What Can the Firearms Industry Learn from Elon Musk’s “Interplanetary Civilization” Speech?

Image source: SpaceX

Image source: SpaceX

We are currently living in the most exciting era in space exploration in history, one arguably even more important – and certainly more dynamic – than when the Apollo Moon landing program was ongoing in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, a commercial space industry is set to provide transport to low Earth orbit (LEO) for NASA astronauts or even commercial passengers, and just yesterday Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, gave a presentation detailing his vision not just for landing humans on Mars, but for making the human race a true interplanetary civilization by opening up access to the rest of the solar system for anyone willing to go.

His plan is even more audacious than it sounds: SpaceX is developing a rocket that weighs more than ten-thousand metric tonnes on launch, which will ferry a hundred or more people at a time to the surface of Mars. This rocket is much larger and heavier than any rocket ever built or projected to be built. Its supercooled metholox closed-cycle engines will allow rapid transport to and return from Mars through in-situ fuel production, allowing maximum use of interplanetary windows to land as many ships as possible on the Red Planet, to (relatively) quickly establish a self-sustaining human colony on the surface. As Musk said in his presentation, “This is different than Apollo”; a fleet of colony ships headed for another planet is an unprecedented human endeavor in both nature and scale.

It’s not necessary to watch the presentation before reading the rest of this article, although I highly recommend any of my readers who are even remotely interested in the subject do so.

How does this tie in to our subject here at The Firearm Blog? Since the 1980s, there has been talk of whether or not the firearms industry has reached a “plateau”, in other words whether development of fundamentally new and different firearms has slowed or even stopped in the past several decades. The answer to this is not unquestionably “yes”, but it’s difficult to deny that today’s industry – which centers around 60- or even 70-year old designs – is at best moving slowly forward. How do we jump start the engine of innovation once again? Musk tells us:

I think what a lot of people don’t appreciate is that technology does not automatically improve. It only improves if a lot of really strong engineering talent is applied to the problem, that it improves. And there are many examples in history where civilizations have reached a certain technology level, and then have fallen well below that, and then recovered only millennia later.

The health of the firearms industry may not decide the fate of our civilization, sure, but his point is no less applicable. Only through dedicated application of talent and manpower will small arms break through the cocoon in which it now slumbers, and once again wake up. The good news is that there are more intelligent, talented people in our industry now than ever before, and we can learn from Musk’s success with SpaceX to forge a path ahead.

In the presentation above, Musk gives a brief overview of the company’s history, tracing its growth from a small, bare office holding a mariachi party to arguably the most important player in space exploration today. When it started, SpaceX was just a vision and a small collection of talent. Today it is the only entity to have (among numerous other achievements) ever landed under a first stage booster from an orbital launch under its own power, something the company has now done no less than five times – four of those onto an unmanned barge in the ocean.

Perhaps more instructive for us than the company’s successes, though, are its failures. The first three rockets – all Falcon 1s – ever flown by SpaceX were failures resulting in the losses of both the launch vehicles and their payloads, and the first of these failed within 34 seconds of launch. These were not simply the company “finding its feet”, either; space launch and exploration is a high-risk endeavor, and those who undertake it must expect to become good friends with failure. Indeed, Musk’s presentation comes on the heels of SpaceX’s biggest failure yet: The loss of Falcon 9 Full Thrust F9-029 and its AMOS-6 payload occurred on just the first of this month, and was a major setback to the company.

Musk and SpaceX’s secret is that they are prepared for failure, and determined to continue in spite of it. “The risk of fatality will be high” on the first of SpaceX’s Mars missions, Musk said in his presentation. Risk acceptance of this kind is completely at odds with traditional risk-averse business practices, but it’s the only way to attack new frontiers and lay the groundwork for future industry. A firearms company that wishes to overturn the current status quo and restart the engine of ingenuity must accept this risk as part of the bargain, not as something to be avoided.

With the Interplanetary Transport System, SpaceX has shown us another way of breaking out of our cocoon: To defy convention, and dream big. In some professional circles, the ideal launch vehicle size for interplanetary exploration is a vehicle that can launch 50 metric tonnes of payload into low earth orbit. This size is seen as the most economical one, small enough to be useful for commercial satellite launch, while still achieving a high enough payload to allow practical in-orbit assembly of an interplanetary-capable spacecraft. However, a 50 tonne vehicle is completely incompatible with SpaceX’s vision, and they have taken instead the route of a 500-tonne-to-LEO behemoth. It is the only way to achieve the kind of passenger density per mission that Musk believes is necessary for planetary colonization, as opposed to mere exploration. Musk’s Interplanetary Launch System is far, far higher risk than a smaller rocket, but the paradigm-shattering vision of interplanetary colonization demands it.

Along the way, Musk’s 100-passenger-per-ship model has solved or at least greatly reduced one of the great unknowns of trans-Martian spaceflight: How does a small group of people – possibly as few as 4 – deal psychologically with spending years all alone in outer space, months or even years away from other human contact or help? What sort of “desert island syndrome” might crews of such a flight experience during their journey to and from the Martian surface? Musk’s proposal mitigates this problem to the maximum possible degree. The Interplanetary Transport System would ferry not a small crew of explorer-heroes, but effectively an entire human tribe to the surface of Mars, and the routine missions to the planet’s surface that Musk envisions would only increase that number. This maximizes the manpower available for a Mars mission, and could solve a number of potential problems with interplanetary spaceflight.

SpaceX’s success now and (hopefully) in the future has always incorporated a sense that “nothing is off the table”; as proof of this, consider that a decade ago a commercial spaceflight company landing a reusable rocket under its own power onto a barge in the middle of the ocean would have been virtually unthinkable. Such a task was simply too technically complicated, and for what financial gain? Yet, Musk’s vision demanded an architecture that could lower the cost of spaceflight enough to make practical his ultimate goal of routine interplanetary spaceflight. The “how” took a backseat to the goal itself, a rearrangement which completely changed the calculus of space launch for SpaceX, relative to all other space launch programs in the world.

With all the talk of “vision” and “dreams”, it’s easy to see SpaceX as a maverick, rogue entity in mankind’s space exploration frontier, but – as Musk points out – close cooperation with the traditional space exploration organizations has been key to the company’s success. Musk describes himself as “NASA’s biggest fan”, and says that NASA is SpaceX’s “number one customer”. In the firearms industry, this kind of partnership with – but independence from – the traditional centers of small arms development (chiefly the US Army) is critical. We have seen with the Improved Carbine competition and other Army endeavors that in many cases government-driven vision cannot be relied upon to produce results. Instead, it’s up to the private sector to take up the mantle and Dream Big, but in doing so traditional government customers must be courted if any groundbreaking small arms program is to be financially feasible.

SpaceX has achieved this through a sort of “modal” development: As Musk points out in the presentation, the company’s Dragon capsule has been designed for powered descent (meaning that engines are used instead of parachutes or wings to slow the craft down for landing), which makes its capability to land completely independent of the characteristics of the celestial body it is landing on. Put differently, SpaceX designed Dragon (and Dragon 2) to fit the vision of interplanetary travel, while serving a commercial purpose as a resupply and crew capsule for orbital missions in the meantime. This kind of flexible-path development has allowed the company to pursue the very costly development of the technologies and techniques needed for interplanetary missions and low-cost-to-LEO space launch while at the same time maintaining the business model that makes them able to operate independent of government grants and research contracts. If, like Elon, you believe that the vision must be achieved if at all possible, this is the only way to provide for its ultimate success.

A 500-tonne-to-LEO rocket would be dismissed by many professionals as ludicrous or impractical, but Musk and SpaceX’s acceptance of risk allowed them to think outside of that box, and Musk’s Big Dream drove him to think about his problem on a fundamental level to find a solution irrespective of conventional wisdom. The company’s determined perseverance in the face of massive failure has already given them a place in the history books, and has made them in the eyes of many the best hope for a revolution in space exploration. A soundly engineered path for success, viable as both a research program and business venture simultaneously, has given them the independence to pursue the vision regardless of the circumstances, and their embrace of – but independence from – government agencies as customers and partners has given them the vitality they need to maintain an intensity of development that no other private agency has been able to achieve without a direct government request.

What could the firearms industry achieve if it were willing to dismiss conventional wisdom, and instead pursue a Big Dream? Could we finally realize caseless ammunition, which experts (including myself) say is infeasible? Could handheld energy weapons become a reality? Or, could we rethink the problem entirely, and come up with something entirely new? We will not know until we try.



Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.


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  • Giolli Joker

    Replying to the title: “That we need to design firearms for different atmospheric and gravitational conditions”

    • Green Hell

      I think a few good old white painted AR-15’s with sub-sonic loads will be fine for now. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/19ad45b5f7aa68d3eb8437100ff50c316f42ed915b60fb7cce67601bb1a8835b.jpg

      • Giolli Joker

        Damn… same old yankees, you already canned the ARES* competition of the US Army, right before they could spend 50 million tax$ on it, with the usual “let’s just update our M4”!

        *Assault Rifle for Exploration of Space

        • LCON

          the First Mars war

      • SP mclaughlin

        Destiny intro?

    • Needs to be a gyrojet so that there’s no thrust when you fire in zero g. 😉

      • Paladin

        Even a gyrojet would still generate thrust in microgravity, though admittedly less than a traditional firearm. the only truly reactionless weapons are DEWs. A simpler solution would just be to align the weapon to the user’s centre of mass to avoid induced torque and make it easy to counter the thrust with an MMU.

        • It was a reference to Leviathan Wakes.

          • Paladin

            ahhh. It’s been a few years since I read that one, can’t quite remember where the Gyrojet came up.

          • A bearded being from beyond ti

            Ohh nice, love those books.

      • Green Hell

        Maybe a Barrett style muzzle brake so you could use your gun as a jetpack.

      • mechamaster

        https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/1f02514276796ed1341cb42132a73a4525258ce11847d42d9820c5fdca8bf901.jpg

        It is possible to utilize some of the recoilles-rifle design ? ( in space-vacuum / microgravity )

  • JumpIf NotZero

    Firearms, not (whatever this is).

    Plz

    • PK

      This directly relates to firearms, in so far as pushing the boundaries is appropriate for technological advances to be made rather than gradual refinement of existing ideas.

      • tt_ttf

        that is a just ridiculous stretch argument that requires all manner of mental gymnastics to make

      • All That Is Left Unsaid

        By that same logic I could write an article titled “The jackless iPhone 7: what the gun industry can learn from Apples bold deviation from convention” and it would belong here because it tenuousely relates to guns.

    • Yeah, I agree, cross-disciplinary technical discussion is for NERDS!

  • Cap’n Mike

    Thanks for another thought provoking article Nathaniel.

  • A bearded being from beyond ti
  • Am I reading a call to directed energy arms here? A man-portable mass driver manifesto? Particle beams in our time?

    Sign me up– if we can’t have the atomic powered rocket cars we were promised, we should at least get som dadgum ray guns.

    • Bob

      Do you honestly think if they started making “rayguns” that civilians would be allowed to own them? Firearms have been grandfathered in, but something totally new like that…

      • …Would require new laws to be passed, taking ATF and their rule-by-fiat scheme out of the equation. They have no jurisdiction over directed energy.

  • xebat

    I really hope that the second amendment will be enforced on Mars.
    Mars administrator will never take the space colonists guns.
    Molon Labe earthlings !

    • Sunshine_Shooter

      That really depends entirely on the government that claims authority on Mars. The new colonies would probably start off under the leadership of one back on Earth, but would they end up independent or remain colonies? That’s the real question.

      • iksnilol

        Probably would become independent. I mean, what are we gonna do? Fly over there and bomb them? Wouldn’t be worth the cost.

        • ostiariusalpha

          It is if you send autonomous machines over to do the bombing.

          Anti-gunner of the Future: “What do you think your silly little thousand-round gauss rifle is going to do against an Apocalypse-class orbital killbot?”

        • Warren Ellis

          Another issue is that if they cut themselves off from Earth, they’d better be really self-sufficient. Because you can’t just go outside on Mars even if a colony is established. Because unless they have asteroid mining or whatever, they’re going to be completely dependent on food and supplies from Earth I imagine.

          Hell the people being sent will probably have to be the best and brightest so as not to screw up and die when they get there.

  • Jason Statham

    The difference is the majority of the space industry wants efficiency and quality, no matter the cost, whereas the majority of the gun market wants cheap, affordable, and cheap.

    • PK

      Efficiency in the space industry appears to be best bang for the buck, just on a larger scale.

      Still, you’re not wrong, not one bit, about the usual desires of firearms buyers! Cheap, high quality, and right now, but also affordable and inexpensive.

      Striking a balance between those mutually exclusive requirements has people continuing to buy higher end items and plenty of middle-of-the-road options, or we’d all just buy Phoenix/Jennings/Lorcin pistols and 870 knockoffs from China.

    • gunsandrockets

      The business management who run the majority of the space industry only cares about the near term bottom line. And the U.S. Congress who fund NASA mainly care about pork for their districts.

      Which is why manned spaceflight has been stagnant ever since the end of the Apollo Program and the beginning of the STS (Shuttle program).

    • ozzallos .

      Rather, they are *forced* by the laws of physics to build quality, efficient vehicles.

  • Mike C

    IMHO, firearms development has been stifled the world over by government; just look at the once great factories shuttered by lack of government contract and no civilian market to drive sales and innovation.
    We’d see greater development of NFA items if they were de regulated.
    That being said, the optimal firearm actions have been discovered, which is why they keep re using them in almost every firearm.

    • GD Ajax

      Put down the Ayn Rand crack pipe Europe makes innovative firearms on a yearly basis even with tough regulations. American firms have a mentally retarded Nimby complex that is holding the rest of the industry back

      • iksnilol

        Yeah, but we’d make cooler guns if we were less restricted.

        I mean, controllable machine pistols are dead because they can’t be sold.

        • Mike C

          Select fire PDWs would actually be a market, and maybe AR-15s wouldn’t have such a huge share of it.

        • GD Ajax

          Or maybe it’s time to accept that machine pistols are a technological dead end. Unless DefendTex brings back the Metal Storm pistol.

          • iksnilol

            Nah, machine pistols can be made useful.

            Just need an electronic trigger to bring it down to 300 rpm.

      • gunsandrockets

        Like France these days?

        • Mike C

          England too, last I checked, their service rifle is an abortion of a bullpup AR-18 they had the Germans fix for them.
          Germany has HK who always seems to be close to bankruptcy without a government contract because they won’t sell civilians the guns they want.
          Seems as if many countries aren’t buying domestic replacements for their service rifles.

          • Stan Darsh

            Correct. Sterling had a contract to license-produce AR180s, which were always bottom-of-the-barrel quality compared to Costa Mesa and Howa AR180s. The contract ended around the time England was looking to adopt a 5.56 NATO rifle and thought encasing a Sterling AR180 in a bullpup stock would be the best (cheapest) solution. It wasn’t until BAE bought H&K and subsequantly had their German engineers remedy most of the major flaws that the rifle became decent.

        • GD Ajax

          The Famas itself was a mistake. Nexter was heaving money for over a decade so that’s hardly equivalent

    • Bill

      Deregulation won’t impact the NFA market; the numbers sold on the civilian side is minuscule compared to the .gov/mil

      • PK

        It wouldn’t directly effect sales/interest, no. It would allow those who tinker to do so, it would remove the burden of 07/02 from the sort of person who might become the next Stoner or Browning.

        Unlikely, but possible. It’s folly to close that avenue of innovation.

      • iksnilol

        here’s where you’re sorta wrong:

        military doesn’t like to experiment. Sure us civvies like to play it safe too but we have a much higher chance of purschasing novelties than LEO or military.

        So at the very least deregulating NFA would lead to new inventions in the field.

        • Bill

          To a point, but look at the expense of developing a really radical novelty versus the potential loss, without any .gov support or specs. See the Dardick, Gyrojet, electronic triggers or smart gun.

          • Ben Pottinger

            Even with idiotic levels of regulation the civilian market has completely driven the massive technilogical performance increase in suppressors. So yes, deregulating NFA would absolutely see an increase in innovation and the US civilian market absolutely generates tons of innovation. Just look at the pocket pistol industry and how many quality and reliable guns exist not that didn’t not that long ago.

          • Bill

            I can’t agree: if anything drove suppressor design and advanced tech it was 9/11. Look at your AR for an example.

            As for pocket pistols, I don’t know, nor do they have a real .mil role since WW2. I don’t see nearly the variety nowadays, since the LCP and P3AT knocked out the PPKs, Mausers, Mustangs, Beretta .25s and such.

      • gunsandrockets

        Ah, the chicken or egg problem. Which is related to a similar dilemma for space travel.

        There is no money to be made and therefore no incentive to develop cheaper space flight because there is no demand for space flight services other than government missions and communication satellites. But there is no demand for space flight services because the costs of spaceflight are so high!

    • Anomanom

      It’s not so much that governments stifle development, but rather that designs are crafted to be… compatible with government contracts. Civilians will buy innovative guns, but they’ll never buy in the numbers that a government or governments will. Getting those contracts is how you make development costs back.

  • Bob Lewis

    Musk’s Tesla and Solar City are walking dead corporations if not for billions of dollars of US Taxpayer subsidies. In fact of his net worth of some $13 Billion over $4 Billion came right out of our pockets. I’d share enthusiasm for Musk and Space-X if they could just do it the old fashioned way: raise funds from private investors on the open market.

    • gunsandrockets

      You can’t blame Musk for gaming the stupid subsidies inherent in “green” industries.

      You also shouldn’t confuse Musk’s involvement in those industries with what he has achieved with SpaceX. SpaceX has been a phenomenal world-changing success which has very little to do with taxpayer dollars. In fact SpaceX receives a tiny fraction of taxpayer ‘subsidies’ compared to it’s aerospace rivals. Yet those rivals are now threatened with collapse because they can’t compete with the lower prices of SpaceX.

      • tt_ttf

        SpaceX is FAR from the success you think it is

        its a long way from having a proven launch record, yet to reuse a single rocket to prove the cost model and Falcon Heavy is 2 years late and counting

        The rivals are far from threatened and have full and expanding launch commitments

        • gunsandrockets

          So is it that Santa Claus money that lets SpaceX deliver more supplies to the ISS than Orbital Sciences despite the fact the SpaceX contract was for inversely less money?

  • tt_ttf

    You need to temper the enthusiasm for Elon just alittle.

    Much of what you claim SpaceX has done, they have in fact not yet proven. This stuff is hard and whilst they are trying, Elon is pushing what is at this point pure science fiction

    They don’t have reusable low cost launches – yet to reuse a single rocket to prove their reliability and economics, and Falcon Heavy has yet to launch let alone anything close to this monster and the just fanciful costs claims.

    And as pointed out, some of the scenarios like the Europa or similar landing are just not doable EVER – Jupiter puts out something like 540 Rems per day level of exposure and NASA’s limit for your entire astronaut career is 250 rems!

    • gunsandrockets

      The SpaceX rockets, even when not reused, have already undercut commercial satellite launch prices to the point where even the Chinese can’t compete with them.

      If the SpaceX vacuum version of the Raptor engine actually achieves an ISP of 380, that will be a game changer. The J-2 engines of the Saturn V upper stages had an ISP of 420, and they used liquid hydrogen fuel!

      • tt_ttf

        The customers buying launch slots on everything else don’t agree with nor do the insurance companies – Iridium for example has had a hell of time getting insurance on their payloads beyond the first two due to the risks of using Falcon. That insurance cost hugely offsets the launch costs and a schedule that slips by years is a BIG problem!!!

        That launch cost is low because they are lighting money on fire against the future promise they can get launch prices down. Right now NOTHING has been proven

        As for Raptor – they haven’t even got Falcon Heavy off the ground yet let alone anything like that size or reusable like the entire plan hinges on.

        There are a lot of people in the space industry without direct commercial skin in the game who will verify Elon has talked a good story but most of it remains fluff or even myth for now.

        • gunsandrockets

          Not plausible. Where is this mythical pile of money that SpaceX is supposedly burning through? Is Santa Claus providing the money to produce the hardware and achievements that the competition can’t seem to match?

          Why did ULA not even try to compete with SpaceX for the latest military contract if SpaceX is so unreliable?

          Why are the other launch companies now scrambling to develop half-assed reusable rockets? Because of SpaceX fluff?

    • What did I claim SpaceX has done that they have not yet done?

      • gunsandrockets

        Apparently Musk is the Wizard of Oz and all he’s achieved with SpaceX is mere tricks and illusion!

  • LazyReader

    It takes 21 pounds of fuel to put one pound of mass into orbit. So I wanna see how he’s gonna launch 525 metric tonnes of spaceship.

    Itseems like Elon is trying to screw the investors. One company he owns
    is trying to buy ANOTHER company HE OWNS. I think the investors need to
    take a hard look at this deal…….it’s starting to smell rotten………

    Electriccars are not going to be prevalent in the foreseeable future. For what they cost, you can get a used four-cylinder with enough left over to buygas for years. If you want electric cars to truly saturate the market they have to be as practical as a gas car and as affordable. Used cars are where the market is strongest and a used car loses about a third of it’s value at resale and if it’s 10 years old, you can get it for less than a third the price of a Tesla. And used Tesla’s were gonna worry about battery quality after several years. Remember the same battery tech used in them is what’s found in laptops and cellphones and we throwthose devices away in 2-3 years. And there’s no evidence these vehicles are any better for the planet than gas powered ones. If the power used to charge them is fossil power, there’s no difference. Also if you want electric cars, you’re gonna need a lot more resources then whats presently available to industry and consumers. A lot of copper for the
    wire, a lot of lithium for all those batteries and a lot neodymium for the motor. And given the environmentalist uproar over mining copper, lithium and neodynium or any metal for that matter, I doubt those materials will be free’d up anytime soon to placate demand for them to economically build a automotive fleet.

    • tt_ttf

      you point out a truth that many want to ignore – the whole life cycle of a Tesla does not add up compared to hybrid cars with very efficient gas engines.

      Add the ridiculous lease residual values Tesla promised buyers when they will need 20K of new battery pack to be up to snuff (think about that compared to a 3 or 4 year old gas engined car) and there is a huge financial timebomb waiting, quite apart from the shady deal with Solar City.

    • 500 tonnes * 21 = 10,500 tonnes, which is about the mass of the rocket, fueled. Not sure what the fuel fraction would be, but given the design (where much of the 500 tonne payload is the second stage engines and structure) that doesn’t sound ludicrous. Maybe the base vehicle will end up being more than 10,500 tonnes, but that sort of growth is normal.

      • LazyReader

        The Saturn V weighed 202 tons empty, 3000+ tons full. Even so at some point you reach a point of diminishing returns where the size and weight means vastly more fuel to just get it launched. It’s like building a car engine so massive and heavy the car only goes 10 feet before it runs out of gas. Instead of worrying of building one space ship and launching it, orbital assembly of modules seems more the approach for 500 tons of space ship.

        • …Right, but I think SpaceX understands how thrust and delta-V work. I mean, they’ve got a delta-V chart in the presentation and everything.

  • Disarmed in CA

    Chick: Man, what are you doing with a gun in space?

  • So… We need to develop Space Guns.

  • DetroitMan

    I’ll be impressed with Musk and Space-X when that monster rocket actually launches successfully. Until then, it’s all just speculation and marketing on Musk’s part. His Mars rocket could just as easily be the next N1 instead of the next Saturn V.

    As for the firearms industry, there are two problems. One is that everyone can get rich making AR-15’s and accessories for them. The other is that consumers, whether private or government, frequently punish or ignore innovations. Controllable fully automatic pistols? Dead. Remington’s electronically ignited primers? Dead. Bushmaster ACR? Might as well be dead. Short magnum cartridges? All but dead. A mountain of cartridges designed for the AR-15 that offer better performance than the 5.56mm NATO? Most are on life support, sustained mostly by a dedicated group of fans who reload them. If you’re a private company that has to turn a profit, the outlook for innovations in the firearms field is bleak. You have a stark and easy choice. 1) Spend relatively little R&D money and develop an AR-15 variant or an accessory for the AR-15. Chances of a good return on the investment are high. 2) Spend a lot of R&D money to develop something innovative and pray to God it catches on, instead of people saying “It won’t do what the AR-15 was specifically designed to do as well as the AR-15 will do it.” Even if somebody spent the big dollars to make caseless ammunition feasible, there could always be a MacArthur who says “Nah, we’ve got too much 5.56mm NATO on hand to bother changing to a new cartridge.” So the incentive really isn’t there for private companies.

    The devil’s advocate in me thinks that the best chance for a major innovation would be for the government to open its own arsenals once again. If somebody would pay engineers to design better weapons without having to worry about selling them to people who just want the same thing they already have, we might get somewhere.

    • I don’t know man, landing a first stage on a barge in the ocean is pretty impressive to me, and SpaceX has done it four times…

      Again, I think that’s your sense of risk talking. Risk aversion is good, but we’ve seen time and time again that true pioneers exhibit an almost insane lack of risk aversion. Look at Shackleton, Columbus, early aviators, or even the Apollo program. There was huge risk involved in their endeavors, and while they certainly tried to mitigate that risk, they did it anyway.

      • DetroitMan

        Space-X’s success with powered descent is impressive, I’ll give them that. It’s a much different problem than building a giant rocket that can lift 100 people from the ground to Mars in a single unit. My dad worked on the Titan program. He talked to me about it quite a bit, and about the general challenges of rocketry. I have also studied the issues the Soviets had with the N1. The Mars rocket will be impressive if they can pull it off, but the technical challenge will be orders of magnitude harder than powered descent.

        One thing I noticed in your list of pioneers is that most had heavy government funding. The early aviators didn’t have direct funding, but they were competing for prizes, many of which were offered by governments. Taking wild risks does lead to startling advances, but it also leads to failed companies and lost lives. I think the firearms industry today is entirely too risk averse to bring about the kind of technological leap you are talking about. They have a long history of getting screwed when they innovate, and there is tons of money to be made by building what people want right now. There are two ways I can see a major advance happening. One would be for a John Browning or a Ronnie Barret to pursue innovation for its own sake. The other would be for a government or branch of the military to decide they want a specific technology like caseless ammunition and put up a substantial reward for developing it. Barring either of those, it doesn’t seem likely to me that firearms technology will take a leap from its current plateau.

        • SpaceX has government funding; NASA is their biggest customer.

          Let’s not forget here, either, SpaceX has already test fired the Interplanetary Transport System’s main engine, and constructed a second state lox tank. Those are major steps to completing the rocket itself.

          • DetroitMan

            The part that concerns me is that they need to get 42 engines working together in order to launch the ITS. The Soviets had a very advanced engine design for the N1 as well. The N1 failed because it had 30 engines in the first stage, and they could never get everything to work in concert. Too much plumbing to feed them all introduced too many potential points of failure, and invariably something failed and caused a cascade that brought down the rocket. Space-X’s Falcon 9 is one of the least reliable rockets ever, and it only has 9 engines in the first stage. Maybe Space-X can solve the problems. I won’t count out good old American ingenuity. I also won’t be bullish on their Mars mission until I see some improvement and proof of concept.

          • gunsandrockets

            Falcon 9 the least reliable rocket ever? Oh brother.

            And I think it bears pointing out the problems with Falcon 9 have been with the second stage which only uses ONE engine. If anything SpaceX did a very clever thing with the 9 engined Falcon 9 1st stage, by aping what Von Braun did with the very successful Saturn I first stage which also clustered proven engines.

            Your fears about the quantity of engines for Musks super booster are not unwarranted. But the problems with the Soviet N-1 were due to a lot more than just the number of engines clustered. Consider the most successful and reliable rocket ever, the Soviet R-7 and progeny uses 20 thrust chambers on launch! That’s a lot of plumbing.

          • So, while the number of engines does matter for reliability, it actually matters three ways:

            1. You have more engines and thus higher complexity and a higher chance of failure.

            2. You have more engines and thus failures in one engine allow for compensation via the other engines and reduces chance of mission failure, given a single part or subsystem failure.

            3. You have more engines and thus you get more flight hours for the engine class as a whole per launch.

            Two of those three axes are actually favorable to having more engines, not less.

            Now, you can overdo it, sure, but overall that seems like a win for having more engines of the same type on the rocket, assuming you can keep the plumbing to a minimum.

            Also, Falcon 9 is one of the least reliable rockets ever? Say whaaaat? There have been 28 launches of Falcon 9, and only two failures so far. You said you dad worked on Titan, well in the first 28 launches of Titan I (the only one that used kerolox, like Falcon 9), there were 8 failures.

  • TheNotoriousIUD

    Yeah, lets go f-ck up another planet while we’re at it.
    I think we have a few things to handle here before we export our bulls-it elsewhere.

    • ostiariusalpha

      You’d have a difficult time doing that considering the every single other celestial body in our solar system is essentially a wasteland (with a few possible exceptions, like Europa or Titan) that wouldn’t even notice any attempt to “pollute” their environments. It would be entirely beneficial to move our industrial capacities off of this planet, so that we could finally stop sh-tting where we eat.

      • TheNotoriousIUD

        Unless one of them has dinosaur juice under it things arent going to change anyway.
        The fight over dwindling hydrocarbons will be the reason ICBM’s fly. Mark my words.

        • anonymous

          > The fight over dwindling hydrocarbons will be the reason ICBM’s fly.

          We’ll probably be fighting for water before then.

        • ostiariusalpha

          Actually, most comets have large quantities of hydrocarbons, it’s a fairly common compound in the solar system. Heck, Titan has entire seas of the stuff and it rains from the sky.

          • TheNotoriousIUD

            Regular or diesel?

          • ostiariusalpha

            More like tar sand than light sweet, but at least you don’t have to worry about anyone complaining that you’re going to contaminate the aquifer or a graveyard on the comet.

    • Bob

      Well, if we don’t develop something to fend off the rocks floating around out there we are just waiting to go the way of the dinosaurs. At least colonizing other planets would go a long ways toward saving our race, not to mention the obvious benefit to developing the technology to do so would also be developing the technology to deal with incoming asteroids.

    • Spencerhut

      There are plenty of planets, we just need to learn how to travel to them. Once that is done I say we light ’em one (or more) at a time and burn them to the ground for our benefit.

      • TheNotoriousIUD

        Your stick figures are emblematic of your simplistic and shortsighted outlook. Kind of like cave paintings.
        Anyone who thinks we will be around to explore other worlds doesn’t know a thing about the history of human conflict.
        It tends towards self destruction,

        • We certainly won’t with your attitude!

          • TheNotoriousIUD

            You are a purveyor and and a practitioner of the gun, the small arm, the weapon that has killed more more people in our lifetime than any bomb or ICBM and you would happily transfer this to another world and pretend the outcome would be any different.
            Good luck.

          • crackedlenses

            Meh, the European continent had guns before discovering the Americas, and I notice that Europe still exists today.

            That said, you are ultimately correct. If mankind is left to itself it will ultimately self-destruct. That includes any space colonies we manage to start up as well.

          • TheNotoriousIUD

            We still have deadly conflicts over minor variations in skin tone.

          • crackedlenses

            Humanity hasn’t really changed over over its 10,000 or so years of recorded history, and without a major change I foresee plenty more bloodletting in the future.

          • Wait, what are we worried about killing on Mars? Rocks? Fossil microbes?

    • Paladin

      If you think you can f*ck up Mars worse than it already is, be my guest.

  • Noishkel

    Honestly at this point I want to see more people putting out open source gun designs.

    If the regressive left want’s to keep making excuses and pushing for our gun rights we need to take it out of their hands by making it impossible to regulate them.

  • Jake

    Elon needs to go to china and set up shop. Then all of a sudden manned missions to mars are a top US priority

  • John

    I expect extremely high-capacity, lower caliber guns to be built and used in space. If all you need is to puncture a spacesuit to cause chaos and death, and with nothing like gravity to create things like bullet drop, I’d imagine .22 would be all the rage.

    Also, a new way of fighting in space. Wouldn’t recoil spin and push you out of control? Learn to brace your body against something before you fire.

    Electronic sights would have to be built and redesigned. They’re all meant for Earth atmosphere and gravity.

  • gunsandrockets

    The 3D metal printing technology SpaceX uses to manufacture some of the components of its spacecraft, such as rocket engines, might have direct application to the firearms industry.

  • Captain obvious

    To answer the question…the gun industry can’t learn anything from musk.

    The real question is…what’s the best rocket ship gun?

  • gunsandrockets

    What really sets Musk apart from the rest is his combination of business sense, engineering background, personal wealth, and above all his ideological commitment to lower the costs of manned spaceflight and colonize space. He is not in this for the money or the fame.

    I am very much a SpaceX fanboy.

  • May

    How to make millions by fooling people into buying impossible pipe dreams?

    • gunsandrockets

      Pssst! Right on Brother! Did you know the whole moon thing was faked?

      • May

        The moon landing was real, it was just massively expensive and accomplished nothing. No planet in a distance that human beings can survive traveling has the potential to support human life; unless we both develop immunity to radiation and completely rewrite every iota of known physics.

        • gunsandrockets

          It might not be possible to colonize Mars. But not because of radiation. That is relatively easily shielded from. Particularly at the poles of Mars where there is access to surface water ice.

          No, the real unknown is low gravity over the long term. But we won’t know the answer to that until we go.

  • gunsandrockets

    I think Nathaniel overstates the case, and even Musk fudged some of his presentation.

    First off I was mighty impressed with the Musk presentation, but…

    … where were the radiators to dump waste heat from the 200 kilowatt solar power system from his Mars spacecraft? The Space Station only generates 100 kilowatts and the structure and radiators needed to support that system are ridiculously massive.

    … and clearly the idea the Musk Mars plan could be expanded for interplanetary travel was not plausible. Saturn? Really? A solar powered fuel cracking base on Enceladus? Riiiight!

    And Nathaniel, the Musk plan for colonizing Mars is hardly “short term”, unless you define short term as 100 years! As Musk said it could take that long using his plan to achieve his goal of one million people on Mars.

    • I didn’t use the phrase “short term” in the article, so I am not sure what you’re referring to.

      • gunsandrockets

        No you didn’t. I apologize for quoting when I should have made it clear I was paraphrasing. The quote is, “… to (relatively) quickly establish a self-sustaining human colony on the surface…”

        • 100 people a trip is quicker than 6 people a trip. 😉

    • Logic Rules

      The radiators on the Space Station (ISS) aren’t that big, especially when compared to the solar arrays.

      And while the structure that supports the ISS’s solar arrays is quite massive, it doesn’t really need to be that massive just for the solar arrays. Those trusses also support massive Control Moment Gyros and external payload platforms and batteries to store energy during night passes and the Solar Array Joints that constantly rotate and gimbal the solar arrays so they can track the sun. A vehicle traveling to Mars will have continuous sunlight at a constant orientation, thus greatly reducing the battery and gimballing requirements.

      I think your concerns are valid, but I don’t think it’s as big of an issue as you first thought.

      • gunsandrockets

        The IPT will spend considerable time in LEO before departure for Mars, and retract its array for Mars EDL, and extend the array again during return to Earth, and retract its array again for Earth EDL. If anything the variety of conditions its array will face are more challenging than the SPS of the ISS. So I don’t think the IPT SPS can be as simplified as you say.

  • Don Ward

    It’s 2016 people! We were promised Sonic ray guns back in the 1930s!!! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/a9c735aea9a3bc2b38a7f4667b4089ac6dda6507458099f94a06cabe0e4057a3.jpg

  • DAN V.

    I think new developments in firearms reliability, safety and accuracy have potential for good things.

    Reliability: absolute 100%, clean or dirty, wet or dry, etc.

    Safety: without sacrificing reliability, eliminating NDs, stolen firearms, eliminating overpenetration, etc.

    Accuracy: eliminating the risk of hitting unintended targets, extending sub-moa out to greater distances (pistols, iron sights, etc.), etc.

  • Bierstadt54

    Inspiration.

  • Kevin

    I’ve been arguing this for years!

  • Lee

    The only thing “Enron” Musk blows up more than rockets and Zuckerbergs satellites, is his own balance sheets.

    Tesla is an absolute disaster. Blowing through a billion a quarter in cash reserves, not hitting sales forecasts, using shady accounting, and relying on massive government intervention to stay afloat.

    Solar city is broke. Teslas board of directors wouldnt even loan money to them and they are sister companies.

    SpaceX…going to mars? They cant even do a better job than the russians at putting something into orbit. How many trillions of our money will he need for this mars thing?

    Musk is a great salesman and a dreamer but where is the results? The firearms industry doesnt need anymore empty promises like the bushmaster acr.

    • gunsandrockets

      “SpaceX…going to mars?”

      When a Red Dragon lands on Mars around November 2018, and a manned Dragon 2 is docked at the Space Station, I am going to try and remember your comment…

      and laugh!

    • If SpaceX were a think-tank or something, maybe I could understand your comment. But Falcon 9 is flying right now, and its most recent iteration, Falcon 9 FT, can lift almost 23 tonnes to orbit. That’s more payload to LEO than any European rocket flying today.

      Spaceflight, like any pioneering endeavor, is fraught with risk and a breeding ground for tragedy. It’s not the place for the risk averse.

  • GD Ajax

    Americans need to face reality, state ownd weapons manufactures produce better quality products overall.

    The gaming industry, food industry, TV, music, just about every sector except the whiny non state owned gun makers.

    • Ebby123

      That’s sarcasm I assume. No one could really be daft enough to believe that.

      • GD Ajax

        Nope. The Brits where able to fix the SA80 when they wised up and realized their gun sucked, IMI is gaining wide acceptance with the Tavor. Who unlike a private company knows that producing a quality product will have customers coming back for more.
        No company will into BEA overnight if regulations are dropped the next day.

        • Ebby123

          IWI is not owned by the Israeli Government, and the SA80 is a disaster of a weapons platform, and always has been. There is nothing “fixed” about that design.

          Chine, most of the Middle east, and India all have state-controlled arms development, and they also have fairly crude and underdeveloped technology as a direct result.

          Why do you think most countries use Eugene Stoner’s design for their armed forces?

  • Isaac Sandoval

    Can someone please come up with the martian planet ballistic calculation app already?!

    • gunsandrockets

      Well, you could always play Kerbal!

  • anonymous

    Q. What kind of guns will Space X employees and colonists use?

    A. Musk-ets.

    Thank you, I’ll be here all week. Be sure to tip your server.

  • Kyle Sherrer

    If we get to mars first we can own full auto rifles with no tax stamp!!!!! 😉

  • Blake

    This was a bloody great article, thanks!

  • Escaping the atmosphere is just about height. Achieving orbit is about speed. The energy requirements are very different between them.

    Scott Manley does a good job explaining this distinction in this video:

  • mazkact

    According to U.S Rep Shelia Jackson Lee we have already been to Mars and planted a flag there.

  • Warren Ellis

    Honestly I’m kind of wary about Musk. Hasn’t he made grand claims before and not followed up on them? I remember he claimed he was going to build a massive number of electrical recharging stations for his cars in like 2014 and it was found he’d only built a few instead of the several hundred/thousand he’d claimed he’d have built by then.