Elon Musk Announces His Plan to Colonize Mars and Save Humanity
Elon Musk wants to go to Mars. And he wants you—especially if you are a NASA string-puller or deep-pocketed futurist—to help him get there.
Sporting Tony Stark facial hair, Musk outlined SpaceX‘s plan today at the 67th annual International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. It involves a slew of new technology: gigantic, reusable rockets; carbon fiber fuel tanks; ultra-powered engines. Plus spaceships capable of carrying a hundred or more passengers to the Red Planet, landing, then returning to Earth to pick up more. Musk doesn’t just want to go to Mars: He wants to build a civilization there. Which means he’ll need all that sweet gear to make it cheap enough to work.
By Musk’s admittedly loose estimates, buying yourself a single ticket to Mars right now (using non-existent tech) would probably cost around $10 billion. The same amount of cash could buy you a few square blocks in Midtown Manhattan. But once the so-called SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System is fully operational, he estimates that a person will be able to travel to the Red Planet for around $200,000, roughly the same as a two-bedroom in Madison, Wisconsin. The ITS—Musk says the name needs some workshopping—would accomplish these cost cuts primarily with lighter materials, stronger rockets, and reusable technology.
Take a ride with Elon through his Martian fantasy. You and 99 or more other passengers board a huge crew vessel atop a massive new rocket—combined, they are about as tall as a 40-story building. Forty-two Raptor engines rumble to life below, and soon you and your fellow pilgrims are gunning through the upper atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. After depositing you in orbit, the first stage booster drops back to Earth, and flies itself back to the launchpad at Cape Canaveral. After some indeterminate refurbing, a crane attaches another spaceship on top. Except this one has no people. It’s full of fuel. The rocket launches again, and releases the spaceship, which meets your spaceship in orbit and transfers its fuel load into your ship’s tanks. Repeat a few times until your ship is topped off. Then, you head for Mars.
Thanks to six vacuum-optimized engines accelerating your ship to about 19,014 mph, you and the other pilgrims will reach Mars in just over three months. Along the way, you guys will have so much fun playing zero-G games, watching movies, hanging out in the on-board pizza shop. (Elon. Seriously.) “It will be like, really fun to go, you’ll have a great time,” Musk insists. (Several years of submarine service leave me slightly skeptical that any amount of pizza and zero-G can turn “locked in a tube” into a “great time,” but who cares, off to Mars!)
Upon arrival, heat shields on the ship’s belly will create mild friction with Mars’ scant atmosphere to help you brake. But the real stopping power will come from supersonic retropropulsion—basically, firing engines at the planet in the same way SpaceX lands its Falcon 9 rockets. Except this ship will be going many, many times faster than that, and the crew capsule is way heavier. Then again, Mars’ gravity is about one-third that of Earth’s, so maybe everything will be cool. Hell, I’m not a physicist, people. Welcome to your new home!
OK, cool. Why are you here again? Saving humanity. As Musk put it at the beginning of his speech: “I really think there are two fundamental paths [for humans]: One path is we stay on Earth forever, and some eventual extinction event wipes us out.”
“I don’t have a doomsday prophesy.”
“But history suggests some doomsday event will happen.”
Elon, that’s by definition a doomsday prophesy!
“The alternative is, become a spacefaring and multi-planetary species.”
Mars, he points out, is one of the best bets for setting up humanity’s Battlestar Galactica starter kit. It’s close by, it has lots of water (frozen beneath the surface). For farming, the atmosphere is has vital nutrients like carbon dioxide and nitrogen. And the gravity is just 37 percent that of Earth, which means you’d be able to lift friggin’ anything and dunk like Michael in Space Jam. Plus, red never goes out of style.
And importantly, ITS is not a one-way system. Using methane fuel harvested from the Martian regolith, Musk says, the spaceship would be able to lift free from Mars’ weak gravity and return to Earth. This part of the plan is crucial to cutting those interplanetary costs. If commercial aircraft weren’t reusable, a red eye might cost you half a million dollars or more. But just like reusable jetliner makes it possible for you to fly anywhere in the continental US for under a grand, Musk says his reusable system will make Mars cheaper than most mortgages.
Musk’s ultimate vision is a Martian city of millions. This will take thousands of ships, tens of thousands of trips. And, in his estimation, about 40 to 100 years. But all that starts small. Despite a recent pre-launch explosion, Musk still hopes to send a Dragon 2 capsule to Mars in 2018—when Earth and Mars’ orbits bring the planets closest to one another. Then again, and again, every 27 months, when Earth and Mars again perigee, SpaceX will transport two to three tons of equipment to the Martian surface.
Pardon the mixed metaphor, but this whole thing redefines the word moonshot. Musk has always stated that his goal for SpaceX is to get to Mars. All these ISS resupply contracts and communications satellite launches are just ways to build capital and develop technology on the way to that goal. In response to an audience member asking whether Musk wanted to go to space, the SpaceX CEO replied: “I’ve gotta make sure if something goes wrong on the flight and I die, there’s a good succession plan and the mission of the company continues and doesn’t get taken over by investors who just want to maximize profit and not go to Mars. That’s my biggest fear.” Real talk.
But SpaceX doesn’t have the money to do this on its own. As Elizabeth Lopatto from The Verge brilliantly pointed out this morning, the whole point of this today’s speech is to pique the interest of other monied space fanatics. Musk is rich, and SpaceX is doing pretty good business sending satellites into orbit (notwithstanding the odd explosion now and then), but the company is nowhere near making the billions necessary to jumpstart its Mars ambitions.
How far to go? Well, SpaceX just did a successful test-fire of the Raptor engine, which has three times the propulsive power as the Merlins it uses on the Falcon 9. “I’m amazed it didn’t blow up on its first firing,” Musk says. The company’s engineers have also made progress on the carbon fiber fuel tanks. As any distance bicyclist will tell you (ad naseum), carbon fiber has amazing strength to weight ratio (just don’t put it in a clamp!). But making a mold big enough, without cracks, and having it cure at the right temperature is an enormously difficult challenge. Musk says he hopes to have the first developmental spaceship ready to operate in about three years. If things go super well, the one could be ready to depart in about 10 years.
But he’s hedgy: “I don’t want to say that’s when this will occur.” And success is not a foregone conclusion. “This is a huge amount of risk, will cost a lot, and there’s a good chance we won’t succeed,” he says. “But we’re going to try and do our best.” So, feeling inspired?
Follow this link: