WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
It’s inevitable that humanity will, at one point or another, become an interplanetary species, and Musk wants it to happen in the next decade.
It’s no secret that Elon Musk wants to, on the one hand, get to Mars himself, famously saying back in 2015 that he “wanted to die on Mars, just not on impact,” and on the other wants to, finally, help the human race embrace its destiny and become an inter-planetary species. Now he’s documented his vision in a paper, and yesterday he unveiled more details of his plans to build a Mars colony of a million people at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Australia.
Musk, the Tesla and SpaceX CEO polymath, has frequently said in the past that everything that he’s doing, and all the assets he’s accruing, are for one purpose – colonising Mars. He first unveiled his vision last year at a conference in Mexico last year.
“In my view, publishing this paper provides not only an opportunity for the spacefaring community to read the SpaceX vision in print with all the charts in context, but also serves as a valuable archival reference for future studies and planning,” said SpaceX’s new Space editor in chief and former NASA “Mars czar” Scott Hubbard.
Musk’s Mars vision is centred around the reusable rocket and spaceship combination that he’s dubbed the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), and his new Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) concept, which is loosely based on his reusable Falcon Heavy concept, and both of them will be powered by SpaceX’s still to be unveiled Raptor engine, which Musk says will be about three times stronger than the Merlin engines that power the company’s existing Falcon 9 rocket.
When it’s built the booster, and Musk plans to start construction on it in 2018, with its 42 Raptor engines, will be the most powerful rocket in history by far, capable of launching an unprecedented 300 tons to low Earth orbit (LEO), or 600 tons in an expendable variant, Musk said. For comparison, NASA’s famous Saturn V moon rocket, the current record holder, could loft “just” 150 tons.
As part of his plan the new BFR rockets will launch Musk’s Mars bound spaceships into Earth orbit then come back down for a pinpoint landing about 20 minutes later where they’ll be quickly refurbed and punted back into space just 24 hours later – or that’s the hope, and pinpoint landing isn’t just some hyperbole either.
“With the addition of manoeuvring thrusters, we think we can actually put the booster right back on the launch stand,” says Musk in the paper, citing SpaceX’s increasingly precise Falcon 9 first-stage landings.
Over their lifetime it’s planned that the BFR boosters will launch spaceships and tankers into space over and over again, up to a thousand times each, and once in orbit the plan seems to be that the spaceships will kind of just “hang there” waiting for the others to arrive, before departing en masse to Mars, an event that would take place every 26 months.
Eventually, Musk envisions 1,000 or more ITS spaceships, each carrying 100 or more people, leaving Earth orbit during each of these Mars windows, and the plan is that the architecture could get 1 million people to Mars within the next 50 to 100 years, he has said. And as for what happens when the ships arrive at Mars, well, apparently they’ll fly back to Earth again using, in this case, just nine of their 42 Raptor engines and Methane based propellant that was manufactured on the Red Planet. Each ITS ship would then make up to 15 deep space journeys each, and each fuel tanker could likely fly to Earth orbit 100 or so times.
The rockets reusability is key to making Mars colonization affordable, a point that Musk laboured on at length, and the plan is that this reusability, combined with other measures, such as fuelling the spaceships in Earth orbit and making propellant on Mars, could bring the price of a Red Planet trip down from $10 billion per person today to just $200,000, or to put it another way, the cost of an average American home.
During his presentation Musk said that he wanted to land two cargo ships on Mars in 2022, where the plan would be that they begin building the habitats, assembling and terraforming the colony, ready for the first Mars colonists to arrive in 2024, two dates that he said weren’t typos but also admitting they were “aspirational.” He also acknowledged that success is far from guaranteed.
“There is a huge amount of risk. It is going to cost a lot,” he said, “there is a good chance we will not succeed, but we are going to do our best and try to make as much progress as possible.”
And SpaceX has a history of overcoming long odds. When Musk founded the company in 2002, he wrote, “I thought we had maybe a 10 percent chance of doing anything — of even getting a rocket to orbit, let alone getting beyond that and taking Mars seriously,” but now, just fifteen years on he’s already broken records and entered the history books, but if his latest unveiling is anything to go by he’s only just getting started.
While he was on stage though he, again, made reference to what drives him, saying that “when people get up in the morning they have to have something that excites them, and makes them want to jump out of bed” and in today’s world, where most companies visions still sit below the horizon of what’s possible, it’s great to see an entrepreneur, if we can still call Musk that, since he seems to have gone way beyond that moniker now, shooting much, much higher. And as for who we should send to Mars first, well, what about sending all the politicians? Vote below!