If you were to go back in time to 1903, after the Wright brothers designed the first successful flying machine, and you told them we would send humans to the moon before 1970, they probably wouldn’t believe you.
If, however, you managed to convince them of that, they might expect space exploration to march forward uninhibited. They might think, for example, that surely by the 21st century we’d have gotten to Mars.
As we all know, the part about the moon came true. The rate of scientific progress in the 20th century was spectacular, and by 1969 we had arrived at a landmark achievement: a moon landing. For the first time, humankind escaped its place of birth for another celestial body, proving our intellectual capacity, and raising hopes about the further exploration of our solar system.
But then this happened:
After racing the Soviets to the moon in the 1960s, the urgency was gone from our space exploration, and manned missions to the moon stopped cold turkey. The last time a human set foot on the moon was as part of the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. Technology nowadays is vastly superior to the clunky computers that NASA engineers were using back then. So why did we stop?
No one was more frustrated with the irritably slow rate at which space technology advanced after the Apollo missions than entrepreneur Elon Musk. So in 2002, he set out to do something about it. After making his millions founding e-payment company PayPal, Musk started SpaceX, the world’s very first private space delivery company.
When Musk founded SpaceX, people were calling him crazy. He had no background in aerospace engineering. And besides, no private company had ever carried payloads into space. So, to many, it was no surprise when the company’s first three launch attempts failed.
But then things turned around. After successfully launching a rocket into orbit in 2008, SpaceX secured a contract from the US government to send cargo into space for them. The company now executes frequent cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS), the first and only private company to do so.
Fast forward to 2016, and SpaceX is eyeing a much loftier goal than winning government contracts. On Tuesday, at the International Aeronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico, Musk unveiled his company’s plans for the colonization of Mars.
Not a mission; a colonization.
It turns out that colonizing Mars has been Musk’s goal from the beginning, and his argument for making life multi-planetary is hard to refute. For him, the historic leap that a colony represents, coupled with the excitement of exploring a new world, is enough to justify it. If getting to the moon was a landmark for humankind, think about what getting to Mars would mean. But Musk is also driven by the dire consequences of not going. “History is going to bifurcate along two directions,” he said in his speech Tuesday. “One path is, we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event…. The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilization and a multi-planetary species.” In other words, a Mars colony is extinction insurance, to make sure the light of human consciousness never goes out. A species inhabiting multiple planets is no longer bound to die out on its own.
But why Mars? First off, it’s important to acknowledge that with today’s technology, space travel is limited to our solar system. And that doesn’t leave us with a whole lot. Mercury’s too close to the Sun, and Venus’s acidic heat-trapping atmosphere makes it uninhabitable. The rest of the planets are gas giants, unless you count their moons, or Pluto and Eris beyond them, but those are all too distant from the Sun to harbor human life.
Mars, on the other hand, has a lot in common with Earth. It’s at a similar(-ish) distance from the Sun, its day is 24 hours and 40 minutes long, and its land mass is roughly the same as Earth’s. And as Musk pointed out in his speech, it has plenty of water ice, as well as an atmosphere full of CO2. Not only will these help to sustain life, but they are the chemical building blocks we’d need to refuel the rocket once it gets there. More on that later.
Musk hopes to establish a self-sustaining city on Mars as soon as possible, and SpaceX is set to begin the process in the 2020s. They’re developing what they call the Interplanetary Transportation System (ITS), a rocket capable of carrying at least a hundred brave souls to the red planet. His long-term goal – within 40 to 100 years – is a million inhabitants, over the course of ten thousand trips.
Unlike Holland-based project Mars One, notorious for planning a one-way Mars mission, colonists on SpaceX’s ITS would be able to come back to their home planet. “I think it’s pretty important to give people the option of returning,” Musk said in a Q&A on Tuesday. “The number of people who are willing to move to Mars is much greater if they know that they have the option of returning… And in any case, we need the spaceship back, so it’s coming. You can jump on board or not.”
Jokes aside, the ship’s ability to make the trip back to Earth is actually a crucial step in the process. According to Musk, rocket reusability is key to reducing the cost of future Mars missions. This in turn lowers the price of a ticket to Mars, which is something that Musk hopes to make available to everyday people. Think of it like an airplane. Aircrafts cost millions of dollars to produce; if we threw them away after each flight like we do with spacecrafts, the cost of tickets would be through the roof. But when planes land, they turn around and come right back. They’re reusable, which allows consumers to buy tickets for reasonable prices. So the logic was obvious to SpaceX: develop a reusable spacecraft, one that can land on Mars and come back to Earth, and we’ll significantly reduce the price of a ticket. That’s why it was such a big deal when SpaceX successfully landed a rocket on a drone ship a few months ago. They’ve actually done it several times since, proving that the reusable technology works. Right now, a ticket to Mars costs $10 billion. Musk hopes to bring that number down to just $200,000 by the time the first ship sets sail.
So when will humans actually set foot on the Red Planet? Musk laid out a timeline during his speech on Tuesday, and we can expect to see the first Mars trips surprisingly soon.
There’s a launch window to Mars – a time period during which Mars and Earth are at their closest – every 26 months. That means that SpaceX will be sending ships to Mars roughly every two years, beginning in 2018. The first few trips will be unmanned, primarily because they need to send materials ahead of the colonists, but also because the ITS engines need to be tested before the company puts human lives on the line. Musk himself admits that this is a very risky business, and actually has low hopes for the first launch. An optimistic date for the first humans on Mars is 2022.
There are still a number of questions to be answered about sustaining life on Mars. What will life-support systems on Mars look like? How will colonists access the surface ice at the poles? How do we protect colonists from deep space radiation? And the big one: how is SpaceX going to fund this? But regardless of the kinks to be worked out, these are the most thorough plans for a Mars mission anyone has ever developed, and despite how ambitious they seem, Musk and SpaceX are determined to make them a reality.
If you’re interested in the technical details of the rocket technology, check out Musk’s speech from the IAC here. And if you don’t have an hour to listen, here are the PowerPoint slides from his presentation, which outline a lot of the numbers and overall plan.