inner inner self is “pulling” for the relationship, that’s promising.

But it’s not enough.

Step 2) Figure out what your deal-breakers are.

Let’s bring back our relationship assessment chart:

relationship Venn diagram between "things I want to have in a relationship" and "things I don't want to deal with in a relationship"

As we established earlier, this chart doesn’t provide much insight into how The Decision should go, because almost every relationship—the good and the bad, the healthy and the harmful, those built to last and those doomed to fail—has a chart like this, where it checks some of the right boxes and some of the wrong boxes, and also misses some of each. And yet, certain charts map out happy couples and others do not. So what’s the difference?

Deal-breakers.

Even though these charts show that there are many, many things we want from a relationship, our ability to be happy only depends on a small percentage of them.

Our relationship chart is like a happiness puzzle, and the items in the green and yellow zones are the pieces. The right question to ask about the chart isn’t, “Is this perfect for me?” or, “Will I automatically be happy if this is my chart?” The right question is, “How can I work with these pieces to figure out how to make myself and my partner happy?” If you’re a good puzzler, with some work and compromise—i.e. some adultness—you’ll probably be able to figure it out.

Unless the chart is missing one of your deal-breakers.

Your deal-breakers are the things that, if not part of your relationship, will guarantee your unhappiness. They’re things that no amount of hard work or compromise or maturity can fix. Your must-haves—and your must-not-haves.

A deal-breaker usually comes in the format:

There’s no way I can figure out how to be happy with someone who is / isn’t ____.

There’s no way I can figure out how to be happy with someone who does / doesn’t ____.

There’s no way I can figure out how to be happy with someone who values / doesn’t value ____.

There’s no way I can figure out how to be happy with someone who treats me / doesn’t treat me ____.

There’s no way I can figure out how to be happy with someone who believes / doesn’t believe ____.

Or maybe:

Out of principle, I will only be with / will not be with someone who ____.

Most real deal-breakers will be broad—e.g. “I may be able to fall in love with a negative person, but I could never be happy with that person.” Or, “I will never be with someone who makes my self-esteem lower.” Or, “I could never be happy with someone who isn’t intellectually curious.” Or something clean-cut like, “I could never be happy with someone who refused to have children.”

Deal-breakers that are more specific in nature can in some cases make sense—maybe you love dogs so much that it would truly impede you from being a happy person if you ended up with someone who didn’t want to own a dog—but they should be rare.

The key with all of these is that there are very few. These aren’t wants—these are needs. Your wants are important, but remember, the only people even eligible for the deal-breaker test are those who have already passed the gut test—plenty of your wants have already been taken care of in step 1 of our system.

Knowing your deal-breakers can help you know the right relationship when you see it, but it can also go a long way for anyone already in a relationship, because it lends insight into one of the trickiest aspects of a relationship: compromise. A great way to be unhappy is to refuse to compromise on things you wish were true about your relationship that aren’t. But another great way to be unhappy is to be too willing to compromise on your deal-breakers. That’s why this is so important—deal-breakers not only help Deciders and single people figure out what should be unacceptable in a relationship, they also remind already-Decided people that most of the problems in their relationship are probably non-deal-breakers that it’s okay to chill out about. Because so many relationship problems boil down to one or both members treating non-deal-breakers like deal-breakers—or vice versa.

And that’s really it. This gut check / deal-breakers system suggests that the mindfuck of The Decision is actually pretty simple—if a relationship successfully makes it through both steps 1 and 2, get married. If it doesn’t, don’t.

At least that’s what the system says.

But who knows. Relationships are impossibly complicated. And making a black-and-white binary decision about something that’s anything but black-and-white is kind of an insane thing to do.

And of course, even if it’s the right system, it’s not actually easy because assessing step 1 and step 2 isn’t easy. Getting a reading from your gut that you can trust is no small task for someone who typically lives in their brain—and figuring out what your deal-breakers are requires a serious deep-dive into your soul.

But for now, at least it’s a system—and a system you can hang on to. Which is just what some of us need.

stick figure hands clinging on to the (now very thin) blue balance beam

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If you liked this:

Another Wait But Why deep dive into the quandaries of figuring out who to marry: How to Pick a Life Partner

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