When Elon Musk took the stage at the International Astronautical Conference in Mexico, everyone knew that it was going to be something special. They knew his announcement would have to do with something we expected by this time of our lives: colonizing mars.
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Musk has said repeatedly that he wants to be at the forefront of the movement to bring humans into livable spaces on other planets, making us truly interplanetary. There are still a lot of questions about how this will be possible, but Musk has done a lot to quell our fears.
Why Will Humans Go to Mars First?
Musk began his keynote speech saying that the goal is to “make Mars seem possible, make it seem as though it’s something we can do in our lifetimes, and that you can go … that anyone can go if they wanted to.”
Musk believes that as humans, we have two distinct paths that we could take. The first is that we stay on Earth forever, living as we are now until we face an extinction event – or do ourselves in. The other is to reach out and become spacefaring, “which I hope you would agree that is the right way to go,” Musk said with a hint of a smirk.
The goal will be to create a society there – something that is self-sustaining and doesn’t rely on missions from earth. He wants something that “can become a planet in its own right.”
Mars makes sense as the first planet to inhabit for a number of reasons, contrary to the beliefs of some. A good reason is that its size is similar to Earth, allowing us to better plan for things. Options within our solar system are somewhat limited. Venus could be a choice, but there is a lot of hot acid to deal with. The moons of Jupiter and Saturn could be an option for the future, but they are too far away for the first mission.
Our moon is an option of course, and even Musk agrees that he has “nothing against going to the moon.” Still, it might be too small, there is no atmosphere, its day is 28 Earth days long, and there aren’t a lot of resources.
Showing his sense of humor, Musk even said that since Mars has gravity that is 30% of that on Earth, it “would be quite fun” to walk around the planet.
Why Haven’t We Been to Mars Yet?
One of the biggest issues facing the Mars Colonization mission is that there aren’t a lot of people who want to and can afford to go to space. Right now, the number is far beyond comprehension. Optimistically, the cost would be somewhere near $10 billion per person if we operate under the current model.
In order to achieve a large enough group of people who want to go and can afford to go, we have to reduce the cost to something that is roughly equivalent to the median housing price in the United States, which hovers around $200,000.
At $200,000, Musk believes that almost anyone could save up to go to space if that was their main goal.
Reducing that cost will be tricky – in fact, it is almost impossible. The key ingredients will be reusable parts of ships and vehicles, choosing the right propellant, and producing more propellant.
The more frequent the flights are, the cost of each flight goes down drastically. The number of times that we can re-use a craft is limited still, since you can only use the spaceship part every two years. Still, the booster and tanker can be “used as much as you like,” since you can refill the spaceship in orbit.
Not refilling would require a new kind of ship, a three-stage vehicle, which would increase the cost. Spreading the capacity over multiple booster trips would reduce the size of the fuel tank, and reduces the chance of performance issues. We would have to build a propellant plant on Mars, which is lucky because Mars has a lot of CO2 in the atmosphere and water ice in the soil.
As far as fuel to go to Mars, there are three main choices: kerosene, hydrogen/oxygen, and deep-cryo methalox (a type of methane). It is harder to make a traditional jet fuel on mars, and hydrogen will be challenging. Methane is a clear winner, since it is easier to produce and costs less per unit than other kinds.
Initially, costs would still be fairly expensive. Musk is working on a hierarchy that would get the price well below the $200,000 asking price, depending on the amount of cargo.
Musk also answered the question that so many of us have: funding. The “challenge to fund this whole endeavor,” he said. He added that SpaceX expects to generate some cash flow with satellite launches and that there are also “many in the private sector interested in funding a base on Mars,” he said. The government also has some interest in the project.
Ultimately, the project will be a partnership between the public and the private. For now, the goal is “Just making the most progress we can with the resources we have available,” according to Musk.
He added that he hopes once people believe this is a real mission, not something off of a television show, people will start throwing their money behind it. “The reason I’m personally accumulating assets is so that I can fund this,” Musk said.
It looks like SpaceX is already finding ways to make money that could contribute to the fund - they are trying to launch a satellite powered internet service.
The Ship to Mars
There are a few other details about the proposed ship to Mars that Musk revealed. The SpaceX’s IST’s rocket portion will return within twenty minutes from launch. The fuel tank will go down and back three to five times to fill up the spaceship fully. This means it could handle 1,000 re-uses per booster, 100 per tanker, and 12 per spaceship.
The idea would be to launch an entire fleet of spaceships at once to maximize capacity and cargo space. It would be “kind of like Battlestar Galactica, if you’ve seen that thing,” Musk noted. “Good show.”
The ship itself will be “quite big” and Musk noted that “in the long term, ships will be even bigger than this.” Each ship was designed to fit 100 people plus cargo, including luggage and material to build foundries, factories, pizza joints, and “you name it,” Musk said.
On October 31, 2016, the team at SpaceX announced that they are going to start resuming test flights after the failure of one. The launch is going to be in the next few months, hopefully before the new year. Their thought is that they had to change the helium tanks.
How Many People Will Go to Mars?
Musk wants to bring the population of Mars to 1 million people, which means 100 people per 10,000 trips. He said that TeslaX “might end up expanding the crew section and bring 200 or more per flight,” so that the cost is even lower. “Ultimately, you want 1,000 ships,” he said.
This will take somewhere between 40 and 100 years to get to that population level. While most images of the ship look somewhat sparse, Musk says that it “has to be really fun and exciting, and can’t feel cramped or boring,” and that it’ll be set up for “zero-G games, floating around, movies, cabins, restaurants, more.”
How many people can survive will likely also depend on how they can sustain themselves. Thankfully, they've found a way to grow vegetables on Mars, so it is a huge step.
Musk has said that he wants to build entire cities on the red planet eventually, hoping to zero in on people who can build the population from within instead of continually shipping people there.
The Spaceship for Passengers
For passengers, the crew cabin will be on top with a flat packed, dense cargo space. The cargo capacity will allow 450 metric tons of cargo per trip. Trip time could be 80 days to start, which means there will be some time there.
SpaceX has been refining the technology with its Dragon capsules, with the goal of creating one that can work effectively and not require refurbishment as frequently. The shit itself will probably be made of carbon fiber, which makes it a little bit more challenging.
Musk revealed that the SpaceX team has already built a fuel tank prototype using carbon fiber and to scale. In recent tests, including the one that just exploded, fuelling is largely suspected to be the biggest problem.
Another key move will be to use no booster on the moon or mars – just the spaceship itself. In essence, the “booster is just there for heavy gravity wells,” Musk says.
What is the Timeline to Go to Mars?
Musk isn’t always the best person to ask about timelines. SpaceX is also being “intentionally fuzzy about this timeline,” because it is looking for the best possible solutions, which could take time. They want to have the first spaceship in about four years, so they will start with several little flights that are stripped down and “maybe even go to orbit.”
He floated around the possibility that they could make revenue to speed the process up. In fact, using the technology, he said, “we could transport cargo to anywhere on Earth in 45 minutes.”
The thought is that the initial crewed flight could happen in a “10-year time frame” is everything goes “super well.”
On September 26, 2016, it was announced that the first ship was test fired to go to Mars. At the time, it was unclear what that ship was tested for, but we now know. Of course, SpaceX is still learning from some of the problems they have encountered along the way, so their timeline remains unclear.
NASA, on the other hand, won't be competing with the SpaceX team. Since they are primarily funded by the government, they don't have the ability to compete on something like this with very deep pockets.
Could We Go Beyond Mars?
Obviously, you have to start small with a goal like this, so Mars is the first goal. However, the ICT can go beyond that. “This is actually more than a vehicle, it’s a system that includes rocket booster, space ship, tank, and in situ propellant plant,” Musk said, adding “with those four elements, you can actually go anywhere you want in the solar system.”
You could, “make flights from Mars to Jupiter no problem,” he noted. “This system actually gives you freedom to go anywhere you want in the greater solar system,” he said.
Of course, there are still a lot of problems in terms of feasibility, and in getting enough money to actually do it. Musk knows it is a little out of the ordinary:
“I probably will name the first ship that goes to Mars Heart of Gold,” Musk said, referencing the ship from Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. “I like that it’s driven by infinite improbability because our ship is also infinitely improbable”
Still there are problems that we face even with getting to Mars, some of the problems include:
- How will the living conditions on Mars be made suitable for human habitation?
- Will the everyday survival of the denizens be a possibility?
- Once they have landed on the planet, will they be able to return to earth if anything goes wrong?
- What if they all get a bad case of homesickness and nostalgia for the facilities they enjoyed on earth?
- How will the trips be made as easily as Musk makes them out to be?
- Will NASA be ready to provide the necessary funding and resources?
As an added push, President Obama has now called on more people to focus in on going to Mars, so it might happen sooner rather than later.