On Tuesday, Elon Musk went to the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico on behalf of SpaceX, his spaceflight company. He went there to talk about his plans to colonize Mars, and I’m going to level with you — I watched the stream, and I didn’t understand most of what he said. What I took home was that Elon Musk is planning to launch a manned Mars voyage in the next ten years, and that he needs a lot of money to do it. The Tesla founder went full steam ahead with the technical details (which are rocket science), which makes sense given he was talking to people who actually knew what he was talking about. Not all is lost, though — he had pictures!
Space.com has a collection of slides from Musk’s presentation, giving us at least a sense of what SpaceX has planned. The plan is to use an enormous rocket to launch a capsule holding 100 to 200 people (plus luggage and food) into orbit. Here’s where SpaceX’s recent work on getting rockets to land upright onto launch pads gets important. The plan is for the rocket to land back on the launchpad, where it’ll be refueled and loaded with a propellant tanker. The rocket would then launch for a second time, using the propellant tanker to refuel the passenger capsule. At that point, the capsule would start heading over to Mars, using the fuel provided along with solar power. Musk estimates the trip could take as few as 80 days.
The capsule won’t be a demented version of Survivor, either. Instead of the cramped quarters we usually associate with spaceflight, Musk says the plan is for the capsule to be spacious and include amenities like a movie theater and a restaurant — seems like not the most judicious use of fuel to add that much weight, but then again, you can’t put a price on sanity. Musk pitched the voyage convincingly, saying, “It’ll be, like, really fun to go. You’ll have a great time.” I was sold at that point, but then Musk said you’ll probably need to pay about $100,000 to $200,000 to go, so that was a buzzkill.
That brings us to cost! Musk thinks development of the rocket and capsule plus the mission will cost $10 billion, so you have to figure it’ll end up costing a lot more than that. For his part, Musk says he’s pouring in everything he’s got, at one point saying, “the main reason I’m personally accumulating assets is to fund this.” Musk acknowledged that a mix of private funding, colonist tickets, and government funding would ultimately be necessary to make the mission happen, along with use of Musk’s personal wealth. If you want to go to Mars, buy more Teslas.
Granted, timelines aren’t Musk’s strong suit — something he openly acknowledged during his presentation. He’s almost certainly being too optimistic with his projections, but it’s hard to tell. Most of the problems Tesla has with production deadlines is that the company doesn’t have a large enough production capacity to meet demand. It’s possible that SpaceX could get things going on time if the funding is there, but it’s no sure thing. The company still needs to recover from the recent Falcon 9 rocket explosion, which destroyed the satellite it was supposed to launch into orbit.
So, it’s no surprise that Musk said most of SpaceX is currently dedicated to working on the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule, which is designed to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. Musk hopes to have both figured out in the next couple of years, after which he would ramp up work on the Interplanetary Transport System, the capsule and rocket system that would be used in the Mars mission. Musk says that the ITS wouldn’t just be limited to Mars, either — in addition to being used for subsequent (and frequent) trips to and from the red planet, it could be used for high-speed transport between places on Earth (think New York to Tokyo in 25 minutes), or to go much farther than Mars. Should a successful colony be established on Mars, it could be used as a waypoint for voyages beyond, likely to potentially habitable moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn. That could include Europa, although I think we’re not supposed to attempt any landings there.