Bryan Mazor helped lead the Solar Car Team as both an LSA student and alum. He and a group of Solar Car Team alumni won an international race in Abu Dhabi by a mere 2.5 minutes in the Quantum car.

This is an article from the fall 2017 issue of LSA MagazineRead more stories from the magazine.

Bryan Mazor (B.S. ’14) talks about populating other planets like it’s inevitable. So does Elon Musk, who founded the company SpaceX, where Mazor works as a solar array engineer. 

“Ultimately, I’m an explorer and a physicist,” says Mazor. “I want to go to Mars. It’d be fun to be the John Muir of Mars. Just go there, explore, and get mountains named after you.”

The prospect of exploring unknown lands has pretty much ended here on Earth. The red planet may offer our next best viable chance to have such adventures, and a main objective of SpaceX is to engineer affordable rocket transportation so people can really go. Maybe the SpaceX passion has proved contagious: This year’s team of NASA astronauts came from a pool of 18,300 applicants, the biggest since NASA began.

The other driving mission of SpaceX? To populate Mars with at least one million people in what ultimately will become a self-sufficient community, which would persist in the case of human extinction on Earth.

The plan to colonize Mars in case of emergency is “like doom and gloom,” Mazor admits, and even a bit wild. But Mazor believes that desperate times call for desperate measures. “In the short amount of time we’ve been on the Earth, we’ve managed to go to the moon, but we’ve also been able to heat this place up by a couple degrees and possibly make living here a lot more complicated,” he says. 

Part of the solution is sustainability. And Elon Musk’s trifecta of companies—which includes SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity — interweaves it right into the business plan. SpaceX will build reusable rockets rather than dump single-serve spacecraft after every launch, which cuts down costs in a major way. “We’re trying to keep it as cheap as possible,” says Mazor.

“The landings we do are still shell-shocking,” Mazor marvels about SpaceX. “This 140-foot rocket can land itself on a small boat! Those are some of the most amazing things I’ve seen.”

And Tesla’s electric cars consume sustainable energy that SolarCity helps create. Zero-emission electric cars, especially if charged through the solar grid, don’t contribute to climate change the way gas engines do. “Electric motors can become 98 percent efficient,” says Mazor, “whereas in a gasoline motor, efficiency and transmission averages something like 20 percent.” An efficient electric motor makes a cost-effective car, which gets even cheaper because Elon Musk promises that Tesla charging stations will operate for free forever.

Mazor makes reliable solar arrays that power SpaceX.

“Less than five percent of our society is farmers — people actually feeding each other — and it’s nuts that a very small percentage of our society can feed everybody,” he says. “If you carry that analogy to a spacecraft, our solar team is kind of like the farmers. Solar arrays are where the energy and power come from to run everything. Batteries are like storage silos.”

“The reason gasoline motors persisted for such a long time is the energy storage,” Mazor says. “It was more efficient to store energy in chemical bonds and gasoline than it was in battery packs. So in the 1920s, it was a technological maturity problem. Internal combustion engines prevailed because battery technology was lagging.”

Mazor knows about harvesting solar energy based on a few years of experience racing on the U-M Solar Car Team as an undergraduate studying physics. His roles on the team called for both physics and engineering expertise, and he was up for the challenge. 

“I thought about transferring to engineering when it became more apparent that I was interested in it. But ultimately, I just love physics,” says Mazor. As a kid, Mazor and his family would often lapse into deep conversations about science and math around the dinner table. “When I’m just sitting around in the grass under a tree or something, my mind gravitates to physics problems.

“At SpaceX, we are advancing technology in a lot of different realms, and hopefully some of those advances can help attack climate change. We’re reducing the activation energy to get into space and making space more accessible. We’re trying to make it so cheap to go to Mars that people’s imaginations can extend there, and we can start thinking of creative ways to make society better.

“We’re trying to open up people’s imaginations. What if you could fly a satellite? What would you fly? If you could go to Mars, what would you do? We are trying to make all of that real.”

Top image courtesy of SpaceX