The New Space website has published Elon Musk’s visionary plans for getting humanity to Mars and making the species multi-planetary. And although it sounds like something out of a science fiction film, the proposals for hardware and logistics are all too real — with the goal of getting 1 million people to Mars to build and maintain a self-sustaining city in a massive colonization effort.
Not one to sit around resting on his laurels, Elon Musk, the entrepreneurial brain behind PayPal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX, has set a target date of 2023 to launch the first of many materiel-filled rockets into low Earth orbit to get his Mars mission underway. According to Scientific American, the paper is a summary of Musk’s presentation at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, in September 2016. In February 2017, it was revealed that the Mars mission will rely on the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), a powerful reusable rocket and spaceship tandem, the former to get things into space, the latter to make the transit from Earth to Mars and back.
The booster rockets will be more than twice as powerful than NASA’s Saturn V rocket, which currently holds the record for transporting tonnage into space. They will be capable of launching 300 metric tons into low Earth orbit (as opposed to the Saturn V’s 135 metric tons) each time aloft (and 550 metric tons if the rocket is expendable). Being reusable, they will be designed to be launched at least a thousand times, pushing spaceships and tankers into low Earth orbit and returning to Earth in trips of 20 minutes duration. (Musk’s SpaceX technology has already proven to be capable of returning and landing on target.)
The spaceships will orbit en masse until Mars and Earth align favorably (when the Red Planet is closest to Earth, which is about every 26 months) and will travel in a group of roughly a thousand. As these transfer ships will carry about 100 passengers (colonists) each, the transit will take at least 10 more iterations (with the ships designed to make 10-15 trips) to produce his self-sustaining million-person colony. Musk foresees the entire colonization process taking between 50 and 100 years.
Musk points out in the paper that the Mars colonization mission is both expensive and dangerous, but developing technology will alleviate some of the dangers while the reusable rockets and spaceships will cut launch and transfer costs tremendously. He calculated that a trip to Mars would cost $200,000 or so per person with his ITS system, down from an estimated $10 billion if one were to use conventional spaceflight systems.
“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,” New Space editor-in-chief Scott Hubbard, who used to work for NASA as its “Mars czar,” wrote in a statement (per Scientific American).
Musk is not alone in his vision to get to and colonize Mars. His just seems to be a bit more urgent.
As Forbes pointed out, Elon Musk has long held views that argued the necessity of mankind becoming a “multi-planetary species.” He firmly believes that if this does not come to pass and humans are confined to Earth, the species will face eventual and inevitable extinction. The solution is colonizing other worlds like Mars.
And in the end, there are no guarantees of success. Musk is straightforward, writing, “There is a huge amount of risk. It is going to cost a lot. 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.”
Given Elon Musk’s track record with his other companies, considerable progress will be made toward getting to the Red Planet. But actually building a self-sustaining city on Mars, facing all the problems that a nascent, somewhat isolated colony endures (plus the additional unique problems faced only on Mars)? That remains to be seen.
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