SpaceX’s billionaire founder Elon Musk plans to send a manned spacecraft to the Red Planet and then colonize it within a decade.
This would no doubt be an extremely expensive undertaking, but Musk said he’ll sort out the financial issues later.
He disclosed few technical details about SpaceX’s so-called Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) rocket in a Tuesday speech in Mexico City, other than saying the rocket would be capable of traveling beyond Mars.
“How do we figure out how to take you to Mars and create a self-sustaining city that’s not only an outpost, but a planet in its own right, and thus we can become a multi-planetary species,” Musk said. “There’s been a lot of great work by NASA and other organizations in early exploration of Mars and understanding what Mars is like, where we could land, what’s the composition of the atmosphere, and where is the water. We need to go from these early exploration missions to actually building a city.”
Musk told the audience he plans to drastically cut the expected $10 billion per person cost to get to Mars. He didn’t specify how he’d do it, only noting that fully reusable rockets, orbital refueling and production of rocket fuel on Mars would be involved. Musk plans to send the first missions to Mars in 2018 or 2020.
Blue Origin, a private space company set up by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, successfully launched and recovered the first reusable rocket last November. Blue Origin, SpaceX and other companies have been developing fully reusable rockets. SpaceX previously failed on two separate occasions to successfully land a reusable rocket. Musk called the failure a “huge blow.” SpaceX’s President Gwynne Shotwell previously estimated reusing rockets could cause a 30 percent reduction in launch costs, meaning that Musk’s plans aren’t even close to meeting his goals.
“Obviously its going to be a challenge to fund this whole endeavor,” Musk continued. “I know there’s a lot of people in the private sector who are interested in helping fund a base on Mars. Perhaps there will also be interest on the government sector side to also do that. Ultimately, this will be a huge public private partnership.”
He didn’t announce any financial backing for the project, so the presentation was likely meant to convince NASA to fund him. A SpaceX rocket recently exploded in early September, which will likely cost his cash-strapped company $120 million.
“I think the [financial] support will snowball over time,” Musk said. “And I should say also that the main reason I’m personally accumulating assets is to fund this. I don’t really have any other reason for personally accumulating assets.”
SpaceX has had several rockets explode during landing attempts. It took nearly six months before Falcon 9 launches were resumed after SpaceX’s last launch failure. Musk’s business rivals have estimated that it could take up to a full year for SpaceX to resume launches. The company says it plans to return to space in November.
The billionaire has previously stated the ITS will be capable of sending about 10 people to Mars to establish a colony, and hopes to eventually build 1,000 ships. In time, Musk thinks such an outpost could grow into something much larger and become self-sustaining, housing at least one million people. It would only take 40 to 100 years to achieve a self-sustaining civilization on Mars, he explained. Animations shown by SpaceX during the presentation even suggest that the company plans to start terraforming Mars, making it more Earth-like.
Musk’s presentation noted that the ITS would be about 400 feet tall, potentially making it the largest rocket in history. He repeatedly depicted the rocket as larger and more powerful than the Saturn V rocket which NASA sent to Earth’s moon. ITS would be capable of sending 450 tons of cargo to Mars. Blue Origin unveiled plans earlier this month for a slightly smaller rocket.
Blue Origin’s two-stage New Glenn rocket will be 270 feet tall and 23 feet in diameter and capable of generating 3.85 million pounds of thrust. This is much larger than Musk’s planned 230-foot-tall Falcon Heavy rocket.
Bezos’s rocket will also be much larger than NASA’s planned 212-foot-tall Space Launch System rocket, which will only by capable of generating 3.6 million pounds of thrust. New Glenn’s engines will burn liquefied natural gas and oxygen. Blue Origin’s very first orbital rocket will have slightly more than half the thrust of the Saturn V rockets that carried humans to the moon.
When announcing the capabilities of his new rocket, Bezos took every opportunity to highlight that his company spends zero tax dollars, while SpaceX benefits from lucrative financial arrangements with NASA.
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