The SpaceX Rocket Explosion: How Will It Impact Elon Musk’s Plans For Mars?

The SpaceX rocket explosion that occurred yesterday in Florida at Cape Canaveral is certainly a major blow to the short-term goals and ambitions of Elon Musk and his pioneering aerospace firm. The loss of a $94 million satellite and the interruption of the success that the company was enjoying must be galling for Musk and his team. The satellite lost in the rocket explosion was principally intended to provide Facebook with a means for offering its services to areas of the world currently difficult to access.

The cause of the SpaceX explosion is still under investigation. Musk himself is referring to it as an uncontrolled fire rather than an explosion. An examination of the video shows that the explosion/fire seems to originate at the juncture where the rocket was being fueled, suggesting that the fault might lie with the servicing equipment or procedures, rather than the vehicle itself.

But beyond the immediate concerns about missed launch dates and delays caused by the inevitable investigation into the cause of yesterday’s rocket explosion, a broader question is how this will impact SpaceX’s long-term plans for the exploration and colonization of Mars. The answer to this question will probably depend on what the investigation specifically reveals.

Elon Musk, CEO of Space Exploration Technologies Corp, speaks during a news conference. [Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images]
Later this month, Elon Musk was set to announce the details of his long-term plans for Mars at the International Aeronautical Conference being held in Mexico. In all likelihood, this announcement will now be delayed for the foreseeable future while the investigation moves forward. The company’s launch of its highly anticipated – and much more powerful – Falcon Heavy rocket will also likely be delayed.

For several years, Musk has dropped hints in the media and online about just what his goals regarding Mars might be and how he would go about accomplishing them. According to Popular Science, a large part of what Musk plans for SpaceX and Mars involves a rocket or system of rockets described as the Mars Colonial Transporter.

As a precursor to this, Musk and SpaceX – in conjunction with NASA – recently announced a project in which one of his manned Dragon 2 capsules would be used in an unmanned version for an expedition to Mars in 2018. As reported by The Houston Press, this mission was dubbed the “Red Dragon” and would lay the groundwork for later manned missions to Mars that Musk was planning for the 2020s.

Musk has frequently stated in interviews he believes that the human race has to become a multi-planet species and that a colony on Mars would be the most effective way to do this. But his vision for a city on Mars that would ultimately house as many as 1 million people would require a spacefaring infrastructure and organization larger than anything that’s ever been built.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveils the company’s new manned spacecraft, The Dragon V2. [Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images]
Musk has suggested that the Mars Colonial Transporter rocket would be capable of carrying up to 100 people at a time to Mars or 100 tons of cargo. This is comparable to the carrying capacity of early English vessels like the Mayflower that brought colonists to the New World.

However, this explosion might cause some to question whether SpaceX is really ready yet for such an ambitious undertaking. To an extent, the answer to this question depends on the level of safety that the public – as well as immigrants to Mars – expect during the voyage and afterward.

Musk himself has flatly stated that in this effort to colonize Mars, there will be accidents and fatalities. While people in the modern world have become fairly risk-averse, it helps put this in historical perspective by looking at past exploration and colonization efforts.

Of the early colonists who came to the New World at locations like Roanoke and Jamestown, most died fairly quickly from a variety of causes, including disease and hunger. While the deaths from rocket accidents – like the one yesterday – for an expedition to Mars might be uncomfortably high, it’s unlikely they will be quite as high as what the pilgrims faced. More than this, it should be the right of the potential colonists to make the judgment as to whether the goal is worth the risk.

[Image via YouTube]

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