This past Tuesday, Elon Musk — of PayPal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX — outlined his plans for SpaceX to found a colony on Mars. His plan, delivered in a speech to the International Astronautical Congress, is entirely plausible, extremely well thought-out, and exceptionally inspiring. For the first time since 1972, Mars seems genuinely within reach.
If you keep an eye on the non-political news, you will have heard that, over the last decade, SpaceX has gone from triumph to triumph. In 2006, the first orbital rocket they launched blew up; so did the two after that. Their fourth launch, in 2008, was a success. In 2010, they launched a capsule into orbit and returned it safely to Earth. In 2012, they made a cargo delivery to the International Space Station, and brought cargo safely back to Earth. In 2013, they successfully launched a rocket a few thousand feet into the air and landed it safely back on the ground. In 2015, they launched an orbital rocket and landed it safely back on the ground. In a few months, they will attempt to reuse an orbital rocket that’s already made one trip to space.
This is the key to SpaceX’s plan for space travel: reusing material. It would be absurd, says SpaceX, to fly from New York to London and then toss your 747 onto a trash heap. Absurd, and prohibitively expensive. By building reusable rockets, SpaceX will make spaceflight routine, relatively cheap, and profitable, and thus drive the technology forward.
And that’s their plan for Mars: Gigantic reusable rockets will, using technology proven in SpaceX’s smaller rockets, launch gigantic interplanetary spaceships into Earth orbit. Those same reusable rockets will launch tankers into space to fuel those spaceships. The tankers, which will be reusable, will make three to five fueling trips, as needed. Then the crew-carrying spaceships will depart for Mars, land vertically on its surface, unload their crews and cargo, launch back into space, and fly home.
Under the model Musk has devised, he believes a man and his luggage could realistically be sent to Mars for around $200,000, possibly less.
Mars and Earth rendezvous once every two-odd years — that is, every two years, Mars’s and Earth’s orbits coincide and describe a straight line to the sun. Musk’s plan is that, starting in two years, every future Earth–Mars rendezvous will see a SpaceX launch from Earth to Mars. It will become routine and predictable, says Musk, to get payloads to the surface of Mars, using a version of the “Dragon” space capsule that SpaceX has developed for flying NASA astronauts to and from the Space Station.
But — if everything goes to plan — in about ten years, the Interplanetary Transport System should be ready. This great, beautiful behemoth of a spaceship will hold 100 to 200 passengers, with plenty of room, light, and comfort (a restaurant and a movie theater are planned; so are zero-g sports). After a journey of three to four months — a trip roughly as long as a sea voyage from 17th-century Europe to the New World — the ITS will land on Mars, unpack its cargo, and offload its crew, who will build a refueling station and Mars’s first buildings.
Musk imagines Mars as a market economy, with people paying their $200,000 to fly there and set up “everything from the first iron refineries to the first pizza joint.” The plan is for SpaceX to create reliable, routine Martian transport — he compares it to the Union Pacific Railway — to supply the planet with new, ambitious, adventurous colonists, the way transcontinental rail supplied California. He sees, 20 or so years down the line, convoys of 1,000 transport ships departing Earth at each biennial rendezvous.
#related#He says his goal is to make mankind a multi-planet species. Based on his record of accomplishment, and his concrete plans for the future, I’d be willing to bet he’ll succeed.
It’s a tremendously exciting time to be alive.