Elon Musk wants to go to Mars, and he’s made no secret of this ambition. What hasn’t been clear, though, amid the challenges and victories of SpaceX, his private spaceflight company, is how, precisely, his team plans to get to Mars and what will happen when they get there. Now, he’s made it clear, with a goal to make Mars trips “possible in our lifetimes,” and there’s both fascinating points and a few concerns embedded in his pitch.
Musk believes one of two things will happen: A massive apocalypse, or becoming an interplanetary species. Obviously, he’s rooting for the second scenario. But how to achieve it?
The first question is “why Mars?” when there are other candidates like Venus? The short answer is that Mars is the most habitable places in our inhospitable universe. Venus will require airships, Jupiter’s moons are more distant from the sun, and the Moon lacks the resources and the timing. Mars, in Musk’s view, will be the easiest to scale up into an actual civilization. Mars, of course, is fairly similar to Earth, and it’s believed that Mars was once very Earth-like. Of course, the challenges of terraforming Mars are substantial.
Musk doesn’t really address some of the greater challenges, like thickening Mars’ atmosphere or intensifying its magnetic field, both of which are tricky. Instead Musk focused on the economics. He points out that even getting to Mars in the first place costs $10 billion per person, and the idea is to lower the cost of going to Mars to cost as much as buying a house. Hence, the SpaceX mission.
How To Get To Mars
This morning, SpaceX posted a video that lays out the rough details of how it’ll work.
Essentially, a rocket will put a craft in orbit, and then return to Earth. The booster will then deliver a payload of propellant to the craft, which will launch itself towards Mars, deploying a solar array to power the ship and keep the crew alive. It lands on Mars, and then we rescue Matt Damon. Okay, maybe not that part. But those images are based on SpaceX’s actual CAD models.
Economically speaking, the idea is to mitigate the cost of going into space. Right now, firing a rocket into orbit is basically chucking an item that costs millions into the trash. SpaceX is already addressing this with their rocket landings, and by reusing a rocket over and over again, it drives down the overall expense. The main problem, at the moment, is that the actual spaceship part is only reusable when Earth and Mars are closest, every 26 months. Musk’s idea is to have thousands in orbit, using possibly the biggest rocket humanity has ever engineered, going thousands of miles an hour.
Constantly putting stuff into orbit also means that “performance shortfalls” (i.e. broken rockets) won’t, you know, kill people. So that’s an undeniable benefit. Still, the 26 month window is a problem, not least because people will have to be in orbit around Earth for months. It’s not clear what the crew, which might number a hundred people, will do to prep for the mission, especially as different launches will have transit times ranging from three months to nearly half a year. That’s quite a bit of time in orbit, exposed to the medical risks of low gravity, even if Musk describes a cabin that’s more like a cruise ship than a scientific mission.
Living On Mars
The goal is to build a “self-sustaining city.” The ships will arrive with, in Musk’s vision, with literally everything it needs to build and sustain a colony of a million people. That’s going to take about ten thousand trips, according to Musk himself. And it’ll take a long time, forty to a hundred years. In other words, somebody signing onto colonize Mars is signing on for the long, long haul, at least two years planetside. All of this, of course, assumes something doesn’t go wrong and they don’t lose a spacecraft or ten.
Can They Come Back?
The final question is whether the colonists can come back, either voluntarily or leaving the colony in an emergency. The good news is that the answer is “yes.” Mars’ atmosphere is rich in carbon dioxide and other chemical elements to make rocket propellant, and there’s plenty of water in the form of ice, specifically a mix of methane and liquid oxygen, aka methalox. The main issue is power, which will have to be solar. So, we can return the spacecraft, and also get off the planet if necessary. It helps that a booster doesn’t appear to be needed, thanks to the lower gravity of Mars.
Will It Work?
Would you bet against this guy?
Musk’s basic idea is ultimately far more than just colonizing Mars. SpaceX’s real goal is to make getting off the planet more comparable to getting on a bus going across the country than just going to Mars — to create a platform for space exploration that drives down the cost far enough to make it simple to go not just to Mars, but anywhere in the galaxy if you’re patient enough.
The main problem is the cost of building all this. Musk literally dropped a South Park joke, but made it clear that it’s going to be a public and private partnership, much like the work SpaceX is doing with NASA. In other words, getting off this rock is going to require all of us to work together. Musk believes support will snowball over time, and stated that he’s making money specifically to fund this mission.
It’s bold, but it makes sense. The challenge of getting into space is economic, to some degree, and chipping away at that cost will be a good way to get not just governments, but private groups, into space, whether to mine resources from asteroids or to colonize a new planet. The big question, though, is how this plan will absorb things going wrong. It’s all heavily dependent on reusing everything to drive down the cost, from $10 billion to $100,000. So the real question really comes down to whether it works on the launch pad.
SpaceX hopes to start launching flights to Mars in 2023.