For decades, people imagined traveling to Mars. And Elon Musk believes his company, SpaceX, will be the first to send humans to the Red Planet.
During a speech at the International Astronomical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, Musk framed the future settlement of Mars as the only eventual choice for humans in a world facing environmental threats and even the risk of a major extinction event.
“The alternative is to become a space-faring civilization and a multi-planet species,” Musk told a largely receptive crowd on Monday.
Musk said it would be possible to send 1 million people to a self-sufficient Martian city over the next 100 years — and the first humans should reach Mars within a decade. Once a self-sustaining city is established, occupants could freely travel between Mars and Earth, as in every two years when the planets orbit closest to each other.
So why Mars, as opposed to the moon? Musk said Mars is the only possible option, as scientific research suggests the planet is similar to Earth at its earliest formation. The Red Planet has plenty of minerals and elements that could support human life, including nitrogen, water and carbon dioxide. Add the evidence of hydrogen on Mars, and Musk suggested it could be possible to produce methane fuel there.
It is on that point where Musk noted four essential keys to make regular travel to and from Mars possible. A reusable and cost-effective rocket system must exist; the spacecraft going to Mars must be able to refuel in orbit to save on costs; a fuel such as methane must be produced on that planet; and a propellant that could launch spacecraft out of Mars’ orbit must be found on that planet.
A video SpaceX released on YouTube certainly makes travel to Mars seem feasible, especially when the two planets are closest to each other – as in May of this year, when they were only 46.8 million miles apart. That would shorten the time needed to travel to Mars to about six months, although SpaceX and Musk say advances in technology could shorten that time to 80 days, and even down to 30 days far into the future.
The propulsion of these rockets would occur at Cape Canaveral, from where the Apollo moon expeditions of the 1960s and 1970s launched. Once the Mars-bound spacecraft started orbiting Earth, a tanker would also launch from again from Florida and add fuel to the spaceship, a process Musk said could finish in as quickly as 20 minutes, then repeated several times as having this done in space would be a cheaper and more efficient procedure. After the spacecraft starts its trip to Mars, large wings, laden with solar panels generating 200 kilowatts of power, would enable the 100 or so passengers to make their way to the fourth rock from the sun.
Musk’s presentation had no lack of “wow” factor. Where it got complicated is when it comes to cost. Currently a trip to cost would cost about $10 billion per person. Musk described that hurdle as an impossible Venn diagram, as there are plenty of people who dream of such a journey, but no one would would be able to pay for it. Musk’s goal is to drive the cost down to $200,000 a person, perhaps even cheaper, and include a “really fun and exciting” experience with cabins, zero-gravity games, a restaurant, “electro-balls” and plenty of space to float around.
Then there is the scale of the project, which would require 10,000 trips with a fleet of 1,000 ships if humans really are going to create a new civilization on Mars. As for who would foot the bill, Musk suggested public-private partnerships, and said that support and investment for such a project would “snowball” as technologies improved and became cheaper. NASA has said it has a goal of sending humans to Mars in 2030 at a cost of tens of billions of dollars, if not more.
And it is those costs, and resources, that mount the biggest challenge to Musk’s vision. He suggested “lots of satellites” and a tongue-in-cheek Kickstarter campaign, but the specifics were thin beyond “making lots of progress.”
Yes, the evidence suggests that Earth is on a long-term crash course to disaster if humans cannot achieve greater cooperation on how to mitigate climate change risks. And financing the technologies, investments and mobilizations of resources to avert climate change’s impact are, and will be continue to be, expensive. But those costs will still be exponentially cheaper than settling a faraway planet about which we have much to learn.
Furthermore, while Musk’s talk made for great theater, he already has a lot on his plate with the Tesla-SolarCity merger. And there is that matter of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket explosion, the investigation of which still has fallen short of providing answers.
“The mean reason why I am personally accumulating assets is in order to fund this,” said Musk to applause during his speech. “I really don’t have any other motivation for personally accumulating assets except to be able to make the biggest contribution I can to making life multi-planetary.” Musk will need a lot more assets, so society needs to ask if it is financially wise to fund a dream that is millions of miles away, when there is plenty that could be done here on Earth.
Image credit: NASA