Elon Musk and his company SpaceX plan to put a human on Mars by the year 2024. If successful, it will be the most extraordinary accomplishment in the history of the known universe.
It will take a team of thousands of scientists tackling complicated engineering tasks that most of us can’t fathom. Each piece of the daunting ‘human on Mars’ challenge will need to be imagined, designed, built, tested, modified, retested again and again, and executed flawlessly under narrow timelines.
Despite the gauntlet of enormous challenges the team faces, they plan to accomplish the mission in about seven years.
If SpaceX can’t do it, Lockheed Martin and NASA are planning to orbit the red planet by 2028 and land a person on it in the 2030’s. Another space race is brewing, this time with friendly adversaries.
This got me thinking. If SpaceX can aspire to put a human on Mars in seven years, shouldn’t I be able to retire before then?
Obviously, these aren’t comparable tasks. But it’s very safe to say my challenge is far simpler and attainable. Millions of times simpler.
Full retirement for me is currently set for 2031 (though I plan to scale back work in 2022), a full seven years after humanity may potentially walk on Mars. That makes me reconsider how much time I actually need. The challenges for me, a singular human trying to save enough money and build income streams, are minuscule compared to the massive engineering challenges faced by rocket scientists.
If humankind can attempt to accomplish such a feat, surely, at the very least, you and I can motivate our asses to accomplish more in our daily lives.
The Challenges of Landing a Human on Mars
Elon Musk has a tendency to set unrealistic goals in order to motivate his employees to achieve more. He even says in his latest Mars presentation that 2024 is an aspirational timeline. But if he can motivate people with tight deadlines, maybe I can do the same for myself.
We’ll see how his plan progresses each year as the company reaches new milestones. To see the latest presentation on becoming an interplanetary species, check out this video from September 29th, 2017.
Here are just a few challenges they face.
Design and Build the “BFR” Rocket
In order to propel the needed cargo and humans to Mars, SpaceX announced it is working on what is for now coded named the BFR, or Big Falcon Rocket (or Big ‘effing’ Rocket).
The BFR will eventually replace the next-generation Falcon Heavy rocket that SpaceX is currently planning to test launch at the end of this year. The Falcon Heavy is scheduled to carry two space tourists to the moon and back by the end of 2018.
The scale of the BFR is difficult to comprehend. The rocket is 9 meters in diameter (about 30 ft) and 106 meters in height (longer than a football field). It will be capable of lifting 150 tons (300,000 pounds) into earth’s orbit and the boosters will return to the launch site for reuse. This rocket hasn’t been built yet. But it’s scale is similar to the Saturn V rocket that NASA used for Moon exploration.
What’s most impressive is the BFR’s cost. By eventually focusing all of SpaceX’s resources on the BFR, the company will make it one of the least expensive rockets ever.
You can’t just point a rocket at Mars and press launch. Mars and Earth are always orbiting the sun. Every 780 days, the orbits of Mars and Earth are optimized for a launch that uses the least amount of fuel and takes the shortest amount of time, about 300 days to make the journey.
The limited launch window restricts the flexibility of sending spacecraft to Mars. SpaceX is currently planning to send two cargo ships to land on Mars in 2022 and four more in 2024 which will include astronauts.
As explained in this article on the Verge, a primary concern about traveling to and inhabiting Mars is space radiation.
Deep space is filled with tiny energized particles — either from solar flares or deep-space cosmic rays — that have the potential to harm people during the voyage. Astronauts on the International Space Station are largely shielded from this radiation thanks to Earth’s magnetic field, which deflects most of the deep-space particles. But those on missions to Mars will not have the planet’s magnetic shielding, and it’s not known what effects that might have on the human body.
Elon Musk thinks the risk of space radiation is low. But studies, tests, and shielding materials will need to be deployed before sending humans that far into deep space.
Musk estimates he can get twelve people to Mars to start a colony for about $10 billion but that seems unrealistic. NASA’s estimates are in the hundreds of billions of dollars. I’ve seen estimates as high as $1.5 trillion. In any case, all of this needs to be paid for.
Re-usability of rockets is paramount to lowering costs and SpaceX has proven they can do this by landing boosters safely after delivering payloads. But funding is still needed. It’s assumed a private/government partnership will eventually be needed to cover the costs. However, Musk believes it can be paid for by launch services for low-earth orbit for satellites and the space station.
Construct fuel factory on Mars
This one blows my mind. After finding a suitable water source, the next priority on Mars is to build a fuel factory on the planet. According to Musk, making fuel isn’t that difficult if they can find a suitable water source and utilize the Sabatier reaction discovered in the 1910’s to create rocket fuel. This isn’t necessary to get the first feet on Mars, but so cool to imagine.
The Challenges of Early Retirement
No human has ever walked on Mars. So SpaceX and Lockheed/NASA have their work cut out for themselves.
The big advantage we have when imagining early retirement is that many people have already done it. There are many ways to do it, and a blueprint for each. Just follow how someone has already done it. I prefer the multiple streams of income approach to early retirement, building passive income to cover my expenses combine with withdrawing funds from savings to cover the rest.
A more conventional approach in the FIRE community is to build a nest egg and rely upon the 4% safe withdrawal rule to live off of savings.
Either method requires sacrifice, a high savings rate, lower costs of living, and decent investment returns.
High Savings Rate
Way back in 2012, a blogger named of Mr. Money Mustache, an earlier retiree himself, laid out the math behind early retirement. He called it the Shockingly Simple Math Behind Early Retirement.
This article has become sacred text in the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) community. It states that the time it takes to achieve early retirement depends on one factor: Your savings rate, as a percentage of your take-home pay.
Based on a few assumptions, you can figure out how long it takes to retire early based on your savings rate, starting from a net worth of zero. See the second chart in the above post to see where this is coming from.
From the chart, we learn that if you can save 75% of your take-home pay, you can retire in seven years.
So there’s your challenge. If you can earn, let’s say, $100,000 per year and live off of just $25,000, you should be able to retire in seven years, “the Mustashian way” before a human walks on Mars. If you prefer to aim for the 2030’s like Lockheed/NASA, you’ll need to save about 55% to retire in 15 years.
Fortunately, if your net worth is not zero, you have some wiggle room on that savings rate.
Low Cost of Living
The secret to early retirement is not great wealth. It’s being content with less. If you can be happy in a small mortgage-free home or cheap rental, and your annual living expenses are low, you can retire with far less in the bank than those with high living expenses.
Housing costs are most important for keeping your cost of living low. When you choose your housing needs, keep in mind your long-term goals instead of buying what a realtor says you can afford.
The Price of Retiring
To get a basic round number to know if you can retire, take your annual expenses and multiply by 25. For example, if your cost of living is $60,000, then your financial independence number is $1.5 million. $1.5 million of assets would allow you to safely withdraw 4% ($60,000) over 30 years or so.
That’s a very basic equation. Lowering your withdrawal rate, earning side income, or adding in Social Security can extend the life of a nest egg in perpetuity. The majority of us should be able to retire on $1 to $2 million of assets, not including home equity.
Invest For Conservative 5% Returns
Building wealth comes down to three principals; earn more, spend less, and invest the surplus. I call this the Triforce of Wealth.
Investing is a vital component. Tax-advantaged investing should be the priority since you’ll save even more through tax avoidance.
The numbers in the MMM article assumes you can invest your money to get conservative returns of 5% after adjusting for inflation. A conservative mix of stocks, fixed income, and real estate should easily return 5% over seven years, barring any major economic calamity in that period.
Now that we’ve looked at the challenges of both landing a human on Mars and retiring early, let’s compare.
If you’ve even made it this far, you might be rolling your eyes over this ridiculous comparison. Thanks for bearing with me.
When faced with difficult decisions about your money, or when you have the chance to choose between long-term goals and short-term wants, keep this idea in mind: The road is paved for you. The only real challenge is deciding you want to retire early and following through. Retiring early is not a difficult task if you follow a plan and make sacrifices.
One could argue that it would be easier for all of SpaceX, Lockheed, and NASA’s rocket scientists to retire early than for them to put a human on Mars.
Fortunately, for humanity’s sake, they are far more passionate about the exploring the new frontiers of the universe and human existentialism than they are about retiring early.
Photo credit: WikiImages via Pixabay CC0