Well, we waited a long time, but today Elon Musk finally stepped out on stage to rapturous applause at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Mexico to reveal his plans to colonize Mars. And there was a lot to get through.
As hinted by Musk the other day, his proposal is called the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). It involves sending 100 people at a time on a giant rocket, the biggest in history (bigger even than NASA’s Saturn V), to the surface of the Red Planet.
“I want to make Mars seem possible to do in our lifetimes,” said Musk in his presentation (you can watch a replay of the talk here). “I want anyone to go if they want to.”
The unnamed rocket (currently just given the moniker “Mars Vehicle”) certainly looks impressive. On top, it will have a specially designed spaceship that can carry either humans or cargo. At the bottom, 42 of SpaceX’s new methane-fueled Raptor engines take the rocket into orbit, and then return it safely back to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida, ready for another launch.
An animation of how the Mars missions would work. SpaceX
To make the jaunts to Mars, one spaceship will launch with the people on board and then another will take the fuel to orbit. The latter will dock with the former, fill it with a methane-based fuel, and then the journey to Mars can begin. The first would be called “Heart of Gold”, Musk said, a nod to The Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
It sounds fanciful but Musk, in typical Musk fashion, gave a hugely optimistic timeline for the first launch – 10 years from now, around 2026 or even as early as 2024. Yikes.
What’s more, he even hinted that he wants to terraform Mars and make it livable for humans without a spacesuit – although he didn’t give many details on how he planned to do this, other than showing an artist’s impression of a terraformed Mars.
To get this rolling, he said SpaceX were planning to launch a mission to Mars (beginning with unmanned Red Dragon missions) in every available Mars rendezvous launch window starting in 2018. That’s every 26 months, when Earth and Mars align for a favorable launch.
He said that, at the moment, about 5 percent of the SpaceX staff are working on the ITS. Ultimately, he is aiming to take a million people to Mars, a total of 10,000 trips across 40 to 100 years. To make sure the journey to Mars is “fun” (which will take up to five months), Musk said the spaceships would have zero-g games, a restaurant, and so on.
And, at the end of the day, these spaceships are designed to take off from Mars, too. If people want to return, they can, says Musk. No Mars One hocus pocus magic here.
Perhaps most impressively of all is the cost. The whole thing, rocket and spaceship, is designed to be reusable, building on SpaceX’s already successful reusable Falcon 9 tests. At the moment, a trip to Mars with current methods would cost $10 billion per person. Musk wants to make the trip comparable to buying a house – roughly $200,000 a ticket, which is about the same as the short six-minute suborbital hops planned by Virgin Galactic.
If this seems hugely optimistic, it is. There’s no doubt about that. But Musk was keen to demonstrate his drive to do this. He’s going to be putting as much of his own money behind it as possible, which considering he’s a mega-multi-billionaire is no small change.
“There’s no other reason for me to accumulate assets than to make the biggest contribution I can to making life multiplanetary,” he said.
And that’s in part the answer to a bigger question surrounding all this excitement. Why bother? Mars is a dead world. We can’t live there without spacesuits or significant infrastructure. Why do we want to go there?
The answer is simple. Musk rightly says that humans will at one stage face a doomsday event, be it an asteroid impact or some other civilization-ending scenario. If we can’t live on other worlds, we’re pretty screwed.
With that in mind, Musk says he doesn’t just want to stop at Mars. The ITS, he says, could conduct trips to other places including Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
Is it achievable? Well, that’s up for a very lengthy debate. Musk showed some snippets of development already taking place towards this goal, including the Raptor engines that will power the rocket and the giant fuel tank that will be used in the spaceship itself.
But there’s no doubt there are huge obstacles to overcome. How will the colony survive on Mars (this was not made clear)? Who will want to go? How will they deal with radiation (Musk suggested this wasn’t a huge problem)?
These are questions that will be pored over the next few days, months, and years. For now, Musk said his goal is to inspire public and private companies to get involved with his mission. He wants a collaboration, he wants help. This is his call to arms.
“The first journeys will be very dangerous, the risk of fatalities will be high,” he said, adding that people must be prepared to die.
But judging by the roaring crowd, the huge media attention around this event, and Musk’s own drive, it’s not implausible to think it might happen. Musk highlighted how SpaceX had developed from almost nothing in 2002 to its position now as one of the leading launch operators in the world.
Can he really start a million-strong colony on Mars? Time will tell. Either today will go down in history as a JFK-esque moonshot speech, or we’ll look back and wonder what might have been.
Here’s hoping for the former.
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